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Dazzled By Ground-Breaking Memoir of A First Lady: Becoming by Michelle Obama

Of the million or so photographs featuring Michelle Obama, two will be forever etched in my memory.

One shows the First Lady of the United States jumping about and getting sweaty with a bunch of kids on the front lawn of the White House.

The other image dates from her first visit to the United Kingdom. During an official reception hosted by Queen Elizabeth II, Michelle Obama put her arm around the monarch.

To say the resulting photographs astonished royal watchers is putting it mildly because touching the Queen is strictly forbidden. It’s not treason as such (an offence that could see you carted off to the Tower of London) but it’s definitely one of the most heinous transgressions of royal protocol.

What was astonishing about both these images was that they turned on their head everything we’d ever seen from previous holders of the role of First Lady.

There’s no position description for the First Lady. But we got used to the idea over the decades that they’re in a supportive role to the star turn of The President. Always gracious, always immaculately dressed; a walking advert for American fashion designers. They can engage in charitable endeavours but rarely speak out about issues.

Michelle Obama broke that mould. Never before had we seen a First Lady dress so casually in sneakers, leggings and t shirts; Never before had we seen her get down and dirty while digging and planting a vegetable patch. And never before had we seen someone so touchy-feely.

Becoming  by Michelle Obama

Her memoir Becoming was similarly ground breaking. It’s the first completely honest account from a First Lady of the experiences that shaped her personality and influenced her attitudes.

It’s a work of stellar storytelling taking us from her modest background in Chicago, through academic success to an unfulfilling career in corporate law. The life she envisaged was “a predictable, control-freak existence – the one with the steady salary, a house to life in forever, a routine to my days.”

But then came the event that changed her life entirely – she was asked to take a young, mega talented law student under her wing during a summer placement. Barak Obama put her life on a completely new trajectory, catapulting her into the uncomfortable world of politics and to the highest office in her country.

Confronting Challenges

It’s a career progression that in some eyes would be considered a fairytale. What I loved most about Becoming is that she is so candid about her struggles and disappointments.

Most of the issues she describes are those that ordinary people can relate to easily. The struggle to balance work with family commitments; the heartbreak of miscarriages and the challenge of maintaining a relationship with a partner who is away from home for much of the week.

Taking up residence in the White House presents a whole new set of difficulties. She can’t open a window because it’s a security risk. She can’t go out with her husband without entire streets being closed down. She can’t even go to a shop to buy him an anniversary card. Being in the public eye means every thing she says or wears is subjected to public scrutiny; even a change of hairstyle has to be agreed in advance by the Presidents’s staff.

Chief of her concerns however is the well-being of her daughters. The constant question for Michelle Obama is how to make sure the girls enjoy a normal childhood experience when they have to be accompanied everywhere by protection offers. Not much fun when you want to go out on your first date.

Dealing With Criticism

And of course, there is the constant threat to her projects from detractors who see her as a threat.

I was female, black, and strong, which to certain people, maintaining a certain mind-set, translated only to ‘angry.’ It was another damaging cliché, one that’s been forever used to sweep minority women to the perimeter of every room, an unconscious signal not to listen to what we’ve got to say.

What comes through strongly is that Michelle Obama is a woman with an exceptionally strong streak of determination. She learned at an early age to never give up and that the best way to deal with people who wanted to thwart her ambition, was to ignore them. It’s an attitude she saw exhibited by many of the highly talented people she met later in life.

All of them have had doubters. Some continue to have roaring, stadium sized collections of critics and naysayers who will shout I told you so at every little misstep or mistake. The noise, doesn’t go away, but the most successful people I know have figured out how to live with it, to lean on the people who believe in them, and to push onward with their goals.

Self -belief is one of the lessons she wants to pass on through the book, as she did with the groups of young women she met throughout her time as First Lady.

Becoming A Role Model

Becoming has been one of my best reading experiences of 2019. It’s an account of extraordinary life told with intelligence, humour, warmth and oodles of self-awareness. 

