Book Review: Time for Lights Out

This review was written for and originally published by Bookmunch.

Raymond Briggs is now in his eighties and apparently contemplating life’s end. He has stated that he expects Time for Lights Out to be his last book – it took him over a decade to create. Given the subject matter it may sound depressing but this is not the case. Although searingly honest about an aging body’s failings and inevitable future, the tone is more reflective than bleak.

Throughout the varied entries the author demonstrates an awareness of his increasing frailty. He writes of eating healthy food and taking regular exercise. He still indulges in the wine he enjoys, trying to temper concerns without becoming obsessive. He lives in rural Sussex where the countryside is teeming with life but also deaths, such as road kill. Briggs visits a local cemetery and notes the prevalence of young people buried in his parents’ time. He reads newspaper obituary pages and feels a sense of achievement when he is older than the recently deceased.

The contents of the book are a mixture of: pencil drawn illustrations, comic strips, poems, photographs, quotes, lists, and short opinion pieces. All are based around the author’s personal memories and experiences. Divided into three sections – Now, Then, Soon – they offer a picture of the life Briggs has lived and his concerns about its end. His wry musings cover day to day activities including: walking his dog, habits when at home, interactions with friends and neighbours. Certain memories are triggered by items kept for decades, often unused but hard to throw away due to their history.

“Old people are always absorbed in something. Usually themselves.”

The ‘Now’ section presents Briggs as a seventy-something year old who surveys himself as an old man and is somewhat annoyed that this is what he has turned into. On walks he finds the hills are harder to climb. His days are marked out by routines he and his partner doggedly adhere to. He observes that he has become less tolerant of other people’s appearance and behaviour. All of this is written with unflinching insight and wry humour. Briggs recognises his foibles and failings. Although poignant in places there is no expectation of sympathy.

‘Then’ looks back at: Briggs’ parents, his own childhood, the death of his wife, visiting grandchildren. Much has changed in the world during each of their lifetimes. The lasting effects of the two world wars are remembered along with more welcome advances – illustrated by conversations Briggs has with the young children. He remembers those who have died but acknowledges also that they are sometimes forgotten – that life goes on for those who remain.

“Death hovers around us every day.
Somehow, we close our minds to its closeness,
even when it is just outside the window
or is staring at us from the television.”

‘Soon’ is wound around a fear the author has about ending up in a care home for the elderly. He ruminates over personal possessions that are dear to him and how these would have to be disposed of. He recalls the deaths of acquaintances and that this must one day happen to him. Yet all of this is contemplated without rancour. I found Briggs’ willingness to confront what is inevitable refreshing. Contemporary society is so often eager to avoid acknowledging the prospect of death.

“He who is not anxious has no imagination”

Briggs’ inimitable illustrations are a mix of finely rendered drawings and more blurred images – appropriate when conveying the speed at which time passes (and perhaps the deterioration of eyesight) when on life’s downhill trajectory. The importance of memory in old age, especially of childhood, is given thoughtful consideration. The structure of the book allows the reader to peruse pages without the necessity of reading in order from cover to cover.

Any Cop?: A frank and originally presented memoir depicting what living day to day feels like having exceeded one’s allotted three score and ten years. If this is Briggs’ swansong it is a fitting tribute to his artistic talent and percipient story telling.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Confessions of a Bookseller

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“It is an irony of my position that – although I’m surrounded by books every day – most of what I know about them is imparted by customers, the self-same customers whom my first instinct is to discourage from talking.”

Shaun Bythell wrote The Diary of a Bookseller in 2014. It was published three years later and went on to become an international bestseller. Confessions of a Bookseller has the same structure – short entries for each day of a year in Bythell’s life. Each month opens with a quote – in this volume from The Intimate Thoughts of John Baxter, Bookseller by Augustus Muir – followed by some personal thoughts on various aspects of books and bookselling. Bythell muses on: the habits of customers, the latent excitement and inherent risks of book acquisition, and the challenges he faces due to the existence of Amazon.

The author is proprietor of The Bookshop in Wigtown, a business he purchased in November 2001. He buys and sells second hand books, both in the shop and online. He is a native of Galloway and writes of the place with deep fondness. He is less complimentary about the part-time staff he employs and many of their customers, including regulars. 

