When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi (2016)


I had an amazing read of Paul Kalanithi’s autobiography called “When Breath Becomes Air.” Kalanithi was a young surgeon (aged 36) and in the final year of his neurosurgical residency when he received the troubling diagnosis of terminal lung cancer. He had none of the risk factors for this cancer, so it was totally out of the blue and arrived right at the time of his life when he’s just about to finish the arduous training and begin his “real” life of being a surgeon. He and his wife are both physicians so they know what the CT scans show, and when they hear that Kalanithi has about one year to live, what to do, what to do.

And so this short but powerful read is a meditation on what life means, both philosophically and in real life: Kalanithi is a philosopher as much as he is a surgeon and so this reads as more of an existential meander through those final months. It’s got the medical stuff in there, as well, but it’s more of an intellectual journey than you would expect, and though I am not well-versed in the old serious thinkers of yore, it was still an educational ride through this sad time.

As Kalanithi has received this terminal diagnosis, what does that mean for him (apart from the physical process of dying)? He mixes intellectual thought with thoughts of a more pragmatic nature (Which treatment should he have? Should he even attempt treatment at this point? What about having a child with his wife?), and so it’s a very thoughtful book best read slowly so you can digest what is being said.

Highly recommend this title if you’re a fan of physician authors such as Abraham Verghese or Atul Gwande – this is the same genre but a less straight-forward read due to philosophical questions Kalanithi addresses. This one definitely makes you think. (Or it did me, at any rate.)

From Middle England: A Memory of the Thirties – Philip Oakes (1980)

book363I have no idea where I found this title – probably a random pick at the FoL sale one year – but the title jumped into my hands when I was scanning my bookshelves the other day. What it is, actually, is an autobiography of a man’s childhood in the 1930’s up in Stoke, near what’s called “The Potteries” in England.

It’s a pretty normal childhood – nothing too extremely bad or great – a fact that made it very easy for me to connect to the author and his life as explained by his writing. In fact, this certainly reminded me of “Cider with Rosie” (Laurie Lee, 1960), but this one with a more serious and slightly different tone to it.

Oakes’ childhood mainly took place in the 1930’s in England. It’s a time of childhood fun, but also the time is tinged with the unavoidable memory that WWII is just about to break out (1939), and so there is a persistent and vague sense of anticipation and excitement for Oakes. He is a child after all, and all he knows of war is what he’s read in books and heard from relatives similar, as Oakes describes, as the “excitement before a birthday party”…

Oakes’ family lived in the Potteries in northern England, an area known for its pottery industry (thus the moniker) and all that is associated with that: heavily working class, factories, smoke in the air (and the smell)… His mother was a single mother (a stigma in the 1930’s) who was also struggling with severe ill health, so money was tight.

Stoke on Trent (or the Potteries) is quite high up on the left...

Stoke on Trent (or the Potteries) is quite high up on the left…

However, the one thing that his relatives put above all else was the importance of a good education, so when young Philip was offered the opportunity to attend an elite private school down south, the family must have been so excited knowing that this was the chance for Philip to leave his childhood to become something more that was possible otherwise. (Not so sure about Philip!)

So he goes to boarding school down south which is of course a different world for him – new friends, new school, new uniform, new rules…

“Dawdling was not allowed. It frayed moral fiber. It encouraged idleness. It was the antithesis of all that Mr. Gibbon [school headmaster] stood for…”

The private boarding school takes both boys and girls, but the genders are divided by living in separate wings of the establishment so they rarely seem to meet. The narrative relates the antics enjoyed by Philip and his new friend Carpenter: they raid the kitchen late at night for midnight feasts (sometimes helped by the maids who were only a few years older), they scrump apples, and have a secret club in the boiler room… Very Enid Blyton (except not so cuddly and warm).

It’s the 1930’s but the school is very old-fashioned with a lengthy history – strict uniforms were the rule, an hour to write home on Sundays and expectations that pupils support their school houses in football/soccer by standing on the lines in the rain on dreary Saturday afternoons.