This is a woman who had a once in a lifetime opportunity to bring about changes. While her husband focused on changing attitudes to healthcare and gun control, she focused on child obesity and job and education opportunities for ex servicemen.

In doing so she became a role model for young women around the world. But Michelle Obama is emphatic at the end of the book that she has no intention of going into politics herself.

I’ve never been a fan of politics, and my experience over the last ten
years has done little to change that.

That doesn’t mean she is going to disappear – the initiatives that she lead while First Lady are so close to her heart that she is continuing to work on them. But what lies ahead is an interesting question. The title of her book refers to the idea that each of us is perpetually changing, evolving, not stopping at some set point — with the implication that we can always become better.  It’s a clue that we can expect to see more of her in the future. A clear case of Watch This Space.

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.

Six Stunning Must Read Books of 2019

We’ve reached the mid point of 2019. It’s a good time to take a pause and reflect. 

A time to ask yourselves some questions. Have you:

  • kept up with your challenges and projects?
  • nailed that TBR stack?
  • found any knock out, truly brilliant books?

My answers to the above are, in order, partly,  no  and  YES.

I won’t bore you with how much I’m behind on my projects to read my classics club list or the Booker prize winners.   And I’ve already confessed about the rising state of my TBR.

Let’s talk about something far more interesting: six books I’ve read so far this year that were stunning. There’s  a psychological thriller, a classic novel, two memoirs  and two literary fiction titles.

Milkman by Anna Burns 

After a few years when the winning novel in the Booker Prize didn’t set my world alight, in 2018 we finally got a book that absolutely deserved the prize. Milkman by Anna Burns is an intense and powerful novel about trying to survive in a city where to be different, is to be in danger. The unconventional narrative form (no character is ever named) takes a little getting used to but don’t give up. If you do you’ll miss one of the most compelling novels I’ve read in years.

Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell 

Gaskell wasn’t alone among Victorian novelists in her anguish about the plight of workers in the newly industrialised cities. Like Dickens she wrote about their appalling living conditions, sickness and hunger. Mary Barton was her first novel and it’s a no holds barred tale about industrial strife in Manchester. This is a must-read novel for anyone interested in social issues.

The Woman in the Dark by Vanessa Savage 

Vanessa Savage’s debut novel is a spectacular psychological thriller. The Woman in the Dark is a  tale of a family’s descent into crisis when they move into a house whose previous  occupants were murdered. Within this she spins a disturbing narrative about the legacy of child abuse. Just one warning before you begin reading this: you’ll lose lots of sleep because you won’t be able to put it down .

The Salt Path  by Raynor Winn

Imagine you’ve lost your home and your business. You have nothing but a few hundred pounds in your savings. Your husband has just been diagnosed with a degenerative brain condition. Faced with that situation Raynor Winn decided to take a walk. Rather a long walk. Six hundred miles in fact. The Salt Path is her account of walking the coastal path, camping wild and encountering hostility because strangers thought they were untouchable homeless vagrants.  This is a memoir that can make you angry but it will also make you laugh because Winn has a wonderful eye for the absurd situations in life.

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

Adam Kay was a hospital doctor specialising in obstetrics for six years and kept a diary of his time on the front line of healthcare. This is Going to Hurt is  astonishingly funny but also sobering because Kay shows how poorly junior doctors are treated. Underpaid and expected to work well beyond their contracted  hours, the job puts a strain on friendships and relationships. This is an astonishingly frank novel but despite his criticisms, Kay is still a firm believer in the principles of public healthcare.

Circe  by Madeline Miller 

This was a book I wasn’t looking forward to reading. I did so only because it was selected by the other book club members.  But this re-imagining of Circe (the Greek sorceress who gets a brief mention in Homer’s Odyssey) was a revelation. Miller’s descriptions of the world inhabited by the Titans among the Greek gods is breathtaking. A more detailed review will follow but for now, I’ll just say that if you’ve not yet read this, do yourself a huge favour and go out now and buy a copy. You won’t be sorry.


