Book Review: Real Life

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“Affection always feels this way for him, like an undue burden, like putting weight and expectation onto someone else.”

The protagonist of Real Life, Wallace, is four years into a graduate degree in biochemistry at a university in the Midwest of America. He grew up in Alabama and had been trying for a long time to leave. He wishes to put his former self behind him – to reinvent how he is perceived. The group he connected with online before arrival at the university – as part of organised orientation – became his closest friends, although still at a remove. He describes them as attractive and, unlike him, pale skinned. Race is an ongoing issue and one he believes they cannot understand. He resents their lack of empathy and interest in this.

Set over an intense and hot weekend, the story told has the vibe of A Little Life. It opens just after Wallace discovers that the lab experiment he has been working on through the summer months has been contaminated, possibly maliciously. Reacting to this, he breaks a habit of keeping his distance, going out to socialise by a nearby lake. Here he admits to his friends that his father died some weeks ago. Although they were estranged, the undercurrent of grief Wallace must process cuts through how he behaves: “people don’t know what to do with your shit, with the reality of other people’s feelings”

There is toxicity in the various relationships described that is brutal in its honesty – biased towards negative aspects. Wallace’s observations of the crowd gathered by the lake are almost cruel – “faces tight in the sort of mean way that fit people carry”, “older people, their bodies and lives gone soft, here to recapture some bit of the past like coaxing fireflies into a jar.”

It is, however, refreshing to read of a group of American students in their twenties rather than of more typical high school or college age – an acknowledgement that learning and personal development continue. The setting is still closed and protected, something that Wallace is growing ever more aware of. In striving to be here, but then not finding the happiness and acceptance he expected, he is struggling with what may come next. He sees racism in how he is treated but cannot articulate this: “people can be unpredictable in their cruelty”

Wallace is gay and, over the course of the weekend, hooks up with one of the men from his friendship group. The sex they indulge in is vividly described – and repeatedly brutal. Despite this, Wallace ponders the possibility of a loving relationship, “an inoculation against the uncertainty of the future.”

Wallace appears incapable of giving anything of himself except as a vessel to be used and abused. He then struggles to contain the internal anger generated. The reader will come to understand this better as more of Wallace’s backstory is revealed. “Memory is not about facts. Memory is an inconsistent measurement of the pain in one’s life.”

Much of the action described involves people brushing up against each other, never really knowing the other, translating interactions vaguely. Friends who believe they are close grow irritated when behaviour is not as anticipated. Wallace’s view of friendship is grimly tainted, “a pantomime of intimacy, a cult of happiness”

Personal dramas – the issues they raise – are explored through dialogue and the dissection of responses to what is being said. There are repeated references to the senses, particularly how Wallace perceives the smell and taste of people and place. His friends accuse him of being selfish while he regards himself as always giving – behaving in a way that will make his dark skin more acceptable.

The writing style is rich and evocative but the relentless savagery in thought and behaviour remains disturbing. Settings feel claustrophobic. Characters seek personal happiness amidst thwarted expectations. Although well structured and paced, I did not find the story compelling. I learned lessons on the sociology of academia, and on the challenges faced by someone who looks obviously different to those he mixes with, but the lives of all the characters are portrayed as lonely and facing little prospect of improvement given described attitudes.

Any Cop?: I can understand why this made the Booker shortlist and would be neither surprised nor disappointed if it were to win. I would, however, think carefully before recommending such a dark depiction of life to certain readers.

Book Review: The New Wilderness

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

An independent press getting a title on the Booker longlist is a Big Thing for them, even if it can also create headaches due to the cost of complying with the rules the Booker sets on print runs and marketing. Oneworld Publishing, however, has a rare success rate – winning the prize in 2015 and 2016. When their latest release, The New Wilderness, was included on this year’s longlist I was eager to read it.

The story is dystopian fiction, a genre that is proving popular in current times – and worryingly prescient. It is an exploration of how people react when their comfortable world turns toxic. Acceptance is only challenged by individuals when conditions prove personally untenable.

The reader is introduced to a small group of volunteers who have left the City – where pollution is killing their children – to join a monitored study in the Wilderness. Here they survive as hunter / gatherers but must leave no trace of their existence. This means no constructing of shelters or tools they cannot carry. Rangers ensure that they follow the rules set out in the Manual, punishing them for any infractions.

