Category Archives: Memoir

Admissions- Henry Marsh


Synopsis

The second of neurosurgeon Henry Marsh’s autobiographies follows him after retirement, with a look back to significant moments of his career, and his post-retirement trip to help a fellow neurosurgeon in Nepal.

 

Review

I was really looking forward to reading ‘Admissions’ as  ‘Do No Harm‘ was one of my favourite reads of 2017. I bought it just after Christmas and read it quite soon after. I must admit that although I did enjoy it I was a little disappointed, it just doesn’t meet up to ‘Do No Harm’.

It focused a lot more on Marsh’s personal life than ‘Do No Harm’ had. Whilst it was impressive to see what he was capable in other parts of his life (fitting windows, building rooms) I didn’t really care much about it.

I do think however his acquisition of the cottage as well as his trip to Nepal really said something about his character, and of the big change that retirement can be. Marsh seemed almost to fear having nothing to do. He spoke a lot of dementia, and I can imagine that for someone who really has relied on their brain, and who has seen what can happen when it goes wrong the thought that he could loose his own brain function would be especially scary.

I did enjoy the briefer steps into the medical. There were less descriptions of surgery than in the first book, although some may prefer that. We did however get to see more severe brain injuries during his time in Nepal, as the patients had to pay for treatment and had less access so were more likely to further progressed.

Partly because most of the medical sections were done in countries where languages other than English were spoken I felt that we got less of an insight into the patients. Sometimes we did get a little third-hand insight, but that was less detailed. In fact in Nepal Marsh tries to teach the doctors about the importance of seeing the patients as people, rather than something to be treated.

It was also interesting to see medicine in other cultures. I was particularly struck by how important being at home was for those in Nepal, to the point where families would use a hand breathing bag to take an ill person home to die which seems like amazing dedication, but  also seems somehow right.

There was less of his views of the NHS too, which made it somewhat less emotive. You could still get the sense that Marsh loves the NHS though, but hates what is happening to it. I don’t think that’s uncommon in the NHS community.

I think those who preferred the more personal bits of ‘Do No Harm’ will love this one, but as far as medical memoirs go it’s not the most medical. Still a very good overall memoir though

4/5

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I Love Dick- Chris Kraus


Synopsis

Chris is a middle-aged, married woman when she meets Dick and falls in love. What follows are a series of letters declaring her love for him, but will they ever come to a conclusion?

Review

We read ‘I Love Dick’ as our bookclub book last month and honestly it didn’t go down well, few of us finished, because we didn’t want to, one didn’t even try to read it- she just knew it wasn’t her type of book. I did manage to finish, but not in time for bookclub, I carried on reading afterwards because I was so close to the end, but it took me a long time to read those last 40-50 pages.

Having said that we didn’t enjoy it, it did make for some good discussion- not least that we were trying to disentangle the author Chris from the character Chris, there is definitely an autobiographical element there, and other characters referred to were real people known to Chris (including Chris’ huband; both real and literary).

Overall it was sort of creepy. Basically Chris has this obsession on a person who she has met twice, it’s pretty stalkeresque. She at one point is talking about books of his she has read to his in her letters, almost like she thinks she is having a conversation with him. Another member of the group said the books she talks about are actually books that the writer Chris has written, so maybe this is meant to be some sort of comment on obsessive love being all in the mind.

Apparently the book has been praised as being feminist. I found this hard to see. Chris spoke of other feminists which I suppose could be seen as being feminist in itself- but actually it’s parrotting, I wouldn’t call it any more feminist than one of my book reviews of feminist books. And Chris (the character) was very dependant on men which doesn’t seem feminist at all.

If you’re looking for a book to discuss this may well actually be a good choice, but I wouldn’t recommend if you want to read it just because.

2/5

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Patient H.M- Luke Dittrich


Synopsis

In the 1930s Patient H.M was given a lobotomy by Dittrich’s grandfather William Beecher Scoville as a treatment for his debilitating epilepsy. This procedure led to damage to H.M’s memory which meant he could not form new memories. His case was important for the acquisition of knowledge about the brain and he spent the rest of his life being studied by scientists and doctors.

Review

Patient H.M isn’t really what I expected at all. It was about him to an extent, you heard a bit about what may have led to his epilepsy, and parts of his story post-surgery were described, but really it was about those who worked round him. mainly the surgeon who operated on him. For a pretty well known story it’s kind of nice to have a different approach, and there did seem to be some things uncovered. However to actually learn about H.M it might not be the best book.