Interestingly enough, a lot of the memories that Oakes mentions happened to overlap with mine of life in my old private all-girls school (about 650 students) growing up in England even though it was fifty years later. (The more things change…) My twin sister and I attended the same school (along with 90% of our friends) from when we were 6 to until we finished our A-levels when we were 18. We were very lucky in many ways to have this experience and it’s one that I look back on with fondness most of the time.

My old school in England in 1982 - Bedford High School....

My old school in England in 1982 – Bedford High School….

Our school had very strict cultural rules which governed friendship, lunchtime, and all the other important parts of growing up in that milieu. Lunchtime rules and expectations was that whoever sat at the head of the table (and rules decided which end of the table was “head”) would serve lunch to the others sitting there and then after lunch, the playground opened up to another set of generally accepted rules. One lunch rule that I clearly remember was that the first person to touch the salt and pepper and say “veins” would also be immune from doing “the cloth” which referred to wiping down the table after lunch. (Gross at the best of times.) Anyway, these expectations weren’t really talked about but everyone was aware of them and generally followed them to the letter.

Oakes’ descriptions of the school’s morning assembly was really similar to how our school organized ours, even down to the typical hymns that were chosen on special occasions, the organ that accompanied them and the rows of school pupils listening to the headmaster (or mistress in our case) as s/he read the results of the cricket team, the date and topic of the next school debate, and asking who had engaged in minor misdemeanors such as a missing pair of gloves from someone’s coat pocket.

As I look back on that experience of going to a public (which means private in England) school in England, it was idyllic in a lot of ways as an educational experience, but I must admit that I did leave it feeling very unprepared to face the world. (It was generally assumed by the school that most pupils would be going to university, but if you weren’t one of the pupils who followed that well-worn path (i.e. me), the school wasn’t really focused on giving you tools to handle that. If you’re going to go to the Great Unknown such an American university (which we did), then you’re on your own, sister.

It’s great to live in a world with widely accepted rules and most of your friends in the same boat, but when that was the case (as in moi) and you leave that educational vacuum, it’s strange to need to make new friends and not have the comfort of a regimented class schedule.

Our group of (naughty) friends on a BHS trip to Boulogne (or Calais) in 1978...

Our group of (naughty) friends on a BHS trip to Boulogne (or Calais) in 1978… (I’m in the middle.)

Don’t get me wrong: I adored the experience of going to a private school and would probably have been eaten alive in a comprehensive if I needed to go there. If I had kids, I would try and replicate the social side of my old school life for them. It’s just that the whole school thing didn’t really give me the tools I would need to succeed once I’d stepped outside into the real world for the first time. (Sink or swim after that, my friends.)

However, lessons were learned, skills were developed, all is well and I expect that the overall school experience is very different now.

Way off track there wrt the book, but if you’re ever curious about life in private school in the early-mid twentieth century (and up to the 70s), then this book will give you a good idea. I really enjoyed it and it brought back many happy memories of school days. Recommend it.

March: Part Two – John Lewis/Nate Powell (2015)


After having read and really enjoyed March: Part One, I ILL’d Part Two which was only recently published this year. This book covered the civil rights battle just after it had started with the student restaurant counter sit-ins and other forms of non-violent protest. (The movement with which John Lewis is closely associated with aligns very strongly with Ghandian principles of non-violence to achieve change. I’m sorry to say that not everyone followed the same set of principles at times.)

The narrative is structured with a back-and-forth in time between the burgeoning civil rights protest movement and the ceremony where Barack Obama was sworn in to be U.S. President in 2009. This was a good way to contrast how far the movement had gone since its early days so as the reader jumped between 2009 and back to the 1960s, there was no denying just how hard the protestors had worked to get recognized.

The battle’s early years were marked mostly with points of action spread across a few states at fairly random intervals and only vaguely connected. The later years show a much more cohesive movement, with by-laws and official leadership and meeting with state and national officials.

