Book Review: The Summer That Melted Everything

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“And so we stand, proved of our existence by those who see us. And how did I see Grand, how did any of us […] He always had to be what we wanted him to be first. He existed only by proxy to our dreams of him.”

The Summer That Melted Everything, by Tiffany McDaniel, is an exquisitely written tale of the tragedy of prejudice and herd mentality. Set in the town of Breathed, Ohio, during the long, hot summer of 1984, it centres around the Bliss family. Autopsy Bliss is a respected lawyer. His wife, an agoraphobic, is a loving mother to their their two sons. These boys, Grand and Fielding, have, up to this point, enjoyed their small town life. All that is about to change.

Their story is told from Fielding’s point of view, looking back on the summer he was thirteen years old from seventy years in the future. Early on it becomes clear that the events he will recount created a darkness in him. He sets the scene by describing the happy before, acknowledging that memories are coloured by time.

“What I’ve described is the town of my heart, not necessarily the town itself, which had an underbelly”

At the beginning of the summer Autopsy places an advertisement in the local newspaper inviting the devil to come to Breathed. With the start of the heatwave he arrives in the form of a small and ragged coloured boy named Sal. Fielding spots this devil outside the courthouse, although he questions Sal’s claim to his provenance. Fielding takes the boy home, after all it was his dad who extended the invitation. He is intrigued by the young stranger who speaks with a wisdom beyond his years.

“I knew he was old in the soul. A boy whose black crayon would be shortest in his box.”

The Bliss family welcome Sal but the townsfolk are less accepting, especially Grayson Elohim, a neighbour and steeplejack teaching Fielding his trade. Elohim whips up suspicion, blaming Sal for a series of misadventures. As the heat causes crops and tempers to fail, the townspeople’s concerns bubble over into something more sinister.

“People looked at him, listened to what he said. Being the devil made him important. Made him visible. And isn’t that the biggest tragedy of all? When a boy has to be the devil in order to be significant?”

Fielding’s previously close relationship with Grand fractures when he discovers his brother’s secrets. Sal has become his best friend but Fielding struggles with the love his mother offers this family interloper. When Sal falls in love with a local girl, a downward spiral of events gathers pace which will change Fielding forever.

The imagery is stunning, the prose lyrical, but the mood conjured up is overwhelmingly bleak. It feels as though Sal and then Fielding shoulder the weight of the world.

I cannot say that I enjoyed this book. The emotions evoked were too raw, too real. The writing is powerful and unflinching in its depiction of prejudice, intolerance, petty cruelties and casual hate. It is brilliant but harrowing. A literary tour de force that was painful to read.

Book Review: The Less than Perfect Legend of Donna Creosote

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The Less than Perfect Legend of Donna Creosote, by Dan Micklethwaite, is a poignant yet always humourous adventure featuring a wine guzzling twenty-two year old whose life revolves around the stories she reads in books. Her top floor flat has been taken over by her literature, with bookshelves obscuring windows and a shower curtain protecting the titles she keeps in her bathroom. She has little furniture and a ragbag of clothes, but her many bookshelves overflow and her bedroom is carpeted with novels of uniform size. She rescues books from charity shops and orders them on line. Her stories have kept her together as the life she dreams of has repeatedly slipped from her grasp.

At the beginning of the tale we learn that Donna is currently single. Her previous boyfriend, Kirk, disliked her fixating on books, preferring that she concentrate on pleasing him. We learn that Donna’s father, an English teacher, encouraged her to read voraciously to avoid growing up ‘a thickie’. His scathing language was never confined to his pupils. Donna’s childhood was played out to the soundtrack of her parents’ arguments, although their eventual divorce helped her financially.

One morning Donna rashly decides to leave the sanctuary of her small and stuffy flat. She will don the armour of a knight and go questing. She discovers that Huddersfield may not be ready for such bravado. The setbacks she encounters force her to consider a different role, perhaps that of a princess.

