Book Review: Under the Henfluence


This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“By raising chickens in your yard, you’re taking money out of the pocket of a cruel system; that doesn’t mean it’s cruelty-free.”

Under the Henfluence takes an honest look at the costs and benefits of keeping a small flock of chickens in a domestic back garden, or yard if you speak American. This practice, while still regarded by many as somewhat quirky, has grown in popularity over the past couple of decades. A few generations ago it was common for a family with outdoor space to keep hens for their eggs and meat, along with growing small quantities of fruit and vegetables. This was before the fashion for manicured lawns and neatly tended flowerbeds changed how most households manage their little pockets of space.

The author and her then partner acquired their first three hens a couple of years after moving from a New York City apartment to a half acre property in Portland, Oregon. The birds were ordered from a commercial hatchery as day old fluffy chicks, shipped via the postal service for personal collection locally. Raising chicks is messy due to feather dust but cheaper than purchasing pullets at point of lay. It is also a way of bonding with the birds early, making them easier to handle and train to behave.

Danovich is a journalist and uses her skills to investigate various aspects of modern hen keeping. She visits a hatchery where it becomes clear how disposable these curious and canny creatures are considered to be. The business side of selling day old chicks requires that around half are killed at birth – too many males, a breed not as popular as expected, born slightly imperfect.

“For better or worse, we are industrial”

This somewhat depressing start, so often overlooked by those whose buying habits make the endeavour financially viable, contrasts starkly with the life pampered pet chickens can expect thereafter.

People keep chickens for food, as pets or as show birds. The author investigates this latter phenomenon. Again, it is not new even if only the interested are aware of the practice and associated events. Raising birds that conform to a ‘standard of perfection’ grew in popularity during Victorian times, after the young Queen was gifted a small flock that delighted her, thereby starting a craze. Initially a great deal of money changed hands in exchange for particular, exotic breeds. These days, showing hens is more of a hobby but one many take seriously and are willing to pay to enjoy.

Many aspects of hen keeping are explored and explained by the author. Hen keepers must know how to recognise and deal with: sickness in the flock; attacks from predators; introducing new hens; persuading a broody to stop incubating infertile eggs. There are a growing number of vets able to treat ailments in poultry, although many keepers would still baulk at the cost. Meat and eggs from these birds are relatively cheap and, sadly, few value them beyond this measure.

“An ISA Brown hen, a common egg laying breed, typically lays an egg that’s 3 percent of her body weight. For a 170-pound woman, that would be like giving birth to a five-pound baby multiple times a week. It’s a lot of work”

Recognising that creatures other than humans harbour feelings and display intelligence is a fairly recent development. This has effected how dogs are now trained, and the author attends a course in which hens are shown to be capable of learning to perform for treats. Suitable poultry are used to support therapy in humans. Dementia patients have also responded positively when their care facility invests in a small flock.

“”dumb” animals get a lot more intelligent when we take the time to watch and understand them”

Having gained experience in raising and caring for a growing number of birds, the author then adopts a couple of rescue hens – caged farm birds that would otherwise have been slaughtered. The hard start to life these poor creatures endured means they are unlikely to survive a healthy hen’s potential lifespan. Observing them enjoying even a short period of natural behaviour is reward enough.

Although hen keepers take measures to ensure their birds are warm and safe, hens can survive in the wild. The author visits several towns where such chickens are part of the attraction for tourists. Locals are not always so enamoured.

Having kept a small flock of hens in my back garden for the past fifteen years or so, including a few rescue birds, much of what is covered in this book was not news. It was refreshing, however, to have some of the more negative aspects of hen keeping covered alongside the many benefits. As well as providing delicious eggs, each bird comes with its own personality that adds to the entertainment watching a small flock provides.

The book is not a guide to keeping chickens but rather a window into why those who do so often become enthusiastic advocates. The author writes with warmth and candour, sharing her obvious love for her feathered pets. However commonplace and tasty, hens deserve considerate treatment, responding endearingly to kindness and attention.

Any Cop?: This is a worthwhile read for any with an interest in small scale hen keeping. An informative and engaging introduction to a hobby that, while problematic in its support of certain aspects, offers many rewards to both hens and keepers.

Jackie Law


Book Review: These Particular Women

These Particular Women

“Biographies are fictions we contrive about lives we find meaningful.”

These Particular Women, by Kat Meads, is a collection of ten essays, each offering a potted biography of famous or infamous women and those who lived alongside them. Perhaps to protect herself from the failings many biographers are accused of, the author quotes liberally from others who have already written of her subjects. This brings to light the many contradictions in accounts, and how the prejudices of the writer colour what is reported.

