Australia, Author, Book review, food, nature, Non-fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Reading Projects, Richard Flanagan, Setting, TBR 21

‘Toxic: The Rotting Underbelly of the Tasmanian Salmon Industry’ by Richard Flanagan

Non-fiction – paperback; Penguin; 240 pages; 2021.

I have not eaten red meat for 30 years, but I consume a lot of fish. I love salmon, whether fresh, smoked or hot smoked.

I knew that when I picked up this non-fiction expose of the Tasmanian salmon industry I was toying with fire. “This is going to put me off eating salmon for life, isn’t it?” I declared when the bookseller I purchased it from told me this was the sixth copy he’d sold in a matter of hours. He just laughed and said, “Come back and let me know!”

Well, I haven’t been back yet, but the answer is exactly what I knew it would be. It’s doubtful I will eat Tasmanian farmed salmon ever again.

A thorough investigation

Written by Booker prize-winner Richard Flanagan, Toxic is a no holds barred investigation into the dubious practices of farming Atlantic salmon in Tasmania, specifically the D’Entrecasteaux Channel, a body of water that separates Bruny Island from the Tasmanian mainland and which acts as the mouth of the estuaries of the Derwent and Huon Rivers and empties into the Tasman Sea.

Flanagan explains how this channel, once a renowned beauty spot and sleepy backwater, has become environmentally degraded by an industry that puts profit before all else. He also shows how the product, which is marketed as clean and healthy, is anything but. It’s an eye-opening, stomach-churning and anger-inducing read.

I regard myself as an educated person, someone who is interested in the provenance of my food and who cares deeply about nature, but Toxic has exposed the glaring omissions in my knowledge and made me realise how naive I am when it comes to buying — and eating — farmed salmon.

Here’s just a handful of things I did not know — and which greatly alarmed me:

¶  The salmon is dyed so that it appears a healthy-looking pink and is more palatable to the consumer. This dye — synthetic astaxanthin — is made from petrochemicals.

Just as you use colour swatches to choose house paint, the salmon corporations use colour swatches to choose their salmon’s colour.

¶  Farmed salmon is not necessarily good for you. That’s because the fish’s fatty profile has changed as a consequence of the diet they are fed which is plant-based, rather than fish-based, so that the salmon now contain more omega-6 oils, the so-called “bad” fats, rather than omega-3 oils, which are better for you.

¶  Salmon farming is driving deforestation because the fish are fed a plant-based diet. Fishmeal, it turns out, is too expensive to feed, so farmers source protein from other food streams to cut costs. In Tasmania, the majority of this protein is chicken-based (a revolting mix of heads, feet, intestines and so on, mainly sourced from battery hens), but the fish are also fed soy, which comes from South America.

Illegal deforestation to create new soy farms in South America, particularly in the Amazon and Cerrado, is deeply embedded in the rise of the salmon industry globally and throws a long shadow over any attempt by the local industry to present salmon as a green product.

The fish live in horrendous conditions, crammed into “feedlots” where they barely have room to swim. These lots are often stacked one on top of another in towers of up to 20 metres in height, “down which faeces and urine rain”.

The image of thousands of cows slowly suffocating to death in a smog-polluted shed would be unacceptable. The reality of thousands of salmon slowly suffocating to death on a hot day as oxygen levels collapse is less questioned.

Fish farms are noisy. They work around the clock using heavy diesel compressors to oxygenate the water. To avoid salmon stock being killed by amoebic gill disease, the fish also need to be “bathed” in giant freshwater bladders on a monthly, sometimes fortnightly, rotation. They are mechanically vacuumed out of their feedlots into the bladders, then sucked out again. And then there are all the attendant boats and the industrial lighting required to enable workers to see what they are doing, so that residents living onshore are plagued by light and noise pollution 24/7.

I could go on, but it’d be easier for me to tell you to read the book. You might end up underlining the entire thing, which is what I was tempted to do when I wasn’t feeling nauseous by the horrendous facts that pile up on top of one another like bodies in a mass grave (I make no apology for that simile).

An industry mired in secrecy

Knowing all this, the first question you might well ask is how is this legal?

Flanagan painstakingly documents the corruption at the heart of the industry, which claims to be regulated but is really mired in secrecy and cover-ups. He talks to leading scientists and activists and a host of brave people who have spoken out against the industry’s practices. It doesn’t make for pleasant or comfortable reading.

