Book Review: Constellations

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Constellations is a collection of fourteen essays written by an eloquent storyteller. Each celebrates the imperfect body – its workings and failings. There are musings on wider attitudes to ownership and behaviour. The stories told are incisive and highly personal. They cover a variety of the author’s lived experiences including: bone disease, cancer treatment, pregnancy, motherhood, and death. As a woman growing up in Ireland she has shouldered a burden of expectation against which she quietly rebels.

Alongside periods of incapacitation, the aloneness of illness, are many joyous moments of freedom and adventure. The author writes of: music, dancing, travel, relationships. There is an underlying generosity in her attitude to the world she inhabits, “making wounds the source of inspiration, not the end of it.”

She expresses a wish that her children, especially her daughter, may live their lives to the full and not be curtailed by

 “Those who go out of their way to avoid your good news,
who flash facsimile smiles when the world smiles on you,
The people who are too afraid to try to do
what you will one day do.”

The essay titled ‘Hair’ explores society’s attitude to women who choose to grow or shave off their tresses:

“Every time I’ve shaved my head, or sported a suedehead of regrowth, there is always a response, especially from men. They are mostly horrified or bemused; some declared it attractive: but I was always asked to justify myself.”

These unasked for responses to changed looks, or to actions deemed unfeminine and therefore unacceptable, are recounted in many of the essays. Too many people appear to believe that women require guidance, that they cannot be expected to know what is best for them.

In 60,000 Miles of Blood’, the author explores attitudes to this vital liquid when it leaves a host’s body. A soldier shedding their blood in battle is regarded as heroic. A woman’s monthly menstruation is shameful. An artist using blood in their work is berated. There are always opinions on what may be done with the one’s own body and its constituents.

“Art is about interpreting our own experience. Upon entering hospitals, or haematology wards, our identity changes. We move from artist or parent or sibling to patient, one of the sick. We hand over the liquid in our veins to have it microscoped and pipetted. Beneš used his art as tenancy. If hospital tubes could house his blood, so could his own work. Beneš knew that if his blood had to be anywhere other than in his veins, he might as well use it as an aesthetic agenda; a declaration of possession.”

Moving on to the subject of parenthood, the author writes of how this has brought with it both joy and pain. As children grow they travel ever further away, carrying their parents’ intense love for them lightly.

There is a thread on feminism running through many of the essays. A woman’s pain is not always taken seriously by medical professionals. A mother is expected to put her children’s needs before her own. ‘Twelve Stories of Bodily Autonomy’ looks at abortion in Ireland and the 2018 referendum on the issue. It wonders at the mindsets of those who oppose a woman’s right to choose a termination.

“Ireland is scornful of its girl children. The state can and does oppose what a family/a woman/a pregnant person believes is in their best interest. A born girl has no more rights than an unborn foetal one.”

“A writer friend overhears a group of twenty-something men talking on a train. One, full of swagger, says he doesn’t ‘want to give them that’, insinuating that women are uppity and asking for too much wanting to control their bodies.”

‘Second Mother’ tells of a beloved aunt who suffered from Alzheimer’s and how the family could only watch as the person they had known and valued faded away, mind before body.

‘Our Mutual Friend’ is a reminder of the precariousness of life and the pain of grief. It is an intensely moving tribute to a young man whose life ended unexpectedly.

The writing throughout is percipient and exquisitely rendered, arguments expressed with clarity and compassion. Although important and at times emotive, vital issues are presented with grace.

Any Cop?: Every entry in this collection was a pleasure to read.

 

Jackie Law

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Book Review: Built on Sand

Built on Sand, by Paul Scraton, is centred on Berlin. It explores the varied effects of an ever evolving place on those who call it home for a time. Told through events in the lives of the author’s friends and acquaintances while he was living there, it looks at, amongst other things: shifting borders and beliefs, dispossession, those who leave and return across generations. It is a story of individuals, their relationships and psychogeography. It portrays the transience of people and what defines them, as much as the place.