Written with caustic wit the daily entries take the reader through the seasons detailing tasks that must be completed associated with the business. Bythell has converted several rooms and buildings linked to his shop – which he lives above – to form meeting rooms and accommodation. These are well used by both locals and visitors to the region, especially during the Wigtown Festival in late September.

The diverse cast of characters are presented in less than flattering cameo although there is no rancour in the writing. Brief descriptions of encounters form the backbone of a book that strips away any dreamy preconceptions around the reality of running a bookshop. Unforeseen expenses include the need for a retrospective planning application and repairs to a collapsing chimney. Bythell must come up with ideas to offset costs as they may not be met by profits from book sales. Daily entries conclude with a tally of customer footfall and till receipts which provide a salutary reminder of the decline in high street spending as the public embrace the ease and convenience of the internet.

“I managed to get the ‘Death to the Kindle’ mug available for sale on Amazon. I wonder how long it will be before it is removed.”

Amazon’s focus on buyers rather than sellers, along with software issues processing listings and orders, provide ongoing headaches for Bythell. Customer expectations have also been altered by the behemoth, with those bringing in books to sell harbouring unrealistic views on value and purchasers demanding discounts.  

Although best read in chronological order to keep abreast of ongoing developments this is a book that can be enjoyed in short fragments. The author offers up his trials and tribulations with a mix of mockery and dour humour, unafraid to admit to his personal peeves and shortcomings.

Any Cop?: Another slice of life as a bookseller with the added quirks of Bythell’s character, this was ultimately a diverting and congenial read.

    

Jackie Law

Book Review: Breaking and Mending

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“medicine is all about people, and people are made out of stories”

Why would anyone wish to become a doctor? It is a question most potential students applying to medical school will be asked. Perhaps they wish to save lives, to make a difference. Perhaps they come from a family of medics and it has always been expected of them. 

It costs around a quarter of a million pounds to train a doctor in the UK, a significant proportion of which must now be borne by the student, often in the form of debt. The course is one of the most demanding offered by universities. And yet for every place available, four people who expect to achieve the necessary exam results will apply. It is and remains a competitive career choice.

Joanna Cannon entered medical school in her thirties. She was accepted by the admissions panel as a wild card. Her motivation throughout the long years of training was to get into psychiatry. Breaking and Mending is the story of her experiences on hospital wards as a student and then Junior Doctor. It is a sobering indictment of how medical professionals – the people entrusted with individuals’ myriad and complex health issues – are treated by the NHS and certain of its senior employees.

“Stories bind us together, stories unite us, and we tell our stories in the hope that someone out there will listen, and we will be understood.”

Cannon’s story is told in snapshots that she describes as her Kodak moments. Each chapter details an encounter with a patient or colleague, the memory of which she carries with her. The burden of her emotional responses over time became a weight that she struggled to bear. The long and busy shifts a doctor is required to work took their toll and she found it ever more difficult to be the type of doctor she had worked so hard to become.

Written with grace and candour the descriptions and reflections are a balance between compassion, valuable learning and simmering anger. There is much for the reader to contemplate and absorb. Doctors work to ease suffering and delay death under exhausting conditions. Given the lack of care they themselves receive it is little wonder that too many of them face burn out.

Yet this is not a polemic. It is a very personal story that cuts to the heart of issues faced by a vital profession dealing daily with human suffering. Doctors must somehow find a way to inure themselves while showing others care and understanding. Their role goes beyond prescribing and administering appropriate clinical treatment. Good doctors learn to listen to the stories they are told by patients and to find the right words in response. They also benefit when colleagues notice and find time to listen to them.   

Any Cop?: Cannon is a skilled storyteller and this is a poignant and thought-provoking medical memoir. It highlights the importance of talking about topics that make many uncomfortable such as death and mental illness. It underscores the stigma doctors face if they admit they are struggling to cope with the conditions under which they are required to work.

 

Jackie Law 

Book Review: The Great Naturalists

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“Natural history, taken in all its extent, is an immense history, it embraces all the objects with which the universe presents us.”

I read The Great Naturalists from cover to cover which, with hindsight, may not be the best way to appreciate the content it offers. Instead, it could be dipped into as a reference for those wishing to acquire a brief overview of the work done by the thirty-seven men and two women who have been included within its pages. They are all European or, later, American. I am left wondering about the contributions made to the natural sciences through the ages by those born elsewhere.