The first and longest essay focuses on Virginia Woolf. I say focus but Meads’ lens is more often a moving panorama. The legends surrounding Woolf are both numerous and various. Why this should be is explored as well as how Woolf may have thought and acted. Like many included in this collection, the subject is not presented in a particularly positive light. There is nothing catty or overly critical, it is more the overall picture highlights characteristics challenging to admire.

The second essay offers an overview of the woman who became William Faulkner’s widow. Estelle Oldham had many personal critics during her lifetime, including her mother. Like many in the literary world, it seems, there was heavy drinking alongside numerous affairs. The window into family life offered by children reveals unhappiness amidst supposed success. Meads tries to gain a snapshot of homelife by visiting family houses that have become museums. Any lingering ghosts have been carefully staged by the modern curators with little apparent concern for authenticity.

Next up is Jean Harris who shot dead her lover, Herman Tarnower, in his bedroom. Two writers published works about Harris written from quite different perspectives. One even became the murderer’s friend and advocate.

Meads then delves into the life of Agatha Christie, especially her eleven day disappearance. What comes to the fore here is the role played by the media – how publicity can be both a blessing and a curse. Authors wanting to retain control of their own narrative may struggle when a voracious public demand to know Who? Why? When? How? Where? Which? – the plot structure so often lacking in real life. When authors draw on autobiographical detail in their fiction, – including interviews – gaps will be filled by their readers.

Kitty Oppenheimer is the next subject scrutinised. The theoretical physicist considered the father of the atomic bomb was her fourth husband. Kitty’s life with him does not appear to have been happy, although accounts of her are generally negative so perhaps evasive.

“Kitty did what she had always done when she found herself without a man. She looked around and saw that another was available, this time Robert Serber” …
Of note: no source accuses Robert Serber of an inability to be without a woman; no source accuses Robert Serber of attaching himself to the female nearest at hand.”

Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone With the Wind, is considered around the frame of the apartment where she wrote her famous work. The guide who takes Meads around this ‘tourist attraction’ does not come across as enamoured with his role, adding humour to an account of how false such places are now.

The arts reviews written by the next subject, Mary McCarthy, sound amusing if scathing. Critics took the same approach to her novels. Given current habits of  mostly talking up contemporaries, this sounds almost refreshing. McCarthy herself would offer critiques of her own work. Her memoirs were written by an unreliable narrator. Much of her fiction drew on autobiography. Described as outspoken, what she said was often short on truth.

Although the author Caroline Blackwood is the subject of an essay, it is her writing on a perhaps more famous woman that draws attention.

“To say that Blackwood’s go at the Wallis Windsor story differs from other accounts on my Wallis shelf is to wildly understate.”

What follows is a saddening account of the Duchess’s final days, when her gatekeeper was a ‘necrophiliac lawyer’. Unlike this widow of a man who was once King, Blackwood was true blue aristocracy. Like many born to such a fate she suffered a bleak childhood, her fun only beginning when she escapes. There is much name dropping as her coterie is revealed.

The penultimate essay takes a swipe at mothers, particularly those of Mary Flannery and Sylvia Plath. It is interesting to consider how they regarded themselves and the support they offered alongside views of their famous offspring on these topics.

The book closes with Meads encounter with a book – Grace Margaret Morton’s The Arts of Costume and Personal Appearance – first published in 1943 and picked up second hand at a sale. The copy contains annotations from a previous reader. What is of most interest is changing expectations of women, and also what views are still, depressingly, prevalent.

“The world still wants its women to conform to certain standards of beauty”

What each of these essays offers is a fresh take on lives that much has previously been written about. Meads offers up her thoughts with a light touch but still insightful viewpoints. She does not affect to be an expert but rather to highlight discrepancies in what those laying claim to such a title demonstrate with their output. As we all now know, memory is fallible.

One take from such elucidation is the shadow success and fame casts over personal lives, and how those directly involved deal with their unhappiness. Perhaps these subjects merit repeated attention because the contented are not regarded as interesting enough to keep the typically salacious reader engaged. Meads’ approach may come across as factual but there is nothing cold in her witty summations.

An interesting and entertaining collection that shines light into corners where certain debris accumulates. An intriguing addition to the histories of these famous women.