 

Those are my six choices for the first half of 2019. It will be interesting to see if any of them still make the cut when I come to the end of the year.

What would you choose from your own reading so far this year? Any knock out reads for you?

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.

Brilliant memoir of optimism and courage: The Salt Path

Salt PathRaynor Winn had never given much thought to the problem of homelessness.

But at the age of 50, she and her husband Moth became one of the estimated 280,000 households in the UK without a roof over their head.

The Winns lost their livelihood – and their home – when an investment in a friend’s business went sour. An obdurate legal system refused to allow them to present key evidence showing they were not liable for that firm’s debts.

Bailiffs were instructed to seize the Welsh farmhouse the couple had rebuilt from a pile of stones and turned into a thriving holiday business. Worse news followed.  Moth was diagnosed with CBD, a rare degenerative brain disease. The specialist told him that death usually comes six to eight years after the onset – and that he’d probably been suffering for six already..

While hiding under the stairs as the bailiffs banged on the door, Raynor discovered a copy of Five Hundred Mile Walkies, an account by Paddy Dillon of walking the 630-mile South West Coast Path with his dog.

The book became the catalyst for their own journey. When they took their first steps on that same path almost everything they possessed went with them:  a small tent bought on eBay, a couple of cheap, thin sleeping bags, some basic cooking equipment and a change of clothes.  In their pocket they had £115 in cash and a bankcard to collect £48 a week in tax credits.

south-west-coast-path

The route of the South West Coastal Path

They had no plan beyond starting in Minehead and following the path down to Land’s End and then along the southern coastline to Poole in Dorset. A plan for their future would emerge they hoped. Until it did,  they would just put one foot in front of the other.

Ill-prepared mentally, and physically one obstacle they never expected to encounter was the prejudice – and sometimes hostility  – of people they met along their way.

Only a few days into their journey a boisterous dog sent Raynor flat onto her face in the street and her precious coins rolling down the hill .  “You tramps should learn how to control yourselves. Rolling around in the street – it’s disgusting,” shouted the dog owner.  Raynor at that point began to lose what little sense of herself she had remaining :

A tramp. A homeless tramp. A few weeks earlier I’d owned my own home, my own business, a flock of sheep, a garden, land, an Aga, washing machines, a lawn mower. I had responsibilities, respect, pride. The illusions of life had rolled away as quickly as the pound coins.

Often the strangers they encountered would physically recoil when told why the Winns were walking the path, gathering their children and dogs towards them as if they feared harm. The word ‘homeless’ was the trigger.  So Moth changed their story, explaining they had sold their home to go looking for adventure wherever the wind took them. The response was telling; they became people to be admired not feared or despised. They were two ‘inspirational’ oldies having an adventure of a lifetime.

What was the difference between the two stories? Only one word, but one word that in the public perception meant everything: ‘sold’. We could  be homeless having sold our home and put money in the bank, and be inspirational. Or we could be homeless, having lost our home and become penniless, and be social pariahs.

The Salt Path

A stretch of the South West Coastal path

All of this makes it sound that The Salt Path will be a gloomy book. But it’s actually brimming with humour because Raynor Winn has a tremendous sense of the absurd (like the  man walking his tortoise) and of the beauty of nature. At times their situation is desperate: days with little more to eat than noodles and fudge to keep them plodding on; nights when their flimsy tent perched on the edge of a cliff is almost whipped from in a storm.

But in between there are the joys of moonlit swims, of dolphins and translucent fish. And the generosity of strangers who provided them with a place to camp or to stay and with food. Together they help her and Moth come to terms with their situation.

The Salt Path is a sobering reminder of easy it is to fall out of mainstream society and to become an outsider. It’s a remarkable story; thoughtful, honest, unflinching; about human strength and endurance.


