#ThrowbackThursday

‘When Breath Becomes Air’ by Paul Kalanithi #ThrowbackThursday #bookreview

Renee at It’s Book Talk began this meme to share old favourites and recommendations, and I discovered it through Between the Lines.

breath

Waterstones Amazon.co.uk

At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, the next he was a patient struggling to live.

When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a medical student asking what makes a virtuous and meaningful life into a neurosurgeon working in the core of human identity – the brain – and finally into a patient and a new father.

What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when when life is catastrophically interrupted? What does it mean to have a child as your own life fades away?

Paul Kalanithi died while working on this profoundly moving book, yet his words live on as a guide to us all. When Breath Becomes Air is a life-affirming reflection on facing our mortality and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a gifted writer who became both.

I’ve read some of the other reviews of this book and really wonder if they read the same book as me. If you’re looking for a misery memoir, a warts and all revelation of how harrowing it is to go through cancer and all that entails, then this isn’t for you. Those books have their place – my mother died from cancer and it was helpful sometimes to read other people’s accounts and to know that they were feeling as I did. But I wish I’d had this book back then.

Because this is more than a memoir or an account of illness and death. The author doesn’t list in too great detail what happens to him because it’s not supposed to be about that (which is what I think a few of the other reviewers have missed). This is about a man who, before he knew he was ill, strove in his studies and in his work to get at the meaning of life, at what it means to be human, and what it means to die. And then, somewhat ironically, just at the brink of achieving one of his goals in life, he was diagnosed with lung cancer – cancer that killed him at the age of thirty-seven.

A brilliant, eloquent and sensitive man, Paul Kalanithi continued to strive throughout his illness, to find meaning in what life meant, what made it worthwhile, and to understand when it was enough, when it was time to stop. This is what he had always wanted to do for his patients and this was how he lived his last days.

A really unusual and beautiful book. I was sobbing at the end – and any book that can cause such a powerful reaction is something very special indeed.

5 stars

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‘Stiff’ by Mary Roach #BookReview #ThrowbackThursday

Renee at It’s Book Talk began this meme to share old favourites and recommendations, and I discovered it through Between the Lines.

stiff

Waterstones   Amazon.co.uk

What happens to your body after you have died? Fertilizer? Crash Test Dummy? Human Dumpling? Ballistics Practise?

Life after death is not as simple as it looks. Mary Roach’s Stiff lifts the lid off what happens to our bodies once we have died. Bold, original and with a delightful eye for detail, Roach tells us everything we wanted to know about this new frontier in medical science.

Interweaving present-day explorations with a history of past attempts to study what it means to be human Stiff is a deliciously dark investigations for readers of popular science as well as fans of the macabre

I have a bit of a fascination with death but I’m not a morbid person. I just feel that it’s a normal part of life (after all, it happens to everyone) that we tend to ignore, or hide away, or pretend doesn’t happen. We don’t want to know the details, the realities. And I think that this reluctance to recognise death and its processes, the rituals around it, have made us less connected to it, and, in turn, more fearful.  We’ve made death something secret, unknown. This book lifts the lid on death, detailing practically everything that could happen to you once you’re dead, including unusual after-life occupations such as being a crash test dummy, becoming part of an exhibition, helping surgeons learn their art, helping scientists understand decomposition or, if you go the more traditional route, what happens in a cremation or what happens once you’ve been buried.

It sounds morbid, but it isn’t. Roach’s writing is funny, respectful, warm and informative. I don’t believe in a god, or a heaven or an afterlife – I’m very happy with this one, thank you very much. There’s nothing once you’re gone and it seems a terrible shame to me that bodies that could do so much good and help so much are literally allowed to go to waste. I’ve always made my feelings known to my family – researchers can have as much of me as they want. I don’t want a funeral or a grave that my children feel indebted to visit when I’m not even there and all they’re doing is making a crematorium owner very rich. How much better will it be if my no longer needed remains help find a cure for a disease, or help investigators to improve safety in transport. And what’s left I’d be happy to have made into compost (you can have this done you know!). Roach’s book details all of these options and more, with warmth and honesty.

For a book about death, it was weirdly uplifting, and life-affirming. All we have is the here and now, and death is a part of life. We are so uniformed; we make death into something horrific and other. But as Roach so clearly and entertainingly shows, it’s part of being human and it’s something we should know more about.

4.5 out of 5

‘DEAR THIEF’ BY SAMANTHA HARVEY #THROWBACKTHURSDAY #BOOKREVIEW

Renee at It’s Book Talk began this meme to share old favourites and recommendations, and I discovered it through Between the Lines.

dear thief

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In the middle of a winter’s night, a woman wraps herself in a blanket, picks up a pen and starts writing to an estranged friend. In answer to a question you asked a long time ago, she writes, and so begins a letter that calls up a shared past both women have preferred to forget.

