Category Archives: Non fiction

Reality Versus Idyll of Owning A Bookshop

The Diary Of A Bookseller by Shaun Bythell

The Diary of A Bookseller is essential reading for anyone who indulges in the fantasy of one day owning a bookshop. Just a few entries from Shaun Bythell’s journal should be enough to convince them that bookselling is an enterprise suited only to people with skins thicker than a rhinoceros and pockets deeper than Loch Ness.

Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell

Shaun Bythell owns The Bookshop in Wigtown on the remote coast of Galloway, Scotland. He bought the shop when he was 31 years old and struggling to find a job he enjoyed. He was naive, imagining that the world of selling second-hand books was an idyllic existence.

… sitting in an armchair by a roaring fire with your slipper-clad feet up, smoking a pipe and reading Gibbon’s Decline and Fall while a stream of charming customers engages you in intelligent conversation, before parting with fistfuls of cash.

The reality is of course nothing like a bookish paradise.

The fistfuls of cash never seem to materialise for one thing. Each day’s entry in the Diary of a Bookseller ends with a total of the number of customers in the shop and the amount they spent. It’s sobering reading.

Diary of A Bookseller

The entry for February 6, 2014 for example shows six customers and till takings of £95.50. That figure doesn’t take into account online sales but since those average only £45 a day you can see that this bookshop owner isn’t rolling in money.

Some days are better, but many are worse. On January 5 the following year Shaun Bythell unlocked the shop at 9am but by 2pm the door had been opened only three times : by the postwoman, his father and the howling wind.

By 3pm I was giving up hope of having even one sale..

Initiatives such as opening his doors to a ladies art class, welcoming eminent writers and renting out a bed in the shop during the Wigtown Book Festival, help. But even on days when the footfall is more healthy, there’s no certainty it will result in more cash in the bank. The bane of Shaun’s life is the customer who spends hours sitting near his fire, taking loads of books off the shelves, but leaving empty handed.

Shaun’s fond imaginings of a profitable prove equally as misplaced as his idea his customers will be charming people with whom he can enjoy robust discussions about literature. Actually, his customers are often boring, particularly when they insist on regaling him with their family history research or want to offload copies of their self-published novel.

Unflattering Picture of Bookshop Customers

Few customers are depicted in a flattering light. Some are stubborn, refusing to accept they got an author’s name wrong. Others are misguided, thinking all first editions are valuable. Some have questionable personal habits or tend to wear strange ensemble of clothes.

The Diary Of A Bookseller is a grumpily amusing account of one year in the shop. The titles of books ordered on line provided me with a constant source of amusement. I can just about understand why someone would want Cuckoo Problems but are there really people keen to own Collectible Spoons of the 3rd Reich or The Colliery Fireman’s Pocket Book (1935 edition)?.

Adding to the humour factor is Shaun Bythell’s assistant Nicky. Invariably late to report for work, she often arrives bearing the fruits of a rummage in the waste food skips outside supermarkets. One entry reads:

Nicky arrived in her black ski suit as usual, with a pasty from the Morrisons skip. It bore more resemblance to a giant scab than to an edible treat. ‘Eh, it’s delicious. Go on, have a bit.’ It was revolting.

This episode came only a few days after she’d offered him a reduced price (out of date) cinnamon roll minus its coating. “I licked the icing off it on my way into work this morning,'” she blithely explained.

Humour Masks Harsh Reality

But beneath the humour, frustrations abound. The chief of which is the near impossibility of a bricks and mortar second hand bookshop competing against the on-line behemoths. The latter’s vast warehouses and heavily discounted postal contract are only part of the problem .

The issue is that customers have become accustomed to discounts and they expect them from shop owners like Shaun Bythell. A refusal usually results in a comment along the lines of ‘DISGUSTING’ as they bustle out of the shop announcing they will buy the book on line. These ‘bargain hunters’ are the target of his most acerbic comments.

Strip away the quotidian dimension and the real heart of the book becomes clear. The Diary of a Bookseller is a heartfelt appeal to book buyers everywhere to wake up to the reality of the impact of the mega-size online providers. Bythell doesn’t set out to have a go at suppliers like Amazon, or to lay all the blame for the woes of the publishing industry, on that company, but does make it clear that the benefits enjoyed by consumers have been to the detriment of authors, publishers and businesses like his.

… authors have seen their incomes plummet over the past ten years, publishers too which means that they can no longer take risks with unknown authors and now there is no middleman. … The sad truth is that unless authors and publishers unite and stand firm against Amazon, the industry will face devastation.

