Brain On Fire – My Month of Madness

Susannah Cahalan was twenty-four-years old when something in the way she perceived things changed. It started with an obsession over bedbugs and descended into hallucinations, seizures and unpredictable acts of bizarre behaviour. Blood tests, scans, numerous procedures, initially all the tests came back negative, her Doctor (a renowned neurologist) insisting it was stress and alcohol consumption. It was neither of those things and if there is one stand-out learning to be gained from this incredible story, it is to ensure always to obtain a second opinion.

Brain on FireThis true story provides a fascinating insight into a rare autoimmune disease which causes the body to attack itself and in this case – the brain. It truly is a story that can and has already changed people’s lives; the writer, a reporter on the New York Post observes her own physical and mental decline and then as her mind descends into chaos, she recalls nothing. Her account is pulled together from interviews, hospital video footage and the journal of her family, until her brain begins to regenerate memory.

It is a path that many will have followed who end up spending the rest of their lives in an institution, if they actually survive it.  Susannah Cahalan, with the help of a supportive and determined family who won’t give up until they find a treatable diagnosis, is fortunate to be seen by the tenacious and talented Dr Najjar, and one final test later, a simple pen and paper exercise, leads him to the all-important diagnosis and her to the path of eventual recovery.

It was his focus on non-psychiatric causes that prevented her from a much more disastrous outcome.  His continuous ground-breaking research posits  that some forms of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression are actually caused by inflammatory conditions  in the brain.  This research may eventually help to break down barriers between immunology, neurology and psychiatry.

Lower Manhatten from Staten Island Ferry by Diliff

Lower Manhattan from the Staten Island Ferry by Diliff

Before writing this book, the author published an article for the New York Post about her experience, prompting an outpouring from many people who had a family member with an inexplicable brain disease – her case highlights the very real possibility that there are thousands if not more people out there descending into a similar madness.

StrokeHer story reminds me of  ‘My Stroke of Insight’, the extraordinary story of the brain scientist, Jill Taylor’s experience when at 37 years a blood vessel exploded in her brain and she too observed her mind deteriorate to the point where she could not walk, talk, read, write, or recall any of her life. She recovered and used her incredible insight and knowledge to share that experience with the world – creating an important resource for the sufferers and carers of stroke victims. She gives an excellent TED talk on the subject here. Interestingly, she became a brain scientist herself due to her brother’s diagnosis of a brain disorder, schizophrenia.

A gripping, unputdownable memoir that shows how little we really know about the workings of the brain and how difficult it is to diagnose. It’s thanks to books like this that more diagnoses can and are being made helping sufferers to find the right path to recovery.

The Happiness of Blond People – A Personal Meditation on the Dangers of Identity by Elif Shafak

011312_1324_TheTigersWi2.jpgBastard of IStanbulElif Shafak writes great stories and as this essay illustrates, she both lives and has already lived an interesting life between East and West; experiencing different cultures and absorbing the influence of a high achieving, single parent mother and her superstitious, story-telling grandmother in a untypical but enriching, matriarchal upbringing.

ElifShafak Ask EbruBilun Wiki

Elif Shafak, Publicity shot by Ebru Bilun – wikipedia

As a young pupil she learnt what it means to be on the receiving end of prejudiced comments, introducing her to the clichéd stereotypes cast about by those who might never have experienced but seemed “to know” what it meant to be Turkish, that false responsibility, those who leave will all take on, for the actions of government or other citizens, on behalf of their maternal country and people.

Elif Shafak has inherited and nurtured a healthy imagination and studied many of the great philosophers, with a particular interest in Rumi, sometimes witnessed through her novels and now combines her knowledge with first-hand observations of how cultural differences are perceived in this short book.

The title of the essay was inspired by a conversation overheard at the Rotterdam airport in the Netherlands between Turkish fathers, one despairing of the difficulty of living in proximity to his downstairs neighbour.  She developed a habit of calling the police each time his children made too much noise playing in the apartment, causing his family much stress and anxiety, because the police invariably arrived with sirens blazing – makes me wonder what story she told the police, and thankful that my neighbour isn’t so bad after all!

The man finishes by asking his friend in earnest, how it is that blond children are so quiet and well-disciplined, introducing us to Shafak’s reflections on identity, cultural difference and the inherent, almost unavoidable angst of first generation immigrants worldwide.