Opening with a stillbirth, the harsh realities of the volunteers’ lives are quickly laid bare. The mother, Bea, leaves the bloody remains of her early born baby to the coyotes, returning to her husband, Glen, and daughter, Agnes, in the cave where the family sleep. Bea finds comfort in items brought from the City – against the rules, she has squirreled them away. Agnes watches everything, listening but not understanding her mother’s behaviour.

The world building is interesting and skilfully rendered. However, when the community sets out on a Ranger mandated journey my engagement waned. There are reminiscences along the way that explain how the original twenty came to be eleven. Although reliant on each other’s strengths and skills, the community members don’t appear to like each other, thinking only of themselves.

“It felt absurd to say, Jane was swept away in a flash flood along with our best knife in this very canyon. The people they were writing to would never get that, even though they’d been sad to lose Jane because she was a good singer, the thing they pined for to this day was that knife.”

To survive the Wilderness, the volunteers become wild. Animal skills must be learned. Behaviour is often base. There is little privacy – even to defecate or copulate. There are frequent battles of wills, displays of brutal self-interest as each seeks dominance. Deaths are accepted, although even in the City this had been a part of how they lived.

“Almost no doctor worked on emergencies anymore because there were no emergencies anymore. Because of overpopulation, emergencies were thought of more or less as fate.”

The story picks up urgency and momentum after the group leave the first Ranger post they are required to visit. Their exploits demonstrate how people turn feral. The focus moves from Bea to Agnes. Unlike many in the community, the youngster is happy with her life in the Wilderness. Despite her age, she seeks to be accepted and respected as an adult, something that is indulged – the few children are all granted greater clemency.

A story of this length needs occasional changes of direction and this comes with an unexpected encounter at the next location the community is sent to. As a result, the balance of power within the group shifts. At first this felt staged but the author’s reasoning soon became apparent – a continuation of the world building.

Outside of the Wilderness there is little of the natural world. Housing is dense with the population educated to work only jobs that are necessary. There are mentions of mines, servers and processing plants. Rumours of Private Lands, where people may live in comfort and plenty as they once did, are widely regarded as a fiction.

The community’s Ranger enforced, nomadic existence is called into question when members ask why they mostly adhere to the strict rules. Agnes in particular believes she could easily survive if granted freedom. She is angered by the adults’ overriding fear of being returned to the City – a place she barely remembers.

There are many disturbing episodes to consider. Humanity is not portrayed as benevolent. As reader sympathy shifts with greater understanding of the wider picture, the tension rises to prepare for the trauma of the denouement.

Any Cop?: What at first appeared a standard dystopia has the bar raised by the quality of writing and uncompromising approach to human self-interest. The world created is frighteningly believable. This is a widely accessible addition to the Booker list.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: The Pull of the Stars

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

The Pull of the Stars is set in 1918 Dublin. The World War has killed or scarred a generation of young men from all over Ireland. Memories of the Easter Uprising – a step towards independence for the country – remain divisive and raw. Meanwhile, in a large city centre hospital, Nurse Julia Power is working tirelessly to quarantine and treat expectant mothers who show signs of an unfamiliar and exceptionally deadly flu virus. As well as taking out large numbers of the wider population, the contagion has affected many of the hospital’s healthcare workers. Those who remain must cope with the overcrowding as best they can.

Over the course of three days, Nurse Power works with two women whose influence will linger. Doctor Kathleen Lynn (based on a real person) has ambitions to help the poor and destitute – including ‘unwanted’ children – but is on the run from the police. Bridie Sweeney, a volunteer helper on Julia’s small, makeshift ward, will open the nurse’s eyes to the horrors of the Catholic Church’s treatment of those who have no choice but to turn to it for succour.

Let’s pause a moment. This is historical fiction with a compassionate and talented nurse as protagonist. It includes a love story. There are obvious good characters and bad. On the face of it I would have little interest in reading such a tale. I picked it up as the author wrote Room. From that remarkable novel I was aware she could bring depth and grace to an unimaginably dark situation. Her characters thrum with the essence of all it means to live.