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

Book Review: Travellers to Unimaginable Lands

Travellers Unimaginable Lands

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“Whenever Peter and his mother argued, part of him believed that if he just found the right words, his mother would understand and everything could be resolved”

An increasing number of books are being published, fiction and nonfiction, that explore aspects of clinical conditions indexed under the label of dementia. An aging population means more people will have to live with this debilitating disease – as patients and carers. Most literature I have read on the subject to date focuses on the patient, perhaps with the aim of providing comfort or elucidation to carers. Relatives, in particular, of those whose brain function is deteriorating can come to feel guilty and alone as they struggle to remain calm when dealing with what feels like an onslaught of personally targeted vitriol. They may know logically it is the illness talking but such attacks, often repeated and denied, come through as perceived criticism of necessary interventions and can be challenging to take.

Travellers to Unimaginable Lands documents the author’s personal experience alongside case studies they have worked on as a counsellor to caregivers. Kiper explains why a healthy human brain will naturally struggle to deal with someone whose cognitive functions are being eroded. In clear and persuasive language she details how humans are psychologically programmed to expect certain behaviours, and if these are not forthcoming there will be stress reactions. Loved ones can cause deeply felt upset as they use shared history and long running reproofs as weapons drawn from within their illness.

“when caregivers are yelled at, lied to, ignored, unfairly accused, or not recognized, how can this not affect their sense of self?”

Also examined is how the mind processes memory. Just as there is an orbital blind spot of which most remain unaware, as the brain fills in the gap and vision appears complete, so memories are rebuilt each time aspects are recalled – and can therefore differ over time. The roles of conscious and unconscious decision making are discussed, something that enables a dementia sufferer to conceal symptoms of their illness, especially in situations they have long performed within such as social or work contexts. We all like to feel in control yet are often driven by reaction rather than considered action.

“what makes the self truly sneaky is that it believes itself impervious to outside influences, whereas in fact it collapses all too easily under the weight of social pressure”

The various case studies explore why a patient may behave in certain ways. An individual’s actions and arguments often stem from their life experiences although this may be masked by how the illness manifests. Carers’ reactions to situations they have struggled with are then delved into by the author. Knowing it is the disease driving behaviour will not always be enough to prevent the healthy brain reacting as comes naturally, often resulting in deep feelings of guilt.

The psychology of care giving proved fascinating to read as did the explanations of why interactions with dementia sufferers can be so challenging. One niggle I had with the case studies was the author’s habit of describing how a client looked – their body shape and eye colour. This felt irrelevant compared to state of mind, skill sets and the reasoning around occasional breakdowns.

Mostly, however, this was an interesting angle from which to explore a growing problem that garners much overt criticism from those as yet unaffected.

Any Cop?: A worthwhile and accessible read both for carers and those who may not understand the pressures under which these often underappreciated workers must somehow find ways to survive the loss of a loved one who continues to live.

Jackie Law

Book Review: My Life of Crime

Life of Crime

“We live in our bodies, stuck with the same model for the duration of our brief lives”

My Life of Crime, by Tyler C. Gore, is a collection of twelve essays, the final one of which is novella length. The book opens with an amusing Introduction in which the author explains that the essays are highly personal – ‘the kind of stories a friend might tell you over a pint.’ Certain details have been changed to enable a smoother narrative flow, and to protect those who feature, but the events happened more or less as recounted. Depending on the type of person the reader may be they could find the author’s renditions entertaining, or self-indulgent to a degree that induces apathy.

The titular essay documents events from the author’s younger years. He writes of ‘pranks’ that come across as shockingly wasteful – costing local businesses and their employees hard earned money. Some were more simply downright dangerous. Spawned by boredom they provide some insight into the author’s character, something that he will build on in later essays.

Born and raised in suburban New Jersey, Gore moved to New York City as an escape. Here he lived in a slew of apartments that came with issues rendering them barely habitable. He made little attempt to make them more homely. He admits that his family are hoarders, a habit that may have accelerated his father’s demise. When he had to move back to his mother’s home for a period, he set about trying to improve their situation, despite his own habits being similar if not quite so extreme.

Gore writes of his family and neighbours. Mostly though the essays detail incidents in his own life: a walk on a beach; a walk in the rain; jury service; the solitude of city life. There is humour behind many of the anecdotes shared but it is of a very particular type. He describes in detail the good looking people he meets, making his memories appear quite superficial. He delves into how he is feeling but rarely his perceived impact on others he interacts with.

I found The Elderly Widow Problem a bizarre essay, but the first eleven entries are short and easily read. My main irritation was the way the author appears to normalise recreational drug taking and a pornography habit, something that became even clearer in the final essay, Appendix. This attitude grated as much due to the disparaging tone in which he writes of ‘junkies’ while admitting to his own proclivities.

“Why bother when booze and cocaine are widely available and demonstrably more fun?”

I suspect he would consider me, to use his own words, a holier-than-thou prig and puritan for these thoughts. I would disagree but that is for a different discussion.

