Book Review: Natural Causes

“For all our vaunted intelligence and ‘complexity’, we are not the sole authors of our destinies or anything else.”

Natural Causes: Life, Death and the Illusion of Control, by Barbara Ehrenreich, is a sometimes provocative but genuinely questioning exploration of modern western attitudes to health, fitness and ageing. The author is a doctor although not of medicine, holding a PhD in cellular immunology. She writes from a personal but also knowledgeable perspective.

Starting with the increase in routine healthcare testing and screening now expected of supposedly sensible citizens, she explains why she has opted out of those she has a choice in taking (living in America some tests are required for medical insurance). She has decided that, having reached an age where she considers death could be deemed acceptable, she prefers to enjoy her life and not spend what time remains anticipating its end.

The book in no way rejects the worth of advances in modern medicine but rather questions the intense preoccupation so many have with attempting to control their health. She points out the lack of correlation between many diet and fitness fads and increased longevity. She notes that medical interventions can also produce harmful side effects, at times triggering conditions they aim to prevent becoming deadly.

Written with a dry wit she opens by looking at a number of screening tests carried out on women which are unpleasant, invasive and of dubious worth. The trust placed in doctors has granted them a power over other’s bodies that makes questioning what they do appear an act of foolishness, the patient marked down as uncooperative.

“Physicians have an excuse for flouting the normal rules of privacy”

Back in 1971 patients started asking why certain demarcations were necessary and examining themselves

“many doctors were outraged with me arguing that in lay hands a speculum was unlikely to be sterile, to which feminist writer Ellen Frankfort replied cuttingly that yes, of course, anything that enters the vagina should first be boiled for at least ten minutes.”

As well as questioning the usefulness of tests the author discusses over-treatment and the marketing of alternative medicines. She then moves on to the exponential growth in the use of gyms and other such facilities in the late twentieth century.

“a fashionable segment of the society had taken up a new project – themselves”

She writes that what resulted was women being masculinised, men feminised and all increasingly objectified. Unfit behaviour signified lower-class status, as did certain food choices. In fitness culture there was a separation

“in which mind struggles for control over the lazy, recalcitrant body”

Such attitudes spread into the workplace where incentives were offered to employees presented as workplace perks. Weight and size became a measure of ability.

“But there’s a darker, more menacing side to the preoccupation with fitness, and this is the widespread suspicion that if you can’t control your own body you’re not fit, in any sense, to control anyone else”

The increasingly vocal and judgemental public looked at healthcare costs and taxation, deciding that blame could be apportioned to those needing treatment.

“the less-than-fit person is a suitable source not only of revulsion but resentment”

The mega-wealthy and self proclaimed smart elites, particularly those in Silicon Valley, started looking for ways to achieve immortality, asking in all seriousness

“why should you ever die?”

The author points out, in case any reader needs reminding, that death happens anyway and often from the causes the various personal projects have worked so hard to avoid – cancer, heart failure, autoimmune diseases. However it is looked after, the human body continues to function in unpredictable ways.

The focus of the writing moves on to mindfulness where the brain, as a muscle, is given repeated work-outs to affect change. The mind is also affected by its bombardment of negative attitudes towards those who do not look or act as proponents of health and fitness expect.

“Still we persist in subjecting anyone who dies at a seemingly untimely age to a kind of bio-moral autopsy: Did she smoke? Drink excessively? Eat too much fat and not enough fiber? Can she, in other words, be blamed for her own death?”

This is particularly noticeable in commentary on the lifestyles of those living in poverty whilst rarely looking at the reasons for their choices.

“Concern for the poor usually comes tinged with criticism.”

Having explored the efforts influential segments of society put into caring for their bodies, the author then turns attention to why they continue to die anyway. She explains how cells grow and change, how certain cells work to clean up but can mutate.

“Deadly combat among cells is part of how the body, and especially the human body, conducts its normal business”

Towards the end she steps back from this preoccupation with self quoting Stephen Hawking.