The immigrant must be prepared to swallow his share of humiliations every day. He has to accept that life will treat him with disrespect and that he’ll be smacked and jostled with undue familiarity.

Happiness of Blond PeopleShe discusses the perception that happiness can be found in the West, less likely to have to deal with war, warlords, tribal conflict, poverty, corruption, human-rights violations or major natural disasters and the equally ingrained counter-assumption that life in the East is more real and less degenerate than in the West: where society is so selfish and individualistic that communal and family ties have virtually disappeared, unable to support a person, especially the elderly, in a time of need.

A secondary-school student I met in Ankara during a literary event put this to me in a slightly different way. “If you are young, it is better to live in the West than in the East,” he said. “But if you are old, then it is better to be in the East than in the West, because we respect our elders, whereas they don’t. In Europe I have seen old ladies in supermarkets buying one courgette, one carrot, one tomato, one bunch of parsley. Have you ever seen a Muslim woman doing that? No! We always buy at least half a kilo, if not more, because we cook for the entire family.”

What seems to be missing in the immigration experience is often lack of community, the lack of acceptance or gesture of kindness and therefore difficulty in integration, families are often not made to feel welcome (except among their own kind) which then encourages them to live separately and to maintain their own traditions and cultural perceptions and habits, rather than merging with the new country and culture. It can also breed resentment, particularly if it wasn’t a mutual decision to leave or even a choice, as in times of war.

It is often true that it must take at least one generation to normalise integration, but in more closed communities whose occupants themselves have little curiosity for the outsider or have not travelled and come to understand how and why things are done differently, with an altogether different logic elsewhere, this separation is at risk of continuing into multiple generations, especially where there are clear physical differences between people that can provoke prejudice, judgement or even worse, racism.

HonourFor me, most of the time I enjoy being confronted with those genuine mind-bending situations that require one to figure out how people came to see or do something in a way so different from our own – with the exception of violent or inhumane acts, but even behind those practices, there is a story to be told and a history to be understood, which doesn’t make it right, but can assist us to at least consider these practices in context, something Elif Shafak explores in her latest gripping novel ‘Honour‘.

An immigrant myself, I understand many of the isolating factors inherent in such a status, especially when it is necessary to learn a new language. Whilst it is not easy to participate in a traditional society with its many rituals and social codes, it is more likely that an immigrant will find success and contentment in creating a business or activity of their own, something unique that is or will be valued, than putting themselves up against their compatriots and being disappointed time after time, especially if living outside the larger multicultural cities.

This is a short read and a refreshing, open-minded perspective, from a woman who interacts with people in both the East and the West, always interesting to read and listen to.

In this life, if we are ever going to learn anything, we will be learning it from those who are different from us. It is in the crossroads of ideas, cultures, literatures, traditions, arts and cuisines that humanity has found fertile grounds for growth.

The Zenith by Dương Thu Hương

In 1996 I spent three months travelling in Asia, limiting my visit to four countries, India, Nepal, Vietnam and Thailand.

It was in Vietnam that I first travelled on my own and perhaps for this reason, it has always resonated deeply within me. It is a special place and I experienced it at a unique time, the city of Hanoi had no cars and most of its population travelled by bicycle, unlike the city of Saigon in the South full of the noise pollution of motorbikes. 090212_1801_IntheShadow1.jpg

That’s not to suggest it was easy to navigate those intersections, with bicycles coming from all directions, the ring of the bicycle bell a constant stream of warning as the masses somehow managed to criss-cross in opposite directions without accident. I watched that flow for a long time before I understood and dared to join it. The trick? Do not hesitate.

While in Hanoi, I decided to read a couple of Vietnamese authors, I was interested in reading something that came from a local perspective and not from the English-speaking perspective which seemed more prominent.  A young boy in the street sold me two books, Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War and Dương Thu Hương’s Paradise of the Blind, the latter a story that illustrated the effect of a rigid communist ideology on a family in the wake of the land reforms of the 1950’s, as narrated by a young woman travelling to Moscow in the 1980’s.

A quote on the back written by Grace Paley, confirmed my thoughts.