This is a wonderfully entertaining book for anyone who takes an interest in how books are bought and sold. But it also provides food for thought. Shops like The Bookshop, Wigtown, can survive only if every one of us who buys books, support them with our feet and our wallets.

The Diary Of A Bookseller by Shaun Bythell: Fast Facts

The Diary of A Bookseller was published by Profile Books in 2018. It was so successful that Shaun Bythell published a follow up – Confessions Of A Bookseller – in August 2019.

You can support The Bookshop in Wigtown by becoming a customer. If you can’t visit in person, you can give them a helping hand by taking out a subscription to their Random Book Club or buying via their online store at Abebooks.

If you want to get to know Shaun Bythell, take a look at his You Tube channel

Be the Expert: An Introduction to 21st Century Feminism

I have spent my entire academic life focusing on gender history: any essay that I could manipulate to have a sex and gender angle, I most definitely would. It’s the area of study in which I’m most well read on, the idea of feminism (and particularly the world of academic feminism), can be intimidating to many people.

I’m not going to try and define modern feminism here (that would require a thesis word count), but the books I’ve detailed below provide an initial way entry point in exploring different aspects of feminism in the twenty-first century

Now, I admit that all of these books are targeted at a younger audience – particularly towards millennials and Gen-Z in the case of Feminists Don’t Wear Pink and Everything I Know About Love. And I know that I am a millennial myself, but I do feel that there is a universality and inclusivity to each work, that hopefully makes them accessible to a wide audience.

Each is flawed in its own way – these are not academic texts, and I’m not claiming that any of these are a bible which provides all of the answers, or is even representative of all types of feminism or all women.

But they’re a good jumping off point.

How to Be a Woman, Caitlin Moran

Caitlin Moran

Ah, old reliable. Caitlin Moran’s memoir seeks to make feminism more approachable for every woman by telling stories from her own life, and this is the book which first ignited the strident feminist in me.

Mr O’Neill, my Government and Politics A Level teacher, declared to his class of nine seventeen-year-old girls that before we could start studying feminism as a political ideology, we all had to read How to Be a Woman.

By the time we reconvened a few days later, all of our outlooks had changed, and none of us have looked back since that point over six years ago. (I do see the irony in being introduced to the topic by a male teacher!)

The entire book has Moran’s signature style, using humour to tackle serious topics, to make issues such as abortion less intimidating. It’s a riot from start to finish, and is still as relevant as it was when published in 2011.

Feminists Don’t Wear Pink (and Other Lies), curated by Scarlett Curtis

Feminists Dont wear Pink

Considering I have just written an MA dissertation with this book as a case study, there are many things I could say (and have said) on the topic of Scarlett Curtis’ curated collection of essays.

Published in 2018 to an enormous amount of fanfare, the collection Feminists Don’t Wear Pink sees contributions from fifty-two different authors, from many walks of life. Some authors give their verdict on 21st century feminism, others muse on the female body, or offer insight into their own journey to feminism.

So we have Keira Knightley discussing the interpretation of women as the weaker sex. Activist Amika George considers the power of the menstrual cycle while academic Claire Horn provides a ‘short history of feminist theory’.

I do have quite a few issues with this publication which could warrant a blog post of their own (or a dissertation!). Overall however, the contents are inclusive and wide-ranging, and thus provide a more varied introduction to feminism than you would normally get in a singular book.

Everything I Know About Love, Dolly Alderton

Potentially a slightly odd choice, as it is not a book explicitly about feminism. Dolly Alderton’s intimate memoir recounts the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of growing up and navigating a multitude of different types of love along the way.

In its entirety, Everything I Know About Love is truly a testament to female friendship, and the power that comes with realising that you alone are enough. Personal stories, satirical observations and even recipes all weave together to strike a note of recognition with women of all ages – whilst genuinely making you laugh.

To be honest, I also had a series of little cries along the way.

This is just a shortlist of books on this vast topic. If anyone wants some further reading suggestions, particularly on the academic side, I would only be too happy to oblige! I have many bibliographies to call on…

Please comment below if you have any additional suggestions for a jumping off point – it’s a topic I will truly never be tired of, and I would encourage some healthy debate!

Non fiction november

This is the second of two posts for week 4 of Non Fiction November 2019. You can find the first post which is a request for recommendations of top notch memoirs here

Bring Me Your Favourite Memoirs

The Nonfiction November topic this week is an opportunity to take advantage of the wisdom of the crowd. The host, Katie at Doing Dewey, suggests we can “Be the Expert/Ask the Experts/Become the Expert”). 