The first chapter introduces Annika, a mapmaker whose products are sold in a small number of bookstores and galleries. Her maps are themed to well known historical figures who have links to Berlin, providing details on significant locations during their stays there. Many of the buildings they would have frequented have gone but the street layout remains largely the same. Annika walks the city to gain a feel for what she is attempting to recreate.

“Bad news. Her maps, as a whole, told the story of the city, from its medieval origins on a malarial swamp to fifteenth-century riots, reformation and industrialisation, militarism and nationalism, National Socialism and communism, the Marshall Plan and the European Union.”

This sense of history permeates the city – its numerous destructions and endless rebuilding. The author is interested in the ghosts of the past that linger and how they affect those who pass through today.

The second chapter introduces a trio of men who met as boys living in the GDR and remained friends despite taking very different political paths as men. The author’s girlfriend retains her disdain for Markus in particular as he worked for the Stasi. The author is more interested in learning why Markus chose this path and how what he was required to do has affected him long term.

Other key characters in the narrative include the two young men the author shared a flat with when he first moved to Berlin. Their’s is a story of a close friendship when young that does not survive the changes wrought by passing years. At its heart is a tragedy and its repercussions.

Interesting additions to the cast are young people who were raised outside Germany, whose forebears told them stories of the country as it was then, including the lives and lands lost when they fled as refugees. The children or grandchildren visit and find themselves connected to the place despite it bearing little resemblance to the shared memories.

These personal anecdotes offer a vision of a city that exists only in such memories. Each of the people passing through are creating their own version which they will then carry and polish.

Over time borders are moved, walls built and knocked down, housing provided for workers and subsequently renovated for incomers. Reminders of conflict exist in memorials or the scarring of buildings by bullets or shrapnel. The people who come and go follow changing social and political beliefs. They may fight for what they think is right but this too changes with hindsight.

People are shaped by the stories they grow up with and how they interpret them when exposed to wider thinking. Some will embrace new developments but many hanker after what drew them to settle, even if only for a short while, in any given place. They value its history and the ghosts of their past selves, echoes existing in the shadows of recollection.

The writing has a melancholy edge which befits the many horrors Berlin has witnessed. The diverse reactions to events offer a variety of perspectives to consider. Although a very personal account the narrative offers broad insights, not least the folly of trying to cling to what has already passed by. It is a compelling, humane and intelligent portrayal of a city, its residents and inevitable change.

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

Book Review: A Chill in the Air

Iris Origo is perhaps best known as the author of her previous diary, War in Val d’Orcia, which she published to acclaim in 1947. It was praised for the positive effect it had on Anglo-Italian relations as it detailed the risks taken in the German occupied region of southern Italy, where Origo lived with her husband and daughter, to assist partisans, fugitives and refugees. A Chill in the Air is another of Origo’s diaries covering the years 1939/40, when Italy was looking to Mussolini to keep them out of a war slowly spreading across Europe. It details the rumours and propaganda of the time – the struggle to sift truth from a variety of news sources and the debates these sparked.

Origo was born to wealth and privilege. She had high placed connections in the arts as well as diplomatic circles. In 1924, aged twenty-two, she married Antonio Origo and they purchased an estate in southern Tuscany. Despite having a child (who died, aged 7) she continued to travel abroad periodically, indulging in occasional love affairs. She would return to her husband who was taking advantage of Mussolini’s ‘Battle of the Wheat’ to turn their arid land into productive farms worked by peasants.

The book offers a first hand account of a strange time written by a woman largely raised in Italy but not fully belonging due to her British and American parentage. As well as providing insight into the thinking of her peers and the local population, it offers thoughts on wider attitudes to the growing threat of conflict. Early on Origo recognises that governments must manipulate popular opinion by whatever means necessary if they are to get their way.

“It is now clear what form propaganda, in case of war, will take. The whole problem will be presented as an economic one. The “democratic countries”, i.e. the “haves”, will be presented as permanently blocking the way of the “have-nots” to economic expansion.”

There is resentment from wives and mothers as their husbands and sons are conscripted. They question the point of raising boys, of working hard for a better life, if the men they nurture can simply be taken away.