“We are the product of quantum fluctuations in the very early universe”

A human being is a building block of matter, existing for a time and with some perhaps contributing to the natural order in some unremarkable, minuscule way. Before and after, the universe continues.

Throughout the narrative sources are cited for readers wishing to dig deeper into the claims made. I felt at times that accuracy was simplified for the sake of readability but this remains an interesting subject presented in a mostly cogent, always accessible way. It is not a polemic against any of the topics covered but rather an invitation to question why we accept certain widely held views, ceding to demands made. It advocates for choice, to live and enjoy life before those recalcitrant cells call time, as they inevitably will.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Granta.

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Book Review: Shatila Stories

“Spare us your good intentions,
your quiet pity,
Instead, look up and raise your
fist at the sky.”

Shatila Stories is a  work of collaborative fiction commissioned by Peirene Press. In 2017 nine Syrian and Palestinian refugees took part in a 3 day creative writing workshop held inside the Shatila camp in Beirut. Run by Meike Ziervogel from Peirene and London based Syrian editor Suhir Helal, quite a few of the writers pre-selected for the workshop had never before read a novel.

Shatila camp was founded in 1949 for 3,000 Palestinians. It now houses up to 40,000 refugees. It is chaotic and dangerous with inadequate infrastructure and overcrowding. It is governed by various opposing Palestinian groups.

Following the workshop participants were asked to deliver a 4000-word typed draft within six weeks, works of fiction that could be brought together into one cohesive story to bring Shatila alive on the page. A few months later Meike and Suhir returned to the camp to work with each writer to draw out their strengths.

Afterwards Naswa Gowanlock translated everything into English. Meike and Suhir worked alongside to combine the material into a coherant narrative. The result, this book, is a novel written in an authentic refugee voice.

“Don’t talk about the camp unless you know it.”

The story opens with an arrival. A family has been promised accommodation at Shatila Camp by a family member. They pass through a border where thousands are waiting ‘with desperate eyes’, travelling from Damascus to Beirut.

The reader is introduced to key characters, individual tales told from each of their points of view.

Reham is a new bride eager to make a good life with the husband her parents have chosen for her. The couple hope for a child but find a wedge driven between them when their attitudes differ following the birth.

Youssef is the drug lord of the camp, powerful and feared.

Jafra plays with her doll while longing for a new dress, unaware of the steps her parents will be forced to take in an attempt to keep her safe.

Adam stays in his room to avoid the camp bullies until he meets a fellow musician and finds an escape in music. His new friend will rekindle his ambition until tragedy strikes.

Shatha dreams of escape through her studies but is torn between this and her love for her ill father. He believes those who leave the camp are cowards, traitors to the Palestinian cause.

Within these narratives are the limits of culture, particularly affecting the women, and the effects of camp dangers, including a dearth of hope.

Despite the wider reasons for the refugee situation these stories mostly avoid politics. The tales are of family and everyday life. The occasional lack of fluidity in the writing is more than made up for in the power of the voices. What the reader comes away with is better understanding.

An ambitious project that provides a raw and uncompromising portrayal of a radically displaced and closed community. This is a captivating and timely read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Peirene Press.

Book Review: Only Killers and Thieves

“Listen to me now. I’m going to tell you what will happen if we were to let that man live. He will hate us. Not only you and I personally, but all white men.”

“Remember, he will breed also. He will produce a dozen heirs, all with this hatred in their blood.”

“It is laughable, the ignorance of the educated classes, sitting in their parlours and their clubs. The blacks don’t want to integrate. They want us to leave. So either we domesticate them or we kill them”

Only Killers and Thieves, by Paul Howarth, is set on the frontier lands of Central Queensland, Australia, near the end of the nineteenth century. Much of the local area has been claimed by a white man, John Sullivan, whose grandfather first cleared it for the raising of cattle. Sullivan has expanded, taking over settlement after settlement, intent on driving out the indigenous population. To this end he calls on the Native Police Force, employed by the Queensland government, to disperse those who remain. The local force is led by Inspector Noone whose methods are pitiless. He is widely feared.

