Book Review: Wrestliana

Wrestliana, by Toby Litt, is part memoir, part biography. It is an exploration of fathers and sons, and what it means to be a man, particularly in our modern world. I wondered whilst reading if I could be amongst its audience, if I could understand. Certain elements of the narrative made me uncomfortable. I found myself wanting to point out that girls play football and mothers stand on touchlines. Despite it being an intensely personal story I needed to step back from the author and focus on the writing.

Toby Litt’s forebears lived in Cumberland in the eighteenth century. One of them, William Litt, was, for a time, a local wrestling champion. He was also a writer and published the original Wrestliana – ‘a history of wrestling from its origins’. Toby grew up hearing his father talk of his great-great-grandfather: the wrestling; his time as a smuggler; the loss of a small fortune; his escape to Canada where he died. When Toby decided that he wanted to be a writer the only story his father wanted him to tell was that of William.

This is also, however, the story of Toby. As well as exploring the lives of his wider family, he shares: how he was bullied at school; his time living in Prague; his hopes for his own two sons; how he teaches Creative Writing. When teaching dialogue he tells his class:

“When two men say Hello in the street, one of them loses.”

Toby describes himself as competitive and many of his musings are around whether, in any given situation, he has won or lost. This attitude overflows into his writing life, his thoughts on other writers and their work. I baulked at the apparently disparaging comments about John Boyne whose books I enjoy. I understood better when I read an interview Toby gave to The Word Factory from which I quote:

“For other writers, the job is to entertain, to tell fulfilling stories. The writers you mention – you could also have included Henry James – are Modernists, Make-it-new-ists. They were the writers who got to me. I suppose I thought they were trying to do something more difficult and worthwhile. An entertainment doesn’t attempt to change its audience – it reassures them that, going in, they have all they need to understand and enjoy it. As a reader, I wanted to be changed by what I read. I didn’t want to be myself. Books were a way for me of moving gradually away from who I started as. I think that’s what books have done for me.”

Following the John Boyne encounter, Toby mentions his reaction when a book he believed was amongst his best work was entered for the Booker Prize, and the crushing disappointment he felt when it was not longlisted. The pages on writers and literary prizes are enlightening.

Toby has long eschewed sport but, once immersed in his extensive research about William, found himself considering the importance placed on a man’s physical size, strength and prowess. William’s politics, his beliefs, are described as

“manly, patriotic, straightforward”

Toby considers: his own life as a family man and writer, those moments when he ‘won’; if this is all that matters and if, in aging, the best times are gone. There is an undercurrent, a fear of, inferiority, or being seen as such. Perhaps a more competitive person than I will empathise.

Everything that William wrote, of which there is still a record, is dissected and examined in forensic detail to provide a picture of the man, the life he led, and why. This includes gaining an understanding of the style of wrestling at which he excelled and which is still practised in the north of England. Toby visits to observe and talk to those involved. I found the sections describing in detail the sport the least interesting. The history on the other hand proved engaging, as did the comparisons and attitudes across the generations.

Toby deploys the analogy of wrestling to life and this spills over into his relationships with his father and his sons. There appears to be a need to prove oneself different yet better, to escape from under the family shadow yet still be deemed worthy. Near the end of the book he regrets that his sons cannot compete in the traditional wrestling bouts he has been learning of. I wonder what they would think of this idea.

Despite my inability to empathise with the author’s attitude to being a man in the modern world, the book offers an interesting history and perspective. I would have preferred the impact of the women involved to be taken more into account but understand it is intended to be only about the men. A need to feel macho may be beyond my comprehension but in presenting his thoughts and feelings so honestly the author offers insight into what can prove toxic concerns. It is an alluring read.

 

Wrestliana is published by Galley Beggar Press. To support their work please consider buying direct, or from an independent bookshop.

 

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Book Review: Educated

I am generally wary of manuscripts bought by a big publisher for a vast sum of money. To recoup the investment there will likely be a wide ranging publicity campaign to ensure the book crosses as many reader’s radars as possible. I question if I am hearing about it because it is well written and worth reading or because it has been cleverly promoted. Whilst recognising that the publisher would not have made the purchase had they not believed in its potential commercial success, I can be a tad cynical about literary worth.