There are predictable prejudices and blind spots recounted, depending on who the author is talking to. Despite differences of opinion, few have any appetite for the coming war.

“A still, lovely summer’s evening; the grapes ripening, the oxen ploughing. Only man is mad.”

Nevertheless, as Hitler continues his expansion this mood must be changed – governments control through fear and suppression of resistance.

“Day after day, year after year, every paper gives us the same news, preaches the same doctrine. Plenty of people say, ‘We don’t believe what’s in the papers: it’s all a pack of lies!’ But all the same, something sinks in.”

Horrific tales of atrocities abroad are discussed. The German army, high on cocaine to retain energy, are reported as baiting and killing the ordinary Polish people they come into contact with. Businessmen make money from stolen property and commerce.

“The capitulation of Holland is announced with considerable Schadenfreude. On the same day a grocer in Florence receives a letter from a German firm – already offering him Dutch cheeses!”

More countries fall to Hitler’s occupying forces and freedoms are curtailed. News from abroad becomes harder to obtain. Attention focuses on what Italy’s future role will be.

“we hardly pay any attention to the news that Russia is occupying Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia. Japan is menacing Indo China. Banditry spreads fast.”

When Italy joins the war there is a feeling of inevitability. Within the new order, power is shifting.

“the contempt of the new world for the old, of the self-made man for those who have attained with ease what he has achieved with effort.”

It is interesting to read this Italian view of other nations, especially of England – regarded as corrupt and sterile – and of Churchill whose speeches are considered:

“vain boasts, based on no foundation of fact – a cynical last attempt to bolster up the English people to meet their inevitable destruction.”

The diaries cease abruptly when Origo goes into labour – her pregnancy had not been mentioned until she travelled to Rome for the birth.

In an Afterword, written by her granddaughter, we are offered a glimpse of the author’s later years.

These diaries offer a first person account reported with immediacy rather than hindsight. I did not find the entries entirely compelling but they challenged the history taught to me in school. For this I am glad to have read the book even if my interest did at times wane. The politics and loyalties of Italy under Mussolini are portrayed in an alternative and therefore thought provoking light.

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

Book Review: Tempest

Tempest: An Anthology, edited by Anna Vaught and Anna Johnson, contains a wide variety of speculative fiction, poetry and essays that explore our tempestuous times. Subjects covered include politics, climate change, equality and the possibilities offered from the development of artificial intelligence. Donald Trump appears as himself or in caricature. Dystopias are created to portray imagined post-Brexit worlds or ecological Armaggedon. Although sometimes lacking depth, the collection’s strength is its spread of opinions.

Anna Vaught writes in her introduction:

“I would desist, if I could, from political and social involvement – I know plenty of people who have entirely stopped following the news and/or placed severe limits or careful muting on their social media diet. I understand this, but it is not an option for me or, really, for this press, with its philanthropic bent, passionate sense of questing after social justice and being involved in politics.”

This passion is evident in many of the entries. What is refreshing is the lack of shouting despite the frequent despair so clearly expressed. The issues raise awareness. When there is anger it is controlled and measured.

The opening article, The man who would be Christ, was written in 1988 and is a study of Donald Trump, the property developer. This is aptly followed by a story, The Wall, which I enjoyed until its unlikely ending.

Women must act now looks at the development of robots – artificial intelligence.

“Women must act now, or male-designed robots will take over our lives”

“There are great benefits in the use of AI and we should cherish them. However, the issue is not innovation, or the pace of technological improvement. The real problem is the governance of AI, the ethics underpinning it, the boundaries we give it and, within that, who is going to define all those.”

Whilst finding this subject interesting, I remained unconvinced by the author’s arguments that most low paid, replaceable jobs are held by women because they cannot access anything better. I would have liked references to verifiable studies on this premise, to make the piece appear less opinion. If the only jobs remaining in the future will be in STEM, women are as capable as men.

Some Start Fires is a poem around climate change offering a picture but no solution. Of course, there may not be one as man appears bent on destroying his life support system.