It’s thoroughly researched and completely up-to-date (there are references to things that happened as recently as March 2021), but unfortunately, Toxic doesn’t possess an index, which is infuriating if you wish to look something up afterwards. There is, however, an extensive list of references and sources.

I can’t say I am glad I read this book, because it means I can no longer in all good conscience continue to eat one of my favourite sources of protein, but it’s one of the best, and most chilling, non-fiction reads I’ve consumed in a long while.

Please note, Toxic: The Rotting Underbelly of the Tasmanian Salmon Industry doesn’t appear to be published outside of Australia, but you can order it from or try to source a used copy.

This is my 19h book for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it from my local independent book store last month.

Author, Book review, memoir, Non-fiction, Paul Kalanithi, Publisher, Vintage

‘When Breath Becomes Air’ by Paul Kalanithi

When breath becomes air

Non-fiction – paperback; Vintage; 228 pages; 2017.

What makes life worth living in the face of death? That’s the subtitle of When Breath Becomes Air, a life-affirming memoir — published posthumously — by Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer at the age of 36.

By all accounts, Kalanithi was an extraordinary man. He held several degrees — in English literature, human biology, and the history and philoso­phy of science and medicine — and spent a decade training to be a neurosurgeon. He also had a successful writing career and had pieces published in the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Paris Review Daily.  On top of this, he still managed to find the time to get married and have a child.

His driving force? The quest to answer questions that had plagued him for most of his adult life: what makes human life meaningful? If the unexamined life was not worth living, was the unlived life worth examining?

I felt literature provided the best account of the life of the mind, while neuroscience laid down the most elegant rules of the brain. Meaning, while a slippery concept, seemed inextricable from human relationships and moral values. […] Literature not only illuminated another’s experience, it provided, I believed, the richest material for moral reflection.

The book largely charts Kalanithi’s search for those answers over the course of his short life. It charts his American childhood in small town Arizona, the middle son of Indian immigrants who encouraged him to work hard. It follows his transformation from arts student to medical student, and the joy and meaning he found in his decade-long training as a neurosurgeon.

Later, we see how he rescues a troubled marriage in order to fulfil a long-term plan to become a father. And then, finally, we learn about his difficult switch from doctor to patient when his severe chest pain, back spasms, night sweats and weight loss is diagnosed as terminal cancer.

But through all this hard work, upheaval and illness there is one constant in Kalanithi’s life: books and reading. (The text is dotted with so many references to classics, poetry and modern fiction I felt entirely inadequate, because I haven’t come close to reading a quarter of the titles mentioned and I think I read quite a lot of novels.)

When Breath Becomes Air is written in an engaging, self-aware style. Kalanithi is at much at home explaining complicated medical procedures as he is writing about his own personal life and the things that make him tick. It’s intimate, moving, honest and profound.

As well as an in-depth reflection on mortality and death, it is very much a call to arms about living the best life you can and of making your life meaningful in whatever way makes you happy. It’s a testimony to hard work and dedication, of being curious and committed, of forging your own path when societal norms might suggest another. It’s the kind of memoir you don’t forget in a hurry.

Australia, Book review, Cal Flyn, History, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Scotland, Setting, travel, William Collins

‘Thicker Than Water: History, Secrets and Guilt: A Memoir’ by Cal Flyn

Thicker than water by Cal Flyn

Non-fiction – hardcover; William Collins; 224 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Cal Flyn’s Thicker Than Water is a remarkable — and readable — travelogue-cum-historical-biography about her great-great-great uncle, Angus McMillan, a Scotsman who fled the Highland Clearances and emigrated to Australia in 1837.

McMillan, a proud and pious man, was regarded as the “Father of Gippsland’, having opened up the rugged south-east of what is now the state of Victoria — and where, I must point out, I am from, hence my interest in the book.

Up until quite recently, history has been kind to McMillan. He has plaques and cairns recording his achievements, streets are named after him, the rural education centre in my home town is called the McMillan campus. His entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography describes him as “courageous, strong and generous, with a great love for his adopted country”, a man who “took a sympathetic interest in the welfare of the Aborigines”.