The Salt Path, published by Michael Joseph, was shortlisted for the Costa Book of the Year.  Raynor and her husband Moth live in Cornwall close to the South West Coastal Path.  Their experience has been an inspiration to other homeless people as recounted in this article in The Big Issue magazine.

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O’Farrell

i am i amI Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death is an astonishing memoir, a celebration of the tenacity for which we cling to life while on the edge of death.

It chronicles 17 occasions when Maggie O’Farrell came close to death and how those experiences have shaped her outlook on life and her attitude towards her children.

Her close encounters with death began with the sudden onset of viral encephalitis at eight years old. It rendered her incapable of speech and robbed her of the ability to walk. Medical experts put her chances of full recovery at next to nothing. But they had not reckoned with this girl’s determination to beat the odds.

O’Farrell reflects that “a near-death experience changes you for ever: you come back from the brink altered, wiser, sadder”. And yet the evidence of this book speaks to the contrary. In the middle of a crisis, she often berates herself for having not thought more carefully about her actions. Was it wise, she wonders in hindsight,  to have taken that evening walk around a remote late in Chile (she was seized from behind by a thief who presses a machete against her throat)? Why had she trusted the holiday maker and tried to wade out to a diving platform in the Indian Ocean with her young son ( a non swimmer)? Why had she been the one to leap off a harbour wall into the sea as a teenager?

What drives her actions is often her intense desire for freedom: to break free from all bonds.

It is an urge so strong, so all-encompassing that it overwhelms everything else. I cannot stand my life as it is. I cannot stand to be here, in this town, in this school. I have to get away.

In her quest for that freedom, O’Farrell becomes a risk taker. It’s as if, having survived once, she is determined forever after to stick two fingers up to death. To face it down.

Her life is one crammed to the brim with accidents, illness and frighteningly close calls. They include a haemorrhage during a too-long delayed cesarean section, amoebic dysentery picked up on holiday in China, a close encounter with a blindfolded circus knife-thrower, and a narrow escape from a murderer .

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death is consequently built upon drama, piling one hair-raising moment on another. On a walk up a mountain she escapes from a murderer by prattling on about ducks; on a flight to Hong Kong the plane plummets; on holiday in France she fumbles desperately for the door lock when two strange men approach the car in which she is feeding her new born baby.

This book could easily have become little more than a litany of episodes but O’Farrell has this knack of balancing the drama with reflection as she looks to make sense of her extraordinary life.

It’s one in which she has had cause to be thankful for the vast array of medical practitioners she has encountered over the years. Mostly she recalls their kindnesses: the unknown man who held her hand while surgeons battled to save her life in a theatre awash with her blood. She never saw him again but recalls even now the touch of his hand. Or the nurse who refused to leave the consulting room where the young Maggie O’Farrell was seeing a pediatric specialist. Decades later she hears he has been revealed as a paedophile.

Her life continues to involve “a fair amount of sprinting along hospital corridors” but now it’s her daughter that requires emergency medical treatment. Born with a severe immune disorder this child can have between 12 and 15 severe anaphylactic shocks a year.  It means O’Farrell and her husband are constantly on the alert for any encounter that could trigger a reaction.

It’s this final section of the book that I found the most powerfull and compelling. It’s brim full of the anxiety she felt as a young mum faced with a small child who is covered head to toe in burning, itching, bleeding eczema. She shares her feelings of desolation and helplessness and how the desire to protect her daughter is overwhelming.

Ultimately this isn’t a book about death or danger. It’s about life and love. Though O’Farrell concedes that our life on life is fragile:

We are, all of us, wandering about in a state of oblivion, borrowing our time, seizing our days, escaping our fates, slipping through loopholes, unaware of when the axe may fall.

her book is really a message to her daughter that the human spirit is a resilient one. It can  meet with danger and endure trauma. And can still bounce back.

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death is an intense reading experience. But it’s one that is the highlight of my year so far.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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