Following an introduction the book is divided into four sections: The Ancients, The Renaissance, The Enlightenment, and The 19th Century. Each section presents potted histories of various pioneers and thinkers whose work contributed to moving knowledge forward in that era. As well as detailing: place of birth, family circumstances, and education; entries include the subject’s key publications and achievements. Writing style is rather dry and factual, perhaps an odd comment to make about a work of non-fiction but this affected engagement – the format became repetitive given the way I was reading.

Aside from the science there are other nuggets of interest, such as the irony that the prestigious Royal Society was formed from a group of scholars “encouraged by the scientifically sympathetic regime of the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell.” Mostly though each entry concentrates on the gradual development of natural history into what is now a range of specialisms. It took centuries for acceptance that “all living things were not made for man”. Religious dogma is shown to have limited wider thinking until relatively recently.

The discoveries detailed were made through travel, observation, illustration and, in some instances, experimentation. Nature was regarded as existing to benefit man, and plants were initially studied for their medicinal properties rather than purely for interest. Once systems were developed for naming and classification, knowledge could be disseminated and built upon. There was often a degree of competitiveness between contemporaries. 

As well as the many published books and their associated illustrations, botanic gardens and collections held in museums proved useful to those coming later. By recording, measuring and collecting on voyages throughout the world there was a gradual increase in understanding of the existence of plant and animal species along with their development and interdependencies. 

I was amused by the entry for Comte de Buffon who, unusually, wrote his books in a populist style, one that was sneered at by the scientific establishment – the ‘educated people’. He was even (gasp of horror) read and enjoyed by women!

“It would be easy to accept the criticisms of Buffon’s academic contemporaries and dismiss the Histoire Naturelle as a purely popularising work, empty and puffed up, with little real scientific value. But through his work Buffon truly changed the face of natural history in a way no academic had done before.”

There are only the briefest mentions of the politics and history of each era. Likewise, there is little judgement of the hunting and dissecting of creatures to attain a knowledge that will be of no benefit to them. 

Many of the naturalists included were independently wealthy or had wealthy patrons eager to enhance private collections. Knowledge of nature was sought without concern for the effects of such activity on location and native species. As ecology became better understood man’s place, along with his origins, finally began to be questioned. 

From Aristotle through to Darwin, the various theories naturalists pondered and posited are presented. None worked in isolation – attributions do not always recognise this. Of Darwin it is written,

“It was never enough for him simply to observe, he needed always to find the explanations underlying even the most commonplace phenomena.”

 Although a great thinker he relied on others to provide him with examples he could study to formulate his proofs.

Any Cop?: The book provides an interesting glimpse into the changing nature of scientific endeavours through the ages. It offers a reminder that accepted facts can change as new discoveries are made.  

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Sweet Sorrow

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

David Nicholls is a fluent writer and storyteller who can draw the reader in with his gently probing insights and empathetic witticisms. Sweet Sorrow, his latest work, sits easily alongside his previous bestselling novels. The characters are relatable, their troubles universal. Events and people are recognisable from everyday life.

The story is set mostly over the long weeks of a late twentieth century English summer during which the protagonist, Charlie Lewis, leaves school and awaits his GCSE exam results. Charlie knows that he has not done well enough to move on to college and then university, a trajectory his always trying to be cool friends will rarely acknowledge they aspire to. Charlie is facing his uncertain future with a heady mixture of regret, excitement and trepidation.

In the months prior to his exams, Charlie’s family life was upended. He now lives with his unemployed father who is coping badly with depression. Charlie is worried, resentful and angry, but mostly he simply wishes to avoid parental confrontation. He needs to escape the oppressive atmosphere of home, to fill the long hours in each unstructured day and try not to think too much of the decisions he must inevitably make about what comes next.

A chance encounter leads Charlie to join The Company, a summer scheme where he must work with a mixed group of people who are very different to those he has previously befriended. Despite feelings of discomfort and detachment, he finds himself returning each day. There is a girl, Fran Fisher, and Charlie realises he is falling in love.

The joyous aspects of love stories are rarely of interest to anyone other than those directly involved. To engage the reader in such stories there need to be obstacles, misunderstandings and other problems to overcome. The author presents these aspects in the form of the difficulties inherent in being sixteen years old.