But McMillan lead another less honourable life that history has failed to record. He was a murderer — a mass murderer — responsible for the deaths of hundreds of aboriginals massacred at places now largely known by horrible names, such as Slaughterhouse Gully, Butchers Creek and Skull Creek. Unsurprisingly, he has also come to be known as the “Butcher of Gippsland”.

A journey into the heart of darkness

Thicker Than Water  is not a standard biography of a historical figure. Flyn writes in an engaging way by taking us on her journey — both figuratively and literally — to discover the story behind her ancestor and his achievements. To her credit, she does not shy away from the harsh realities of what she unearths along the way.

Indeed, her initial pride in McMillan’s discovery of Gippsland is soon usurped by a growing sense of unease when she stumbles upon a 2005 news story:

A Scottish pioneer revered as one of Australia’s foremost explorers faces being erased from maps amid accusations that he was responsible for the cold-blooded murder of hundreds of aborigines.

She later learns that the Gunai people, who had inhabited Gippsland for 20,000 years, were decimated by McMillan and his “Highland Brigade”. At the end of a decade-long “war of attrition”, there were just 126 Gunai left, down from about 1,800.

Flyn, shocked and ashamed by these appalling acts (it is believed there were more than a dozen massacres all up), feels the need to atone for her ancestor’s sins. And so she packs in her newspaper job, bids farewell to her boyfriend, and heads Down Under to meet with local historians and Gunai elders in a bid to put things right.

Atoning for past sins

The narrative follows Flyn’s travels from the Highlands to Australia, weaving in excerpts from McMillan’s own diaries and including facts and snippets about him that she unearths along the way. Through this deftly woven narrative that mixes personal reflection with detective-like journalistic research, she’s able to build up a fascinating portrait of a man — hardworking and civic-minded, but also prone to bitterness and jealousy, especially with his rival, the Polish explorer Pawel Strzelecki, who, from my own childhood was always held in higher regard than McMillan.

What results is a highly entertaining narrative that feels more like a novel than a dull biography. (Some of the passages describing her travels into the Gippsland bush are full of beautiful, descriptive language about the plants and landscapes she encounters; I’d like to see Flyn tackle a nature book next, I think it’d be brilliant.)

But Thicker Than Water also feels like a deeply personal story, for on almost every page you can feel Flyn’s own moral compass going slightly haywire: how on earth can she ever come to terms with McMillan’s horrendous deeds knowing that she’s related to him? Her shame and anguish over this is palpable. The book does present an interesting dilemma, for at what point do you atone for the sins of your ancestors? And what happens if they committed something so atrocious and so appalling that it turns your stomach to think about? Is it really your responsibility to apologise?

I’m not sure Flyn found any answers — perhaps because there aren’t any. Apologies are fleeting acts; they do not address the ongoing inequality that so many indigenous people face on a day-to-day basis. But in giving voice to McMillan’s extraordinary history, she has at least helped to paint a more truthful picture of the man that history has for so long lauded. And in telling that story the door opens to allow similar ones to be recorded that have not yet been told.

And finally…

Unfortunately, I can’t include Thicker Than Water in my #ReadingAustralia2016 project because the author is Scottish. But the story is so focused on Australian history and so revealing of an aspect that has, for too long, been ignored or rarely spoken about that I couldn’t resist reading it.

Please note it hasn’t been published in the US or Canada, but secondhand copies are widely available.

Australia, Author, Book review, Finch Publishing, Lisa Nops, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Sri Lanka, travel, UAE

‘My Life in a Pea Soup’ by Lisa Nops


Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Finch Publishing; 240 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I have to confess that true stories about motherhood and raising children aren’t normally my cup of tea, so it may come as some surprise that I chose to read and review Lisa Nops’ My Life in a Pea Soup when the publisher pitched it to me. However, I quite like memoirs written by ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances, and I also like tales about expats, and this book ticked both those boxes.

Planned parenthood

The memoir is written by Lisa Nops, an Australian teacher who married Michael, an English civil engineer, in 1989. Michael’s job often involved working in exotic locations, so at various times the couple have lived in Australia, New Zealand, France, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Bahrain.

When they decided to start a family Lisa was unable to fall pregnant, so four rounds of IVF treatment ensued, with no success. Then, in November 1997, she fell pregnant naturally and their daughter, Sally, was born in 1998.