“At last a woman, a Vietnamese woman, tells us Vietnamese life: the village, the city, the repression and expansion, the middle peasant, the poor peasant, the years of exquisite food and no food, working in the Soviet Union – and all beautifully told so that we begin to understand not where we were for years, but where and how they – the Vietnamese – are now.”                                                      – Grace Paley

090212_1801_IntheShadow6.jpgThe author’s depiction of ordinary people, in both rural and urban Vietnam was compelling and the definition of terms at the back of the book, particularly of food and practical items was especially useful for me as I cycled my way around the city and out along the river, past markets and temples and saw how people lived, ate and spent their days. This book was the first Vietnamese novel published in the US (1993) I have since discovered, so no surprise that I had never come across this enlightened perspective before.

zenithDương Thu Hương now lives in exile in Paris and her latest novel The Zenith has recently been published. It gets off to a slow start initially, when Ho Chi Minh, the President looks back as a 70-year-old man at parts of his life with regret. He regrets the lack of contact with children that he fathered and the loss of a woman he loved, he regrets the distance that has come between himself as a man and the people he sought to represent.

Wishing to retrieve something of that contact, he attends the funeral of a woodcutter to pay his respects, only to realise the suffering his presence will have caused because of his distinguished position and the expectations that are carried with it should he grace them with his presence. He despairs at having lost sight of that which motivated him to first become involved in the revolution, to bring equality to all.

A bitter longing mixed with a searching curiosity flowers in his heart; he wants to attend the funeral of the woodsman because he wants to experience the funeral of a real father.

Things pick up in pace and interest when we learn more of the story of the woodcutter, his family and village, this one story perhaps seen to represent various stages in the country’s own experience of communism, both its idealistic benefits for the community and its destructive elements against the weak and innocent, when power, greed and envy are present within its leadership, turning even family members against each other. The story-telling reaches its zenith and had me totally convinced of the authenticity of the relationship between the wise sixty-something father/grandfather Mr Quang and his new 18-year-old bride Miss Ngan and relishing the way they managed the reactions of close family and their community with their provocative yet bona-fide marriage.

Of old, it was said: “Tears run downward.” So true.

“Filial love for parents can’t equal the ties of anxious love in a father’s soul for a child. Because when we love our parents we look up but when we love our children we look down. And according to the laws of heaven and earth, tears always flow downward. Especially whenever we recognise that as fathers we have done wrong. Hell itself will then open a door straight into the heart.”

It highlights the enormous gap that can grow between those who rule and have power and/or wealth and those who are trying to survive, just like the distance between rich and poor in a democratic society, similarly it exists between those who yield power and those who don’t in a communist society, trust breaking down within a community as people become increasingly desperate and open to being corrupted while others live in constant fear.

This is not a book to be read quickly, nor even understood immediately. I continue to think about what I read and what it attempted to portray about society, leadership, workers, family and the effect of power and its oft great distance from the reality of how people live, the destructiveness of jealousy and the perseverance of those who will never be compromised, who will always fight for what they perceive is good and right.

The country, its writers and message continue to allure and despite all the suffering, both past and present, there remains for me a quiet tranquility that pervades it, a steadfast patience and determination I admire.

Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) provided by NetGalley on behalf of the publisher.

Episode 10: The Move Down Under and a Shocking Diagnosis

Thinking that a move would give us more family time and offer a less stressful lifestyle, we left London behind and travelled half way around the planet to New Zealand, where most of my family still live today. I had been away for many years and hadn’t expected to return, however now that I was back, everything looked and felt familiar and it wasn’t long before we had moved into a house in the city and I had found a full-time job.

Not quite that large an island, Allia’s interpretation of somewhere very far away.
Putting New Zealand on the Map!

Initially we spent time staying at my parent’s home on the sheep farm they had lived for twenty years. It was wonderful to be there with Allia, for her to spend time around her grandparents and for them to get to know and love her.

Being a long way from the nearest town and a very windy road to get in and out, the forced isolation was a little more difficult for my husband to endure, but he was fascinated by the workings of the farm and in particular the shearing shed when it was in full working motion. Not so for me, years of spending school holidays working in that intense, stinking, hot and competitive environment (shearers get paid per sheep shorn, not by the hour) sweeping away wool, dags (sheep shit) and the occasional maggot were something I felt no nostalgia for at all.

It seemed to be good timing to have returned at this time as my mother was unwell, so I was able to go with her to her appointments and provide support. Good timing was an under-statement; she had lost a lot of weight and was having problems with her balance. She was only 59-years-old but seemed to have entered what looked like old age in an awful hurry.