They were also marked by a much more vicious response from the whites who were threatened by the uprising and who, in response, chose violence. The black and white graphics in this book are an ideal medium to show this – violence can be very black and white when you’re in the middle of a passionate and important battle – and when I was reading this, there were moments when I was holding my breath with a racing heart as I saw how horrible people were to each other.

It’s impossible for me to relate to how members of the Ku Klux Klan reacted during this time. What was possibly going to happen to them if the African-American population got the vote that justified this level of vitriolic hate? I know that there are a lot of history, cultural subtexts, and social constraints to consider, but it seems so far out of my view that anyone would hate someone else enough to do these heinous acts that it’s very difficult for me to understand.

And, curiously for me, it only happened a few years ago really. I was born in 1963 in England, and it was around this time (just a few months earlier) that the March on Washington, MLK Jr. , and the race riots were in full swing in the southern states. It was in my lifetime, and yet it seems so far away when people talk about it. Black and white photos, old model cars, and unforgivable behavior.

And then I remember the bravery of the Freedom Riders who rode buses to bring desegregation to the rural areas of Mississippi and Georgia, the courage of the young men and women of both races who stood up in the face of hate, and who, honestly, risked their lives to right this wrong. I remember the ordinary men and women who registered African-Americans for voting privileges, and both the Kennedys (Jack and John) for playing leadership roles in getting this fight sorted out in the most morally correct way. And how we now have an African-American President here. All most amazing really when you think about it.

Learning more about the African-American experience in the U.S. has been eye-opening. If these violent events happened in your lifetime (or that of your parents and grandparents), I can understand how hard it must be trust white people a lot of the time (on a large scale). There have been years of evidence that reflect how slightly the White Establishment regarded a huge part of their own population, and so when viewed through that lens, Ferguson, the L.A. riots and others are not so surprising.

However, then you look back at the Ghandian principles that the original Freedom Riders followed, of non-violence, of peaceful protest, and then wonder how did it all go so wrong sometimes?

Oh well. One can dream.

(Part of JOMP’s Black History Month recognition.)


Coasting: A Private Voyage – Jonathan Raban (1987)


“People who live on continents get into the habit of regarding the ocean as a journey’s end… For people who live on small islands, the sea is always the beginning…”

Having already read (pre-blog) Raban’s Bad Lands about his travels across North Dakota and co., I knew that this would probably be a great read as well. And it was.

Raban is a travel writer of sorts who journeys to see the world but also to navigate his interior terrain of memories and experiences along the way. (It sounds very boring and naval-gaze-y, but he maintains a balance on interior/exterior monologue that works.) For this volume, Raban decides to renovate a small boat and then to sail it tightly around the coast of Scotland, England and Wales (although Ireland was in sight at times if the weather was clear) and this is exactly what the book describes most of the time.

UK_map_coastalAlthough I have no real experience of a boat or sailing or tides or anything nautical really, I do enjoy reading about such topics and it was rather fun to follow Raban as he sails south down the west coast of Britain, stopping in at various ports of call along the way. He stops off for a time on the Isle of Man (which he describes with a good sense of humor and observation), and then follows the Irish Sea down to Wales and then around the corner of Land’s End. Along the way, he narrates his sailing experience along with some present and past history of the land he passes.

Written in the early 1980’s, it’s when there was a Thatcher government and the Falkland Islands war had just broken out. The UK miners’ strike was in progress, and high unemployment throughout the country. (This was referenced in the music of the time: Remember the group UB40? That group name was actually the name of the government form that you had to fill out when you were unemployed. And their song “I Am a One in 10” refers to the high unemployment rate at the time. So now you know…)

It was really interesting to read about this time in UK history as I was only 19 when it occurred and all this was very much on the periphery of my life at the time. (I was much more excited and interested in my near-future move to the United States than I was about some vague political struggle at the end of South America and governmental unrest.)