It did at times get a bit confusing because of jumping between people and times, but once I got used to it I could generally work out what was going on.

It was a really interesting book, and it covers more than just H.M’s case where it comes to neuroscience. We learn a lot about the history of neuroscience and neuropsychology and neurosurgery. It’s probably good for people with less technical knowledge but an interest.

4/5

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape- Sohaila Abdulali


Disclaimer: I was given this book free of charge (via netgalley) in exchange for an honest review

Synopsis

Sohaila Abdulali was raped in her late teens, and nobody really cared. It set her off on a path to reveal the truth behind rape, and its victims. This book is made up of the stories she was told and the things she found out.

Review

Sohaila Abdulali was weeks from moving to America when she was raped in her home country of India. She was discouraged from reporting by the police, the very people who should have been protecting her. It wasn’t an unknown story, rape just wasn’t a topic discussed in India (despite a few exceptions, it still isn’t). A few years later Sohaila returned to India in the hop of exposing the rape culture in the country, but still nobody was willing to talk about it. She released an article, detailing her own experience, and returned to the US.

For thirty years she worked with rape survivors. Then came the publicised rape and murder of Jyoti Singh, and suddenly Sohaila’s story became international news, because she had been talking out against the culture that caused Jyoti’s rape.

This is when Sohaila started speaking out again. She had always wanted to change the world, and had been in her ‘small’ ways, but now she had a platform.

In ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape’ Sohaila talks about her own story, and about Jyoti’s, and other widely known rape cases (like Brook Turner), but mainly she talks about the rape of ‘everyday’ women. Rapes that might have been reported, or might not, might have been taken seriously, or might not.

One thing I got from the book was how she didn’t like seeing the raped woman as a victim. She didn’t like the idea that a rape should define who a woman is. Yes it might be life changing, but it is just one part of a life. She talks about how women who are raped as perceived as overly innocent victims, or women who were asking for it, there’s no in-between where she just a ‘normal’ woman, and that’s what the majority are.

She talks about different cultures and how they view rape, and the damage which can be done by this.

There are some really inspiring and interesting stories. I think it’s good to know them, and I do like the overall message.

However I found in reading the book it was a little bit all over the place. The stories didn’t seem to fit together all that well, and at times Sohaila would go from talking about one ‘victim’ straight to another or to herself. She told her own story, but then peppered other bits throughout in ways that only really sometimes fits with what she had been saying previously. I do wonder if maybe it was on purpose to show the variety of women, that it shouldn’t all fit together like a jigsaw, but it made it a little difficult as a reader to read as a whole book. Part of it may have been because I had an ARC copy, so maybe the end formatting made chapters more obvious, but I still feel that it would be better as chapters for each subject, or each ‘victim’.

It probably is worth reading, for the stories and for the outlook. I’m certainly not regretting reading it.

3/5

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Cancerland: A Memoir- David Scadden and Michael D’Antonio


Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this book (via Netgalley) in return for an honest review

Synopsis 

From childhood David Scadden had experiences of cancer which led him to a career as an oncologist and researcher of cancer. This book is his account of his experiences.

Review

Well it seems appropriate that my first review after starting my nursing degree is a review of a medical book.

I’ve read plenty medical memoirs before, and I would say they are fast becoming a favourite genre for me. Cancerland though is a bit different from the others.

At the beginning Scadden said that one of his aims in writing his memoir was to increase peoples’ knowledge of cancer. His book certainly succeeded in this aim. I hadn’t realised quite how complex cancercare is, or how frustrating research can be- especially with the media shouting about ‘miracle cures’.

However it didn’t quite hold the personal element that I expect from these types of books. You read little about his patients or his family life, especially once he has become a doctor. That makes it somewhat harder to connect with. It was interesting seeing how he got into medicine however, and I did find it interesting on an intellectual level.

If it’s your first foray into medical memoirs I probably wouldn’t start with this one, but if you want to read more of them then this is a good one to go for for a wider experience.

3/5

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How Not to Be a Boy- Robert Webb


Disclaimer: This book was given to me free of charge by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Synopsis

‘How Not to Be A Boy’ is Webb’s autobiography with a bit of a difference. One of his intentions in writing it was to share his experiences with toxic masculinity, and why it’s so damaging.