This is Earth is a similarly depressing depiction of man’s selfish tendencies, this time written from the point of view of aliens. Although offering a clear message, its development felt somewhat simplistic.

I enjoyed The cowboy with the calcium spur, a poem that I read as having another dig at Trump.

The Walking Stick imagined a post-Brexit Britain, although I considered the ending another ultimately pointless protest.

Save me from the dogs was a more straightforward story about uncared for children living underground and groomed as criminals. Between the lines lies the question of what options society offers those it rejects.

One of the headline contributors is Sam Jordison and it was no surprise that his article, Rage, had Brexit as its subject. He suggested that those who voted to leave the EU did so out of a desire to return to times they remembered as better.

“I’m pretty sure a lot of the Leave Vote was inspired by misplaced yearning for the years when Baby-Boomer voters didn’t have such bad backs, still had flowing locks and something more to look forward to than nights in watching repeats of Mrs Browns’ Boys. They imagined that everything was better before we joined the EU, because that was when they personally felt better.”

Populists are on the rise… is a cogent essay, first published in the Guardian in 2018, that appears to offer more balance than is normally apparent in newspapers writing for their loyal readers. Perhaps it was simply good to consider some alternative opinion.

Nature and culture provides a discussion on the damage to ecosystems from globalisation.

“We have come to believe that harm to the world is inconsequential, or at the very least if something is lost then it can be replaced.”

The essays around nature and ecological collapse put many of society’s current political preoccupations in perspective.

I readily admit that there were certain pieces throughout the collection that I didn’t get. Neither can I comment on subjects I know little about, such as Palestine. It is good that the publisher offers space to such potentially divisive subjects and divergent opinions. Refreshingly, the authors make their cases without getting shouty or insulting.

The Job takes an interesting idea – a future where most people do not work – and weaves a story of coercion. Although sometimes lightweight, I enjoyed many aspects of this tale, including its ending.

A narrow escape for the Chelsea Hotel takes another dig at Trump, exploring what is valued in life other than money. I couldn’t help thinking its conclusion was reprieve more than escape but the Russian angle was a neat addition.

We should own the stars is an fascinating essay on AI and equality with reference to Bladerunner. This entry was a particular favourite of mine.

Tempest on Tyneside offers a vision of the region as a sought after destination offering beer and football while southern England disappears under water. Ironic as this turnaround is to consider I thought the apparent interest men had in female footballers a stretch too far. It says much about the reader what imaginative aspects of a story can be accepted.

As with any collection of opinions there will be favoured and disregarded contributions. What I enjoyed in the reading was that disparate voices were included. Projects such as this, which take us outside our carefully curated echo chambers, are always worthwhile.

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

Book Review: My Oxford

My Oxford, by Catherine Haines, is a short and very personal memoir of the author’s descent into anorexia. She posits that the eating disorder is akin to a religious belief where eating is regarded as a sin. Religions have long promoted fasting as virtuous, gluttony as weakness, bodily pleasure as morally suspect. In a world where thin is regarded as good this is an interesting angle from which to look at the disorder.

Anorexia is more than a desire to attain a fashionable ideal – to harbour a preoccupation with the superficial. It is a potentially fatal mental illness that raises issues within the sufferer about the way they wish to exist in a world that dictates behaviour yet admires self-control.

Catherine’s problems started in 2011 when, realising she had gained weight, she went on a diet. Her mother suggested the Cambridge Weight Plan which replaces meals with sachets of minerals and nutrients. Combining these with a daily meal of pure protein pushes the body to fuel itself with fat.

Having met her weight loss goals, Catherine moved to Oxford to study. Here she continued to restrict her intake to 1000 calories or less per day.

Catherine’s studies involved an exploration of the overlap between philosophy and literature, focusing on Hamlet. To be or not to be; to exist or not to exist; if life after death is better than life before then why seek to continue?

Despite being severely underweight Catherine continued to exercise and deny her body nourishment. When family and friends voiced concern, she would eat publicly to avoid their censure. She subsequently suffered guilt at all the calories consumed and was exhausted by the effort of her performance.