The McBride family live on a neighbouring settlement. When the story opens the region is suffering a lengthy drought and the teenage McBride boys, Billy and Tommy, are out hunting for food. Against their father’s orders they stray onto Sullivan territory where they observe Noone and his men with captive natives. They are discovered and warned away.

Unlike the cattle kept by Sullivan, which have somehow remained healthy, the McBride livestock are dying. When those that remain are rounded up for selling they do not raise what is needed to provide for the coming year. Tommy watches as his father clashes with Sullivan, who he once worked for. Although the boys are required to help – their father can no longer afford to employ other men – they are given no explanation for the animosity with their neighbour.

All this is set aside when Tommy and Billy arrive home late one afternoon to discover that their parents have been killed. With their little sister grievously injured they turn to Sullivan for help. A native is suspected so Noone is called in. Sullivan coaches the boys in how they should testify thereby making them complicit in the ensuing retribution. Leaving their sister in the care of Sullivan’s young wife they ride out beyond the land claimed by settlers.

This is a vivid evocation of a bloody period in Australian history. It is also a story of family and the challenges faced by pioneers. With their parents dead the teenage boys are left in a precarious situation. Sullivan and Noone offer them a type of protection but it costs the boys dear. Billy looks up to the wealthy Sullivan as a success his father could never hope to emulate. Tommy sees things differently.

Rarely have I read such a powerful account of the racial oppression and abuse perpetrated by those at the forefront of white man’s empire building. It is vivid and disturbing yet never overplayed for effect. The reader is not spared the graphic detail yet the account remains nuanced and balanced. The inhumanity is sickening, and based on fact.

Although a work of historical fiction the story is written as an adventure and a thriller. The tension throughout makes it a compelling read. Each character is rounded and believable, earning their place in the narrative and adding to the readers depth of understanding. Even the most horrifying of actions are portrayed with explanations, the skewed personal justifications for brutal acts of terrorism.

An impressive debut and a timely exploration of the potential impact of dehumanising an entire people. This is an engaging and satisfying read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, One.

Book Review: The Peace Machine

The Peace Machine, by Özgür Mumcu (translated by Mark David Wyers), tells the story of an invention designed to bring world peace. Set at the beginning of the twentieth century, when citizens around the world were scheming to overthrow their autocratic rulers, a man living in the country now known as Turkey drew up plans to harness electromagnetic technology and create a mind control machine. He believed that a terrible war was looming and that averting such a crisis was more important than free will.

The protagonist of the story is Celal who uses his unusual strength to save the life of a wealthy stranger. The man then takes him in, raising Celal as his son. The boy makes the most of the opportunities this grants him, although chooses to be a writer rather than study law as his adoptive father wished. Celal writes erotic fiction, circumventing the ban on such output by working with an old schoolfriend, Jean, who lives in France. Jean finds a talented illustrator for Celal’s texts. The books prove popular netting them a sizable income.

As a result of a badly judged decision, Celal must leave his home country. He travels to France where he is told that Jean has been murdered and their money stolen. Whilst investigating this tragedy he finds out about the peace machine and becomes involved in a plan to overthrow a king and queen. To play his part he must join a circus along with the young illustrator.

The story zips around between cast and countries. There is a great deal of fighting and many deaths. Much like the circus in which part of the tale is set, each character plays numerous roles utilising disguise, bluff, costume and trickery. Celal and his associates believe in the worth of the peace machine but cannot shake off the strings of their elusive puppet master whose aims shift as the tides of power change.

“we hold the key to world peace. But if it were to be used in the wrong way, the already warped order that humanity has brought into being would be destroyed. Celal, that’s why the people should rule their countries. […] if people were left to decide for themselves whether or not to go to war, the chance of war breaking out would be slight.”

