Leaving a vacuum in the air where his voice had been

My-Turn-to-Make-the-TeaMy Turn to Make the Tea
by Monica Dickens

I have been looking forward to reading my beautiful if slightly fragile copy of the 1962 Penguin reprint of Dickens’ memoir of her year working for a local newspaper. Though it’s the first printing from this classic orange-and-white edition, it’s too tattered and stained to be worth anything. But I do love the knowledge that this has been read by a series of people over 53 years. That’s pretty cool.

Dickens is funny and open, delighting in revealing the details of her life as a “cub reporter”. This includes life in her rented room, and the relationships between the building’s various tenants, as well as the intricacies of a hokey local newspaper.

“I put away my things and tried not to feel bleak. My first night in that room stretched before me with too many hours, and I found that I was looking forward to going to work tomorrow. At the Munts’, I had often craved solitude, and dreaded hearing the creak of the stair and the whimsical tattoo on my door that meant Mrs Munt had come up for a pow-wow, but up here on the top floor, a stranger to the rest of the house, I felt unwanted and alone.”

Continue reading “Leaving a vacuum in the air where his voice had been”

The essence escapes but its aura remains

i know why the caged bird singsI Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
by Maya Angelou

Once again, I thought I had read this before and that this would be a re-read, but nope, it was all new to me. I guess that sometimes happens with much-talked-about books. Anyway, now I actually have read it and it is just as amazing as everyone always said it is.

This is the first book in Maya Angelou’s seven volumes of autobiography, covering her childhood in Arkansas and California. Hers was an eventful life, and yet her writing is beautiful enough that the book hardly needs events to make it a great read.

Angelou was sent with her brother to live with their grandmother when she was three, and this is where her story begins. She was very aware of her status as a black girl with a plain face and writes with a tense humour about the white side of town. But she had a comfortably-off family (her Momma ran a successful general store) relative to many others in Stamps, Arkansas – a downtrodden, dirt-ridden place from her descriptions.

“A light shade had been pulled down between the Black community and all things white, but one could see through it enough to develop a fear-admiration-contempt for the white ‘things’…But above all, their wealth that allowed them to waste was the most enviable.”

Continue reading “The essence escapes but its aura remains”

You had to have a lot of time left if you were going to start reading Bolaño

The End of Your Life Book Club

The End of Your Life Book Club
by Will Schwalbe

After this book received universally good reviews from people I trust/have similar taste to (there’s a strong correlation there; I should probably investigate that sometime) I knew I would read it eventually, but I worried it would be super depressing. The “end of your life” part of the title is not euphemistic; it really is about the end of someone’s life. But it was a surprisingly entertaining, easy read. I’m not saying I didn’t get sad at all; I’m not that cold-hearted.

This is a memoir written by American publisher-turned-journalist Schwalbe about the books he and his mother Mary Anne read together when she was dying of cancer. They knew from her first diagnosis that the cancer was terminal, so there is no question how the book will end. This gives the book a largely matter-of-fact background of chemotherapy, pain relief and other palliative care, but also the emotional side of dealing with and preparing for death.

“I was fine until right after I fastened my seat belt. For me, there’s something about planes that isolates and intensifies sadness, the way a looking glass can magnify the sun until it grows unbearably hot and burns.”

The gradual change (for both Will and Mary Anne) from denial to anger to acceptance is clear without being overtly discussed. By which I don’t mean that they ever deny her diagnosis or expect a magical turnaround, but initially they don’t discuss death at all, they just get on with the surgery and trying out different chemo drugs. However, it is of course there the whole time. In fact, when Mary Anne is diagnosed, her daughter, Will’s sister Nina, is about to move to Switzerland with her family and must make the decision whether or not to go, which of course boils down to: does Mary Anne have weeks left or years?

This uncertainty is something I haven’t really read about before, though I know (and have known) people for whom it is true, and it is in some ways harder on the family than the fact of death itself. How far ahead do you allow yourself to plan? Do you book holidays? Do you throw great big birthday and other celebratory parties because they might be the last one with her? Following Mary Anne’s lead, the family slowly figure all these things out – while she can, she wants to do everything she can, including continuing to work and travelling abroad. As her health worsens and her energy levels drop, plans simplify and are built around what she can and can’t do.

“Those extraordinary chemicals, with their remarkable names, now sound totally different: Gemcitabine. Xeloda. Before they sounded like harsh detergents. Now they sound cool and magical, like a new rock band you’ve come to love.”