Catherine’s year at Oxford included a religious conversion during which she was confirmed and took her first communion. Her intended celebration was abandoned when she realised that she was now mentally incapable of eating. Her academic writing grew opaque and fragmented as she struggled to retain energy and reason. Not eating had become an addiction; denying the body its necessary fuel a way of conquering the self and finding salvation.

The writing is clear and concise, the reasoning of the sufferer well presented. It is not a misery memoir but rather an intelligent attempt to understand why skewed ways of thinking can develop such an iron grip on the psyche. It offers much to consider in how society blames those who eat ‘too much’ or ‘too little’, and the damaging consequences this can induce in their mental health.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, New Welsh Rarebyte.

Book Review: Cure

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Medical research scientists are required to be rigorous in their investigations but also open minded to the lessons that can be learned, both positive and negative, from the results of clinical trials. Drugs that show early promise may not be as effective when tested over the long term on a wide variety of subjects. Side effects of treatments and surgical interventions can be as harmful as the problems they attempt to resolve.

While doctors may be eager to find more effective treatments, particularly for the growing number of chronic conditions, there are deep seated biases against certain alternatives: homeopathic remedies, mindfulness and meditation, distraction techniques, hypnotism, religious belief. What Cure sets out to do is to look at the trials that have been undertaken around such so called woo woo treatments and scientifically question their efficacy.

The book opens with an investigation into the placebo – pills given to patients that are known to contain no active ingredient, or treatment that has been shown not to work after accounting for the placebo effect in test results. Time and again trials show that many patients’ outcomes improve when given a placebo. The author asks why such a cheap and easy alternative is not offered when it could have clinical value. It is now known that the body is capable of producing its own powerful drugs, e.g. endorphins. The brain is a natural pharmacy.

“If someone takes a placebo and feels their pain melt away, it isn’t trickery, wishful thinking, or all in the mind. It is a physical mechanism, as concrete as the effects of any drug.”

There are important limitations in the placebo as treatment; it is limited to the natural tools that the body has available.

“Placebos are good at influencing how we feel but there’s little evidence that they affect measures we’re not consciously aware of”
“Feeling great isn’t everything. We also want to be kept alive.”

Yet for those who do not feel great, placebos could offer a welcome improvement in the way they live. Certain patient groups, especially those with chronic conditions such as CFS / ME, reject that the mind can have such an important impact as they then feel they are being blamed for their illness. This separation of the mind and the body, and the biases such thinking uncovers, may be one reason why the treatments looked at in this book are often dismissed.

Another reason is the difficulty of obtaining funding for large scale clinical trials. Drugs companies are unlikely to support investigations into treatments that will lead to fewer expensive drugs being administered.

Living with long term stress has been shown to create physiological damage and to rewire the brain.

“people in a threat state take longer to recover to baseline once a task is over […] Over time, the extra strain on the heart can lead to hypertension. And as we’ve seen, repeated activation of cortisol can damage the immune system.”

The author investigates a variety of alternative treatments that attempt to train the body to deal with challenges and decrease the harm caused.

“Just as with physical exercise, if we put our bodies under a manageable amount of stress, then go home and rest, this eventually makes us stronger and more resilient.”

The effects of meditation and mindfulness are studied and compared to the effects of antidepressants. Once again, certain patients enjoy benefits yet many medical practitioners dismiss such treatments as nonsense, the proponents delusional. Prejudices are strong.

One problem with alternative and holistic treatments is the way modern medicine is practiced. In the UK an initial consultation typically involves a ten minute GP appointment with the expectation at the end that there will be a prescription or potential for surgical intervention. There may not be a pill for every ill but there could be minimally invasive and effective treatment if the patient is willing.

Drugs for stress, depression and chronic pain are costly with damaging side effects such as risk of addiction. Trials have shown time and again that mind-body techniques can work better on many. Despite the evidence, stigma remains.

Religion is shown to have a placebo effect although only if compassionate and accepting rather than threatening. A sense of belonging – the importance of community and damage caused by loneliness – are also investigated. There is a beneficial effect on health when a patient feels they are a part of something bigger.