Initially, Sally appeared to be a normal baby, albeit with an extremely quiet disposition, “inclined to sleep over and above doing anything else, not just at night but during the day as well”. But as time progressed Sally failed to meet ordinary developmental milestones, such as crawling, walking and speaking, was plagued by various illnesses, including ear infections, was prone to “staring intensely at objects and shadows” and began to flap her hands uncontrollably when excited.

When she was three, she was diagnosed with an unknown “neurological problem” that would require intensive speech, language and occupational therapy. There was the very real possibility that she would never learn to speak in sentences. Eventually she was diagnosed as autistic.

Search for a diagnosis

The book charts Lisa’s struggle to find out what was wrong with Sally, a journey that spanned several years — and continents. It was complicated by two factors: Lisa’s inability to fully accept that Sally’s slow development was anything other than her just being slow, and the family’s constant moving from one country to another.

Even when Lisa moved back to her home town of Canberra, Australia, to give Sally a better chance of medical care, things weren’t always straightforward. It certainly didn’t help that Michael remained behind in Sri Lanka to continue working, leaving Lisa to grapple with raising a child with special needs alone.

Once a proper diagnosis was made, it allowed the couple to become more focused on getting the right care and attention for Sally. But this was only half the battle. It did not alter the fact that they were “stuck” in a life they had never planned when they had decided to become parents. Lisa uses the analogy of planning a dream trip to Italy only to end up in Holland by accident:

It’s a different county to the one they had expected, where the countryside is flat and the people speak with guttural inflections. For a while they resent their holiday there; it wasn’t what they had planned and everyone in Italy is having a great time. But, little by little, day by day, they start to enjoy the country’s level plains, the windmills and tulips. They surprise themselves by eventually liking this holiday.

I do not have children, but what this book confirmed to me is the very real challenge that parents of autistic children face on a day to day basis. It’s not a grim read — indeed, there are many chinks of light in it, especially when Lisa and Michael discover (and then adopt) a program called Son-Rise, which helps Sally enormously.

It’s written in a straightforward style, free of sentiment and self-pity, and I suspect readers with autistic children, friends or relatives will learn a lot from it.

Nops also has a lovely way of describing life as an expat, especially the excitement (and apprehension) of moving to a new country, discovering new cultures and adjusting to their customs, and she skilfully interleaves this detail into her story with a lightness of touch. I liked the way the author explores this sense of “otherness”, not only as an expat but as a parent of a child with special needs.

My Life in a Pea Soup won the Finch Memoir Prize in 2012.


Author, Book review, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Stephen Grosz, Vintage

‘The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves’ by Stephen Grosz


Non-fiction – paperback; Vintage; 225 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

In a bid to read more non-fiction this year, I picked up Stephen Grosz’s The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves, part of Vintage Publishing’s “shelf help” promotion.

It first came to my attention when Victoria, who blogs at Tales from the Reading Room, chose it as one of her books of the year in my Book Bloggers’ Advent Calendar last December. In her review, Victoria said: “Everyone should read this book and feel it chip away any ice around their hearts, to let our admirable human capacity for love and compassion flow through.”

And I concur: this book puts paid to the notion that non-fiction is boring or dull. I was entirely captivated by it and ate it up as quickly as I could.

A series of case histories

Written by Stephen Grosz, an American-born psychoanalyst who has a practice in London, it reads like a collection of short stories structured around five key themes — beginnings, telling lies, loving, changing and leaving. These, in turn, are broken into short chapters, some of which are are only a few pages long. Each chapter is a case history of one of Grosz’s patients — adults in psychoanalysis whom he has met four or five times a week for 50-minute sessions over several years.

As he explains in his preface, “all tales are drawn from day-to-day practice. These stories are true, but I’ve altered all identifying details in the interests of confidentiality”.

The book shows how Grosz is able to help people who feel trapped — whether by circumstance, poor decision making, foolishness, fear or past history, among other reasons — to change their lives and their behaviour for the better. It’s important to stress that these people are as ordinary as you and I. In fact, you will probably recognise friends, colleagues, family — perhaps even yourself — in these pages. For that reason alone, it makes for a riveting read, full of “light bulb moments”. It shines a light on the human condition and the terrible muddles we sometimes get ourselves into without even realising we are doing it.