Review

Note: When I say feminist I mean someone who stands for gender equality rather than simply women’s rights

I heard a lot about ‘How Not to Be a Boy’ when it first came out, it sounded really interesting, and just like my sort of book, so I added it to my wishlist, and, like most things on my wishlist it sat there (I have such a bad habit for impulse buying books rather than buying books I already knew I wanted to read). Then one day I was flicking through the pages of netgalley and, to my surprise, it popped up, so of course I requested it.

In reality the book wasn’t quite what I expected. I think I expected it to be more feminist (or have more of a gender equality drive). Essentially though it was Robert Webb’s autobiography. At times he took a step back from the ‘story’ to talk about toxic masculinity, and from some of the things he said- especially when he was talking about ‘the trick [which makes women sad and men have better jobs]’ – he does sound feminist.

If I had gone into the book expecting more of an autobiography I don’t think I would have really wanted to read it. I know Robert Webb’s work- at least to a point- and I don’t dislike him, but I probably a not familiar enough with him to want to read his autobiography. Now though, I like him a lot more.

His autobiography is pretty unfincing. Whist he blame toxic masculinity to a point to the ways he has behaved in the past he also accepts that he is the one that needs to change it. This leads on to the greater idea that it is a man’s job to say no to being made to feel like they have to conform to gender roles. When something is so ingrained into a culture it is hard to sometimes even see that you are encouraging gender roles, just in the different things you might do when with a boy or a girl e.g. how you can call a girl pretty, but a boy has to be handsome which has completely different connotations.

This video was going around facebook for a while, I think it’s a perfect illustration

3.5/5

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When Breath Becomes Air- Paul Kalaniti


Synopsis

Paul Kalaniti has been studying and working for ten years. His residency is almost over and he shows great promise as a future neurosurgeon.

Then Paul is diagnosed with incurable lung cancer, his future seems to be slipping away as he starts to loose his role as a doctor to become a patient.

Review

I mainly picked up this book because it seemed like it would be a medical memoir that saw things from two sides. To an extent it was that, but it was much more personal.

Kalaniti had always wanted to find some meaning in life, he started off studying literature; believing he could find something there, then he moved into medicine- maybe some practice involving life and death would give him that? Whether he gained more from medicine is somewhat unclear but it certainly seemed to be the right path for him, and his relationships with his patients in particular seemed to add something to his knowledge of what life was all about. But it was only when he was staring death in the face that Kalaniti found what was important to him.

In some ways it being both a doctor’s memoir and a patient’s memoir made it not quite an adequate version of either. I found the descriptions of his patients and surgery to be a bit lacking, and his own medical knowledge meant that his patient experience was not typical. That does not mean it was not a good memoir overall. It was interesting to see where Kalaniti the doctor and the patient overlapped, and the particular issues that came with knowledge.

There was also a sort of unfinished feel about it. Almost unedited. I wonder how much of that was due to the fact that Kalaniti died whilst writing it (something expected) and how much was to do with posthumous editing. The epilogue written by Kalaniti’s wife gave some closure, but it is real life, nothing should be a closed book. So it did mean that as a reader you came away with wanting more but in a way that was perfect for the book- it was like a sense of mourning.

I definitely recommend this book, just don’t expect an emotionally easy ride.

4/5

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Fragile Lives- Prof. Stephen Westaby


Synopsis

Stephen Westaby is a renowned NHS heart surgeon. His career has seen many advances in heart surgery and treatment, and lots of complicated and major operations.

 

Review

I have been wanting to read ‘Fragile Lives’ for a long time, especially after loving ‘Do No Harm‘, but I was a bit nervous so I didn’t read it as soon as I got it. Instead, completely by coincidence, I ended up reading it over the anniversary of my operation.

I’m still not entirely sure it was the best time to read it. It was kind of nerve racking at the time (but then again I did read ‘Do No Harm’ whilst in hospital, so you know, not the worst time!). In terms of heart surgery mine was one of the most simple surgeries you can get, I wasn’t even expecting it to be included with the book. It was in the book, but not until right near the end, and actually it was more complicated because the woman was pregnant. I couldn’t put the book down at that point, and it was scary, but actually in the end quite uplifting.