Storybook princesses will inevitably seek their prince. Donna’s experience of these beings has not been favourable. She resents that her lovers regard every situation as revolving around them. She has no wish to be any boy’s toy.

Donna’s prince, even if he does talk a bit southern at times, brings her wine and companionship, but it is her books that continue to provide the adventures she seeks. She lives life through her imagination, fueled by stories lightly flavoured by experience. She begins to question their happy ever after.

Written in short sentences and chapters, the author is piercing in the observations he makes about his characters and setting. He captures the mundane as Donna sees it, turning empty shops into caves and bookshelves into forests. His heroine is a too thin, ginger haired, northerner with a proclivity, if not the talent, for cosplay. She and her many foibles are brought to life with a sharp wit and a sympathetic wisdom. She is a fabulous creation, volatile and vulnerable but determined to forge her own path with as clear a head as excessive wine consumption will allow.

“Nobody has ever accused Donna Crick-Oakley of being adventurous. A slut, yes. A thickie. A dreamer. A quiet one. A fat bitch (before she lost weight). A skinny bitch (after). A nutter. A swot. A stick-in-the-mud. An accident waiting to happen. A cry-baby. A silly cow. A giant waste of time. All of the above, but never adventurous. The fact was, when given a choice between real life and books, Donna Crick-Oakley chose books every time. […] She chose books because they never left her lonely the way Kirk had had left her lonely. Because company was often nothing of the kind, whereas a good book always was.”

Much of the story reads like a modern day fairy story, paying homage to the traditional form, not Disneyfied. There are awkward conversations, drunken messages posted on social media, and the disdane of city dwellers to battle. Throughout the text perceptive insights are fired like arrows, mocking yet poignant and very funny.

A tale lightly written with a depth that will linger, it is clever whilst avoiding any conceit. More than that though, this book offers entertainment. It was an absolute pleasure to read.

Book Review: Chains of Sand

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Chains of Sand, by Jemma Wayne, tells the loosely connected stories of families whose lives are affected by the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine. I know little about this highly contentious region, despite having worked on a kibbutz near Gaza many years ago. I had hoped that this book might offer some enlightenment.

From the minuscule knowledge I have of Jews I assumed that, apart from the black suited and hatted Orthodox variety, they were generally well educated and intelligent. I therefore struggled to empathise with these Jewish characters. They appeared overly bound to tradition, family and religion. Even those who believed themselves liberal struggled with the ties of ritual. They viewed themselves as Jews first, believing themselves assimilated in their host nation yet living largely amongst people like them.

Of course, we all gravitate to those who share similar values. Perhaps it was the incursion of religion that discomforted me.

The theme throughout the story is one of belonging and the disconnect some feel to the lives their loved ones expect them to live. Many young people rebel against the demands of the previous generation. This tale vividly demonstrates how difficult cultural bonds are to break.

Udi is an Israeli Jew born to Iraqi parents. He has been damaged by his experiences fighting for his country, as all young Jewish Israelis must do. He dreams of moving to England where a similarly aged cousin has made a prosperous life for himself. Udi compares this to his own prospects and plots his escape.

Daniel is a financially successful investment banker in London who believes a move to Israel could give his life the depth and meaning it lacks. His grandmother is a concentration camp survivor, his best friend a British Muslim. His sister is engaged to a gentile, a choice he supports but struggles to consider for himself.

Kaseem is an Arab Muslim living in Jerusalem. Despite graduating near the top of his university class he cannot find the work he expected his qualification to bring. He rails against the discrimination he must live with due to his race. When he meets the beautiful Dara, an artist from a supposedly liberal Jewish family, they both discover that prejudices are difficult to overcome.

The challenges of living in Israel are well evoked. The young people struggle with the responsibility they feel towards their families. However accepting the men may think themselves, they still expect to dominate. The girls are beautiful and strong but also tied to tradition. Only Udi’s sister, Avigail, seems willing to truly challenge the patriarchy, and she pays a terrible price.