Persuasive words, smoke and mirrors take Celal on dangerous adventures. Despite the intrigue he remains convinced of the potential of the machine.

The plot is fast moving, original and well structured but I found too many of the characters, particularly the women, two dimensional. Females were introduced only to be lusted after. Even Celal’s love interest, despite her supposedly dominating personality, lacked depth.

The story is allegoric in tone with a darkly magical feel, incorporating trickery and sleight with a touch of the surreal. I enjoyed the weaving of history with the variations in achieving mind control by the wealthy and powerful. There is plenty to consider, especially in today’s world. The denouement remains open to interpretation.

There are positives but for me this was not a satisfying read despite its intriguing premise. Those female characters and the weaknesses they highlighted in the men proved too much of an irritation.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

Random Musings: Reading should be a pleasure

I have a friend who, amongst other writing gigs, is a theatre critic for a national newspaper. From time to time he takes me along to a show as his +1. In this way I get to see plays that I would not pay to see, not because I am unlikely to enjoy them but because I cannot be sure this would be the case. An outing to the theatre is a rare and expensive treat. When parting with hard earned cash I play it safe.

My friend comments from time to time on the dearth of new plays by lesser known writers being granted space in the large and popular theatres. At these venues musicals and adaptations of the classics overwhelm schedules. Looking back at the shows I have taken my children to see over the years – Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Sound of Music, Wicked – I understand why theatre directors make the choices they do. They run a business that requires a paying clientele and these types of productions have proved enduringly popular.

Most people don’t watch several theatre shows a week with a view to writing about them. It is little wonder my friend seeks variety and greater depth but he is atypical of attendees.

I have on occasion taken more of a risk with theatre tickets. My son and I enjoyed a stage adaptation of Toby Litt’s novel Deadkidsongs but it was in a small venue that charged £10 for a ticket rather than the more usual £35 (double that for London shows). We chose to go having read and rated the book. Enjoyment of a book also lead me to buy more pricey tickets for us to see The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, that and consistently good reviews from a variety of people, not just the professional critics.

I probably attend the theatre a handful of times in a year, including the shows my friend invites me to. I attend the theatre more than many people.

I bear all this in mind when I encounter well read, self confident, literary experts who express unhappiness at the number of crime fiction books, thrillers and romances published each year. I fully understand why they want more variety – I do too – but genre fiction continues to sell well. Publishers run a business that requires paying customers.

When I first started reviewing I was happy to read almost anything and rated many crime and thriller books highly. Like a musical at the theatre they are easy entertainment, enjoyable if not always mind stretching. It is only since my reading became a major part of my life that I have grown jaded when faced with the formulaic. What I must remember when writing about such books is that I am not typical of the majority of readers. According to a YouGov survey the mean number of books read for pleasure by adults in the UK is around 10 each year, and the median is around 4. Last year I read in excess of 180.

It is too easy, when knowledgeable and passionate about a subject, to be critical of those whose tastes differ. I have another friend who can discuss the merits of wine based on the field where the grapes were grown and the weather prior to their harvest. They would likely be appalled at my regular purchases of supermarket discounted Australian Chardonnay. Cost is an issue but I enjoy my basic bottle of plonk each evening. In down time, enjoyment is key.

There has been much discussion this week about where people shop for books and the choices they make when purchasing. That I now seek out literary fiction which is challenging, sometimes experimental, preferably character driven, is simply the direction my reading journey has taken me. I do not consider myself a more worthy reader. I choose books I expect to enjoy, as I believe all readers should feel free to do without criticism.

It is good to spread the word about a fabulous title others may not have heard of. My hope for my reviews is that they lead readers to books they will be glad to spend time with. Reading should be a pleasure more than an achievement. Remain open to recommendations but choose for yourself.

Book Review: How The Light Gets In

“the light’s been here all along, it’s always here, it’s just that you’re not always in a place where you can see it.”