I’m going to take the “Ask The Expert” path and ask for help with a newly- acquired reading interest I want to develop further.

Memorable Memoirs

Most of my non fiction reading this year has been in the form of memoirs. I never planned it that way and in fact until this year I wouldn’t have even predicted this genre would be a favourite.

But that’s how it’s turned out.

I’ve read some stunning books, vastly different in scope but every one of them written by a person with insight and the ability to let me into their world.

From Adam Kay’s This Is Going To Hurt, I learned how medical practitioners get burned out to the point they give up the profession despite their passion for healing. Through The Salt Path by Raynor Winn, I appreciated how easily you can lose everything – home, money, career – and yet maintain your dignity and courage. And from Becoming by Michelle Obama I saw how, even when you have a high profile role on the world political stage, you can still have doubts about your abilities.

I know I have barely touched the tip of an enormous iceberg. But my appetite has been whetted and now I want more.

So here’s my request to you all.

Give me your recommendations for killer memoirs.

i’m looking for the memoirs that are breathtaking, spell-binding, unmissable etc etc They could be But – and it’s a very big BUT – you’ll have to avoid those from so-called ‘personalities’ or people in sports, show-business or politics. The reminiscences of a member of a girl-band/boy band have zero appeal to me. Nor am I particularly fond of the ‘misery memoir’ which deals with the abuse someone experienced as a child (I find them too painful to read sorry).

What I’m really looking for are books by people who witnessed or achieved extraordinary things. And they can relate this to me in a way that is memorable, engrossing and thought-provoking.

If you know just the thing to fit my requirements, do leave me a comment and tell me why you think your suggestion is special.

2019 In Non Fiction

The time for vacillation is over. My dilemma whether to join Nonfiction November, was resolved by all the reassurances from bloggers that there’s no expectation to read any more non fiction than normal. So I’m diving in with the first week’s discussion topic.

Julz Reads has given 4 questions all on the theme of Your Year In Non Fiction

What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year?

I’m cheating here by choosing two books. They’re both memoirs which deal with sobering social issues (homelessness and health provision) but do so with a huge dollop of humour.

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn . This is a spectacular book which traces the way Raynor and her husband Moth dealt with the loss of their home and business. Just days after Moth received a devastating medical diagnosis the couple embarked on a 630 mile walk along the South West Coast Path. They experienced the kindness of strangers but also hostility.

This Is Going To Hurt by Adam Kay . Who would have thought gynaecology could be so funny? Kay reveals some of the bizarre medical emergencies that confronted him as a junior doctor (read this book and you’ll be astonished the things people manage to insert into their bodies). But this book has a serious message – the unbelievable strains imposed on these doctors through lack of funding and indifference.

Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year?

I’ve read 6 non fiction books this year and will shortly finish another; Becoming by Michelle Obama. They had nothing in common except that all but one of these books was a memoir.

What nonfiction book have you recommended the most?

The Salt Path .

What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?

There are loads of novels that feature historical figures or episodes I know little about so I’m hoping to get some ideas for non fiction books to help fill in those gaps. Next week’s topic is in fact ‘book pairings’ where the idea is to match a fiction and non fiction book on the same topic. I suspect my wishlist will grow as a result.

Heart-rending Homage To A Devoted Mother [review]

The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga

The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga

Scholastique Mukasonga’s parents and siblings were victims of the hatred directed towards members of the Tutsi minority in Rwanda. They were were forcibly relocated from their village amid growing violence perpetrated by the country’s Hutu majority.

The Barefoot Woman is Mukasonga’s touching testament to her mother Stefania; a fierce but loving woman determined to protect both her family and the ancient traditions of her people.

Like all the families who took refuge in makeshift huts at Nyamata, the Mukasonga family was on constant alert for Hutu soldiers. They regularly pillaged the houses, looking for weapons and people plotting to escape to nearby Burundi. Scholastique’s mother Stefania had only one thought:

… one single project day in and day out, one sole reason to go on surviving: saving her children.

She devised ever more ingenious places for her daughters to hide and ways for them to escape. Stefania left piles of wild grass in the fields just big enough to shelter three little girls, cut secret doors into the walls of their home and hid food supplies underground.

Over time Stefania “developed a sixth sense, the sense of an animal forever on the lookout for predators”. She left nothing to chance, often calling a dress rehearsal at night so that when the raiders came, the children knew precisely what to do. The hiding places fooled no-one, least of all the soldiers searching for the Tutsi “cockroaches”, but Stefania never relaxed her guard for a second.