Daniel’s family at first appears to have fitted in well to British society. As the story progresses it becomes clear that they choose to exist within the confines of a Jewish community. When Daniel decides to join a rally he cries out for peace whilst planning to join the Israeli army. The juxtaposition is telling.

The course of all the characters’ lives, the expectations they have for themselves and for those around them, was, for me, summed up as a metaphor in a comment made about birthday presents:

“Gifts are funny things. I know you’re meant to try to think of something the receiver would like, something they would want, nothing to do with you, but it never works that way. There’s always a not-so-subtle hint of the giver in there, an intimation of their perception of who the receiver is, or who they wish them to be.”

Each of the younger family members struggles with the disconnect between what they think they want and the mould their family is trying to push them into. The three young men’s view of themselves is a deception. Prejudices picked up from the cradle run deep.

Even though I was often discomforted by the content, the quality of the writing is impressive. These are difficult issues to explore and the author does not flinch from presenting differing points of view. Her sympathy appears to be with the Jews, but she vividly portrays Palestinian issues. Having said that, I feel no closer to understanding why this region evokes such widespread ire when the world is full of troublespots, or why the Jews have been singled out so often and by so many for persecution.

An interesting and challenging story that is well worth reading. I would now like to peruse more of this author’s work.

Reading the 2016 Wellcome Book Prize Shortlist

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At the beginning of the summer, thanks to a competition run by Latitude Festival on Instagram, I was fortunate enough to win a complete set of the 2016 Wellcome Book Prize shortlist. I had only read one of these books previously, ‘Playthings’ by Alex Pheby. When another book on the list, ‘The Outrun’ by Amy Lipcot, subsequently won the Wainwright Prize I decided to abandon my reading plans for the summer – which had included finally getting round to reading ‘War and Peace’ – and work my way through this shortlist. It has been a rewarding experience.

My daughter is a second year medical student with a particular interest in neurology. She and her friends treated themselves to a visit to the Wellcome Collection in London at the end of the academic year, something I also hope to do in the future. She read several of the books alongside me and we have enjoyed discussing the topics explored.

“The Wellcome Book Prize is an annual award, open to new works of fiction or non-fiction. To be eligible for entry, a book should have a central theme that engages with some aspect of medicine, health or illness. This can cover many genres of writing – including crime, romance, popular science, sci fi and history.

At some point, medicine touches all our lives. Books that find stories in those brushes with medicine are ones that add new meaning to what it means to be human. The subjects these books grapple with might include birth and beginnings, illness and loss, pain, memory, and identity. In keeping with its vision and goals, the Wellcome Book Prize aims to excite public interest and encourage debate around these topics.”

My own interest is in psychology, a subject I have studied on line in recent years thanks to FutureLearn. Armed with this knowledge I eagerly delved in. You may click on each title below to read my reviews.

Playthings by Alex Pheby

Signs for Lost Children by Sarah Moss

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot

It’s All in Your Head by Suzanne O’Sullivan

The Last Act of Love by Cathy Rentzenbrink

Neurotribes by Steve Silberman

These books provided me with an opportunity to read genres that I would not normally choose. Although I do carefully select a small number of non fiction titles each year, I tend to avoid memoirs. I am glad that I was open to the contents of each and every one of the books on this list. I learned from them all.

The winner of the prize was ‘It’s All In Your Head’ by Suzanne O’Sullivan. When I posted my review I discovered that this was a controversial choice. For the first time I received negative feedback from sufferers of the disorders discussed who felt that the author was belittling their ailments by suggesting they were psychosomatic. I found their responses particularly ironic as this is exactly the problem she wrote the book to counter – the continuing and unreasonable stigma associated with psychosomatic illness.

Notwithstanding my brush with angry, on line readers, I thoroughly enjoyed my first experience of reading a complete book prize shortlist. So enamoured was I with the quality of the writing I have set myself the challenge of doing it again. In amongst my other planned posts in the coming months you may look out for reviews of those works currently vying for the 2016 Guardian Not The Booker Prize. I will also be reading the 2015 Young Writer of the Year Award shortlist, which has been sitting on my shelves tempting me since last year.