“the prolonged impact of having the opportunity to live your life in a way that you find meaningful”

The author is asking: if an alternative treatment works for a patient then why mock and dismiss it? It is clearly stated that a patient may not simply wish themselves better yet there are ways in which the conscious mind can influence outcomes and deal better with painful situations. There is also the argument that keeping alternative medicine within the NHS allows for regulation and the ability to offer conventional treatments as needed. The potential for harm is acknowledged, such as when proven beneficial medications such as vaccines are withheld for spurious reasons.

Each chapter contains details of a variety of patients’ experiences alongside interviews with clinicians and references to papers and journals in which studies are detailed. Throughout, the writing is warm and accessible, the tone clear and inquiring rather than dogmatic. The reader may decide for themselves if improvements in health are worthwhile even if treatment cannot always be fully, scientifically explained in the traditionally accepted way.

Any Cop?: This is a fascinating approach to a controversial subject. The author offers due diligence and a willingness to look for facts without prejudice. The workings of the mind may not yet be fully understood by doctors but this doesn’t mean it cannot be harnessed for innovative and effective treatments. The book offers a compelling and persuasive contribution to a wider conversation. It may change the way rational and informed readers view alternative medicine.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Not a Hazardous Sport

First published in 1988, Not a Hazardous Sport by Nigel Barley offers an account of the author’s travels to and around the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia. For a few months he lived amongst the Torajan people, known in academic circles for the carvings on their buildings and their traditional ancestor culture. Barley interacts mostly with the men and this is reflected in the narrative. As an anthropologist he is there to observe. To get the most from the book the reader would be advised to set aside certain western sensibilities – something I struggled with. I baulked at many of the attitudes described, especially towards women. Certain incidents involving animals were also upsetting.

The author travels to Indonesia to undertake ethnographic fieldwork. Funds are limited so he travels economically. His preparations and the journey, although undoubtedly trying, are recounted with humour. A stopover in Singapore, where he stays with a Malay family, includes a visit to a red light district much to the discomfort of his hosts. This set the scene for conversations that would occur throughout the book. Women are sexually objectified, expected to produce babies and look after the home, children and the men. Whilst recognising that this was the accepted culture I would have liked to read of the women’s thoughts on how they were treated and if they desired change.

Indonesia is described with fondness despite its dangerous transport, mosquito infestations and often uncomfortable accommodation. The author describes the people as largely welcoming – impressive given the appalling behaviour of other tourists. He visits several villages, befriending those he meets and staying in their homes. The exchange rate makes him comparatively wealthy and he enjoys his ability to pay generously for services rendered.

The book is written as a series of descriptions of journeys and encounters. I found the cock fight episode distressing – I suspect the author wished to demonstrate the humour of the situation. A ritual he attended that required the killing of a buffalo offers up a picture of a painful and drawn out death for the poor animal, yet this entertains the local children. In a later chapter a bus driver deliberately runs over a puppy.

Other behaviours described increased my distaste for these men. They would wake up each morning and noisily clear mucus and phlegm from noses and throats – not a scene I want to have in my head.  It was, of course, interesting to learn of western habits that they observed with similar disgust. My recoil is not an attempt to take any sort of moral high ground.

At the time of writing Indonesia was changing. Many traditional beliefs were being abandoned for Christianity. Buildings with galvanised iron roofs rather than bamboo tiles were regarded as modern. Woven cloaks coloured with plant dyes were no longer as popular as those made from rayon.

Following his stay the author invites a small group of men to travel to London and build a traditional rice barn at the Museum of Mankind. The final chapter describes the reaction of these Indonesians to English habits and behaviour. Their experiences have repercussions when they return to their country.

Although well written and witty in places, I struggled to engage with the author’s portrayal. He may have been fond of those he met, impressed by their openness and welcome; my reaction was largely negative. I would have preferred a more rounded representation of a country populated by more than just men. From an anthropological point of view there is much of interest. As a casual reader I was put-off Indonesia.

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