So it was a really fascinating read on many levels: recent history, long-past history, then-current governmental relations all mixed with Raban having personal reminisces of his unhappy days at boarding school and meeting up with Paul Theroux, another travel writer who seems to be constantly in a bad mood wherever he is.

Raban’s journey takes him around places that I haven’t heard mention of since I was a child: Anglesey in Wales, Cornwall, Portsmouth, Norfolk  – and I was very grateful for my book edition to have a map in the frontispiece so I could track his navigation. It was fun to see where he went and then read about his experiences along the way.


Tidal chart of the English Channel in 1880

And you know what I also found really interesting? The sailing part of this journey. As mentioned, I have next-to-little experience of boats and when people do engage in nautical talk, I get a bit lost. When sailors start talking about tidal charts and the Shipping Weather Forecast, it’s almost about a different planet at times, so it was great to expand my knowledge slightly in this area. Raban knows a lot about the sea and how it works generally, and he had clear explanations which enabled me, as the reader, to access this heretofore secret world (which I loved). Loads of new words to look up and learn.

Although this book got to a rather slow start, once I had buckled down and got into the narrative, it was a fast and fascinating read. I’m definitely going to track down more of Raban’s backlist in the future.

This is my nautical experience really...

This is my nautical experience really…

The Bite of the Mango – Mariatu Kamara and Susan McClelland (2008)

Bite of the Mango bookAfter having this on the TBR pile for ages, I finally pulled it off the shelf and read it. I had been hoping for so much more (similar to the read of Monique and the Mango Rains), but it was not to be. That’s not to denigrate the story or experiences of this author in any way. I just could not seem to connect with this young girl as she told her story via a Western journalist.

The true story is compelling – Sierra Leone is taken over by rebels who attack small villages. Any villagers unfortunate enough to be caught by the renegades have atrocities committed against them, and in this particular case, the young woman is caught and has her hands cut off and she has to walk to the next town to get medical care etc. So – yes. It’s a riveting story. So why wasn’t I pulled into it like some other books?

The story is first-person narrative, but is filtered through a Western journalist and written in a very simplistic style – very “Dick and Jane go to town” structure. I wasn’t sure I could make it through a book written like this, but then rationalized it by saying that the story is autobiographical and “perhaps this is a tool to see what happened through the young girl’s eyes”.

But it didn’t really get any better after that. I really wanted to love this – however, it was not to be. I finished it, but it was rather a trial in the end. That’s a shame as the story is mostly compelling and needs to be told. Perhaps just not in this style.

The Story of My Life – Helen Keller (1902)

Helen Keller



Who has taught the deaf to speak

and enabled the listening ear to hear speech

from the Atlantic to the Rockies,

I dedicate this Story of My Life.


This is the autobiography of the young Helen Keller, written when she was 22 and a student at all-female college Radcliffe. Although this is the writing of a young person (and with the weaknesses associated with that), this is a passionate reading experience that describes life for a woman who was hearing- and sight-impaired at the turn of the twentieth century in the U.S…  It’s an amazing story of obstacles overcome at a time when even women who had few physical challenges were limited in scope with regard to education and career. The fact that Helen Keller did all these things with the physical obstacles that she had makes it even more admirable.

When Helen was 19 months old, she contracted “an acute congestion of the stomach and the brain” (perhaps scarlet fever or meningitis?) which led to her losing her vision and hearing. She had been able to see and hear before, but now she couldn’t, and this sudden isolation lead to Keller developing behavioral problems, and many in her family felt that she should be institutionalized.

When she was 6, her mother read Dickens’s travel writing called “American Notes”, and found out about the successful education of another blind/deaf young girl. Her parents sent her to Baltimore to see a famous doc there who had treated this other girl, and he then introduced her to Alexander Graham Bell (working w deaf children at the time and inventor of telephone). Through Bell, the family learned about a good school of the blind, and there, the family was put in touch with Anne Sullivan, who was also sight-impaired and who would become Helen’s governess and companion.