Appendix is not just long it is also meandering. It details a routine surgery the author underwent, at a time when his cat was also sick, and then there was a snowstorm in the city. If we take the ‘tale over a pint’ suggestion, this is a storyteller who wishes to share every detail of what he believes is highly interesting because it features him and his health issue – a bloated story of a bloated man and a depressed cat. There are nuggets within, for example his musings on why pets are so valued, even by the blinkered privileged.

“As an unspoken policy of the human race, we’ve agreed to trivialize these interspecies friendships because they reveal all too clearly that animals are sentient beings, just like us, endowed with thoughts, emotions, and individual personalities: a moral truth too hard to square with the everyday cruelties we inflict upon animals we exploit – for labor, research, clothing and food”

The author’s wife comes across as intelligent, dedicated and interesting. He does seem to appreciate this.

The writing offers what is promised but, sadly, I couldn’t warm to the tone or content. The author writes well enough but his various anecdotes smack of intemperance – I found them more irritating than interesting. Stuff would, perhaps, be the exception, being more structured, poignant and taut.

Gore’s essays have been well received in notable publications. I suspect I am simply not his target audience. Digressive self-indulgence does not appeal. Perhaps this is why I rarely meet up with friends for a pint.

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

Book Review: The Lost Rainforests of Britain

lost rainforests

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“In England, trees grow where people have not prevented them”

Britain was once a rainforest nation. Large swathes of the western edges – up to one fifth of the total land mass – used to be covered in temperate rainforest. Small pockets still remain but even these are under threat. Industrial farming practices, invasive species such as rhododendron, and man’s thoughtless squandering of his life support system for short-term pleasure or gain all wreak destruction on habitats that have value beyond financial considerations. Sadly, few pay attention.

“this great forgetting that we once had rainforests is almost as heartbreaking as the loss of the forests themselves. It points to a phenomenon that ecologists call ‘shifting baseline syndrome’: society’s ability to grow accustomed to environmental losses.”

In 2020 Guy Shrubsole moved from London to Devon. Here he discovered that Dartmoor, his new local area, still contained fragments of an important ecosystem he had previously been unaware existed. This book documents the investigation he undertook to find and attempt to map Britain’s lost rainforests, and to work out what would need to be done to bring at least some of them back again.

“The biblical story of the Fall – that we once lived in paradise, but lost it due to our sins – remains a powerful narrative”

The opening chapter introduces the reader to what a temperate rainforest is. Here, and throughout the book, a great deal of detail is included about the unusual plant species supported when they are left alone to flourish. This naming and explaining slowed the unfolding narrative but proved necessary if the extensive value of this habitat is to be understood. Man too quickly considers value as monetary when it is becoming increasingly clear that nature offers more important health benefits, both physical and mental.

“A visit to a rainforest feels to me like going into a cathedral. Sunlight streams through the stained-glass windows of translucent leaves, picking out the arches of tree trunks with their halos of moss. They’re places that at once teem with life, and yet have a sepulchral stillness to them.”

As the quest progresses there is mention of the cultural significance of these ancient forests – the myths passed down through history and the inspiration provided for more modern writers. Both Conan Doyle and Tolkien wove the awe and mystery of the rainforest environment into their most famous stories.

The medicinal properties to be derived from certain plants therein are, somewhat worryingly, being recognised by those whose interest may not be entirely wholesome.

“The old-man’s beard lichen contains usnic acid, which is considered more effective than penicillin against some bacteria. We’ve only just touched on the capacity of these organisms. One recent review of the pharmaceutical properties of lichens concluded they represent ‘an untapped source of biological activities of industrial importance”

If rainforests are to be protected and allowed to regenerate, the public need to be made aware of them. This raises the potential problem of increasing visitor numbers to small and fragile woodlands. Support is needed but also protection. It is, after all, possible to love a fabulous place to death.

As well as exploring Dartmoor, the author visits fragments of rainforests in the Lake District, across Wales and then Scotland. These areas suffer similar problems. Vast tracts of former rainforest have been ‘sheepwrecked’. Scotland especially is plagued by increasing numbers of deer introduced by wealthy landowners who regard shooting the creatures as a fun activity. In trying to curb numbers of these damaging grazers, advocates of rewilding – often incomers – have clashed with the local community, especially farmers. For rainforests to flourish there needs to be both funding and collaboration.

“The truth is that there is more than enough space in Wales, as there is in the rest of Britain, both for farming to continue and for more rainforests to flourish. But it needs to be a different type of farming: fewer sheep, a shift to cattle and swine, and more space for nature to thrive on the least productive land.”