I found the different stories really interesting. I hadn’t realised quite how many advances had been made in heart care. The most amazing to me was a pump which could effectively replace the heart. It would keep blood flow going without a pulse and very little blood pressure, if you were to look at most heart monitoring machines you would think this person was dead. It really is amazing.

Despite surgeons being seen as unsympathetic and unemotional, and Westaby saying that being unemotional is important to be a good surgeon, he does come across as caring.

One thing though that came across was that some of the things Westaby was doing couldn’t really be afforded. Westaby seems angry about this, and it is a hard thing, because it would be impossible for the NHS to afford everything, and a balance is something very difficult to make. I talked about this on my instagram, and twitter, so rather than writing again I will just post it here.

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Westaby's frustration with the #NHS isn't as obvious as that shown in Marsh's book but the closer I get to the end the more I see it. It's a hard topic to talk about- how NHS funds should be spent. It seems a waste when a life could.be saved or improved but can't be because of money, and I'm not sure it could be fixed either. Privatisation wouldn't work either because then it would mean that there would be a second class who can't afford healthcare which they would have got for free on an NHS type system. When people's lives are at stake then it seems inhumane to leave decisions down to money, but there is really not alternative. NHS funding could be better, and maybe spent better too, but there will always be a point where something can't be afforded. I have said many times how much I value the NHS, without it I don't know where I would be… if I would be. I feel it's being let down, but I also realise it can never be perfect

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5/5

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War- Roald Dahl


Synopsis

War is a set of short stories for adults written about war. Based on Dahl’s own experiences in the RAF and of wartime in general.

Review

I’ve ever read any of Dahl’s adult stories before, it’s one of these things that I always thought I’d do at some point and never got around to. I loved his stories as a child, so I was both excited and a bit apprehensive about reading the adult stories. I chose this particular collection because of my love of war stories.

The first, and longest, story was ‘Going Solo’ and it was an account of Dahl’s own experiences in the RAF. Now I read his book ‘Going Solo’ when I was a child, which I only vaguely remember. I’m sure that this version (the one in ‘War’) is more adult, it doesn’t read like a children’s book anyway, but as both are autobiographies I imagine that a lot of the stories are of the same incidents.

Going Solo was the story in the collection which I enjoyed the most. The others though really held something which said that Dahl knew war, and the aftermath. What I liked was how things like loosing a child, or shellshock, or even just generally recovering from the experience of war were talked about but not explicitly. Most of the other short stories felt like they were a story which showed how these things felt, without actually saying how they felt- a sort of metaphor if you will.

The other stories did tend towards the weird, which I think is part of why I didn’t like them so much in the moment. They weren’t weird in an entertaining way, just strange.

I’m not sure if my experience means I will read more of Dahl’s adult stories or not. When I bought this one I also considered Madness and Innocence so I still may read them.

3/5

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Filed under Biography, Contempory, Fiction review, Historical, History, Memoir, non-fiction review, Short story

Do No Harm- Henry Marsh


Synopsis

Henry Marsh is a renowned brain surgeon working in the NHS in the UK. In ‘Do No Harm’ he gives an account of his life as a brain surgeon. He speaks of how the NHS has changed over the years, his victories and his failures, and the effects these things have had on his life.

 

Review

I found out about ‘Do No Harm’ first through Ellie’s blog, and I added it to my wishlist instantly, since that time I heard lots of great things about it, but it was only when it came up on the kindle monthly deals that I actually bought it, in some ways I’m glad I waited, in others I wish I’d gotten to it sooner.

I actually ended up reading it when I was in hospital for my own operation (because apparently I’m insane) I think that I could read about operations at the time without getting freaked out shows just how interested I was. Having said that I wouldn’t say it’s a good book for the faint hearted, there are some rather graphic descriptions of operations- although personally I felt Marsh’s sense of control and anxiety more than I felt squeamish.

You did get a sense of Marsh caring about his patients, he spoke about how he had caused the death, or lack of life, in some patients and how you had to lock that knowledge away because otherwise you would just give up, but that didn’t stop you from feeling guilty. When you do operations which do have such a high level of risk then there are bound to be times that it doesn’t go to plan, and Marsh has probably saved more lives than he has ended, he has a strange mix of guilt for these cases and the stereotypical surgeon arrogance. It made me start to think of that arrogance as a sort of defense mechanism- like a surgeon needs that arrogance otherwise they will always be terrified of what failure will cause, they have to believe things will go right to be able to take that risk.