Nurse Power works the twelve hour daytime shift, handing over to a nun from a local motherhouse to see patients through the night. Unlike many of the nurses, Julia does not live in the hospital dormitories. Her brother returned from the war damaged but well enough that they may share a house, taking on mutually beneficial roles.

Thus we have a female, educated professional. She is unmarried but not alone. Her life does not revolve around a coterie of friends requiring her time and support. She is independent, practical and portrayed without recourse to her looks. She focuses on her job rather than a search for a partner. I found this refreshing, so rare is it to find such a character in fiction.

Given her background, Julia has had little social contact with someone such as Bridie, yet finds herself drawn to the vivacious positivity of her new assistant. Both must take on roles that would not be countenanced in more normal times – acting decisively rather than seeking permission from superiors. There are deaths among their patients, with beds filled again as soon as they are vacated. Births are as dramatic and potentially dangerous as ever with the added challenge of flu complications.

The narrative exposition brought time and place to vivid and exigent life. It was inevitable that I would compare this Dublin to our current times. The author states that her final manuscript – started at the centenary of a flu epidemic that killed an estimated 3 to 6 percent of the human race – was delivered to her publisher just as Covid 19 restrictions were imposed.

Yet it was not this timeliness that drew me in. I found myself intrigued by the treatment of women during birth as much as by the attempted management of a deadly and virulent contagion. It was clear that married women at the time were expected to produce babies with damaging regularity. Meanwhile, the unmarried were punished severely if they dared reproduce. The Catholic Church guarded its influence – the evils perpetuated not yet widely acknowledged. Women were at the mercy of their families, with shame falling on them if they dared admit abuse. The small ward on which Julia works becomes a microcosm of Dublin society. Here, though, there is no favouritism, although outcome varies by wider privilege.

All this is skilfully woven into a story of people and those charged with their care. Many social issues are touched upon – the writing style remaining engaging throughout. The denouement left me with questions but was made to seem plausible enough. There is much to chew over in the expectations of women – their choices (or lack of) and priorities.

Any Cop?: An enjoyable and well structured tale that has lingered beyond the final page. Although interesting to read of a pandemic during a pandemic, it is the character studies that provide depth. My expectations of the author’s storytelling talents were not disappointed. Perhaps best avoided, though, by the primigravida.

 

Jackie Law

 

Book Review: Waterways

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

It is said that most of us in Britain live within five miles of a stretch of canal. Many of these have fallen into disrepair. Some have been built over. Thanks to the work of enthusiasts, however, many remain navigable. There are now more boats using these manmade waterways than in their working heyday.

In 2016 Jasper Winn was approached by the Canal and River Trust – current custodians of the canals – about becoming their first Writer in Residence. His brief was to spend the next year making his way across the two thousand or so miles of canals and rivers in England and Wales – on foot, bike, boat and canoe – exploring their history and learning the stories of the people who live, work and play there. A partnership between the Trust and Profile Books would enable his findings to be published, providing an account of Britain’s canals including their culture and wildlife.

To start things off, the author spends three days as an apprentice on a narrow boat, discovering the basics of canal navigation. He then travels to the Exeter Canal – built to solve a local problem before there was apparent need nationally for the transport option provided.

“Sixteenth-century England didn’t have enough high-value, bulky cargoes to move around; there was no need to build anything national”

“For the 200 years after the Exeter Canal was built, the majority of the goods and materials people used, consumed and aspired to were produced locally.”

This changed when the industrial revolution increased the need for coal in city and other locations. Canals were built, underground as well as overground, to shift commodities from source to factories. The wealth generated along with increased migration changed the economy – ergo the population’s consumer habits.

The author purchases a fold-up bike and sets out to cycle along the towpath of the Bridgewater Canal which is regarded as the first canal of the modern age. The history of this and subsequent canals visited makes for fascinating reading. As well as detailing the engineering achievements there is social and economic history – and a snapshot of what remains. Text is enhanced by the inclusion of many pictures showing canal life and key features.

The author also travels the canals in his kayak, navigating coast to coast in the north and along the route of the Devizes to Westminster race. He joins a litter picking party using paddleboards to reach detritus. He runs a half marathon along towpaths. To round off his year or so of exploration, he hires a narrow boat with a group of friends.