Keller portraitProficient in a handful of different languages, well read, eloquent – this is all amazing because she was hearing-impaired and sight-impaired. Not to say that people who have those are stupid or inadequate, but saying that I can only imagine that learning esoteric subjects as Greek and maths must have been even more of a challenge if you can’t see what’s going on (the symbols, alphabet etc.) . (How to describe an algebraic formula, for example, using spelling in the palm of your hand??) I could both see and hear and had a formal education, and I still had problems with algebra and geometry…

Written in her second year at Radcliffe at age of 22, Keller’s writing reflects her youth and she has worries that are typical of most college students: finals and tests, how to sort out the never-ending new information that you learn every day, wishing to hang out with your friends instead of having to take the extra time to listen your text books being read out loud…  There is absolutely no sense of self-pity although she is very honest about getting grumpy and frustrated every now and then (as one does).

Here is a quotation about how Keller feels going to college at Radcliffe:

Before me I saw a new world opening in beauty and light, and I felt within me the capacity to know all things. In the wonderland of Mind I should be as free as another. Its people, scenery, manners, joys, tragedies should be living, tangible interpreters of the real world.

keller coinHowever, she missed having time to reflect during her undergrad years: “One goes to college to learn, it seems, not to think… When one enters the portals of learning, one leaves the dearest pleasures – solitude, books, and imagination – outside with the whispering pines…” and it’s tough to concentrate on the information being taught as there is so much so fast (as it was being translated into manual language spelled into her hands by teacher Anne Sullivan). Keller writes that she “cannot make notes during the lectures because my hands are busy listening…” What a great description, don’t you think?

Her attitude is fabulous. For example, here is a quotation from her about her early college experience:

For, after all, everyone who wishes to gain true knowledge must climb the Hill Difficulty alone, and since there is no royal road to the summit, I must zigzag it in my own way. I slip back many times, I fall, I stand still, I run against the edge of hidden obstacles, I lose my temper and find it again and keep it better, I trudge on, I gain a little, I feel encouraged, I get more eager and climb higher and begin to see the widening horizon. Every struggle is a victory.

Books were extremely important to Keller as they helped her to learn what other people learned through sight and hearing. The first book she remembers making an impact was Little Lord Fauntleroy which was spelled out on her hand, one letter at a time.  When she reads a good book, “My physical limitations are forgotten—my world lies upward, the length and the breadth and the sweep of the heavens are mine!”

Keller was the first deaf/blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree, and as she became older, became more politically involved campaigning for women’s suffrage, labor rights, socialism, birth control supporter and other causes. She played an instrumental role in founding the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Helen Keller International organization which funded research on blindness and awareness of that.

In 1964, Helen was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of the U.S. highest civilian honors, and in 2003, Alabama honored her (born in AL) on its state quarter.

As was the time, before her political opinions were known, much was made of her courage and intelligence in media; once it became known that she supported “radical” (for back then) left causes, then it seemed that people focused more on her disabilities and used them to discredit her. (The more things change… )

A good read about a fascinating experience faced head-on. It’s good to be reminded of how great life can be sometimes.

Random aside #1: Keller is credited with having introduced the Akita dog breed to the U.S. after a visit to Japan in 1937.

Random Aside #2: Alexander Graham Bell’s mother had been hearing-impaired and had learned to play the piano despite not being able to hear. His grandfather was also interested in elocution and speech correction. His father designed Visible Speech technique which helped hearing-impaired people communicate more easily. Born in Scotland, but his family moved to the US for health reasons where his father taught for a while at the Boston School for Deaf Mutes [sic]. His father was unable to accept the job for a long period of time, so the school offered the position to son Alexander, whose interest was piqued by voice transmission and thus was born in a roundabout way and in collaboration with Thomas Watson, the telephone.

So – now you know….

The Sanctuary of Outcasts – Neil White (2009)

Sanctuary of Outcasts book coverThis was quite a provocative read for me and told an interesting history of a place I had not heard of. Neil White was convicted of kiting checks for his business (more than one time), and although he skated through the first time, he was caught red-handed after that.