Stories that resonate

There are several stories that have stuck with me. The first was about a boring man called Graham whose girlfriend broke up with him after she told him he bored everyone he talked to: “Can’t you tell when someone goes dead behind the eyes?” she asked.

Grosz explains that there are many psychological (and often unconscious) reasons why people are boring — to avoid talking about a particular subject or because they are envious and do not want to hear a helpful idea coming from someone else. But in Graham’s case it was a form of aggression, “a way of controlling, and excluding, others” because it protected him from having to live in the present, which he didn’t know how to do.

The second story that resonated was from the chapter entitled “How praise can cause a lack of confidence”. Here, Grosz explains that today’s parents lavish too much praise on their children, which devalues it.

Often a child will react to praise by quitting: why make a new drawing if you have already made “the best”? Or a child may simply repeat the same work: why draw something new, or in a new way, if the old way gets applause?

He adds that it is far better to simply spend quality time with children, to interact with them and pay attention to them instead of doling out “false” platitudes. “Being present builds a child’s confidence because it lets the child know that she is worth thinking about,” he writes.

Indeed, that seems to be the overriding message of The Examined Life: each of us wants the people in our lives to be present — to listen to us, to communicate with us, to be there for us — as opposed to being absent, whether physically or psychologically. Many adult problems stem from this sense of absence in childhood, but not everyone recognises it.

Sheer readability

The best thing about this book — aside from the astonishing amount of insight it provides into human psychology — is its sheer readability. It is totally jargon-free and written in clear, simple language. And because Grosz personalises it — he writes almost as much about himself as his patients — you can identify with the problems discussed even if you’ve never experienced any of them yourself.

It’s very moving in places, occasionally shocking, sometimes funny. It’s all done with such a lightness of touch despite the fact each case history delivers a powerful message — or makes you think about things, and people, in a new light.

I started The Examined Life thinking I’d just read two or three chapters. Before I knew it, I’d read the whole thing (in two sittings) and as soon as I’d finished I wanted to turn back to the start to begin again. Truth, it seems, is sometimes more intriguing that fiction.

Annie Ernaux, Author, Book review, Books in translation, France, memoir, Non-fiction, Quartet Books, Setting

‘A Woman’s Story’ by Annie Ernaux


Non-fiction – paperback; Quartet Books; 96 pages; 2014. Translated from the French by Tanya Leslie. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Annie Ernaux’s A Woman’s Story is a deeply affecting and brutally honest memoir about the author’s mother and the sometimes-strained relationship they shared.

It was first published in France, in 1988, where it became a bestseller. It has just been reissued by Quartet Books — which first published it in English more than 20 years ago — in a rather handsome edition, complete with French flaps.

Mother-daughter relationship

At just 96 pages in length, A Woman’s Story packs quite a lot in. Ernaux not only examines the relationship she had with her mother — often in painstaking, heartbreaking, too-close-for-comfort detail — she also charts her mother’s life from her poor upbringing in a small Normandy town to her marriage and success as a shopkeeper; from her bored (and somewhat meaningless) retirement to her death in a geriatric hospital in Paris where she had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

What emerges is a fascinating portrait of two women tied together by their biological relationship but never, truly, close. While it’s not a rosy account — there’s too much bitterness and conflict between them for that — it does reveal Ernaux’s admiration, her love and her attempt to reconcile her mother’s senile dementia with the “strong, radiant mother she once was”.

In many ways, the book is as much about mothers and daughters as it is about growing old, of the burdens we can place on loved ones and an examination of the grieving process.

The author, however, describes it like this:

This book can be seen as a literary venture as its purpose is to find out the truth about my mother, a truth that can be conveyed only by words. (Neither photographs, nor my own memories, nor even the reminiscences of my family can bring me this truth.)

Conflicting views

This is a theme Ernaux returns to again and again: this itching to get to the truth, to portray her mother in a fair light, even though she knows that her memories are coloured by emotion. She has a hard time trying to put her mother’s brusque manners, her desire to be a confidante, yet always bitterly critical, her lack of education and her desperate social climbing into context.

About midway through she confesses that she sometimes thought she was a good mother, at other times a bad one. “To get away from these contrasting views, which come from my earliest childhood, I try to describe and explain her life as if I were writing about someone else’s mother and a daughter that wasn’t me,” she writes.