Interesting tidbits are interspersed with facts gleaned, such as: why towpaths change banks on long stretches of canal; why there are occasional ramps leading from canal floor to towpath; how, on a busy working canal, passing boats dealt with crossing towropes.

The author delves into the lives of those who built the canals – the navvies – as well as those who worked the boats and supported the industry and network. He writes of the dangers of life on the waterways, but also that it could provide a decent living. As he walks, cycles and kayaks he talks to those who use the facility today. He sleeps alongside towpaths in his bivvy bag. He enjoys the canal side pubs, especially those with live music.

Although the advent of the railways took much of the trade from working waterways, many remained operational well into the twentieth century. It is thanks to the vision of those who saw the potential of canals as leisure facilities that many of these were saved. Working boats were converted into houseboats offering affordable if peripatetic accommodation. As demand increased, costs rose, but canal dwellers still form an atypical if largely friendly and helpful community.

Any Cop?: Across fourteen engaging chapters the reader is provided with views of life on the canals across time and from a wide variety of perspectives. It made this prospective have-a-go boater rethink the wisdom of ever hiring a narrow boat. Nevertheless, it brought to life many aspects of the waterways I have long enjoyed touring.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: The Martian’s Regress

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch

“if the ultimate purpose of his race
was its own prolonged survival
if mere existence was in itself a success
if existence on its own was everything”

At some point in the future, the human race has irreparably plundered the planet it inhabits thereby destroying its life support system. Knowing that this was coming, preparations had been made. A select group travelled to Mars carrying specially developed seeds and other essentials that could survive the environment to be developed in the inhospitable new territory. Over time, these first martians and their descendants adapt and assimilate with the new order created. Their raison d’être is survival by whatever means.

The Martian’s Regress is a powerful long poem that tells the story of this new world’s development and how its inhabitants evolved across generations.

Divided into sections, an all too familiar one deals with the unexpected arrival of another rocket on the planet. The travellers who disembark display an

“old-world pallor
That caused consternation
A worry that such feebleness might spread.”

“At length, a decision –
The men were tied off
The women sewn up”

“Each incomer granted nothing less
Nor more than their natural span of days”

Meanwhile, a martian daughter is offered toys and beauty treatments, despite her obvious antipathy to such fripperies. Her future is made clear when she is handed over to a willing partner and discovers: ”‘the nursery – its row of empty cribs.”

More time passes and there is curiosity about what became of the old planet, abandoned so long ago. The protagonist of this poem, The Martian, boards a rocket and travels there. He takes with him basic supplies for the journey and a companion.

“She was made to be non-marking
Her body was wipeably clean.

That doubled height
Those gangly limbs
The overt femininities

All relics of an ancient era”

“As insects are content to possess a pared down intellect
She was content”

Sections of the poem cover the journey. Others provide background on how the colony on Mars came to be. Given the likely makeup of the original travellers, their priorities are not surprising however depressing this is.

The Martian arrives on the old planet and sets out to explore what remains. He enters a museum. Unable to make sense of the purpose of exhibits he rearranges them for his own amusement, breaking items at will. He enters a cathedral, light diffused by a stained glass window that he breaks to let the unfiltered sun shine in. He observes colossal angels perched on a balcony and pushes them to the ground far below, watching dispassionately as they shatter. None of this is done with a sense of ruination. The Martian cannot fathom any value in these things. He does, however, take away a crucifix to which a suffering Christ is nailed.

“Here was something the martian could relate to.
Due punishment was always worthy
Of prominent display”

The Martian and his companion come across a well with a sign seeking gold that wishes may be granted. The companion drops a bank’s reserves of ingots into its depths, adding jewellery, even teeth. To The Martian this is a harmless pursuit. Gold will not sustain him. I pondered what the companion may have wished for.

Although sections of the poem jump back and forth across a lengthy timeline what is being portrayed is an interesting and always accessible variation on a dystopian theme. By writing it as a poem, the story remains taut and reverberates. There is little that is uplifting in the behaviours portrayed.