Of course it wasn’t old age. By the time it was understood that it also wasn’t asthma or some diet related weight loss and she had been for a follow-up MRI scan, we found ourselves sitting in an office, opposite an oncologist who mumbled something that sounded like “three weeks”.

“Excuse me”, what did you say? I blurted out.

“The cancer is in the lungs, but it has spread to the kidneys and other organs and those lumps in the neck and brain are tumours. In the state that your mother is in now, I would say that three weeks is being optimistic.”

“But isn’t there anything we can do?”

“Yes, we can start chemotherapy to try to slow down the rapid advance of the cancer and the radiation treatment should be able to remove those tumours so you should actually start feeling better and get your balance back” he said looking at my mother.

We were both stunned. I wanted to protest and say hey that’s not fair, you can’t wait all this time knowing something isn’t quite right, you know it was more than three weeks that we have been worrying about this and we survived that, only to hand out a three-week life card as if you are prescribing community service. This is an unfair sentence being handed out for absolutely no crime!

Completely and utterly helpless, we sat and listened to what would happen in the next few days. I don’t recall much of what he said, but I remember my mother turning to me with that familiar, uncompromising look in her eye and saying, “I’m going to fight this.”

Yes, she would fight death as she had fought life; like every other great challenge that had faced her, she never gave up without a fight. But I looked at the thin frame of a woman she had become and knew that this was a fight she was not going to win. Not this time.

Next Up: in A Silent Education: Our Quiet Challenge in Provence

Episode 11: Adapting to a New Rhythm and Creating Lasting Memories

Previous Episodes

Episode 9: She Speaks the Language of Birds

Apart from mild surprise when reading my mother’s entries in the baby book she kept for me, which lists the number of words I could say at 12 months and various intervals beyond that, I never really noticed too much that Allia didn’t speak words that could be recognised. Because she talked non-stop. She communicated incessantly with much enthusiasm and wasn’t shy.

She spoke a language tongue that we referred to as bird-talk, it was long streams of dialogue that went up and down in intonation which I was just on the verge of understanding if I listened hard enough, I was sure. Like listening to Italian or Arabic, languages that incorporate much body language and expression which communicate mood, tension and excitement without the need to understand their words.  It was very much like listening to the French language on the television or the radio in my early days of living here – somewhat familiar sounds with that feeling that surely if I did listen hard enough, it was just a matter of time before something in my brain clicked and “poof” I would understand everything.

It wasn’t until her brother arrived on the scene a year later and started using recognisable words in his rambled dialogue very early on that the contrast became noticeable – I think he understood the bird-talk because they would chatter away to each other and to us without hesitation. I wondered then if something was perhaps amiss, I say perhaps, because I am against making comparisons between children, they develop at their own pace and depending on what they are working on developing, other aspects can lag behind.

When people started suggesting we video her speaking like this, I realised it really was a little out of the ordinary, it was almost as if she had her own language, something like a twin language – but no twin. Unlike today when making a piece of film footage is child’s play, I wasn’t comfortable filming her as a kind of spectacle, I was more concerned with just interacting with her and giving her the freedom to express herself, waiting for her language to become something like one of the three languages she was hearing at home.

Next Up: in A Silent Education: Our Quiet Challenge in Provence

Episode 10: The Move Down Under and a Shocking Diagnosis

Previous Episodes

Episode 8: Ten Months of Bliss and Facing a Return to Work

Once over that initial hurdle, Allia blossomed and apart from that long scar, there was nothing to indicate there had ever been a problem. She was a happy, contented baby who loved to smile and engage with those around her, especially the band of eight and nine-year-old girls who lived in our apartment building and were frequent visitors.

For the first ten months I was able to stay at home with her, working a little, practicing aromatherapy, however I knew it was going to be necessary to find another full-time job, living in London demands it, all the more so when there is an extra mouth to feed.

Until this precious little girl came into my life, I never really questioned working long hours or weekends and I had thrived on the opportunity to travel with work. Now, I couldn’t think of anything worse – to leave this child behind, absolutely not, she had extinguished my desire to seek out the unknown, I found myself dreaming of safer pastures, the more familiar.