The unfolding chapters set out how land use constantly changes over time, offering hope that nature can heal if shielded from potential damage and then left to do so. There is also a degree of despair that man too often looks out only for personal gain in the short term. Wider issues are so rarely understood or listened to.

Dormant rainforest returns if conditions are conducive. This means minimal management, not the mass tree planting that introduces nursery raised, non native woodland prone to diseases. Allowing plants to return is only a part of the story. Successful rewilding also requires birdlife and mammals, including predators. Although controversial in certain circles, a compelling case for this is included.

“what we fail to perceive, we often fail to protect”

It is fascinating to consider that Britain could support an ecosystem as important as the Amazon – if the will were there to do at home what many have campaigned for in Brazil. Shrubsole makes a compelling case for how this may be achieved, although points out it would require long term thinking along with legal protections and landowner support. He writes with passion, providing detailed endnotes listing sources and references to scientific studies – a clarion call not to repeat mistakes made in the past.

Any Cop?: A timely and important reminder that intervention is required to protect and restore ecosystems necessary to support all life on earth. Rainforests may be just one piece of this puzzle, but the abundance of their benefits is made clear in this engagingly informative work.

Jackie Law

Book Review: My Mind To Me A Kingdom Is

my mind to me

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“Everywhere, echoes”

On 3 May 2015, Paul Stanbridge’s older brother, Mark, died by suicide. Nine days earlier he had entered an area of woodland near Stoke by Clare on the Suffolk/Essex border. His body was discovered a day after the pivotal event, hanging from a tree, by two local men walking a dog.

Such are the bald facts of a close family death. They are teased out over the course of this narrative – a memoir in which we are told memory cannot be trusted. Timelines remain fluid. What happened is known by the author through hearsay as he cannot yet bring himself to read his copy of the coroner’s report. His grief manifests in wandering considerations of seemingly random interests that then serve as metaphors for aspects of the brothers’ relationship.

“Many of the things I remember are impossibilities, and yet for me they happened.”

For over a year the author’s life stalled as he struggled to process his loss. He would sit at home in the dark, sometimes aware of the presence of someone outside on a rocking chair, smoking. His insomnia was interspersed with underwater dreams.

The book opens with his thoughts on Doggerland, the toponymy of the North Sea and the naming of its regions. There are: maps, history, those who wrote of the place. It becomes an obsession during a time when his mind lacked more regular focus, when he did not wish to think of his new reality. In navigating this labyrinth of grief the past is rewritten each time elements are remembered.

Included herein are stories of strange happenings: a child born with a twin sibling growing inside him, unknown until it eventually kills him; trees that consume articles left beside them – fences and bicycles becoming strange appendages. There are musings on how relics of Christ were valued and dispersed in abundance, far more than could be possible, due to the belief in the power of a lingering presence after death. It is clear that the author’s brother still exerts influence.

Historic interests and researches are interspersed with memories of Mark, coming together to read like a fever dream. There are occasional lucid moments but much of the discourse is oblique. Mark was obviously a disturbed individual, behaving, in his brother’s words, badly in a wide variety of ways.

“If I had to describe him in a single phrase, it would be: wilfully uncooperative.”

In amongst the memories of a troubled relationship, one that led to estrangement and death threats – although there was reconciliation in the months before Mark’s death – there are happier recollections. The author writes of a bike ride they undertook in the Pennines, a moment of joy glimpsed on a person whose chosen way of living was challenging to be a part of, hard to comprehend.

More than a year after Mark’s death, friends of the author asked him to house sit their cottage in Wiltshire while they travelled abroad for several weeks. It was here that a healing of sorts began, to the backdrop of an unexpected interest in horses – creatures never before esteemed. Books on the subject were read avidly, bike rides undertaken to investigate. Insomnia and the underwater dreams faded away.

The interests documented in this memoir – water, horses, trees, memorials – link to Mark in myriad ways. Although distractions at the time to aid coping, there are obvious links in how they are written of here.

The lingering pain of grief comes across clearly. What is set out here does not always make for easy reading.

I struggled to retain engagement through the many digressions. When Mark was referenced directly my attention was awakened but wandering through the reflective researching of the author at this difficult time did not always pique my interest. The obvious poignancy garners sympathy but the narrative style, with its many historic anecdotes, required investment. Perhaps prior knowledge of subjects would have helped.

There were nuggets that kept me reading – mostly when I shared the author’s fascination with a topic, when that prior knowledge existed. I could appreciate how each element was pulled together to make a coherent story in which the shadow of Mark pervaded. I admire what has been written but, in the main, did not enjoy reading it.

