Category Archives: Memoir

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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