With Educated I was also wary of it being a memoir, not a genre I am drawn to, having been disappointed by the inventions and exaggerations that came to light after publication of such titles as A Million Little Pieces and Three Cups of Tea. Veracity matters if the reader is being asked to accept the words as fact, a work of non fiction, if they are to engage with the author having experienced the story being shared.

What drew me to Educated were the questions the author was asking about how to define oneself having escaped from a family whose existence revolved around a religious belief. As I know from my upbringing in Troubled Belfast, the complex emotions of family loyalty and love are severely tested when measured against the damaging indoctrination of a trusting child. Added to this, the religion in Educated is Mormonism whose tenets, as I understand them, appear at odds with the psychological well-being of, particularly, women. The author’s father was also an end of the world survivalist. I was sufficiently intrigued.

The story is told in three parts: childhood; Tara’s first years away from the family home at the largely Mormon, Brigham Young University; her continuing education at Cambridge in England and, briefly, Harvard. Throughout she is trying to find a way to live within the confines of her family’s blinkered faith whilst discovering that there are other, more rational, ways of thinking.

The first section takes up about half the book. Tara was raised in Idaho, on land owned by her wider family, many of whom lived nearby. Her father earned his money from selling scrap metal and building barns. Her mother added to the family coffers by selling herbal medicines and practising as an unlicensed midwife. Father did not trust the government and believed that the end of the world was imminent. He stockpiled food, fuel and weapons, did not register his younger children’s births and kept them from attending school. The seven siblings were expected to help out at home, including in the scrapyard where many accidents occurred. Even the worst injuries were treated by Mother. Modern medicine was regarded as poison. If God wanted people to live they would be cured with faith, salves and tinctures.

By the time Tara reached puberty one of her brothers had become unbalanced – possibly due to brain damage following one of the many accidents the children suffered, or perhaps inherited mental instability – and viciously attacked her each time he doubted her purity, such as if she talked to a boy. To survive she learned to switch off from the emotional and physical pain inflicted, exacerbated by the knowledge that her parents would not accept that their son was wreaking such damage. By this time several of her older siblings had got away, including one to college despite the limitations of being largely self-taught. He encouraged Tara to follow the same course.

The second section details the years the author spent at BYU where she began to learn of the world history her family had ignored or skewed to support their prejudices. Each time she returned to their home she was put under pressure to conform. A good Mormon woman will marry, submit to her husband and bear his children. A university degree is not required for such a future.

Despite her lack of formal education, Tara wins a scholarship to study at Cambridge, which is covered in the final section of the book. It is here that she begins to truly find herself beneath the many layers of guilt and self-blame that her family inflicted throughout her formative years. Still though she hopes to reconcile the dual aspects of her life. The mental toll this takes proves devastating.

Up until this point the writing is fluent and compelling. Although a memoir it reads as a story, a page turner that is effortlessly engaging. The final few chapters feel more typically memoir, with a slower pace and repeated reflections. A conclusion was required and is achieved but left me wondering how much of Tara’s story was left untold.

Occasionally the narrative points to notes that draw attention to discrepancies in Tara’s memories compared to those of other family members. When the contents of emails are shared it is made clear that these have been paraphrased. I ponder how much has been edited to avoid legal repercussions. Names have been changed but such a closed community will recognise themselves within this self limiting world, presented through a troubled lens.

Tara’s achievements are admirable and her story is well written and worth reading. I remain aware that, as with any personal memories, their curation will be coloured by the circumstances in which they are shared.

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

 

Book Review: My Shitty Twenties

My Shitty Twenties, by Emily Morris, is a memoir focusing on the author’s pregnancy and early years of motherhood. At twenty-two years of age, having just completed her second year of a three year degree course at Manchester University, the author was horrified to discover that she was pregnant. Nevertheless she decided to keep the baby. The father had no interest in either her or his child.

The book recounts how this party loving, messy living student had to defer the university life she loved and work full time whilst continuing to live in shared digs with students. Her mother offered her a room in her childhood home but Emily was reluctant to leave Manchester. Friends and family were supportive but she felt guilty at the prospect of single motherhood instead of a degree.