How The Light Gets In, by Clare Fisher, is a collection of short stories that shine a light on individual experiences currently being lived in a UK city. They are fresh and at times mordantly funny. They put the reader inside the heads and hearts of the narrators.

textbook burglar offers a description of the feelings of relief, absence and expropriation following a broken relationship. Many of the stories deal with the disconnect between people, particularly those most cared for.

the thing about sheep conveys the need to understand those close to us, and the difficulty in accepting facets that do not segue with curated perceptions. Family members experience the same events differently.

Protagonists balance their desire to fit in with a crowd, the difficulty of doing so, with the easy option of staying home which can then feel like failure. They work hard and gain achievements that they wish others to acknowledge, watching as lesser accomplishments are remarked upon and celebrated by those around them. It is not unfairness but rather bewilderment, an unanswerable how and why.

Most of the stories are a mere page or two in length yet somehow delve into the complexities and variations of living day to day. Smartphones have become companions, the desire to have comments acknowledged online as necessary as to be noticed and accepted elsewhere.

how to talk about potholes looks at the relationship between parents and their grown up children, the concerns and difficulty of communication.

“we do care about our dad and we want to know: does he eat? Does he sleep? Does he feel a part of human life? Does he have hopes and plans for the future? But he will only reply by treating us to a slide show of that week’s most unusual potholes.”

Parents of young children remember how they once lived dangerously, indulged in escapades that they cannot now share.

Although dealing with a contained world these stories are broad in scope, mindful and searingly honest. They question norms and get below the surface. Even the most ordinary lives are coping with a myriad of complications.

This is a young, modern voice that delves deep into the heart of lived experiences in a contemporary city, exposing truths admitted to only in the deepest recesses of thought and feeling. The stories are personal, prolific and visceral. Relatable, readable and recommended.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Influx Press.

Monthly Roundup – May 2018

As expected, May was a busy month in my off-line life which limited available reading time. I managed to review 13 books and attend one literary event. What was lacking in quantity was more than made up for in quality. This month’s books included some outstanding reads.

In fiction I read four books from small independent publishers and two from the bigger houses. These included a psychological thriller which I read in preparation for the event I attended. Although I now read far fewer genre books than I once did, this title reminded me why they remain popular with so many.

El Hacho by Luis Carrasco, published by époque press
Old Baggage by Lissa Evans, published by Doubleday

What Happened To Us by Ian Holding, published by Little Island Press
My Mother’s Secret by Sanjida Kay, published by Corvus Books

Missing by Alison Moore, published by Salt
Ironopolis by Glen James Brown, published by Parthian Books

 

I managed just the one book of translated fiction this month.

My Cat Yugoslavia by Pajtim Statovci (translated by David Hackston), published by Pushkin Press

 

And three books of short stories, all enjoyed.

The Book of Riga, published by Comma Press
Dazzling the Gods by Tom Vowler, published by Unbound

Bristol, published by Dostoyevsky Wannabe

 

From my non fiction pile I plucked this – fabulous and recommended.

Under the Rock by Benjamin Myers, Published by Elliot & Thompson

 

I posted two reviews originally written for Bookmunch – fiction from the Women’s Prize shortlist, and an excellent if somewhat involved non fiction book.

Sight by Jessie Greengrass, published by John Murray
Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert Sapolsky, published by Vintage

 

I travelled to Bristol to attend a friendly event for writers.

Novel Nights in Bristol, with guest speaker Sanjida Kay

 

As ever I wish to thank the publishers who send me their titles to review – the arrival of a book parcel makes my day.

My thanks also to those who share my words across their social media platforms. Your support is always appreciated.

I am hoping that June will offer more time to read, although with my older children home from university and my younger sitting exams this may prove a challenge. I do, however, have a literary event that I am very excited about attending – the Greenwich Book Festival. With tickets booked for five of their planned panels I expect to have plenty to write about next month alongside my reviews.