For the first time in eight years of living in London, the city that I thought had become my second home, I thought the unthinkable – maybe it was time to return to New Zealand?

P.S. This is what Allia came up with when I said this episode was about us having 10 months of fun times hanging out together, going to the park etc, I just love this picture, although my husband says that first one isn’t true! But her imagination is brilliant. Enjoy.

Next Up: in A Silent Education: Our Quiet Challenge in Provence

Episode 9: She Speaks the Language of Birds

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mslexia – for women who write

I’ve been subscribing to mslexia magazine for a few years now and since it is both a great stimulant to the writing process as well as an excellent source of reading recommendations and a directory of sorts, I thought I’d share a little about it.

Mostly I like it, because it doesn’t feel in any way elitist, this is a kind-hearted, generous resource, contributed to and read by ordinary women who like to write, including many who like me, don’t participate in this activity as a job, but manage to scribble away for a few hours each week – read this and you realise you are part of a large, like-minded community of women who believe in making the impossible possible.

It might be published in the United Kingdom, but it has a very international flavour and inclusive attitude, important when you live outside your country of birth and don’t write in the language of your country of residence and want to participate.

mslexia (ms = woman, lexia =words) is a quarterly publication with feature articles on some aspect of writing (and open to idea submissions), an interview with a published writer, featured short stories or poetry written to the issue theme, or winning entries from the regular competitions they run.

It was Issue 48 in Jan/Feb/Mar 2011 that introduced me to the writer Susan Hill, just as her short novel A Kind Man was being released and I’ve since read three more of her books.

In the latest edition there is a wonderful interview with Diana Athill, what an inspiring woman she is, winning the Costa biography award at 91 with her book Somewhere Towards the End and still writing from her North London residential retirement home.  She says it how it is and cites Jean Rhys’ for teaching her this, she mines her own experiences for a story, and cautions against being cruel to others, “you can be ruthless about yourself, but not when writing about friends” – you can read an extract from the interview here.

athill“I have never understood how many writers moan and groan about how awful writing is. Absolute nonsense.” Diana Athill

Recently, they have been conducting mini-surveys of readers which are then incorporated into the lead articles and some of the smaller snippets of information found throughout the magazine. It is extremely readable, which I put down to the fact that there is a reasonable portion of bite-sized articles, such as letters, extracts from posts, emails, tweets, along with fun and short, contemporary submissions from writers under the headings of rants, raves, a week of tweets, monologue, pen portrait, how I keep going, four lines that rhyme, a poetry or book review. Something for everyone.

Each quarter there is a themed New Writing section, always an excellent writing prompt whether you are interested to submit or not, short narrative or story up to 2,200 words, prose or sometimes poetry, the successful entries appearing in a future edition. I have seen many women being published for the first time through these exercises.

There is an annual poetry and short story competition and in 2012 there was a children’s novel competition for unpublished women novelists.

In addition to all the wonderful information it lays at your fingertips, one of the things I love the most are the short bio’s of contributors, here is one from the 2009 poetry competition in which Pat Simmon’s touching poem ‘Jack discovers impermanence’ was a winner:

PAT SIMMONS, 64, was head of communications for ‘Send a Cow’, an African agricultural organisation, but has since retired. The conviction that whatever she writes will be rubbish stilts her creative progress, but an encouraging family keep her inspired and motivated. Finding writing by hand shackling, she works directly onto her laptop, a practice to which she wishes to dedicate more time. She was Blagdon’s 2005 Apple Wassail Queen – your guess is as good as ours – and on a trip to Rwanda was re-christened Munyanika: ‘As valuable as a cow.’

It is available online, but this is one publication that I like to have the physical magazine to read, there are so many gems and I return to back issues often. Oh and lets not forget the back page, always a delight to conclude with, ‘the bedside table‘, introduces an artist, author, intellectual or well-known personality who shares what’s currently on their nightstand, like gossip for book-lovers.

The next deadline of 18 March 2013 is for Issue 58: The Women’s Short Story Competition for stories up to 2,200 words on any topic. There are prizes for 1st, 2nd and 3rd and three other finalists will also be published in that issue of Mslexia. You don’t have to be   a subscriber to enter, just a woman.  Stories are accepted from any nationality and country.

Happy Writing!