Any Cop?: I wrote of the author’s previous publication, Forbidden Line (a retelling of Don Quixote): ‘Perhaps I would have enjoyed some of the seemingly abstruse sections more had I been familiar with the original.’ Once again, I feel a ‘better read’ reader may gain more from this book. It is clever and of interest, but was not for me.

Jackie Law

Book Review: brother. do. you. love. me.

brother do you love me

“Does Reuben have a learning disability or do we have an understanding difficulty? We pathologise the condition but are too busy to listen.”

brother. do. you. love. me., by Manni Coe and Reuben Coe, is a memoir of the brothers’ struggles to move forward with their lives following the stringent Covid Lockdowns. While incredibly moving it is also eye-opening, offering a window into the challenges faced by a loving family who are dealing with the needs of a child born with Down’s Syndrome. Aged 38, Reuben had only recently moved into a care facility for adults with learning difficulties when he was required to confine himself to his room, all outside visitors banned. The care staff were overstretched and bound by rules. In his loneliness, Reuben grew depressed and stopped talking. For a time he stopped eating. The title of the book is taken from a text he sent his brother when at his lowest ebb. It prompted Manni to leave his home in Spain and move with his brother into the rural farm cottage owned by his partner. Over the months that followed Manni worked relentlessly to find ways to bring Reuben back to something like his former self.

Reuben was the fourth son born to a couple whose Christian faith was a vital part of their lives – something that caused a rift when Manni came out as gay. Reuben grew up valued by all his family for what he was but often pitied by wider society. There was a desire to mould him into what was regarded as normal rather than build on his individuality. As the memoir unfolds it becomes clear that the Covid restrictions did not trigger his first crisis.

“this is what life must be like for my brother: he meets people, casts his nets of friendship, full of love and aspirations, only for those nets to be hauled back empty. People simply cannot or do not want to slow down enough to get to know him”

When Manni received the text, he had been living in Spain for the previous 19 years. He had a business as a tour guide and, since 2015, had lived on an olive farm in Andalusia with his partner, Jack. For a time Reuben had lived with them, a cherished member of their family. He moved back to England following a violent storm that badly affected him in the summer of 2018. It is this incident that opens the book. Both Manni and Jack were away from home that night and Manni ponders if this trigger forced Reuben to face his loneliness and mortality.

Manni writes with his heart on his sleeve as he recounts the brothers’ backstories alongside the struggle of helping bring Reuben back from the brink. There is an honesty and an intimacy, an admission that Manni has needs as well as Reuben. Alongside the recollections are colourful pictures, drawn by Reuben and bringing to life his needs and fears. The book truly is a collaboration and more powerful for the inclusion of what is effectively Reuben’s diary of their time together.

The months spent in the cottage are exhausting for Manni even if precious. As Reuben slowly improves his brother comes to realise that this cannot be a long term solution. He misses Jack. The ongoing stresses of the situation affect his ability to stay constantly calm and collected, as Reuben requires if he is not to regress. Manni recognises that Reuben’s continuing improvement depends on him feeling capable and useful, even if his first reaction is to allow others to do everything for him. Reuben finds any change scary. Manni is aware that if he is to return to Spain and his work there, he must place his brother back into a care system that previously failed him. Jack disagrees.

The guilt and concern felt are well portrayed. The brothers find an impressive support network, but professionals move on with their lives and careers and cannot be relied upon forever. From his drawings it is clear that Reuben understands much of what is happening, the nuance if not the detail. He still fears losing his family again and being unable to communicate his complex needs to carers.

A beautifully written account of a bond between brothers and the positive impact it has on both of them. Manni never glosses over the difficulties but the love felt is clear, along with its cost.

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

Book Review: Hysterical


This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“When a person has to repeatedly adjust their emotions to accommodate outside expectations, it leads to emotional exhaustion”

Hysterical: Exploding the Myth of Gendered Emotions does exactly what the strap line claims. Written by a behavioural scientist, it offers a methodical and detailed exploration of why the myth of gendered emotions was established – and continues to be perpetuated. It looks at the language of emotion across different cultures, although points out that most scientific research has been carried out in Europe or America. Much of this was flawed, in ways that are explained, with the science also suffering from selection bias and prejudice.

There are many references to historical texts which reinforce the belief that men are naturally superior to women. In men, emotional expression is assumed situational; in women it is assumed to be innate and irrational.

“The difference between men and women is like that between animals and plants.”

There is much psychology and anthropology in the research cited and discussed. Although written in accessible language, prior interest in the subject will likely increase reader enjoyment. The gendered imbalances and assumptions can be rage inducing, especially as this reaction would likely be regarded as proof of my weak little female emotional incontinence.