Book Review: Neurotribes

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“If normal is being selfish, being dishonest, having guns and waging war, I do not want any of it.”

Neurotribes, by Steve Silberman, is a wide ranging exploration of the history of autism and society’s attitude to those living with the diagnosis. It is a book about the condition but also about people, their fears and prejudices. Autistics have long been branded as diseased and inferior. They are not necessarily uncomfortable with themselves, it is others who are uncomfortable with them.

The book is divided into chapters which take the reader back to well before clinicians gave the condition a name. It introduces significant individuals from history whose discoveries and inventions shaped the world we know today but whose behaviours were deemed eccentric. The point is made that, should a cure for autism be found, scientific progress may be stymied. These people think differently, and it is that which could be regarded as their strength.

For centuries those who would not, or could not, behave as demanded by rigid, social rules were condemned to institutions. These individuals were damaged by the experience and had little chance of ever becoming contributing members of society. Those whose parents refused to bow to demands to give up on their misfits could work on finding a way to live in a world they struggled to make sense of.

“imagine the child’s reaction to the futility of living in an incomprehensible world run by what must appear to him to be demanding, ritualistic, arbitrary and inconsistent psychotics”

Parents of autistic children mourn the child they expected to have, desperate to have their beloved offspring fit in to a culture preoccupied with mass consumption and vacuous spectacle. They grasp at any straws which may offer a cure when what the autistic child wants is to find a way to communicate their needs and to be accepted as they are. There is much adult hand wringing over a child’s inability to make friends, even when the child appears happy with their solitary preoccupations. Little thought is given to why the child would wish to befriend those who mercilessly tease and bully them for being different.

“Left to his own devices, Robert might not have experienced himself as mentally ill at all, though he certainly could have developed an anxiety disorder from being perpetually grilled by men with clipboards.”

In the twentieth century psychiatry entered the mainstream of medicine and children labelled mentally retarded were studied. In Vienna, a pediatrician named Hans Asperger worked with a tight knit team of staff to find ways of engaging with unusual children. He dubbed these young people his little professors. His work was neglected until recently due to outside events. In America, the Eugenics Society was promoting the idea that those diagnosed as mentally deficient should be sterilized or even eliminated for the good of future humankind. Another Viennese, Adolf Hitler, took these ideas to extremes, but he was far from the only advocate of removing undesirables from the gene pool.

The cruelties inflicted on those deemed retarded make for depressing reading. From those autistics who are now adults and who, thanks to the advent of the internet, can be more widely heard, we learn that they view what would be regarded as normal behaviour as incomprehensible. One lady stated that she felt all her life like an anthropologist observing human interactions from a distance, straining to find meaning. She also pointed out that when autistics get together they can make sense of each other.

“the same behaviours that had been viewed for so long as inherently antisocial could become social in a group of autistic adults, particularly if there were no clinicians around to pronounce them pathological.”

The scope of the book and the detail offered make this a fascinating if sometimes challenging read. There is a great deal to take in but the central theme is constant – difference needs more acceptance. There has not been an autism epidemic, merely an expansion of the diagnosis. Autism is not a modern issue caused by vaccines, pollution or processed food, neither is it a fate worse than death. Autistics can lead full and happy lives if, just like the rest of society, they are welcomed in their community.

Difference is endemic yet so much effort is expended to promote a particular set of behaviours. By expounding on the damage this attitude has caused over centuries readers are encouraged to think differently themselves. Those raising neurodiverse children require and deserve more mainstream support. A varied society is scientifically and culturally richer, and this should be celebrated, not suppressed.

Book Review: Pendulum

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Pendulum, by Adam Hamdy, is an all action crime thriller that it is easy to envisage as a movie, not surprising perhaps when the author is also a screenwriter. It is the first of a proposed series of books exploring the world of the protagonist, John Wallace, a financially successful photographer whose life is turned upside down when a masked and armoured killer gains access to his home and attempts to hang him. John’s death was to have looked like suicide and this is just what the authorities believe when unexpected events allow John to escape and he turns to them for help. John is sectioned for his own safety. Having failed in his quest the killer determines to try again.