Episode 7: The Verdict, the Recovery and Home in time for Christmas

Waking up the day after the birth and the operation was difficult but waking up without our baby there next to us was gut-wrenching. We returned to the hospital as quick as we could and it would become my resting place for the next three weeks. I was kitted out with a mobile, electric breast pump, not too different from the contraption we see in a cowshed, only this cow had to be milked every three hours. I saw how little they survive on in those first few days, poor starving babies, but I also saw the rich colour of that life-giving, nutritional start a newborn needs, colostrum. Seeing that invoked a determination to ensure I ate in the most healthy way possible.

Allia spent three days in intensive care and apart from being asked to leave when they removed the respiratory equipment, the days passed with little drama. We learned that she had an Ileal Atresia, basically an obstruction in the small bowel, which required 35cm of it to be removed, leaving 130cm. Reading the notes of the operation and procedures in the Intensive Care Unit, I completely understand why some things are best not witnessed or even read about at the time one is going through them. I recently came across the discharge summary and actually have no recollection of ever having read it before, it’s not pleasant reading and I feel thankful to have a healthy daughter who shows no sign whatsoever of this challenging start to her life except the scar across her middle.

As if making up for that initial separation, we were then gifted with something few mothers experience I am sure, three uninterrupted weeks of constant companionship, the two of us sharing a room that became our world,  three weeks in which I learned that this small being was connected to me in a way I had never imagined possible.

Apart from when the nurses struggled to find a vein when doing blood tests, Allia never cried. She slept, she awoke, she rested in my arms as we waited for that all important organ, the bowel to commence its function. That would be one of the first signs of recovery. She was given milk through a line, so it had to happen soon and if everything functioned well, I would be able to start feeding her.

I would slip downstairs to the cafeteria for my breakfast when I saw she was sleeping and she was always quiet on my return, I would then read the notes to check if anything had occurred while I was away and it was via this I learned that this blissful sleeping baby was aware of my absence. The nurse had noted that Allia had cried and next to this note, that the mother had left the room to have breakfast. That the two events were connected was something of a shock initially, but so reassuring, to come to understand and experience something of the magic of the bond between mother and child. It is something I remain in awe of.  The next time I left for breakfast, I made sure to tell her where I was going.

Once she recovered and was feeding and putting on weight, we were ready to go home. We were discharged on December 18th and re-entered a city transformed by the approach of Christmas. A festive celebration it was indeed and the perfect time to be coming home and preparing for the season of joy and hibernation.


Next Up: in A Silent Education: Our Quiet Challenge in Provence

Episode 8: Ten Months of Bliss and Facing a Return to Work

Previous Episodes

The Industry of Souls by Martin Booth

010413_1256_TheIndustry1.jpgI’ve given away numerous copies of Martin Booth’s The Industry of Souls over the years and repurchased it for my bookshelf, just in case I wished to reread it.

But the truth is, I am not a rereader. I never go back, not even for this book which I’ve always named as my all-time favourite book. Until now. Could I continue to say this is my favourite book, when so many reading years have passed and it becomes nothing more than a nostalgic memory of being uplifted by something I can no longer quite define?

So on the first day of the New Year I decided to reread it to see. 010413_1256_TheIndustry2.jpgAnd felt all the discomfort of why that activity is not for me, glances at the bookshelf seeing all those titles I’ve neglected and not yet read, feeling the fear of this highly praised book no longer living up to my own expectations, the scepticism of being transported a second time when I knew what would pass, the memory of that paragraph about the soporific wasp, trapped in a spider’s web, snipped free by its wise eight-legged captor, a paragraph that I cut and paste and send to appreciative friends, long before the convenience of a blog, wondering if I would now view it with less than the perfection status I had granted it when first encountered.

CIMG3662It is true, there is nothing like gazing at a splendid view, arriving in a new city, country, or place, reading a book or meeting someone for the very first time and experiencing that element of the unknown. It’s the sense of adventure, the openness to being shocked, moved, delighted, surprised, uplifted, disappointed or merely comfortable with a familiar voice telling a new story. It reminds me of a quote (now those snippets I do reread) from one of my travel journals during a three month back-packing sojourn around India, Nepal, Vietnam and Thailand, daily living in the face of the unknown.

“In the face of the unknown, man is adventurous. It is a quality of the unknown to give us a sense of hope and happiness. Man feels robust, exhilarated. Even the apprehension that it arouses is very fulfilling. The new seers saw that man is at his best in the face of the unknown.”