Another interesting thing was how Marsh talked about how the NHS has changed, and, as he sees it, has become less effective. He wrote of how things were held back by too much paperwork, and bureaucracy, and computers that didn’t work. At one point he is trying to get some x-ray results, but he doesn’t seem to be able to see them on his computer so he goes to the x-ray department, who only seem to be able to see them with one person’s log in. The computers are meant to make things easier but Marsh says if they had the old x-ray films he could have just picked it up and looked in a few seconds instead of trying for a long time to see them on the computer.

This is particularly poignant now because the NHS has been getting lots of cuts, and sold off to private companies, both things which makes it harder for frontline staff to do their jobs. We are very lucky in this country. Our NHS is (generally) free. Anyone can access healthcare. Without the NHS some of Marsh’s patients wouldn’t have been able to afford their operations. It seems crazy that people think the NHS should be scrapped. No it’s not perfect, but the thought of it going away terrifies me, and that seems to be what our current government is working towards. We have a nursing shortage but for some reason the government decided that they would stop the nursing bursary, and we have lots of foreign nurses which we may no longer have with Brexit, and lots of nurses are leaving because their pay has been frozen, they’re having to do more hours, and the paperwork side of things has increased so much that they feel they can’t give time to patients.

Okay end of political rant.

I really found this book interesting and Marsh’s style of writing made it easy to read as well rather than clinical and dry. Now I just have to decide whether to buy a similar book about heart surgery next or Marsh’s second memoir…any recommendations?

4.5/5

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Furiously Happy- Jenny Lawson



Synopsis (from amazon)

In Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, Jenny Lawson regaled readers with uproarious stories of her bizarre childhood. In her new book, Furiously Happy, she explores her lifelong battle with mental illness. A hysterical, ridiculous book about crippling depression and anxiety? That sounds like a terrible idea. And terrible ideas are what Jenny does best.

As Jenny says: ‘You can’t experience pain without also experiencing the baffling and ridiculous moments of being fiercely, unapologetically, intensely and (above all) furiously happy.’ It’s a philosophy that has – quite literally – saved her life.

Review

I loved Let’s Pretend This Never Happened so I was excited when I heard Jenny Lawson (aka The Bloggess) had a new book coming out.

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened was hilarious, so I was expecting the same from Jenny’s new book. It was very funny, but it had more of a serious side than her first book had. I still liked it, but it wasn’t as easy a read.

This one featured a lot about Jenny’s mental illness. That made it less light, although a lot lighter than you would expect of a book which has a high content about mental illness. She had a philosophy of always being Furiously Happy when her illness would allow her. A way to show that she could have a good, happy, time, a way to say that that illness is not her.

Jenny says she wrote this book with people who have the same problems as her in mind. So I wasn’t exactly the target market, but I still found the book pretty uplifting, and I definitely enjoyed Jenny’s sense of humour.

If you loved the first one you can’t go wrong with this, but I think you may be better off starting with the first.

4/5

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The Real Doctor Will See You Shortly- Matt McCarthy


Synopsis (from amazon)

In medical school, Matt McCarthy dreamed of being a different kind of doctor the sort of mythical, unflappable physician who could reach unreachable patients. But when a new admission to the critical care unit almost died his first night on call, he found himself scrambling. Visions of mastery quickly gave way to hopes of simply surviving hospital life, where confidence was hard to come by and no amount of med school training could dispel the terror of facing actual patients.

Review

McCarthy’s autobiography is an interesting and eye opening look into the American healthcare system. It would be interesting to see how it differs from a doctor’s experience in the NHS.

I must admit that I expected to see lots about patients who couldn’t afford the healthcare that they need, the idea of no NHS is not one I like, and I never really understood people who are against ‘Obamacare’ in the US. There was a little bit of that, but in was only really a very small part of the book, and I wouldn’t even say it was particularly hard hitting. At one point McCarthy was interning in the medical centre, which seemed pretty much like a drop in centre would be here in the UK, except that the same patients would keep returning. I say like a drop in centre because the treatment seemed rushed, and fairly basic, for example medication over other possible solutions which a specialist might recommend. Plus it seemed like it was mainly run by interns, which suggested a lack of continuity of care. McCarthy found that it was difficult to get to grips with the patient notes because there was a rush and lots of notes to read. He found reading just the latest notes wasn’t enough, but reading further took too much time. Part of this I think was to do with his approach, but it seems that with this patients would end up falling through the gaps.