The account is searingly honest. There is none of the rose tinted, sugar coated wonder prevalent in typical tales of growing a child. This is the reality of a cessation of activities most regard as fun. Emily gave up cigarettes and alcohol. She discovered the long list of banned foods for mothers-to-be, and strangers all too eager to share with her their toxic views on a young, single woman bringing a child into the world alone. Whilst her friends continued to party, Emily grew fat and joined the on line forums frequented by opinionated women, where she learned the passive aggressive language of well-meaning advice.

When the baby was due Emily realised that she would have to move in with her mother. After the euphoria of escape to university this was difficult for all concerned. She would not bow to the popular notion that women should give birth as naturally as possible. She stayed in hospital for as long as they would keep her, eager for the medical professionals’ support.

Once home with her baby Emily endured the loneliness of early motherhood, the difficulties in simply leaving the house with a young child. Health Visitors pressured her into joining mother and baby groups; her experiences of these are painfully recounted. She now had little in common with many of her old friends.

Reluctant to conform to the widely derided stereotype of single mother on benefits, Emily was determined to find a job and fund her own place to live. She learned that employers regard mothers of young children as unreliable, especially when they have no partner to share the burden of the inevitable childhood sicknesses.

When her baby became a toddler Emily decided to use a small inheritance to prove to herself she could still enjoy life despite having a child. She started to find ways to take pride in what she could achieve.

This is not a book about a baby but rather a young woman becoming a mother, who would have preferred not to be single but just about coped anyway. The open and honest style of writing is refreshing and a welcome addition to the often infuriatingly upbeat accounts of parenting, a task that may be rewarding but is rarely easy. Emily’s treatment by the smug mums, signaling their virtues in the guise of advice or minor complaints, reminded me of my own experiences. Guilt and pressure to conform are ever present demons.

Around half of the book recounts the author’s pregnancy with the remainder focusing on the eighteen months after. Although I just occasionally lost engagement, and felt minor irritation when a recollection did not follow the mainly linear construction, this remained an empathetic read that many will relate to.

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

Book Review: Extravagant Stranger

Extravagant Stranger, by Daniel Roy Connelly, is a memoir told in the form of prose poetry. It offers the reader a collection of personal snapshots to peruse covering several decades of the author’s life. The depictions are grungy in places but searingly candid. Cultural references are made which I did not always recognise, resulting in certain pictures remaining opaque. The majority however are presented with razor sharp clarity, the subjects dissected with wit and precision.

The collection opens with musings on conception, birth, memories from childhood and then coming of age. On Getting Laid For The Third Time offers a droll account of inexperienced sex.

The author recounts moments in his life from various countries where he has travelled, worked and resided. His ongoing battle with depression adds poignancy, a shadow that never quite disappears.

Look Left, 2001 packs a powerful punch from New York City. Five People And One Animal I’ve Sat Next To On Planes is exactly what the title says, the entertaining list capturing a depth of meaning from the simplest of observations.

Poetry requires a degree of focused concentration but with a collection that resonates like this the endeavour is more than repaid. Each work is flavoursome, bold and substantial yet never cloying or heavy. There is a strong sense of place alongside reactions to being there.

The later poems suggest greater mordancy but are also drenched in fatherly love. No matter how tired from the effort of living, time spent with the author’s young son is relished. There is sadness when the child grows old enough to be constricted by timetabled living. Mardi Gras, 2014  – father and son on the set of a Marvel movie – offers relief after more serious contemplation.

The book concludes with an imagining of the author’s death and the reflections wished for. Thoughts are with cushioning the son from lasting sadness, a request that the child believe in his father still.

This is an accessible, unpretentious collection despite its impressive reach and intensity. A reflective, subtly powerful, rewarding read.

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

Book Review: Fragile Lives

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“A successful cardiac surgeon is a man who, when asked to identify the three best surgeons in the world, has difficulty in naming the other two.”