This objectivity feels authentic, because there are thoughts and incidents revealed here that feel too painful and honest. It’s not an uncomfortable read — indeed, I flew through it in an hour or so, the writing is so eloquent — but it is a deeply affecting and poignant one.

Author, Book review, James Lasdun, Jonathan Cape, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, true crime, USA

‘Give Me Everything You Have’ by James Lasdun


Non-fiction – hardcover; Jonathan Cape; 218 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I like narrative non-fiction, especially if it is about moral issues or true crime, so James Lasdun’s Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked sounded like my cup of tea.

While I can’t fault the well written, engaging and effortless prose, I found the entire “story” incredibly frustrating and just a little “icky”.

Yes, it’s upsetting that this man, a creative writing tutor, was stalked (and continues to be stalked) by a former female pupil, but at the risk of sounding judgemental, I couldn’t help but think he had brought a lot of it upon himself. When someone is clearly crazy and obsessive, you don’t fuel the craziness and obsessiveness by engaging with that person — you simply can’t reason with unreasonable people — but Lasdun seems hellbent throughout the entire sorry episode in scratching the itch and giving this woman exactly what she wants: attention.

I read this book, which publishes many of the stalker’s emails in full (and brings Lasdun’s own ethics in to question), expecting some kind of resolution to be reached by the end. But despite quite a fast-paced narrative, there’s no real resolution here.

There are some interesting tangents — Lasdun writes eloquently and thoughtfully about Middle Eastern politics, his relationship with this father, anti-Semitism and so on — but on the whole Give Me Everything You Have is a frustrating read.

Author, Caitlin Moran, Ebury Press, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘How To Be a Woman’ by Caitlin Moran


Non-fiction – paperback; Ebury Press; 320 pages; 2011.

Caitlin Moran is one of those journalists incapable of writing a dull sentence. I used to read her columns in The Times before they went behind a pay-wall and always found them hugely entertaining and very witty. How To Be A Woman, which has won numerous accolades including Book of the Year at the Galaxy Book Awards, is exactly what I expected: a wise and humorous read told in Moran’s not-so-underrated style.

Part memoir, part rant

The title might suggest that How To Be A Woman is a self-help guide to feminism but that’s not really what this book is about. Instead — as the blurb helpfully points out — it is part memoir, part rant. It is essentially a comic look at what it is like to be female in the 21st century. But underpinning the humour is a quite serious agenda which suggests many women are still not free to be themselves — mainly because they are too busy keeping up appearances.

But this is no dry text book. Moran might structure her feminist topics into thematic chapters — fashion, sex, work, marriage, motherhood, abortion and so on — but she uses her own life as the narrative thread which weaves them together.

She is incredibly frank, forthright and self-deprecating throughout as she details her childhood growing up on a council estate in Wolverhampton, the eldest of eight children, in which she was fat, frumpy and friendless. She then charts her premature adulthood, when as a precocious 16-year-old she moved to London to take up a job on weekly music magazine Melody Maker, before love, marriage, children and journalistic stardom followed.

Views on motherhood

I was particularly delighted to read her chapter on women who do not have children, either by choice or circumstance, because this is a subject that is rarely discussed. And when it is, the women  who can’t have children are painted as pathetic victims and those who choose not to have them are branded as selfish cows.

Men and women alike have convinced themselves of a dragging belief: that somehow women are incomplete without children. Not the simple biological ‘fact’ that all living things are supposed to reproduce, and that your legacy on earth is the continuation of your DNA — but something more personal, insidious and demeaning. As if a woman somehow remains a child herself until she has her own children — that she can only achieve ‘elder’ status by dint of having produced someone younger. That there are lessons that motherhood can teach you that simply can’t be replicated elsewhere — and every other attempt at this wisdom and self-realisation is a poor and shoddy second. Like mothers can get a first in PPE at Oxford, whilst the best the childless can manage is a 2:1 from Leicester de Montford University.

And I really loved her one-liners — although, if truth be told, every sentence is a one-liner. For example, how I chuckled when I read her views on women getting older, particularly this sentence, which refers to the BBC’s female newsreaders being sacked:

Sorry to mention this again — we strident feminists do go on about this — but Moira Stewart and Anna Ford got fired when they hit 55, whilst 75-year-old Jonathan Dimbleby slowly turns into a fucking wizard behind his desk.