The prison where White was sentenced was Carville, Louisiana, and was a former leprosarium – a former care facility for people with Hansen’s Disease (or leprosy) who share their home with minimum security felons. There is much made of this contrast between White the convict (who sees himself as a handsome blue-eyed white boy with interior deformities) and the colony patients (who are portrayed as deformed on the outside to the human eye but morally lovely inside).  (This comparison was clumsy at best, and made as subtly as a substantial kick in the head.) The actual history of Carville itself (and the care facility) was absolutely fascinating – the story of White less so, but as it is his memoir, we get lots more White.

I read the book halfway and was quite annoyed at the author at this point. Here is what I wrote at the 50% point:

“White does not seem to feel regret for his crime – only for being caught. He reports that he “mishandled” the money and that it was “for the good of my family” – and then what makes it OK for you and not the thousands of other people who also have families and choose not to steal (which is what you were doing)?  You stole money, Mr. White. That’s it plain and simple. Do not rationalize your bad behavioural choices. There is no grey area here. You did or you did not. In this case, you did…”

OK. Having now finished the book, this beginning section makes more sense (although it does strike me as somewhat manipulative to the reader). White ends up vowing change his ways and as the book progresses (and there is one large life-affecting event), you as the reader can follow his journey. (Well, not far as he is in prison for 99% of this book.)

This was a fast read with short chapters, but I am still not a big fan on White. He seems to be a bit of jerk and didn’t seem to be sincere about his changes in prison. I don’t know – perhaps he did, but he spins rather a hyperbolic story here (perhaps thinking of how Hollywood could handle it at some point).

Some niggling bits for me included some careless editing and repetition of facts (within a short span), and White went on and on about the nuns at the start of the story, but then never mentions them again (except vaguely during regular church services). I’m sure the nuns were mentioned with the heavy-handed goal of comparing good/angelic (nuns et al.) with bad boys (convicts) but this ball gets dropped pretty quickly.

One thing I did appreciate was the structure of the narrative. The book begins (naturally) at the start of White’s prison sentence and is then divided into sections reflecting the seasons of the year (summer etc.) This traces the expected narrative arc (Happy summer. Unhappy dark winter) so it could be argued that this reflects White’s maturity and growth (perhaps his redemption) as he learns from his experience. (Or, if one were being grumpy, it could be argued that this was a trite and unoriginal way to demonstrate growth of the protagonist.)

I think the biggest issue I had with this memoir was that, despite its interesting history, this was a rather tired storyline with a character who I don’t really like that much or have that much empathy for.  I don’t need to like a character in a book to enjoy the story (think Stone Angel, Doris Lessing’s characters or Margaret Fountaine), but I think that there does need to be some redeeming characteristics for the protagonist, and tbh, I couldn’t see enough of these to really care.


How to be a Woman – Caitlin Moran (2011)

I had seen this title floating for quite some time around the blogospheres, and so I picked it up always curious about how (one) younger woman feels about feminism. Is it still an important cause for young women (i.e. women younger than me)? Is the cupcake/domesticity/pink princess trend a positive trend for women’s progress in society? Or is it even that simple?

Being the elderly age I am (nearly 50 – holy cow, that’s old), I have been keenly aware of women’s progress throughout my life, both from having attended an all-girls’ school (which was slightly aware of these things), having a mother who was aware of things, and then from delving into things myself. I can well remember specific incidents of gender discrimination, and although it really annoyed me, I wasn’t the type of person to actually address the incident face to face.

In fact, the one time I did address it in the US, it backfired.   I was lifeguarding and had an awful weird boss – and when we (the female lifeguards as a group) did bring his behavior to the attention of the big bosses, they just said we were being “too sensitive.” However, this was just before the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings so the system wasn’t set up for that as it is now. I do know that if our group had registered the same complaint in recent years, there would have been consequences for him (the horrible boss), but at the time, it was “just a bunch of girls not taking a joke”.

