I’ve been struggling over the last couple of weeks, probably since the procedure on my back and short term increase of medication, I’ve struggled to connect fully with a book and to remember all the plot points in those twisty – turny thrillers I usually love. Often when I’m like this I find the best thing to read is non-fiction, which in my case usually means history or memoirs. So for the next few Sundays I’m going to feature some of the non-fiction books I’ve enjoyed and those that have changed my life.
An Evil Cradling by Brian Keenan
I wouldn’t have read this amazing piece of writing, had it not been set for my Autobiography class at university. It is an absolutely stunning book, for it’s story, it’s language and how Keenan tries to hold on to his sense of self when everything that normally defines us is stripped away. The Irish writer was teaching in Beirut in the 1980’s, when he was taken hostage by Shi’ite Militia Men, he was held for four years, much of his time with the British writer John McCarthy. What Keenan manages to do is convey the fear, the indignities, the atrocities and the endless hours of waiting. He muses on what it is that makes us ‘us’. Usually when we are asked what makes us who we are we tend to list the foods, music, sport or pastimes we love. I might feel defined as a rock music fan, who loves Italian food, Woody Allen films and reading novels. However, if we imagine all those things taken away, who do we become? While keeping us abreast of day to day events, Keenan goes inside himself to ask who he is when he isn’t observed or compared to another. He has to consider whether it is easier to let his psyche split into many different pieces that may be impossible to assemble should he survive? Or should he try to keep his sense of a cohesive self, if indeed there is one, and if he reminds himself daily of who he is will it help him survive. It’s hard to imagine the situation Keenan is in and how deprived he is of sensory information, so much so that just seeing an orange inspires this passage:
‘I want to bow before it. Loving that blazing, roaring, orange colour … Everything meeting in a moment of colour and form, my rapture no longer abstract euphoria. It is there in that tiny bowl, the world recreated in that broken bowl. I feel the smell of each fruit leaping into me and lifting me and carrying me away. I am drunk with something that I understand but cannot explain. I am filled with a sense of love. I am filled and satiated by it. What I have waited and longed for has without my knowing come to me, and taken all of me.’
Three Things You Need to Know About Rockets by Jessica A Fox
This was one of those books I simply fell upon while on holiday in Northumberland as I was browsing in Cogito Books at Hexham. For some reason this appealed to me as a holiday read because it felt light and had an escapist quality. Fox is living a life I can’t imagine, in a sublet house that has a lovely garden for meditation and she has a job working as a story teller, at NASA of all places. When she’s hit with redundancy she feels a need for a change of direction and Googles ‘second hand bookshops in Scotland’, dreaming of a quiet bookish retreat. She finds a bookshop in Wigtown where there is a book festival in the summer and they want voluntary help, with accommodation included. She fires off an email which starts an incredible journey geographically and emotionally.
She arrives in Scotland and is welcomed into the home and shop of Euan, where she’s due to spend a month. It’s not long before it’s clear there are feelings between these two book lovers, but they are very different people. Jessica’s is enthusiastic and wears her heart on her sleeve whereas Euan is all reserve and doesn’t want to define or commit to the relationship. When she returns to Scotland for a second time, she makes it clear that she needs to know he is as committed to this as she is and sets an ultimatum. She will return to the US and if he wants a relationship with her he must come out to get her before a certain date. Heartbroken, she returns to her parents house and tries to put her life back together again, thinking that she must move forward in case he doesn’t come. This isn’t soppy or sentimental, as Jessica relates a good amount of personal growth too. She learns to slow down, after living in a city where everything is available at any time of day, and has to accept that in Wigtown going for a walk or seeing some Highland Cattle is quite enough incident in one day. I truly enjoyed this and look forward to reading Euan’s story, under his real name Shaun Bythell.
Small Dogs Can Save Your Life by Bel Mooney
Although this is now packaged in a cutesy pink way, it’s quite a powerful memoir about loss and finding one’s identity against, written by journalist Bel Mooney and relating some of the most painful times in her life. Married for thirty-five years, Bel recounts the life shattering experience of her husband coming home and telling her he was in love with someone else. He had met an opera singer through his work and it had been an instant understanding between them. Through her pain, Bel could recognise this as love and he left the family home. While still in shock and starting to negotiate the terms of their divorce, Mooney rescued a small Maltese dog called Bonnie. Her story recounts the growth of her bond with this little rescue dog and how the simple act of looking after an animal can aid the process of recovery. The small steps it required to look after her small dog were the first tentative steps towards finding a new life, when she couldn’t even imagine what it might look like. When her husband’s new partner was suddenly diagnosed with terminal cancer, she even finds the strength to be loving and compassionate despite her own pain.
I know the power of a dog to heal. After the death of my husband I’d managed to do no more than put one foot in front of the other for about six months, when I bought a tiny cockapoo puppy. I collected him on New Year’s Eve and we settled in to a night in front of the fire with the TV on. I was watching the film Finding Neverland and the sequence where the boy’s mother slowly slips away while they perform a play for her really hit a nerve with me. The weight of the past six months seemed to suddenly become unbearable and for the first time in my life I actually considered what a relief it might be to not be here anymore. I knew I had enough medication in the house to do the job. The thing that stopped me was the bundle of fur I’d brought home that afternoon. In the battle going on inside my head I kept coming back to how scared and bewildered he would be. His first night away from his litter I couldn’t do that to him. Rafferty has been by my side ever since and on those days where I couldn’t face coming out from under the duvet, having to get up and let him out in the morning forced me to keep going. He’s now fifteen and his health is failing, but I’m still there each day supporting him like he’s supported me. Without him, I wouldn’t be here. So it seems that books and small dogs can save your life.