The book begins on the last day of school and introduces Charlie’s friendship group. These are boys who have ended up together through circumstance more than choice. They survive on insults and banter interspersed with regular rough and tumble. They each cultivate an image that they wear like armour.

“Though none of us played an instrument, we’d imagined ourselves as a band.”

“while some girls circled […] the group was self-sufficient and impenetrable”

Charlie is all too aware that his school friends would relentlessly mock his involvement with The Company. To take part, and therefore get to know Fran, he must learn to behave differently. There is a class and cultural divide to surmount. There is the need to work out how to talk and be with a girl like Fran.

Meanwhile, Charlie’s home life is one of fear over his Dad’s mental state and what he may find inside each time he opens their front door. There is also an interesting sub plot involving petty thieving from Charlie’s part-time job. The tension this adds got me through some of the more repetitive touchy feely sections midway where my interest would occasionally wane.

There are laugh out loud moments alongside the poignancy. Fran’s recollection of an encounter with a boy she was once besotted with is filled with humour despite the appalling behaviour. Fran comes across as surprisingly self aware for a sixteen year old. Charlie appears more typical, and it is this that is the strength of the story.

“the greatest lie that age tells about youth is that it’s somehow free of care, worry or fear.
Good God, doesn’t anyone remember?”

For anyone who has ever been sixteen years old this tale will take them back to those days with all their anticipation and fear of ridicule. The narrator, Charlie, is looking back from a distance of two decades. He offers an impressive degree of clarity as well as nostalgia. He is contemplating the lasting impact of first love.

The Shakespearean elements of the story were deployed extensively. There is, however, acknowledgement that the bard’s writing will not be accessible to all readers – something the author attempts to rectify in key passages quoted. What is captured beautifully is the maelstrom of uncertainty, angst and passion to be found in groups of young people from any era.

Any Cop?: This was an enjoyable trip down memory lane.

Book Review: This Brutal House

This review was written for and originally published by Bookmunch.

Every now and then a book appears that teaches me of a culture I had been unaware existed, perhaps because it has never been referred to by the tribe I mix with – proof of the echo chambers in which we often inadvertently live. This Brutal House introduced me to Voguing – a ‘style of dance or performance that arose from Harlem ballroom cultures, as danced by African-American and Latino drag queens and gay men, from the early 1960s’ (source: Wikipedia). The story is based in New York City and features people who compete in Vogue Balls for money and kudos amongst peers.

Opening on the steps of City Hall, five elders and mothers are beginning a silent protest at the inaction of the authorities in locating their children who have gone missing.

“it should not only be pageant queens whose faces grace the back of milk cartons but girls who are trapped inside the bodies of boys; those who break out of their incarceration by wearing make-up, boys who like boys”

Within City Hall is an employee, Teddy, who lived with the mothers for a number of years. Through his access to official records he now knows more about what happened to some of his missing siblings. He has not shared these truths with the mothers, wishing to protect them as they once offered him a home.

The mothers are not blood mothers but rather men who take in children needing shelter and who they may then enter in the Vogue Balls. Additional funds are raised by offering sexual favours. Although groomed by the mothers, the children are willing participants. Those who do not wish to dress up in drag and dance can help out in cloakrooms or take on other supporting roles. The children live with the mothers having been rejected elsewhere.

“They were wanted at home; needed until they failed to live up to expectations of manhood. Most were loved, even if they were seldom heard.”

Teddy is assigned by his employer to keep an eye on the growing protest. He is long used to looking out for the mothers’ practical wellbeing.

“Teddy, with better penmanship and turn of phrase, who could reply to the electric company and the rent control board in the language they wanted rather than the guttural tongue by which we were raised.”

The reader is offered glimpses of what is happening and why the situation has been created and then escalates.

“We are unwanted noise, not to be seen or heard”

“The city deems us rodents”

The story unfolds from the points of view of the mothers, the children, various City employees and, most of all, Teddy. He is well aware of the corruption that exists in government and aims to use it to the mothers’ advantage. He observes potential threats and suggests to his colleagues that visible support could be publicly advantageous. He walks the political tightrope carefully.

“When did our police force augment into a military mindset, after funds allowed purchase of the first armour-plated SUV, or the second?”