So – now, after having learned about how hard it was for women to get their rights on so many things (even ownership of their own lives), I appreciate how far women have come in both the UK and in the US. (I recognize elsewhere is different.) However, I am wondering if the female college student of today, the typical one here in Texas (if there is such a person) – does this generation appreciate the struggles that their forerunners had? Or do you think that (some) younger women just see all the rights (even as a female voter) as always having been there and therefore to be nothing too special? Do you think “familiarity breeds contempt” in this issue and that because the rights have always been available to them that they don’t seem that special?

I am not judging people, by any means. Just wondering, really. I wonder if people who are in their teens or twenties (or even perhaps thirties) really understand that women used to be property, that women didn’t have a say in anything (not even in the home or domestic sphere)… or do you think it’s viewed (generally) as being something that happened so long ago and is so ingrained in the culture that it’s not even recognized as being a right? It just is, and therefore not worth talking about. I don’t know, and I am certainly not saying that all younger women everywhere feel this way (if they do). But Moran’s book has been provocative in how she views feminism from a younger perspective.

She’s a music journalist in the UK, probably mid-thirties, and has a lot to say. I am all for debating issues, but at the same time, I do want all the players to be informed about said issues or it’s a waste of time  and misleading for people. Moran has some strengths and some weaknesses (as we all do), and she is (of course) pro-feminism (Strident Feminism, as she calls it), but her lack of clarity (and sometimes fact) weakens her discussion.

Is Feminism a dirty topic nowadays? Is it a done deal for the younger women in First World Countries? I have seen articles that state that some younger women now view “Feminists” as being hairy and anti-men, and that they would rather not call themselves that at all. (Perhaps this is a regional thing as well.)

I don’t know the answers, but I do find the topic fascinating. Moran’s book has been portrayed as a manifesto in some ways, but I don’t pick that up  at all. Yes, she advocates being a “Strident Feminist” to maintain the freedoms and rights that women have nowadays, but at the same time, she also blithely states ideas that are blatantly misinformed. She scoffs at people who argue that women’s history is there in the records  – that women did do admirable achievements in the world of science and other areas. Moran states that women’s history is not there NOT because it is hidden and the patriarchy has covered it up, but that women’s history is not there because women didn’t do anything.  Yes, that’s right. Until Moran came along, nothing remotely historical or note-worthy had been done by a woman anywhere ever in the world.

What. On.  Earth. Is.  She. Talking. About?….

And that argument affected how I read the rest of her book. I couldn’t take anything else she said seriously. How could one argue that position nowadays and still call oneself a Strident Feminist (her words)? It just doesn’t make any sense to me and is not truthful. Of course, women have done notable things (apart from have babies and dominate the domestic sphere)? How can you argue otherwise when the evidence is there and easily accessible, especially nowadays with the internet et al.?

I do see that I am probably not really her target audience. There is the possibility that she is being satirical about this, but if she is, it’s not consistent throughout the book. However, I think that if you’re going to write a book called “How to be a Woman” that you actually have to have your facts straight, even if it is opinion-based. Perhaps this is all ok if the book itself is categorized as “memoir” as opposed to straight non-fiction, and opinion is fine in this situation. I just see this book as somewhat of a “bait and switch” and an opportunity lost really to remind some (particularly younger) women that being a feminist is not a bad thing and that it could all change very rapidly. (Witness some of the election talk that has been going on.)

So – provocative book? Yes. Well written? Yes. But I hope that its (younger) readers will be encouraged to go off and fill in all the huge gaps that Moran leaves open with regard to feminism and women’s rights. (Moran is amazingly know-it-all about feminist theory, it seems, and yet she really only mentions Germaine Greer as her main reference. Greer is also used as a reviewer on the cover blurb. A mutual lovefest.)

This was really one of the most annoying books that I have forced myself to read this year.