Any Cop?: Challenging in places due to its content but written in a language that draws elements of humour even from dark places. A warning, if anyone remains willing to engage.

Book Review: Another Planet

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Tracey Thorn is one half of pop duo, Everything But The Girl, the other half being her husband, Ben Watt. The couple met at Hull University in 1981 and have been together since – writing, making music, raising their three children. 

I had not heard of the author prior to picking up this book. I noticed the publicity when it (Thorn’s third memoir) was released in hardback but, put off by the photo on the cover, had ignored whatever was being said. What drew me to pay more attention was the premise, when I finally read it – a teenager growing up in middle class suburbia in the 1970s; my era. Aspirational parents were mentioned along with an ordinary, largely happy childhood. This is not a misery memoir yet the author rebelled. 

What is offered is an exploration of the stories we tell of ourselves – how and why we edit them – when family life appears felicitous to anyone else looking in, yet is the catalyst that drives a desire to escape, to break away from parental expectation.

Thorn kept diaries throughout her teenage years and these form the basis of her recollections. Always though she is looking back at the girl she was through the lens of her present day self – mid-fifties, successful in her field, a mother to adult children. 

The memoir is bookended by a day trip she makes to the suburban estate north of London where she was born and raised. Details have changed but much remains the same. She notices aspects previously missed despite the years she spent there. 

Interspersed with chapters that discuss her diary entries – what is written and, perhaps more importantly, what is not – are chapters giving background to: the place, life in the seventies, the pervading attitudes of middle class English parents who had lived through the war years. These offer a fascinating snapshot of a culture ingrained with stiff upper lipped snobbery and assumption that offspring will conform and provide a continuation of ideology. All this is presented with grace and candour. Thorn was bored and frustrated by her home life but recognises the influence it has had on her personal development.

“Always in the back of my head was a voice telling me to stop showing off. Don’t make a spectacle. Put that drink down. Shhhh.”

“If you didn’t talk about things, they weren’t happening. I was only thirteen, but I’d already learned the code.”

Thorn found her comfortable, conventional family life stultifying. Life in a commuter village surrounded by greenbelt left her feeling isolated from the excitement she craved.

“I was yearning for significance, looking everywhere for it.”   

“It strikes me that I’m talking about an imaginary place as much as a real one. If memory skews our perception, then the village I recall is semi-fictional, and I have to accept that my account isn’t neutral, or wholly truthful; it’s one-sided and irrational, constructed out of experiences and my reaction, sometimes over-reaction, to them.”

Thorn’s parents grew up in London but moved to the suburbs for what they believed would be a better life. Their social circle revolved around the groups to hand, their views aligning with those they mixed with. Thorn couldn’t bring herself to fit in with their values.

“But what if […] you’re being told you don’t have to believe in anything very much to join the church group, and no one seems interested in the arts, and everyone votes Tory and the golf club is racist, what then?”

Jan Carson wrote in The Stinging Fly of how seemingly endless boredom during hours spent listening to Presbyterian sermons led to vivid daydreams that inspired her early stories. Thorn also muses on the creative possibilities when formative years are spent bored and longing for escape from stifling prejudice.

“I’m thinking again about that idea that art flourishes in an unconducive environment, that suburbia is inspiring, surrounding you with ideas and people to reject.” 

For most of her teenage years, Thorn‘s concerns centred on boys, music, television and her social life.

“Current events rarely intruded into my little world, as I was a typically solipsistic teenager, and even when they did, my reaction was only to note the personal effect on me and my boring life.”

As she approaches adulthood, Thorn comes to realise that her parents and their peers were not as content with their lot as they liked others to think.

“The suburban dream suddenly seems creepy, as if its relentless NICEness is only pretend, and can’t survive without repressive conformity and wilful blindness.”

Although well written, candid and interesting, the format of this book sometimes lacks a smooth continuity. The reason becomes clear in the author’s end note. The book started as an essay and, over time, grew – “swallowing up some recent pieces of writing – reviews, articles and columns.” Thorn wrote these for other publications although points out they have been “chopped up, rearranged, in some cases rewritten” for inclusion here. Each chapter fits within her narrative but the story does not always flow as might be expected.