With the help of a sceptical but thorough policeman, John discovers that there may have been other victims, assumed suicides who left behind notes or videos on the internet exposing sordid secrets. Shattered families are unwilling to accept John’s premise that their loved ones may have been murdered. John must stay under the radar of the authorities lest the killer discover his whereabouts and finishes the job.

The killings continue but, with no obvious connection between the victims, the police are at a loss as to who this phantom could be or where he may strike next. John remains on his hit list and it seems that nowhere is safe.

The tension never lets up. John suffers many injuries as he enacts daring escapes yet he somehow keeps going. The body count rises.

As the clues scattered throughout the text start to coalesce the serial killer’s identity and aims are revealed. The reader comes to understand how he selected and gained access to his victims.

This is a very modern mystery but contains all the elements of a traditional whodunnit. The writing is taut, the story compelling. The reveal at the end induces a desire for more, as may be expected with a planned series.

There is a place for reading as easy entertainment and, despite various improbabilities, this should not be trivialised for filling such a niche. On a weekend when I desired a little escapism it was just what I was looking for. An enjoyable, well constructed suspense thriller. I look forward to the next release.

 

Book Review: It’s All in Your Head

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It’s All in Your Head, by Suzanne O’Sullivan, is subtitled True Stories of Imaginary Illness. I found this a tad disingenuous. The case studies that make up a large portion of the text cover a variety of psychosomatic illnesses and are each anything but imaginary. The patients suffer paralysis, debilitating pain, and, because it is the author’s speciality and therefore what she is most often consulted about, seizures that are regularly mistaken for epilepsy. When extensive and detailed tests reveal that there are no physical symptoms to confirm this, or any other physical diagnosis, too many people, some doctors included, wrongly assume that the patient is fantasizing about problems that do not exist. They do, and accepting their existence is vital for the patient’s wellbeing and future treatment.

The author is a consultant neurologist. She starts by explaining her medical background, the ailments she encounters, and the broad therapies recommended. She points out that psychosomatic illnesses occur worldwide, across all cultures and classes. Cases have been documented, albeit under changing names, for centuries. They cost health services billions of pounds each year. They are widely regarded as not real.

Having explained some of the terms that she will use throughout the text she then starts to introduce the reader to particular patients. Their case studies are fascinating. Alongside are notes on background and medical research, as well as the changing attitudes to such maladies across time. These patients cannot just ‘get over it’, but they do need to accept that their problems are not caused by a physical anomaly that can be treated surgically or controlled by drugs. What is required is psychiatric help, and this comes with all the negative connotations that society continues to heap on the mentally unwell.

Such attitudes make telling a patient that their serious, physical problems have psychological roots a challenge. Despite the ubiquity of diagnosis, patients struggle to accept that treatment will not come in the form of a physical intervention or medication. They want an explanation that does not put the onus on them. Friends and colleagues are rarely sympathetic when a problem is regarded as self inflicted.

Despite covering some complex, medical topics the writing remains accessible. I did find my concentration wavering slightly over some of the more detailed sections but on rereading all became clear. What I enjoyed most was getting to know the patients whose lives had been altered so radically by their illness. Many struggled to accept that their personally researched diagnosis was incorrect. Most resisted the notion that their physical ailments could be cured with psychiatric help.

This is an important subject that deserves wider recognition and acceptance. A book such as this can go a long way towards engendering empathy for sufferers of the many illnesses for which there is no medical explanation – IBS, CFS, fibromyalgia, food intolerance to name but a few. If the stigma associated with psychosomatic illness could be lessened, patients may be more open to accepting the only treatment likely to improve their quality of life. The connection between mind and body may not be well understood, but effects are real and deserve respectful consideration.