My Stroke of Insight – Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D. (2008)

A friend has passed this book on to me saying that it was a good read, and as I was searching for a book that covered a subject very far removed from Victorian history (just for a change), I picked this one up. It’s a non-fiction that documents (autobiographically) how the author had an unexpected stroke in her late thirties and how it has affected her life. It’s also an interesting twist in it in that the author is also a neuroscientist and so this has deeply colored how she relates this medical experience.

It’s a fascinating portrayal of the long journey to recovery (post-stroke) and the steps she had to take along with the different choices she made. Her stroke left her completely unable to access her left hemisphere of the brain (unusual type of stroke, fairly common location for one) and so she had to re-learn how to talk, walk, speak, eat etc. (The left hemisphere of the brain attends to linear decision-making, the details of life, and I think memory among other things), and so there was this astounding process of discovery for her.

Since she had been a noted scientist in the mental health field prior to this event, it was also a big shift for her self-identity and it was tough for her to remember ( as I think it would be for anyone else) that just because she had a stroke did not mean that she was now “less than” she had been – she was just different.

This topic was particularly interesting for me as my father had had a stroke in 2001 and I feel that I was spectacularly uninformed about strokes, how they affect people in their various manifestations, and the process of recovery so this was really helpful for me. I realize that each person will have his/her own experience of a stroke (should they have one), but this was a particularly well-written of this one woman’s experience. Somehow, the author managed to recall with striking recall all the details of how her stroke felt to her from the minute it started to the end of the process.

This would have been very helpful to know when my father was dealing with the brief aftermath of his when he was still alive, as we (as a family) had little to no idea how to help him or even what had really happened. I believe he had had a left hemisphere stroke, and so his language abilities were strongly affected. Losing language (left brain) would cause so many challenges and obstacles (as related in this narrative) that it would require enormous patience and skill for family members and the caregivers who surround that patient.

From reading this person’s experience, it seems that it would be very tough indeed for people on both sides of the recovery process, and so I would think that reading this fairly down-to-earth recount of how a stroke affected this one person could only be helpful.

Bolte Taylor was also very helpful in reminding me (as a reader) to live in the present moment more – this is not a new concept for me, but it certainly is a tough one for me to live by and remember. As Bolte Taylor wrote:

“I may not be in control of what happens to my life, but I certainly am in charge of how I choose to process my experience…”

I found this to be a riveting read that I gobbled down in one day and would highly recommend it to any interested peeps out there.

Shooting the Boh: A Woman’s Voyage Down the Wildest River in Borneo – Tracy Johnston (1995)

An enjoyable and fairly light romp as we tag along with author Tracy Johnston as she joins a small group of people on a trip to explore the Boh river in Borneo. Here, we have the typical mix of characters who alternately clash and get along with each other, and some really strong descriptions of being stuck in the rain forest during inclement weather, diminishing food supplies and an awful lot of unknowns. (This portion of the river had not been officially mapped before so was, essentially, unknown, map-wise. The native tribal people may have traveled through it previously, but with nothing official to support that. The trip was sponsored by an adventure travel business to see if the trip was viable.)

One thing right after another seemed to go wrong right from the start. Johnston’s well-prepared luggage was lost right when she landed, so she was forced to buy or beg supplies locally. She was in her 40’s, and was the oldest woman in the group of which she was acutely aware and had a tough time with. This was not helped by the fact that she recently hurt her back which meant that she couldn’t do as much physically as she would have liked. (This would have been frustrating for me as well.)

Additionally, the environment was very humid (of course), no breeze to evaporate your body sweat, and on and off rain storms with inadequate gear (due to the lost luggage). So it was challenging. Still, the book was well written as I could really sympathize with her plight. (I am truly awful with heat + hunger + tired or any combination of the three. She had all three at the same time. I would have been in tears.)

Despite these challenges (and the interpersonal challenges of her group mates), the author ended up appreciating this hot and humid river adventure. There is no way that I would sign up to do that (see note above re: heat/hunger/tired), but I enjoyed reading this and experiencing vicariously.

Pretty good read…