Fragile Lives, by Professor Stephen Westaby, is a memoir that is both awe inspiring and heart-rending. It tells the story of the medical career of a man raised in working class Scunthorpe who became a world class, ground-breaking cardiac surgeon before watching his life saving profession being stymied by the NHS bureaucracy that we know today.

The first few chapters cover Westaby’s childhood, inspiration and medical training. Born in the post-war baby boom years he decided young that he wished to be a heart surgeon after watching a television programme, ‘Your Life in Their Hands’, in which American surgeons were able to close a hole in a patient’s heart thanks to the newly created heart-lung machine. Westaby gained entrance to a local grammar school and from there worked towards his dream of medical school. As a teenager he took menial jobs at a hospital, learning as much as he could through observation. His years of medical training at Charing Cross and the Royal Brompton in London brought him to his first surgeries, where he learned that a certain arrogance is necessary for a successful outcome. A surgeon must believe in their own abilities if they are to innovate and thereby save more lives. When a patient is cut open on an operating table the surgeons cannot know exactly what problems they will be required to deal with.

Subsequent chapters look at particular patients whose medical issues Westaby tackled in new ways. Not all of them survive, and those that do are changed.

“extra life is not ordinary life. There’s a price to pay and a second dying to come”

These cases are fascinating if poignant to read. There is an amount of medical detail included but the language used is accessible. Westaby’s confidence in his abilities and willingness to take risks not only saved many of the lives he held in his hands but also led others in his field to do the same. These world class doctors worked together, sharing techniques and outcomes for the good of their patients as well as furthering their own careers.

“For the unfortunate patient, any prospect  of survival depends upon having an experienced trauma surgeon at hand. Few are offered that privilege.”

Westaby worked all over the world and experienced many levels of both staff competence and facility provision. When dealing with a patient who will surely die without intervention, risks seem a price worth paying. This is the way, the only way, that new techniques and treatments can be developed.

A cardiac surgeon must retain a certain detachment as they are dealing every day with the dying who often harbour multiple health issues. Success rates matter. The monetary cost of surgery is high and those controlling the purse strings wish to invest only in proven drugs or equipment.

Pioneering surgery is now threatened by the blame culture. Even proven techniques are being rationed due to the focus on cost, whatever the benefit.

“When a surgeon remains focused on helping as many patients as his ability will allow, some will die. But we should no longer accept substandard facilities, teams or equipment. Otherwise patients will die needlessly.”

By the end of his career Westaby had become disillusioned with the NHS. He had watched too many of his patients die due to a lack of drugs and equipment simply because they are deemed too expensive by non medical decsion makers.

“What mattered was keeping down costs. Death comes cheap.”

Inevitably he looks back on his own younger years with a degree of pride and with more regard than he offers today’s trainees. Setting this aside there is a warning to be heeded. It is understandable that cardiac surgeons feel frustrated with the constraints placed on their ability to work effectively. What this means to the individual patients and their families is the difference between life and death.

Those who believe that the drama of medical TV shows is overplayed should read this book. It is a fascinating account of a career that observed and facilitated huge medical innovation. The effect this had on the patients whose cases are included had me in tears of both sorrow and joy. To anyone with an opinion on the value of national healthcare expenditure, this is a recommended read.

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

Book Review: Worlds Apart

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Worlds Apart, by Azi Ahmed, is straplined A Muslim Girl With The SAS. As the book is described as a true story, and is written in the form of a memoir, this is perhaps unfortunate marketing as the veracity of the army section appears questionnable.

I read the book in a sitting. There is a lot about it that I found interesting. There are also elements that lead me to do further research as they did not ring true. As I gleaned my information from the internet it is hard to know what to believe but it took the shine of what could have been a fine story had it been written as a work of fiction.

The tale takes the reader through the early life of a young girl growing up in a traditional Muslim household in working class Manchester. Azi is the youngest of five children whose parents came to the UK from Pakistan a few years before she was born. They worked hard and saved, eventually opening up their own business selling halal meat. Azi describes her mother as illiterate. All her children were encouraged to gain good grades at school.