There was also a section where he went to se and treat the homeless. This bit was too brief I felt, but he only did it for one night. There was certainly enough to give me admiration for people who do it. I think this bit would be pretty much the same in the UK, I imagine homeless people easily don’t see GPs, or go to appointments at hospitals, just because they are hard to keep contact with, and I’m not even sure if you can register with a doctor if you don’t have an address.

Anyway I am going on somewhat of a tangent. I really enjoyed this book. There were plenty of ups and downs and at times you thought that maybe Matt wasn’t cut out for it. After all being a doctor is one of those jobs where a mistake can really cost someone, even to the point of death. But everyone has to start somewhere and it was a real eye opener on how hard things are for doctors, especially those still training.

The hours were absolutely ridiculous. I mean you’d think that you want someone that important to be as sharp as possible when they were working, but the long days meant that was practically impossible. It certainly gave me more sympathy for the junior doctors over here (and I already supported them).

Despite the subject having the potential to be either over emotional or too dry I thought McCarthy did a really good job. There was emotion when it mattered, but it a way you had to be like a doctor and not get too bogged down in the emotions- and the way McCarthy wrote helped with that. He actually made it quite an easy read, and entertaining, which I hadn’t expected. I had expected it to be interesting, and it was, but I did expect it to be so entertaining. I thoroughly recommend

5/5

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Why Not Me?- Mindy Kaling


Synopsis (from amazon)

Mindy Kaling has found herself at a turning point. So in Why Not Me?, she shares her ongoing journey to find fulfilment and adventure in her adult life, be it falling in love at work, seeking new friendships inunlikely places, or attempting to be the first person in history to lose weight without any behaviour modification whatsoever.

Review

I love Mindy’s show The Mindy Project, when I read her first book last year I adored her even more, I watched The US version of The Office just because I needed a Mindy fix (despite being a bit against American adaptations as a general rule, and yeah actually I was proved wrong on that one). When I heard she had a second book coming out I was excited, but I was finishing buying a house, and was on a self inflicted book buying ban (and well, even on amazon the paperback is almost £10, that’s a lot for a paperback…yeah I’m like that).

In the end I got it as a Christmas present, and it was the first of my present books which I read. I did really enjoy it, but I think I prefered her first. I think the first one was just a bit more accessible. In the first book she wasn’t famous, or becoming well known I suppose. It just meant a lot of what she talked about was a bit more recognisable. In Why Not Me for a good part she was well known, and for some I would go as far as to say she was famous. Her stories, whilst still entertaining didn’t quite have that same sense of reality.

I think it was a bit less thought provoking too. There were still elements which were thought provoking, but not in a way that hit me like the occasion with the dress in Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?

Part of the problem I had I think was that there was so much build up for me. I was excited from back when I knew the book was going to exist. That’s quite a while to anticipate something.

I still love Mindy. I would still recommend this book, I did really like it, but it is less memorable than her first for me, and I don’t think it quite meets up to it.

4/5

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Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking-Anya Von Bremzen


Side note: So yes it’s been a while. Me and the boyfriend just moved into our very own house a few months ago, and with everything that needs doing, and organising we didn’t really have much time for internet (or we shouldn’t have…) so we only got our internet connected last week. But yay I’m back and hoping to post a bit more regularly, although my focus is still off a bit. I have quite a few reviews to catch up on so I should get on it really!

Synopsis (from amazon)

Born in a surreal Moscow communal apartment where eighteen families shared one kitchen, Anya von Bremzen grew up singing odes to Lenin, black-marketeering Juicy Fruit gum at school, and longing for a taste of the mythical West. It was a life by turns absurd, drab, naively joyous, melancholy and, finally, intolerable. In 1974, when Anya was ten, she and her mother fled to the USA, with no winter coats and no right of return. These days, Anya is the doyenne of high-end food writing. And yet, the flavour of Soviet kolbasa, like Proust’s madeleine, transports her back to that vanished Atlantis known as the USSR .

Review

It’s been a while since I actually read this, so my review may be a little sketchy, although I at least have a few general thoughts which I knew I wanted to share.