An extract from The Fire From Within by Carlos Castaneda

Reading is unique in that it allows us to rest in the safety of our environment, yet allows us to visit such extraordinary places and/or observe the heights, the depths and the edge of humanity. Primo Levi does it in If This is a Man: The Truce, Vaddey Ratner In the Shadow of the Banyan and Jackie Kay in Red Dust Road to name just a few.

The Industry of Souls takes place on the 80th birthday of Alexander Bayliss, a British citizen arrested for spying in the Soviet Union in the early 1950’s, who after 20 years in a Soviet labour camp, the gulag, settles in the small Russian village of Myshkino, with no inclination to return to his roots.

It was all a part of the process of rehabilitation, of making us come to appreciate that Mother Communism, that buxom, grinning, snag-toothed wench dressed in a pair of dark blue overalls, with a scarf around her head and biceps like Popeye the Sailorman, would provide for us. She was our succour and our saviour as well as our slave-mistress and superintendent.

On this day as he makes his round of the village and his friends, he remembers both his time in the village over the years and significant events of that period in the gulag, including with his friend Kirill, to whose village he returned in fulfilment of a promise. And at the end of today he will receive another visitor, a connection from that past, he long ago left behind.

For now, there is much to offer in the reading present, but having reread this favourite, I have no regrets and I hope to have encouraged a few of you to seek it out, it is well worth sinking into its depths.

It is the industry of the soul, to love and to hate;

To seek after the beautiful and to recognise the ugly,

To honour friends and wreak vengeance upon enemies;

Yet, above all, it is the work of the soul to prove

It can be steadfast in these matters…

A Month in the Country by J.L.Carr

I read this book on a loose recommendation from MJ Wright, who mentioned it on reading my review of M.L. Stedmans’ The Light Between Oceans.  The character Tom Sherbourne in that book was a returning veteran from World War I, he was a man who didn’t have much to return to and chose the lone, isolated lighthouse as his place to work in his attempt to recover from the horrors of war.

I gained more a sense of his disturbance and difficulties in dealing with the ghosts of that past, the guilt that plagued him at being alive when so many of his compatriots had not made it, than I did from our Tom here in the country, the author choosing to infer rather than describe the thoughts and memories of his experience, protecting the reader somewhat from that horror.

Tom Birkin is home from the war and spends a memorable month in 1920 restoring a medieval wall painting in a small village church, where he is not entirely welcome, the commission being a pre-requisite to the Church receiving a substantial financial bequest from an elderly woman who has passed. Tom having discovered his wife has taken up with another man, travels north and spends his days on the ladder meticulously uncovering the work of a man he thinks about so often that by the end comes to know intimately, divining what happened to him.

I didn’t look like a Churchman. Indeed I looked like an Unsuitable Person likely to indulge in Unnatural Activities who, against his advice, had been unnecessarily hired to uncover a wall-painting he didn’t want to see, and the sooner I got it done and buzzed off back to sin-stricken London the better.

He befriends another man, known as Moon, who has been commissioned to dig outside the church boundary for a lost fourteenth century grave, one man working on high, the other down below. Outsiders both, they become as close as men can be who have no other friends and the unspoken experience of war between them. I wondered about the significance of digging up a grave, having read in The Light Between Oceans of the disturbing memories this invoked for Tom Sherbourne, when he had to dig one on the island, however it seemed not to have the same effect on these two men or if it did, we were not exposed to those thoughts.

Semi-Autobiographical Novella

A semi-autobiographical, slow burning novella, its pace like a refreshing walk in the English countryside, keeping two men occupied in that aftermath of war before returning to that same but changed place that will become the rest of their lives. It would be comforting to think that a month in the country could work magic for a returning war veteran, however I think it more likely to have been a brief but necessary respite.

It being the festive season, I couldn’t miss an opportunity with a title like A Month in the Country, to share this delightful photo sent by my family in New Zealand a few days before Christmas, having explained to a few friends here that we are not really into eating turkey and as you can see, they feel quite safe to wander up the driveway of my father’s home and show off their brood.

Happy New Year to you all and thank you for reading Word by Word and sharing your thoughts.

I hope to continue to find time to read a book a week in 2013, and have upped my challenge to 60 books!

All the best to you for 2013!