In many ways this is a typical story of life in middle class, middle of the road, family oriented England and, as such, offers a slice of life that garners little attention. Outwardly it appears so lacking in drama – teenage anger and frustration being routinely dismissed. As Thorn points out, many significant artists came from such backgrounds. As did many readers with whom this memoir will likely resonate. 

Any Cop?: Another Planet offers a softly spoken yet piercing history lesson – perhaps of value to the currently vocal looking back on the era with blinkered nostalgia. For those of us who grew up during the 1970s, it is also a trip down memory lane.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Not Working

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“So you abandon wage slavery for some long-term freelance project – a novel or invention or fast fortune or cult blog. You wake up now to vast expanses of time, craving the relief of the regular hours and definable tasks you stupidly gave up, feeling chronically deprived of the urgency, direction and clarity of purpose you’d taken for granted when you’d had somewhere to go and something to do each day.”

Not Working is strap-lined Why We Have to Stop – an interesting if somewhat impractical premise, I thought, when I chose the book to review. The author is a psychoanalyst and Professor of Modern Literary Theory at Goldsmiths, thereby appearing well qualified to create a compelling argument. What we have here, however, is more akin to a series of opinion pieces injected with memoir alongside personal critiques of artworks and their creators. As a whole it lacks coherence.

The book opens with a lengthy introduction. The author then tries to shoehorn his views into four sections: Burnout, Slob, Daydreamer, and Slacker. Each of these sections includes a study of an artist the author associates with the anti-work type he is writing about. All those included have created acclaimed output so I struggled with the connections being attempted. They each worked at their craft.

Many examples from the author’s life are included. Patient cases – merged for confidentiality – are also cited but added little to the main argument.

The author posits that modern man regards work as something to be avoided if possible. There is little discussion about: the pride that may be taken in a job well done, the self-respect gained from contributing to a project, the camaraderie amongst colleagues. There is acknowledgement of the potential downsides of not working including: depressive exhaustion, listless entitlement, loneliness, and marginalisation.

I disagreed that ‘serious’ art – however that may be defined – offers more pleasurable satisfaction than science.

Personally I cannot appreciate Tracy Emin’s bed ‘masterpiece’ but understand that the value of artistic works is whatever someone is willing to pay for, or pay attention to. The majority of artists may struggle financially but this is not a modern phenomena. The author does not discuss the quality of outputs beyond his famous examples. Perhaps it is the act of creation rather than the finished product that he finds worthwhile – although most creatives, at whatever level, do seek some form of affirmation.

“Not working has almost always been valued only to the extent that it serves the cause of work. It is time we spoke up for not working, in all its creative possibilities, as its own value.”

The author’s opinions are stated as facts. Assumptions are made – such as that a rabbit being looked after temporarily enjoys a ‘serene emptiness’. Cohen cannot know this as he has never been a rabbit and cites no scientific study of the creature. In many of his stated opinions he comes across as arrogant.

The problem of choice is discussed from several angles in what is described as our overworked and accelerated culture. Parents are blamed for both distancing themselves and being too involved in their offspring’s choices – supportive parenting leading to a fear of disappointing.

“there could be nothing worse than to choose one thing and so lose the possibility of others”

“I barely know how to do anything without wondering if I’m doing it well enough.”

I found no mention of the gig economy or part time working. The pressure to work seemed geared towards the professions who could, perhaps, afford a psychoanalyst such as Cohen. I pondered the author’s privilege and outlook.

When discussing Emily Dickinson he mentions her unwillingness to marry, declaring reasons for her behaviour without explaining how he reached his conclusions. Given the time during which Dickinson lived and the autonomy she would lose to a husband – more than just her own, lockable room – I saw strength of purpose and innate knowledge that her work mattered more than social acquiescence.

Towards the end of the book the author explores how minimal activity can lead to finding a perfect inner state – nirvanic bliss – albeit transient. It can also lead to an inertial void. Few of the arguments made or opinions stated refuted the problems inherent in doing nothing – or that freeing up time only rarely leads to creativity in the arts.

Any Cop?: Overall the writing lacked direction and was too wound around the author personally rather than the subject he purported to be exploring. I found this book hard work to read, and regularly during its perusal considered stopping.

 

Jackie Law

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