The chapters told from Teddy’s point of view provide interesting background to life in his mothers’ apartment where, as a boy, he was smitten by one of the now missing children.

“He knows that if Sherry had stayed around she would have moved on of her own volition, her attention mercurial, his dissatisfaction, ancestral and chronic. He would always be unable to mend what needed to be mended.”

When the police respond to reports of the missing, they question the children’s provenance and nature of relationships – why boys have been taken in by older men.

Underscoring the narrative is the question of what is being offered and what taken. Choices are made but by those whose circumstances lead to limited options.

The mothers regard their actions as philanthropic, at least on the surface.

“By nature we are crowd-pleasers, craving the approval of our own, wishing the children to be schooled in our ways, independent, but cut from our cloth. How else can any of the old ways survive?”

Within the various houses that the Vogue mothers run there is a hankering after baubles and couture which are regarded as signifiers of beauty at the balls. The children are trained in how to walk provocatively, dance and strike a pose. They seek attention and validation. The mothers compete to train the child who will win for their house. They beat and berate. I pondered how such behaviour differed from coercion applied by blood families to bring perceived honour above individuals being themselves.

On the steps of City Hall, the protesters seek support and acceptance by a mainstream that struggles to see beyond men wearing wigs, dresses and make-up.

As points of view shift each character is presented as both an emotive and rounded person with issues and sensitivities and then as a derided facsimile whose vision remains blinkered. No easy answers are provided to offset what are often flawed decisions. Family – blood and adopted – are shown to be as culpable as individuals, and government.

Two of the chapters are set at the Vogue Balls. The structure of these is repetitive and tiring to read but succeeds in getting across the intensity of the occasions.

The writing elsewhere is stiletto sharp yet with almost poetic insight in places, although some of Teddy’s later streams of thought may have benefitted from more succinctness.

Any Cop?: A layered tale with a poignant turning point that demonstrates how misunderstood most people are, even by themselves.

“They speak as children sending their parents away, only to wait anxiously at the door once the thrill of the first few nights has worn off. Willing mischief, but knowing they’ll tire of it.”

“Something crumbles in the knowledge that you are no longer needed”

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Ocean Vuong is an award winning poet and this is his first novel. I expected gorgeous prose. What I came away with was akin to being emotionally flayed.

Written in the form of a letter from a son to his mother, the story is told in fragments jumping around in time and place. The key characters are three generations of Vietnamese immigrants now living in America. They are Little Dog – given a ‘despicable’ name because evil spirits will leave something worthless untouched – his mother and grandmother. There are men on the periphery, most of them demonstrating a propensity for violence. Poverty and violence permeate each page.

“freedom, I am told, is nothing but the distance between the hunter and its prey”

In writing his letter, Little Dog, now grown, is remembering his childhood. He was regularly beaten by his mother who was exhausted by her efforts to support her family through her poorly paid job at a nail salon. She in turn had been beaten by her husband, ending up in hospital before he was imprisoned. His attempt to bribe the police personnel called to deal with the incident, which would have been the end of the matter in Vietnam, is to no avail.

Little Dog correlates love with pain.

Throughout the letter are tales of cruelties man inflicts on animals. A monkey brain is spooned from a living creature in an attempt to improve virility. The raising of calves for veal is detailed.

Men are also cruel to each other. Little Dog’s mother suffers from PTSD as a result of her experience of war in her home country. Her father is an American GI.

As a teenager, Little Dog engages in sexual activity in which he encourages and submits to practices that physically hurt. The graphic imagery detailing these episodes verges on the pornographic – not something I enjoy reading.

Alcoholism and other drug taking is commonplace amongst peers and parents. These practices cause several deaths.

At seventeen, Little Dog comes out to his mother. She responds with a revelation from her past, another terrible experience she was forced to bear.

“We were exchanging truths, I realized, which is to say, we were cutting one another.”

The writing is visceral although in places felt overblown, perhaps because there was little let up in the horror of the fragments and their vivid depiction. The wounds that scar each family member run deep and are excavated from different angles, piercing and then piercing again. This emotional legacy infects across generations. Little Dog observes beauty and, with it, seemingly inevitable death.

Any Cop?: A harrowing depiction of a life containing much intimate and disturbing detail. Although not always easy to read, it is a powerful portrayal.

 

Jackie Law