“The beliefs that some groups were more or less emotional started many centuries ago, and since then we have seen what was thought of as a ‘civilising’ process, a linear progression from emotion to reason, with education being used to teach people how to control their ‘primitive’ faculties”

The author comes at her subject from a great many angles, looking at how and why women were regarded as prone to hysteria. From ancient times to modern, they have had to adapt behaviour to survive. The societal pressure to conform comes at a mighty cost. Swallowing down an emotional response in order to act as society demands and expects has been shown over time to manifest as ailment – mental and physical.

“emotional expression plays an important role in social organisation, especially in maintaining social positions”

Anger is a tool for claiming agency, and agency in women is rarely well received – ‘considered aberrational’. Attention is focused on calming her down, not to addressing whatever it was that made her angry. In men anger would more often be regarded as justified – as a righteous reaction to whatever riled him.

“Interpretations of behaviours and emotional expressions are largely determined by the stereotypes that we already hold … These stereotypes have persisted through history, and the gender roles and hierarchies have remained stable over time.”

The hierarchies discussed are certainly gendered but also affected by race and class. Societal expectations differ if a woman is pale skinned or dark. Likewise, a man’s anger may be more acceptable if he is white rather than black. From birth, children are taught to conform and absorb what pleases their caregivers, peers, and those wielding power over them.

It is not that the male and female brains are different – modern neuroscience studies have established this is a fallacy. However, brain ‘wiring’ is changed over time as behaviours are learned. There is also great difficulty persuading against entrenched perceptions. This is made even more difficult when media jumps on the slightest suggestion of gendered difference – reporting it for click bait.

“there are very few studies with large samples that show any sex differences, but they receive more attention than the many studies that do not show any sex differences in the brain”

The final chapter explores the effects of pornography and sexbots – the harnessing of artificial intelligence and robotic technology to provide men (it is mostly men) with their ‘ideal’ companion. Although marketed as a remedy for loneliness, the customised ‘dolls’ on the market have been developed with a focus on sexualised features that perpetuate the worst gendered stereotypes.

“The dream he describes is to create a perfect companion: one who is docile, comforting, submissive and always sexually available”

With young boys accessing pornography, there is the very real risk they will prove unable to view girls as equals with agency whose focus is not them and their needs.

“boys thinking that girls are only there to serve them, and girls thinking that their role is to be sexy or invisible”

The role of parents is discussed but does little to raise hope of changing such attitudes, gendered upbringing being subtly ingrained across generations. Time and again studies have shown that daughters are treated differently to sons. However well intentioned there remain differences in the way behaviours are encouraged or dismissed – and this can have a lasting impact.

Any Cop?: A great deal is covered in this wide ranging and fascinating exploration although much of it is a damning indictment of supposedly enlightened human behaviour. An important read, then, in raising awareness of bias and prejudice. A clarion call for base level change.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Never Mind, Comrade

never mind comrade

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“I don’t understand how all this works, how some things are possible in this country, where it’s only about praise and punishment, miracles and catastrophes, but nothing in between.”

Claudia Bierschenk was born near East Berlin and grew up in Thuringia, a village in the GDR. It was surrounded by hills, valleys and thick forests through which the Iron Curtain ran like a scar. The Fence, as it is referred to, was mostly avoided. Locals surreptitiously watched the illegal West German TV channels. They were subjected to regular surveillance and a lack of basic supplies. Queues outside shops quickly formed when rumours of stock arriving trickled down.

Never Mind, Comrade is a memoir of the author’s childhood. It captures the innocence of a youngster who may question why she is required to live as she does but mostly accepts what is imposed – as children must. She comes to realise that joining ‘voluntary’ youth organisations is the only viable way forward. She dreams of travel to the exotic places she reads of but cannot imagine it ever being allowed.

Many of the author’s wider family fled to the West before the newly erected border was closed. They sent regular ‘care parcels’ filled with goods unavailable in Thuringia. Claudia’s clothes were mostly their hand-me-downs. The parcels contained luxury items such as coffee, fruit and fruit juice – if not taken by border guards.

“The whole world talks about the Berlin Wall, and about Berlin, the divided city. And I don’t know what the fuss is about … In East Berlin, the shop shelves are fully stocked, I saw it myself when we went there for a visit. They have more than two flavours of yogurt. In East Berlin they have bananas and cornflakes, and nothing is rationed.”

The book opens on Claudia’s first day at school, a place she comes to dislike despite her obvious intelligence. Under communist rule pupils were expected to be practical and sporty rather than curious and book loving. She is scared by the anger of the teachers and struggles with rules, questioning their logic. Pupils are taught that those in the West aren’t as lucky as them, that America is a warmonger eager to bring forward the Third World War. The children practice throwing disarmed hand grenades in preparation for this coming conflict.