Mary Anne was a wonderful, inspiring woman. In fact, the whole family are and made me feel quite inadequate at times, but Mary Anne especially. After responding to an unsolicited begging letter from a nun, she quit a very good, secure job as the head of a New York girls’ school to start a charity for women refugees. She travelled to many of the least desirable parts of the world to meet for herself the people she was helping. The danger that she had put herself in time and again is brought home by the fact that during the timeline of this book, a friend and colleague of hers is held hostage by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

But most importantly, of course, at least for this to be the book that it is, Mary Anne and Will share a deeply ingrained love for books. They discuss the books they read in depth, which appears to be something they have always done, but the difference now is twofold – they are choosing to read the same books, even calling it a book club, and they are spending more time alone together than perhaps ever (Will is the middle of three children, after all) as Will accompanies Mary Anne to the doctor, to chemo and spends more time with her at home. (I should add here that so too do Will’s father, brother and sister and all their partners, but this book is about Will and his mother and their time together.)

“In the summer, Mom and I had read slender books. Now we were reading one long book after another. Maybe that was one way of expressing hopefulness—you had to have a lot of time left if you were going to start reading Bolaño, or Thomas, or Halberstam…I remarked to Mom how all the books we were reading then shared not just length but a certain theme: fate and the effects of the choices people make.”

The books they read are many and varied, though fairly firmly literary. Each chapter is named after a book that was of particular significance but the full list of books discussed is provided as an appendix and is six full pages long. You don’t need to have the books to follow the discussions of them but when it was a book I’ve read, I did feel a little glow of “I’ve read that! I could join this conversation!” The book discussions tend not to be so much about the style or quality of writing, but more about the subject matter. Often Will uses a book as a jumping-off point to tell us about Mary Anne’s life or anecdotes from earlier in their life together.

Ridiculously, considering the situation, I found myself at times jealous of the relationship Will and Mary Anne have through books. Not that I’m not close to my Mum. In fact, she gave me this book, which at the time I didn’t twig was especially significant. But currently we have very different taste in books. She likes memoirs/biographies to the exclusion of all else, so I don’t think we could come up with a very long list of books to share. Then again, this is of course a memoir and I really liked it, so perhaps I should lend it to her and have a mini book club next time we see each other. Hmm… But back to the review…

This feels like a very honest book. We learn about Will’s life, about the books he didn’t finish reading even though Mary Anne was eager to discuss them, about the blog that Mary Anne wrote in Will’s name to keep their extended family and friends up to date with her health (she felt it wouldn’t be suitable for it to written by her!) and about Will and Mary Anne’s different attitudes toward religion, plus of course about the long slow decline of terminal cancer. In the end, it was sad but not heartbreaking. I’m not sure if this is because Mary Anne was in her 70s and had lived a rich and full life, or if it is down to the way Will writes about her, about how intellectually sharp and full of hope and kindness she remained to the end.

I think Schwalbe found the right combination of topics here, so that it isn’t all about pain and suffering, or sorrow and self-reflection, or a biography of a great and inspiring woman, or even just about great books, but instead it’s a book that pays tribute to Mary Anne and appeals to the intellectual and emotional draw of books, while also dealing with a tough subject that we will all have to face up to at some point. He also found the right balance between writing about the pain and difficulty of his mother’s slow death and the positive side of the situation: he had the warning to start spending more time with his mother, and had rich, rewarding times with her at the end of her life.

I don’t think Schwalbe is himself a great literary writer, so this doesn’t have the writerly quality of Joan Didion’s memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, say (which in fact is one of the books discussed), but I suppose that makes this book more accessible and serves as a reminder that not every avid reader is also a great writer. I can’t see myself checking out Schwalbe’s book about e-mail, but I do think that if I read books covered in The End of Your Life Book Club I might well come back to it to remind myself what Will and Mary Anne had to say!

First published 2012 by Hodder & Stoughton.

Source: A Christmas present from my Mum.

Summer was departing with reluctant feet

Letters of a Woman Homesteader

Letters of a Woman Homesteader
by Elinore Pruitt Stewart

This is something a bit unusual, and not a book I’d heard of a year ago, or one that there’s a whole lot of information about on the Internet, but it was recommended in the comments to one of my Little House reviews and it sounded like a very appropriate follow-up read, so I downloaded it to my Kindle. But then I spent a few months trying to catch up just a little bit on the teetering towers of unread (physical) books (not very successfully, I might add). It wasn’t until this month, with a few weekends away and a holiday, that I finally dusted off the Kindle and spotted this at the top of the list.

