- compile/compiling (verb) produce (a list or book) by assembling information collected from other sources.
- the human condition (phrase) the characteristics and experiences of being human, including birth, growth, emotion, aspiration, conflict, and mortality.
- unprecedented (adj) never done or known before.
- paramount (adj) more important than anything else; supreme.
- utmost (adj) most extreme; greatest.
- scrawl (verb) write (something) in a hurried, careless way.
- shy away (phrasal verb) to avoid someone, or to be unwilling to do something, because you are nervous, afraid or not confident.
- memoir (noun) a historical account or biography written from personal knowledge.
- premise (noun) a previous statement or proposition from which another is inferred or follows as a conclusion.
- manifests (verb) show (a quality or feeling) by one’s acts or appearance; demonstrate.
- ode (noun) a lyric poem, typically one in the form of an address to a particular subject, written in varied or irregular metre.
- cosy (adj) giving a feeling of comfort, warmth, and relaxation.
- prose (noun) written or spoken language in its ordinary form, without metrical structure.
- autobiographical (adj) (of a written work) dealing with the writer’s own life.
- to go down that road (phrasal verb) to take a particular course of action.
- grizzlies (noun) an animal of a large race of the brown bear native to North America.
- undeniable (adj) unable to be denied or disputed.
- dismantle (verb) take (a machine or structure) to pieces.
- behold (verb) see or observe (someone or something, especially of remarkable or impressive nature).
Welcome back! I hope you’ve all been reading or thinking about reading over the last few weeks. Maybe you’ve been compiling your own lists of recommendations. Last time I talked about five of my top ten non-fiction books. There were books about World War II, murders and grief. Dark subjects, I know, but I feel these books have the ability to touch us so deeply and give us the opportunity to explore the human condition.
Here in part 2, I will explore adoption, gun crime, writing, reading and brain surgery. During these unprecedented times entertainment is paramount. But something struck me – the longer this situation continues, the longer our favourite TV shows will remain on hold and films will continue to be unmade. That is why books are of the utmost importance. We need new stories. So here are five for you.
5. The Mistress’s Daughter – AM Homes
(Granta, London, 2007)
AM Homes is one of my all-time favourite writers. She’s not to everyone’s taste – I once gave this book to a friend and she wasn’t impressed – but to me, Homes’ language is so raw, honest and sharp that it draws me in. She slices. Her words cut. The truth is hard and Homes does not shy away from it. Her memoir contains six essays, the titular one – and heart of the book – concerns Homes discovering she is adopted. Her biological parents enter the picture and Homes’ inner turmoil is chronicled throughout the book, here’s an example:
‘I am so angry, so sad, hating everyone for who they are and for everything they are not. It is the rising of emotion, as everything I can’t articulate begins whirling inside me. I gun the engine. I imagine driving the car into the house, crashing through, desperate to get past what is blocking me…I picture the cabinets emptying out, dishes breaking, the engine punching through the back of the refrigerator, a headlight coming through the crisper door. I hope the dog isn’t in the kitchen, that no one has gone in for a snack. I sit with a foot on the gas, wanting to do it, and then thinking about my mother and my mother’s dishes, how much she loves her dishes, how much I love my mother, how I wouldn’t want to break the dishes and how it wouldn’t be quite the same if I went into the house first and emptied all the shelves and then came back out again and went crashing through.’
What always astounds me about this memoir is how childish Homes’ biological parents are. I remember scrawling into the margins’ selfish!’ and ‘oh my god – really?’ and ‘say no!’ when I first read the book. (I very rarely write in books but I couldn’t help myself.) As a big fan, I was reading the memoir to see if there was any incite into her writing. Apart from where Homes notes down a phrase that would later become a title of one of her stories and when she poked her eye with The New York Times as she was reading a review of one of her books, the memoir contains very little notions of Homes as a writer. Until you take a step back. For Homes’ descriptions of her parents reflect her work. Homes’ incredible ability to lay a character bare makes them seem childish but, in fact, Homes just shows the longing, desperation and naivety we, as adults, all feel.
4. Last Day On Earth – David Vann
(University of Georgia Press, Georgia, 2011)
‘After my father’s suicide, I inherited all his guns. I was thirteen. Late at night, I reached behind my mother’s coats in the hall closet for the barrel of my father’s .300 magnum rifle. It was cold and heavy, smelled of gun oil. I carried it down the hallway, through kitchen and pantry into the garage, where I turned on the light and gazed at it, a bear rifle with a scope, bought in Alaska for grizzlies. The world had been emptied, but this gun had a presence still, an undeniable power. My father had used it on deer. It sounded like artillery, would tear the entire shoulder off deer hundreds of yards away.’