This book it a bit difficult to put into a box, part memoir, part biography, part history book, part food book, part cookbook. It all sort of fits together, although it has a bit of a flighty nature jumping between present day and the past- and not just Anya’s past, her parent’s past too, and her grandparents. It sort of makes a bit of a clash, although the historical bits are more or less in order sometimes it is difficult to connect different events, especially when it becomes more history than biography. Maybe it’s meant to be like that- with the idea of the gap between the government and the general population. It’s hard to connect what she says about the government with what it happening ‘out there’.

I did find it a little slow at first for this reason. I found Anya’s first hand accounts easier to connect with and found I wanted to read the book more when she was a young girl in the narrative, probably it is easier to narrate something which has happened to you personally.

I didn’t get the same sort of sense of amazing food from the food descriptions as I have in other books about food, maybe because I don’t really have any experience of Russian cuisine. Having said that I’ve wanted to try foods from descriptions before, and a lot of the time the descriptions given by Anya were expecting prior knowledge.

I did like the way that history was told with food as a starting point, it made it accessible, and the parallel between those who ate whatever they could get and those who had whatever they wanted was interesting.

3/5

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More Fool Me- Stephen Fry


Synopsis (from amazon)

In his early thirties, Stephen Fry – writer, comedian, star of stage and screen – had, as they say, ‘made it’. Much loved in A Bit of Fry and Laurie, Blackadder and Jeeves and Wooster, author of a critically acclaimed and bestselling first novel, The Liar, with a glamorous and glittering cast of friends, he had more work than was perhaps good for him.
What could possibly go wrong?
Then, as the 80s drew to a close, he discovered a most enjoyable way to burn the candle at both ends, and took to excess like a duck to breadcrumbs. Writing and recording by day, and haunting a never ending series of celebrity parties, drinking dens, and poker games by night, in a ludicrous and impressive act of bravado, he fooled all those except the very closest to him, some of whom were most enjoyably engaged in the same dance.
He was – to all intents and purposes – a high functioning addict. Blazing brightly and partying wildly as the 80s turned to the 90s, AIDS became an epidemic and politics turned really nasty, he was so busy, so distracted by the high life, that he could hardly see the inevitable, headlong tumble that must surely follow . . .

Review

Having enjoyed Moab is my Washpot and The Fry Chronicles I was rather looking forward to reading the latest instalment of Stephen Fry’s memoirs. Plus The Fry Chronicles had ended on somewhat of a cliffhanger with Stephen taking his first snort of cocaine, which suggested we could expect some excitement.

Unfortunately More Fool Me really didn’t capitalise on those promises, and I found myself rather disappointed.

The first 60 or so pages were a re-cap of Moab is my Washpot and The Fry Chronicles. Fine if you haven’t read either, or if you have the memory of a sieve. I started off reading them thinking that it had been a long time since I read Moab is my Washpot. Turned out I didn’t need such a detailed recap. I got bored around about 20 pages in and spent the rest of the time flicking through just reading a sentence or a paragraph here and there to see if I had forgotten anything, I hadn’t.

The next few pages were probably the best bit of the book. They showed the sort of wit that I would have expected from Stephen Fry, and a certain amount of self-criticism. He told a little of his early drug taking days and explained what attraction cocaine held for him. He promised that by the end of the book we would understand why taking cocaine was such a mistake.

I was really getting into the book when I find the section ended and a new section began, ‘The Diary’.

What followed was basically a copy of his diary for a few months during this time, with the occasional footnote to explain. There are no other words for it, it was dull. There was next to no introspection. It was written as you would write a diary to yourself, semi-note form, no great prose or witty remarks. A lot of the time it seemed to be lists of names and places, and ‘got drunk’ ‘took coke’ type references. There were a few more detailed and interesting entries, which were mainly when he was writing The Hippopotamus, and not doing drugs- maybe that was what he meant by we would know why it was bad- there wasn’t anything else which suggested anything really negative.

Half the time I couldn’t follow who all the people were, they were often refereed to by just first name, which might be fine in terms of Stephen reading his diary ut how was a reader expected to remember after just one explanation who everyone was?

All I really got out of it was an addition of The Hippopotamus on my wishlist.

Skip this one, Moab and The Fry Chronicles are worth reading, this one, not so much.