Without knowing if her friend, Butterfly, is even alive or dead, she writes night after night – a letter of friendship that turns into something more revealing and recriminating. By turns a belated outlet of rage, an act of self-defence, and an offering of forgiveness, the letter revisits a betrayal that happened a decade and a half before, and dissects what is left of a friendship caught between the forces of hatred and love.

This book was an absolute joy to read. The quiet but stunningly beautiful narrative tells the story of a woman who has been betrayed, who is now addressing that betrayal, confronting, if only in words, in a letter, the friend who let her down.

But there isn’t bitterness, or spite, and the novel is much more than the premise suggests. Through the letter, the narrator weaves two tales – the story of her own past and its links to her friend, known as Butterfly, and also the present, that she imagines for Butterfly, a woman she hasn’t seen for years. She doesn’t know where she is, or what she is doing, or even if she is still alive, so she creates a life, and in doing so exacts something like revenge.

The writing seems effortless, flowing and lyrical at times. The characterisation is spot on- the narrator is middle-aged, separated from her husband, has a difficult job, and she has all the insecurities and the regrets that come with that. She is hard on herself at times, and too easily forgiving of herself at others. Her pain, her sense of betrayal, but also her love are vividly shown through her words.

A powerful book from an incredibly talented writer.

5 stars

‘Nights at the Circus’ by Angela Carter #bookreview #ThrowbackThursday

Renee at It’s Book Talk began this meme to share old favourites and recommendations, and I discovered it through Between the Lines. ‘Nights at the Circus’ by Angela Carter is an amazing book, one that stays with you, and one of those very rare books that I’ve actually read more than once. I read it as part of the David Bowie reading challenge that I discovered on the  Scatterbooker blog.

nights-at-the-circus2

Amazon.co.uk  Waterstones

Is Sophie Fevvers, toast of Europe’s capitals, part swan…or all fake?

Courted by the Prince of Wales and painted by Toulouse-Lautrec, she is an aerialiste extraordinaire and star of Colonel Kearney’s circus. She is also part woman, part swan. Jack Walser, an American journalist, is on a quest to discover the truth behind her identity. Dazzled by his love for her, and desperate for the scoop of a lifetime, Walser has no choice but to join the circus on its magical tour through turn-of-the-nineteenth-century London, St Petersburg and Siberia.

My goodness – what a fabulous lead character Carter has given us in Fevvers. Half woman, half swan, Sophie is the star of Colonel Kearney’s circus, travelling across the globe, followed by the enamoured journalist Walser, who becomes a clown in order to join her on her travels.

It’s hard to summarise this story – so I won’t even try. This book doesn’t follow a traditional structure but that doesn’t mean it’s hard to read. On the contrary, it’s enormously entertaining.

The settings are described vividly, magically, beautifully. The cast of characters are fantastically drawn – I have a particular soft-spot for Lizzie, Fevvers’ ‘mother’, closet activist, her magic handbag able to conjure any remedy for any occasion and as intriguing and delightful as Fevvers herself. Mignon, Samson, the Princess of Abyssinia, Buffo the Great and the wonderful Sybil the pig are all brought to life effortlessly. Their stories are a joy to read and their narratives intertwine with Sophie’s own story flawlessly.

The writing is assured, clever without being pretentious, lyrical in places. It’s a book I’ll remember for a long time – unforgettable, colourful, and chaotic. A masterpiece.

5 stars

 

Writing and Editing Tips Revisited – Transitions #ThrowbackThursday #WritingTips

Another post from the past – this time looking at how to take your characters from one place to another, and to take the reader along too.

furlough

Transitions are used to:

  • Change time
  • Change location
  • Change character viewpoint
  • To skip unimportant time periods or events

One issue I’ve seen with many writers is that they put too much detail in these transitions, showing how a character gets from one place to another – getting into their car, driving home, parking, walking up the stairs to their apartment, just like this scene from the infamous B-movie Birdemic:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KrremE8SCQk&t=8m12s

The reader doesn’t need to know that. They just want to get on with the story, on to what happens next.

So how do you use transitions skilfully?

  • Start a new chapter – this easily lets your reader know the narrative has moved on
  • If you’re changing scene/time/viewpoint within a chapter use a physical sign like ***** centred on the page, or double space and then don’t indent the first line of your next paragraph.
  • Keep it short and simple – ‘That night’, ‘The next morning’.
  • Jump right in – rather than say: ‘When Linda arrived at the coffee shop the next morning’ go for ‘Linda slid into the booth and took a sip of her first coffee of the day.’ We know where and when Linda is straight away.