When I was a student at the University of Warwick, doing my Master’s in Creative Writing, David Vann was one of the tutors. He often spoke about the music of language. Words matter, he would tell us, and they are not to be wasted. I’ve read the majority of Vann’s prose – which is highly autobiographical and I would recommend – but his non-fiction book, Last Day on Earth stands out.
I vividly remember reading this book. I remember the chills on the back of my neck. In Last Day on Earth, Vann explores Steve Kazmierczak, a student at Northern Illinois University who killed five people and wounded eighteen others in a shooting that took place on Valentine’s Day, 2008. This is reason enough to have chills but Vann goes further.
This book doesn’t just explore the massacre but Vann’s history with guns and the terrifying truth, that when he was younger he had contemplated going to his school and shooting everyone. Vann could have been Kazmierczak. He could’ve gone down that road but he didn’t – why? What set him apart from Kazmierczak? I would call this book one of the bravest I’ve ever read. Vann doesn’t shy away from his darkness, he dissects it, owns it and, as a result, is at peace with it.
3. Howard’s End is on the Landing – Susan Hill
(Profile Books, London, 2009. Page 1-2 & 92)
I thought I would include a warmer, cosier option. I appreciate we’re all stuck in our houses and the idea of another day looking out of a window reading a book about death or murder may be enough to drive you insane. So let’s focus on the power of books by looking at Susan Hill’s Howard’s End is on the Landing. This is a rare treat of a memoir.
The premise is very simple: one day Susan Hill (the prolific author of classic novels such as The Woman in Black) was trying to find a book in her house. She couldn’t find it. But what she did find were numerous books she owned but hadn’t read. Therefore, Hill decided to not buy books for a year and just read the ones at home. What manifests is an ode to reading. Here’s an example:
‘Here are the diaries on the table – I could spend my year reading from home on diaries alone. And if I had to pick one? Virginia Wool’s A Writer’s Diary is never away from my bedside table, well worn, much-loved, a constant inspiration. It was by way of that single volume, extracted by Leonard from her many volumes of diaries, that I was led to her novels, and so to the woman I have loved and admired and been fascinated by for fifty years. And still am, still am. But I know the book so well, have read the print off its pages for so long, that it has become part of me.’
I can’t stress it enough – this book is cosy. Get into your pyjamas, snuggle up with a hot cup of tea (or a glass of wine, you could go either way) and let yourself read about reading and this magical realm of books.
2. The Cost of Living – Deborah Levy
(Penguin Random House, Great Britain, 2018)
I’ve selected The Cost of Living for two reasons – it’s brilliant and it continues with the cosy theme. The reason I return to this book is to re-read the description of Deborah Levy’s shed (or the shed her friend gave her). A writer’s room of one’s own is a magical place – worlds are built there. I’ve always been fascinated by these spaces – whether that be photos or descriptions. So here’s Deborah Levy talking about her shed:
‘It was not a posh shed. The lawnmower would have felt at home in it, but it did have four windows looking out on to the garden, a writing desk that had belonged to Adrian with a green leather top, and some Formica bookshelves built across the back wall….No one was allowed to interrupt me on her [Celia’s] watch; to knock on the door and solicit a conversation (the weather, the news, the arrival of cake) or even to convey an urgent message from the Mistress of House. To be valued and respected in this way, as if it were the most normal thing in the world, was a new experience. I did not know it then, but I would go on to write three books in that shed, including the one you are reading now.’
The book is more than that, of course. This ‘living autobiography’ continues the themes explored in Levy’s previous book, Things I Don’t Want To Know – womanhood and gender politics whilst going on to discuss what it means to dismantle one’s life, expand it and put it back together again. With this in mind, Levy chronicles the divorce from her husband, moving into a new home and trying to form a new life where she is the main character. As she says, it was in that very shed that she began to write in the first person, to use the form I.
1. Do No Harm – Henry Marsh
(Orion Books, London, 2014. Page 43)
The saying “it’s not brain surgery” means the task in question is easy to accomplish, that it lacks complexity and is simple to understand. Brain surgery, therefore, is difficult, requires the utmost attention due to its complexity and difficulty. Henry Marsh is a brain surgeon and Do No Harm is his riveting memoir, chronicling many extraordinary cases as well as his own personal feelings about the current state of the NHS.
This book is a rare feat. A peek behind the curtain. When I read it for the first time I felt like I was going to work with Marsh. I was a junior doctor in some way, learning from him, listening to him. We also see Marsh’s life – he needs to go shopping, get some rest, clean his house, have a social life and family time whereas the very next hour he might be called in to perform surgery. This is what is most startling and wonderful about the book. We see brain surgeons as living Gods, but Marsh is just a man – flawed, emotional, human.
Please share any of your own book recommendations in the comments below. If you have any questions regarding the vocabulary, simply send me a message or ask me a question in the comments below. Or you can email us at Intrepid English.
This blog was written and recorded by Intrepid English Teacher, Tom.
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