Like an intimate chat

Much of what Moran outlines in How To Be A Woman is not new to me, but I found it incredibly refreshing — and somewhat surprising — to find someone whose views on so many different topics chimes exactly with mine. In many ways reading this book was like having an intimate chat in a pub over a pint or two — minus the hangover and the cost! I reckon Caitlin Moran and I could be great buddies, although her constant need to make every single thing she says funny might wear thin after awhile.

But I expect there will be many people far younger than me who will read it and learn something about themselves and perhaps question why they’re expected to behave in a certain manner. And for that reason I’d urge everyone — men and women alike — under the age of 40 to read this book. Yes, it’s occasionally crude; yes, there is swearing in it and yes, sometimes she is agonisingly, wincingly honest. But even if you don’t agree with all Moran’s views, I doubt you’ll read a funnier non-fiction book this year.

As an aside, the editing of this book was patchy in places — rogue commas, missing commas and a real clunker of a spelling mistake on page 306 of my edition in which the word “root” was used instead of “route”. I hope subsequent smaller-format paperback editions might have put this right.

Author, Book review, Granta, London, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Tom Lubbock

‘Until Further Notice, I am Alive’ by Tom Lubbock


Non-fiction – hardcover; Granta Books; 128 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

One of my greatest fears is to lose the ability to use language, to no longer be able to speak, think, read or write. This is exactly what happened to writer and illustrator Tom Lubbock, who was chief art critic at The Independent and made his living from writing. (In the introduction to this book, his wife, artist Marion Coutts, describes their home as a “word factory” — a phrase that will resonate with anyone who churns out or edits copy for a living.)

A rare brain tumour

Lubbock’s condition was the result of a rare brain tumour situated in the left temporal lobe — the area of the brain responsible for speech and language. He was diagnosed in September 2008, told he had a year or two to live, and died in January 2011. He was 53.

This extraordinary memoir is not so much a day-to-day journal of his life after diagnosis but a philosophical account of what it is like to confront death. And it is also an illuminating account of how speech and language are central to our being — and how the loss of these skills can be puzzling, frustrating and frightening.

But this is not a glum book. Lubbock is suprisingly free of self-pity. The only times he ever expresses sadness is when he thinks of his young son, Eugene, who was 18 months old when he was diagnosed, and his wife, Marion. “All the future we won’t have,” he writes, “is utterly heartbreaking.”

A time to live and a time to die

Essentially Lubbock is resigned to his fate — in fact, he describes it as “interesting”, almost as if he is going on an adventure — and he understands that it is “not something I’m going to get through or over”.

On 21 October 2008, he writes:

Suppose I said: I can’t stand it — what would I do? This is not a marriage I can leave, a job I can resign, a country I can emigrate from, a prison I can try to escape. There are no terms to be come to. I could kill myself, so as to escape the intolerability of dying. Almost imaginable. I could try to get myself into a state where nothing that makes it matter to me does matter. Then I would be, in effect, already dead.

Perhaps his ready acceptance — or what sounds like ready acceptance — is helped in part by the lack of pain caused by the tumour (the brain has no pain receptors). For much of his illness he is in otherwise perfect health, apart from the occasional fit and the minor side-effects caused by his treatment.

But over time he begins to lose his language skills — and this, while not overly distressing nor unexpected, is obviously frustrating for one who relies on writing (and reading) to earn his living. He explains how he struggles to summon words when he writes and speaks, how sometimes the wrong words appear and his vocabularly gets mixed up and garbled.

On 7 July 2010, he writes:

Reading seems to have given up entirely. I listen to people on the radio, and I cannot repeat their words, nor can I grasp their points, but I can sort of recognise the articulations that are being made, they’re there, beneath the surface. And at some time, I suspect, my speech will simply fail. Or rather, it will fail first of all at one competence, and then at another.

A deeply profound life-affirming read

Strangely enough, reading a memoir about a man dying is a life affirming experience; it makes you see things in a slightly different light and shows how we often live our lives blind to our own mortality.

And yet Lubbock claims “my story doesn’t make a good story”.