There are incidents of bullying and racism. Azi was raised to be subservient to men, trained to be a good wife and compliant member of the Muslim community. It was assumed that her parents would arrange a marriage for her. She had little knowledge of anything that went on outside of her own culture and lived a sheltered if frustrating life.

The first event that made me question the authenticity of what was being recounted was the means by which Azi attained her place at Central Saint Martins, an art school in London. It is hard to believe that such a prestigious establishment would offer a place in this way. Setting that aside, once Azi moves south, away from her family, she discovers a world she is eager to explore. Although never managing to fully shake off the shackles of cultural expectations she enjoys her freedom. She has a surprising amount of luck finding work placements and goes on to set up her own business. When this is no longer enough of a challenge a friend jokingly suggests she joins the TA.

The story of how she ends up in the army, like that of how she got into college, seems suspect. My research suggests she may have joined something like a since abandoned prototype training scheme for women wishing to experience the armed forces. It seems unlikely this was for the SAS.

Nevertheless, the reader is taken through months when Azi’s army experiences challenge her to the limits. Sometimes what she claims to achieve is quite hard to believe but I am not an expert in how much a small and slight body could endure. She comes out the other side changed. There is then a period over which few details are shared.

The final section recounts her decision to go into politics. Here the narrative comes across as somewhat self-aggrandising, which had not been the case before. If anything her childhood had been the opposite. Although she struggled with the strictures imposed on her life by her parents, she seems to have willingly worked hard and developed a strong self-reliance that stood her in good stead when she broke away.

I enjoyed reading the early chapters and valued the opportunity to learn more of a family life that is rarely opened to outsiders. It was interesting to read that Azi also considered she had no idea how those from other cultures lived. She resented the preconceptions others held about her people, the assumptions about how she must think. Nevertheless she recognised that she too harboured prejudices as was demonstrated when she discovered that a friend she valued was gay.

The writing style reminded me of celebrity memoirs I used to read. These were ghost written leading me to ponder who penned this work.

When a book is marketed as a true story and subsequently uncovered as inaccurate it can make readers angry as they feel hoodwinked. Whatever elements of this tale are true, it is an easy and often entertaining read. As an army memoir it has been badly received by those who know more about this way of life than me.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by Bookollective.

Book Review: The Last Act of Love

The Last Act of Love

The Last Act of Love, by Cathy Rentzenbrink, is a raw and heartfelt account of sibling love and loss. In the summer of 1990 the author’s brother, Matty, was knocked down by a car on his way home from a night out. Eight years later she and her parents went to court for permission to withdraw all life-sustaining treatment, including nutrition and hydration, to allow him to die. This is the story of how they got to that point, and the effect those eight years and their aftermath have had on Cathy’s life.

At sixteen years old Matty was already over six feet tall. He was a popular, handsome, intelligent young man. He and his sister helped out at their parents’ pub, located in a small Yorkshire town where they were well known and liked. The family was incredibly close.

The children smoked and drank, worked hard and played hard. The were lively and confident, relishing the life opening up to them. Matty had already renovated an old motorbike, learned to drive a car on private land. Although younger than her by a year, he looked out for his sister and she felt proud that he did.

When Matty was taken to hospital after the accident the doctors recognised the seriousness of his injuries but the family retained the belief that he could one day recover. They modified their lives and then their home to accommodate his many needs. Each time he suffered a life threatening setback they asked that he be treated. It was many years before they accepted that this may not be in his best interests, that death is not the worst thing that can happen to a person.

Getting to that point changed Cathy forever. Living with having chosen to let her beloved brother die proved devastating. She hid much of what she was feeling from the world. The excesses she turned to in an attempt to distract herself from her grief enabled survival but created their own regrets. That she made it out the other side is an achievement.

I found this quite a difficult book to read, not because of the writing, which is fluid and gripping, but because the pain Cathy conveyed felt so real. I was hurting for her loss, empathising with her guilt and understanding that the hole Matty left could never be filled.

Cathy found some solace when she learned more about Matty’s condition after his death and realised that others who had been through similar experiences felt as she did. She began to learn how to move forward, damaged but no longer feeling the need to hide her scars.

Her story has the potential to help others who have loved and lost as well as those who wish to support them. It is a powerful read.