Resolve and Determination

The Barefoot Woman is a dark tale of life in exile. Despite the constant fear of death and rape, the displaced families put their energies into re-creating some semblance of their past life. It took imagination and tenacity because the land selected by the Hutus for the displaced Tutsis was not very fertile. By tradition herders of cattle, the Tutsis had also seen all their cows burned by the Hutus.

But they still managed to sow, grow and harvest their crops of beans, corn, and sorghum, send children to school and arrange marriages for their children.

Mukasonga also relates how Stefania and the other village women try to protect their old traditions. They weave grass cradles for babies; tell stories around the fire in the inzu ( a family straw hut) and teach their feet to see in the dark so they can walk home at night without injury. But when the inevitable happens and someone falls ill, the women turn to their stores of plants, tubers and leaves to mix a remedy.

A Way of Life Destroyed

Mukasonga’s memories of these rituals and her mother’s insistence on keeping up the old practices, are suffused with affection. She brings the woman to life from the dry, cracked layers of mud on her feet to the pipe she smokes at the end of the day.

But it’s a way of life that has disappeared. There are precious few houses like Stefania’s left in Rwanda today, Mukasonga recalls, except for those in museums …

… like the skeletons of huge beasts dead for millions of years. But in my memory the inzu is not that empty carcass, it’s a house full of life, of children’s laughter, of young girls’ lively chatter, the quiet singsong of storytelling, the scrape of the grinding stone on the sorghum grains, the bubbling of the jugs full of fermenting beer, and just by the front door, the rhythmic pounding of the pestle in the mortar.

The Barefoot Woman is a tribute born from horror. Thirty-seven members of Mukasonga’s family were killed by Hutus in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Her childhood home of Nyamata saw some of of the greatest atrocities during that period with an estimated 10,000 people murdered inside the local church and thousands more outside. 

Mukasonga escaped this fate because she had won education scholarships that took her out of the village. In 1973 she had fled to Burundi following a wave of attacks on Tutsi students at her college.

A Daughter’s Tribute

The Barefoot Woman is an attempt to fulfil via language the daughter’s duty she could not fulfil in person. In the beginning of the book we learn that Stefania would often gather her three daughters and tell them “A mother’s dead body is not to be seen. You’ll have to cover me, my daughters, that’s your job and no one else’s.”

But Stefania’s body was never found; her “poor remains dissolved into the stench of the genocide’s monstrous mass grave” so all her daughter has to offer are words/

I never did cover my mother’s body with her pagne. No one was there to cover her. Maybe the murderers lingered over the corpse their machetes had dismembered. Maybe blood-drunk hyenas and dogs fed on her flesh. …. And I’m all alone with my feeble words, and on the pages of my notebook, over and over, my sentences weave a shroud for your missing body.

This is a book written first and foremost out of love. But it exists also because Scholastique Mukasonga refuses to let her story and that of her family While its focus is on one family’s experience it is also the story of suffering by all minority groups forced to abandon their homes. Impossible to put down. Impossible to forget.


The Barefoot Woman: Fast Facts

The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga was translated from the French by Jordan Stump. It was published in 2018 by Archipelego Books. You can read extracts Literary Hub or the Tin House site

Scholastique Mukasonga was born in Rwanda in 1956. When she was four years old her family was displaced to an under-developed district of the country. She left Burundi to settle in France in 1992, two years before the Rwanda Genocide.

Her 2017 memoir Cockroaches was a finalist for the LA Times Charles Isherwood Prize for Autobiographical Prose. 

Scandalous secrets of how hospital doctors are treated

This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor by Adam Kay: book review

If you’ve ever required treatment at a National Health Service hospital, you’ll know how frustrating that can be:

  • Lengthy waits to see a specialist/consultant.
  • Clinic appointments  running hours behind schedule
  • Surgery dates postponed or cancelled.

Sound familiar?

It’s easy to feel after those experiences, that the much-lauded public health service in the UK has reached a breaking point. That it’s on the point of collapse.

Adam Kay’s memoirs make it evident it’s the selfless efforts of junior doctors that prevent it from collapsing.

Equally clear however is that their dedication comes at a huge personal cost.

This is Going to Hurt is a painfully honest memoir from one junior doctor  on the frontline of the NHS.  Adam Kay worked in hospitals for six years. He hung up his stethoscope in 2010 after a traumatic experience with a mother and baby in his surgery.