A good story would either be a steady descent towards death, or a total recovery. But I have had, probably will have, a fluctuating plotline, with ups and downs, recoveries, declines, rallies, with some kind of final wreckage or fade.

I beg to differ. For such a slim book, Until Further Notice, I Am Alive is weighty with wisdom, insight and intelligence. It’s unflinchingly honest and candid, but it also exudes a beautiful sense of calm and dignity. And it’s certainly the most profound book I’ve read all year.

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Emma Forrest, London, memoir, New York, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Your Voice in My Head’ by Emma Forrest


Non-fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury; 224 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

When I first requested Emma Forrest’s Your Voice in My Head it was on the basis that it sounded like an interesting memoir, a kind of modern day Bell Jar, about an English-born writer who tried to commit suicide in New York and the psychiatrist who saved her.

What I didn’t know was that much of the book revolves around a relationship that Emma had with a Hollywood movie star that ends rather abruptly and leaves her feeling bereft. He’s not named in the book and is referred to as GH (which stands for Gypsy Husband) and sounds quite lovely and interesting, albeit a little flakey. I was so intrigued by their romance and then the outfall of their break up that I couldn’t resist Googling to see who GH really was.

Suddenly, it all clicked and fell into place.

Hollywood romance

Perhaps I’m the only person on the planet that, up until a few days ago, did not know that Colin Farell and Emma Forrest were once an item. (To be honest, until I started reading this book, I didn’t even know who Emma Forrest was — turns out she had a rather meteoric rise as a teenage music journalist, before penning her first novel aged 21; she’s now a screenwriter based in Los Angeles.)  But to dismiss this memoir as a kiss-and-tell about Colin Farrell would be wrong. It’s not.

If anything the memoir is about grief and what it is like when a patient loses their trusted and much relied upon shrink. In Emma’s case her psychiatrist, Dr R, died quite unexpectedly of lung cancer in 2008. She only discovered he had died two weeks after the fact when she rang his office and got the answer machine.

In this memoir, Emma uses Dr R’s death as a springboard to write about the way in which this cheerfully optimistic and deeply supportive therapist helped her on the road to recovery after her failed suicide attempt in early 2000. What emerges is an unflinchingly honest account of Emma’s psychiatric problems — she would sit up at night and pray to die when she was 12, began self-harming at aged 16 and became bulimic when she moved to New York aged 20. She entered a succession of damaging relationships and would go through manic phases where she worked all night and slept all day. A stint in London’s Priory did not solve her problems.

No way out

She gives a wonderful account of what it is like to be caught up in a self-destructive routine — for Emma this was cutting her body and bingeing on food she would force herself to throw up — from which you can see no way out:

Chicken and egg: which comes first, looking at yourself with burst blood vessels on your eyes and vomit in your hair and having to cut yourself because you’re so ugly? Or eating everything in the cupboard to try to hold down how ugly the cutting has made you? It is madness. And if you don’t know who you are, or if your real self has drifted away from you with an undertow, madness at least gives you an identity.

But the memoir is far from self-pitying. While there is much heartfelt frankness, the tone throughout is self-deprecating. It helps that she comes from an eccentric Jewish family because the little asides she shares, particularly about her slightly barmy father, are endearing and very witty. Her ability to see the funny side of things makes the book an entertaining read. For example, here’s a couple of sentences — out of many — that made me giggle:

I hate it when Beyoncé wins a Grammy and in her speech thanks God. He didn’t have time to help out in Darfur but he made sure you won an MTV Moonman.

There are witty lines like this peppered throughout the narrative.

Heartfelt tribute

And there’s something quite optimistic about Your Voice in My Head because it is ultimately a tribute to a doctor who helped a patient find herself. In many ways it is ironic that just when Emma begins her romance with GH and discovers true love for the first time, Dr R dies and she is unable to share her happiness with him. That the romance ultimately fails only serves to make Emma stronger and more able to cope with the unpredictability of life.

Dr R and GH were, to me, two sides of a coin. They made me feel so good. They made me feel I was a good person. They saw something else. They saw me.

Your Voice in My Head is an articulate, wise, funny and sad read. It is about to be made into a film and latest reports are touting Emma Watson, from the Harry Potter films, as the lead. But I can’t help but wonder whether GH will play himself…?