“There are no Nazis in East Germany, only in West Germany”

“murder is something exclusively reserved for capitalist countries”

What comes across is the family life enjoyed despite deprivations and oppressive undercurrents. Claudia’s parents long to leave the GDR but this cannot be openly acknowledged. When the borders are eventually unbarred, despite her parents’ joy, Claudia is fearful of the changes given the propaganda she has been taught.

Structured in short chapters – mostly less than a page in length – episodes from the author’s early life are recounted with a simplicity that belies their depth. Her grandparents, who live in rooms above the family home, tell stories from the war. Claudia observes Russian soldiers on a visit to her other grandmother, fascinated by the strange language she cannot understand. Holidays are taken in ‘brother’ countries, those also under communist rule, although only when permits are granted and checkpoints allow. Family from the West may occasionally visit, bringing with them an aura of wealth known only from TV shows. Neighbours watch all these comings and goings that must be explained and reported.

There are many injections of humour in observations made, and in the author’s childish reactions. Claudia must keep secrets and behave as expected for the safety of all.

The writing is spare yet evocative, offering a snapshot of day to day life in the GDR. Seen through the eyes of a child it is not an overtly political memoir. Claudia longs for the material goods she believes make Western teenagers confident and cool. And yet she cannot entirely set aside fears instilled that capitalists harbour a desire to kill.

Although a memoir of growing up in a closed country, there are many universal themes and truths. We in the West were taught how awful life under communism was, and while there is obviously some truth to this, what Claudia was taught about the West we see now was not entirely inaccurate either.

Any Cop?: This is a pithy and witty account of a childhood coloured by political dogma. A skilfully rendered memoir of living within a country that is now gone.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Don’t Turn Away

Dont Turn Away

“It is easy to cast a critical eye back over history; much harder to face up to it in the present.”

Don’t Turn Away, by Penelope Campling, offers a searing account of the traumas encountered by the author during her work in psychiatry and psychotherapy over the past forty years. She started her training in one of the large Victorian asylums that were earmarked for closure. She has experienced first hand the changes in mental health treatment from then through to the fallout from the Covid pandemic.

Having recently moved from the NHS to private practice, Campling can now be entirely honest in her assessment of where patients are failed by the systems imposed on frontline staff. As a young and inexperienced doctor she was expected to follow procedures without question, the consultants at the time revered. These days consultants are also facing mental breakdown, the pressures under which they are required to work often proving too great. It is no wonder there are severe staff shortages, exacerbating the problems caused by rising numbers of acute cases in need of treatment.

Following the closure of the asylums, there was great hope that moving patients into the community would remove some of the stigma attached to many mental health issues. While this appeared to be improving for a time, changes to funding and therefore staffing levels diluted the impact of what is necessarily a building of trust in the therapeutic relationship. Joined up medical care becomes problematic when departments are competing for dwindling resources. Outsourcing to companies looking to make a profit further diminishes the quality of day to day care. Patient need cannot be properly met when criteria for accessing treatment admits only the most desperate, and even they may have to wait months for any sort of limited consultation.

The book is structured around patients Campling has encountered during her long career. The problems they live with are shocking, stemming as many of them do from horrific abuse, especially in childhood. These triggers can be difficult for the patient to acknowledge, often leading to substance abuse and sometimes criminal behaviour. Self harm is common, the risk of suicide real. The author writes of the importance of granting agency to the mentally unwell, offering support alongside non-judgemental discussion, paying attention to cues offered that too many dismiss with platitudes. Prescribed drugs can be helpful but core issues need to be recognised if progress is to be made.

Chapters focus on some of the problems that can aggravate mental health patients’ afflictions. In the asylums bad practice could occur in what was a closed community that few outside wished to even think about. These days failings are more common because those in need are locked out by gatekeepers whose job is to decide who qualifies for available treatment.

Some of the most harrowing cases detailed were encountered in a more successful unit that offered in-patient counselling led by supervised peers. As a lay reader it is hard to see how such damaged minds can ever be rehabilitated. It is no wonder psychiatrists are affected by their work given the experiences they must listen to and counsel. Patients will not always engage however much effort is made. Cases can haunt a doctor’s mind for years.

Not a book, then, for the faint-hearted but one that opens up a section of society that is too often ignored or condemned without consideration. A well written and engaging memoir that lays bare the failings of our healthcare system, the toll this takes on overworked staff, and on the patients it should be existing to help.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Elliott & Thompson.