I’ve read enough newspaper reports to know that junior hospital doctors (those below consultant level) are poorly paid and over-worked. In 2016, in a bitter dispute over employment contracts, they staged the first strike in the history of the NHS. The dispute was settled only this week.

Undermined by bureaucracy

What I hadn’t realised until reading Adam Kay’s book was how much these professionals are undervalued and their expertise undermined.

Junior doctors give up their personal time and put marriages and friendships at risk rather than walk away from patients whose lives are in danger.

Yet scandalously ….

….they get charged for parking their car at the hospital.  And fined when they over-stay ( even when their delay was caused by an emergency patient);

… doctors have to find their own cover when they inconveniently fall ill and

… they are not allowed to sleep on a  spare patient bed after an 18 hour shift. They have to make do with a chair.

I was astounded to discover just how relentlessly gruelling are the lives of junior doctors.  The system makes it virtually impossible for them to have any kind of life outside their work.

It was not unusual for Kay to work a 100 hour week.

He describes times when he fell asleep in his car, in the hospital grounds, or at the traffic lights. Once he nodded off while sitting on an operating theatre stool waiting for his patient to be wheeled in.

On one occasion he was recalled from a long overdue holiday in Mauritius because the doctor meant to be covering his shift was ill. The  hospital refused to pay for a locum. He lost count of the number of  anniversaries, birthdays, weddings and theatre performances he missed “because of work.”

What kept him going was the positive feeling he would get after a shift in which he delivered multiple babies or aided infertile couples to become parents.

Comedy amid the tragedy

Although Kay doesn’t hold back from describing tense situations, when the life of his patient hung on a thread, he balances the darkness with flippancy and witty repartee.

When the doctors and nurses are not attending to patients, they’re busy swapping jokes and anecdotes about the bizarre conditions presented by some of their patients. I suspect this is the kind of black humour often used by police officers and firemen.  It’s a kind of release valve for people working in the emergency services.

Adam Kay has plenty of stories.

There’s the one about the drunken woman who climbed over a fence to get away from policemen. She slipped and ended up in emergency with a metal pole thrust through her vagina. After removal she calmly asked if she could take the pole home as a souvenir.

Or the tale of another woman who secreted a Kinder egg containing an engagement ring, intending to give her boyfriend the surprise of his life. It worked, though maybe not the way she intended, when the egg got stuck…

As a specialist in obstetrics and gynaecology he encountered a surprisingly large number of people who arrived at hospital with foreign objects in their rectums. The staff are so familiar with the problem they’ve even found a name for it: “Eiffel syndrome” (to understand the joke you need to say the following words aloud – “I fell, doctor! I fell!”).

Not all encounters generate humour. Medical staff are often confronted by aggressive patients and family members, or patients who make unreasonable demands. There’s a particularly yucky case he mentions in which an expectant mother wants to eat her placenta. He gets his revenge by ‘accidentally’ revealing the gender of the baby to the most aggressive of the expectant parents.

Lack of investment

This Is Going to Hurt swings between flippancy and  frustration. Some of Adam Kay’s criticism is  directed at hospital administrators for their propensity to introduce ever more new rules. But he lays the greatest blame on the shoulders of politicians who had failed to invest in the NHS over several years, leading to staff demoralisation.

My over-riding impression however is that Adam Kay loved the NHS and preferred to work in the public sector even when private practice would have been more financially rewarding.

Asked to represent the medical profession at a school’s careers event he decides honesty is the best approach:

So I told them the truth: the hours are terrible, the pay is terrible, the conditions are terrible; you’re under-appreciated, unsupported, disrespected and frequently physically endangered. But there’s no better job in the world.

This was a fabulously engaging book that was a good companion to Do No Harm by the neurosurgeon Henry Marsh that I read earlier this year.

Funny, informative and poignant it ends on a note of frustration, particularly when Kay describes the agonising event that prompted his resignation. It let to the death of both baby and mother following a caesarian operation. Although Kay had followed all the correct procedures, he still blamed himself. He suffered a period of depression but was not given any therapy by the hospital or allowed time off to recover. After a few months he handed in his resignation.


This Is Going to Hurt: footnotes 

This is Going to Hurt was published in 2017 by Picador.

It’s written in the form of diary entries that were maintained by Kay during his medical training and his time as a hospital doctor.  The diaries were intended as a  “reflective practice” in which he could log any interesting clinical experiences he experienced. He used the material, suitably anonymised to write his book.

He has since embarked on a career as a comedian and scriptwriter. His new book Twas the Nightshift Before Christmas, is published in October 2019.

Read an interview with him in The Guardian newspaper.

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