2/5

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Night- Elie Wiesel


This book was read as part of The Rory List

Synopsis (from amazon)

Born into a Jewish ghetto in Hungary, as a child, Elie Wiesel was sent to the Nazi concentration camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald. This is his account of that atrocity: the ever-increasing horrors he endured, the loss of his family and his struggle to survive in a world that stripped him of humanity, dignity and faith. Describing in simple terms the tragic murder of a people from a survivor’s perspective

Review

I have started and stopped this review a number of times. I want to write it, but somehow it seems that reviewing a book of somebody’s experiences, especially such horrible experiences, makes it loose some of its importance. I’ve written reviews of this type of book before, but only when I’ve been asked to, in which case I feel duty bound to write a review, even if I feel it trivialises something, This is the first time I’ve reviewed a book like this by choice, and to say anything that isn’t the highest praise seems wrong.

I suppose what that means is that I am not one of those people blown away by Night. There is one thing about autobiographies, when it’s something which is real you can be more matter of fact about it, or writing re-feels the emotions, which makes it more matter of fact. With fiction it’s more detached, you are writing about imagined emotions, it can still be hard, because you are attached to a character.

We had to write autobiographical pieces when I was in sixth form, I wrote about my osteoporosis (which I spoke about here, when discussing Handle With Care). My teacher praised my piece because of a lack of self pity, but for me it’s nothing special, it’s just my life, matter of fact.

When it comes to something emotional though, I think this can make it less hard hitting than fiction. In a way Wiesel’s experiences didn’t seem to be the worst. Not that they weren’t horrible experiences, but you didn’t get the same sort of descriptives that you might get in a fictional book, which made it seem…less. It was partially balanced out by knowing that it was real. Fiction is fiction, even when based on fact, you can’t know how much can really be close to how it really was. With non-fiction at least you know what you are reading is true. Maybe it’s less descriptive, less emotional, but in the end it means more.

Sometimes I think that I read too much about the Holocaust, like I’ve become somehow sensitised to it. Did that make a difference to how I viewed Night? Probably. Did the fact that it has been so praised mean that I was expecting more? Possibly. The first edition of Night in a similar version to what we now read was published thirteen years after the end of World War Two. At that time it may have been more powerful. It was probably an event which lived much more in the memory at the time, and people would remember finding out the full truth of what the Nazis did. Those who had been through the concentration camps may have had enough time to start talking, and I imagine there was not much literature about the events, it was too soon. It would have given people truth that they may not have otherwise seen.

Night is still powerful. Still important. The writing is still good writing. However there was a certain lack of detail which I hadn’t expected, maybe I would have liked that. It is reported that Wiesel said he had originally written a manuscript in Yiddish which was over 800 pages long, maybe the less edited version was more detailed, maybe too much so. Would it make it harder to read, and therefore read less widely?

I’m not going to give a score because I don’t feel this can be scored.

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How to be a Heroine (Or What I’ve Learned From Reading Too Much)- Samantha Ellis


Synopsis (by me)

In ‘How To Be a Heroine’ Ellis revisits her bookish heroines from the past and evaluates whether they really deserved to be heroines, and why they were her heroines to begin with.

Review

I mentioned in my review of Texts From Jane Eyre that this book has probably overtaken it in terms of book I am most likely to recommend. That’s probably true, although Texts from Jane Eyre may hold a wider appeal.

How to Be a Heroine is part memoir, part literary analysis, part feminist, part religious discussion. I didn’t expect all that. I expected a book simply about books.

It was interesting to see what Ellis got from her re-reads, and what her younger self had got from her initial reads. Sometimes she couldn’t see any heroism in the characters she had once wanted to emulate, sometimes she saw that the real heroines in the books were not the ones you would expect. Of course it all came together. Even if she couldn’t see someone as a heroine now they had helped shape her.

Ellis’ storytelling was what really drew me in. I really got a sense of what life was like for her, maybe because I saw some similarities with myself (whilst also having tons of differences).  I often wanted to read the books she had described when she wrote about reading them for the first time. Sometimes her more recent images made me change my mind, which was a shame in a way, but then maybe that means I’m not in the right stage of life or frame of mind to appreciate the books as she did first time. At other times her changes of mind made me want to read things more, or just the same, but maybe for different reasons.

I thoroughly recommend it, especially for female book readers (although there is no reason a man couldn’t enjoy it).

5/5

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Filed under Biography, Feminism, Memoir, non-fiction review, Politics, Reading/reviews