This book is essentially a memoir in the form of letters written, as the title suggests, by a woman homesteader in Wyoming in the early 20th century. Elinore, a widow, started writing to her friend and former employer, a Mrs Coney, in 1909 about the new life she was forging for herself and her daughter Jerrine in Burnt Fork. Coney started reading the letters out at social gatherings and, recognising their popular appeal, suggested she could get them a publisher. A publisher’s note at the start of the book states that little has been changed from the originals and I think this comes over in the tone.

“I am ashamed of my long letters to you, but I am such a murderer of language that I have to use it all to tell anything.”

Which makes this a perhaps not unique but certainly unusual and intriguing historical record, as well as a very well written account of an interesting life led by an intrepid woman who seems to define “can-do spirit”.

“Summer was departing with reluctant feet, unafraid of winter’s messengers, the chill winds.”

Because this is a collection of letters, details and events aren’t necessarily recounted in a logical start-to-finish way. For one thing, the relationship between the two women writing (though only Elinore’s half of the correspondence was published) clearly changes from a largely polite one to a much closer and trusting one, so a lot of the things that are more personal appear towards the end of the book, out of sequence. There also seem to be lots of questions in Coney’s letters that Elinore tries to address, and these sometimes hark back to earlier events.

(I should clarify that I am breaking my self-imposed rule of referring to authors by their surname because Elinore’s surname changes during the course of the book and also because she is a lead character as much as an author, which I think gives me some leeway.)

But what is the story? Well, Elinore says that she felt a yearning to get away from the city and live off the land and when she saw an advert about claiming land in Wyoming she knew that was for her. She initially worked as a cook and housekeeper out in Burnt Fork but filed her own claim for land and got working on it within days of her arrival, determined to prove herself. She quickly befriends the homesteading community and other “locals” and her letters are alive with social gatherings, visits and gossip. Which is no mean feat considering many of her new friends live more than a day’s ride away. There’s also some romance for Elinore (in the strictest matter-of-fact tone, unlike her accounts of others’ romances) but above all there’s adventure.

“I got sunburned, and my hands were hard, rough, and stained with machine oil, and I used to wonder how any Prince Charming could overlook all that in any girl he came to. For all I had ever read of the prince had to do with him ‘reverently kissing her lily-white hand,’ or doing some other fool trick with a hand as white as a snowflake.”

Just as I found with the Little House books, it’s sometimes hard to believe that the USA had large areas that were wild and dangerous as recently as the 20th century. Elinore, for all her common sense and practicality, is a bit of a thrill-seeker and loves to go along for the ride (or even lead the way) when there’s someone new to visit, or something new to do. She goes hunting, visits a Mormon bishop out of sheer nosiness (Burnt Fork is very near the state line with Utah) and even follows a police chase.

In some ways I feel I shouldn’t like Elinore. She’s so “just get on with it”, she’s gossipy and she shows no interest in art, books or music that I recall. She also replicates people’s accents in a slightly racist manner and I’m pretty sure she used the “n” word about a black man at one point. And yet I’d suggest it is impossible not to like her. She sees beauty in the world and in people, and proves herself a thoughtful, generous friend time and again.

“It seemed as if we were driving through a golden haze. The violet shadows were creeping up between the hills, while away back of us the snow-capped peaks were catching the sun’s last rays. On every side of us stretched the poor, hopeless desert, the sage, grim and determined to live in spite of starvation, and the great, bare, desolate buttes.”

She is also a great writer. Apparently she had supplemented her income before going out west by writing occasional newspaper articles and I wish more of her writing survived. I believe there is one further collection of letters to Mrs Coney that was published after this and I will certainly hunt that down, even though it was apparently far less successful than this first volume.

Published 1914 by Houghton Mifflin.

Source: Project Gutenberg.

Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant

The Year of Magical Thinking

The Year of Magical Thinking
by Joan Didion

Since discovering Didion last year, I have been eager to read more of her work, and where better to start than her famous memoir of the year following her husband’s death? Thankfully my book club agreed and we picked it for our February meeting.

This book wasn’t quite what I expected. I thought it would be very slow and contemplative, so I started it well ahead of book club. But actually I sped through it, I might almost call it gripping. The book starts with Didion’s husband John Gregory Dunne dying of a sudden heart attack. But at the same time their daughter Quintana was in intensive care fighting pneumonia, so Didion couldn’t let herself fall apart or retreat into herself. She dealt with this odd delay in her grief by writing about it, then and there.

“Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”

This is very much a memoir of that specific year in Didion’s life, not of her life before. Nor is it about her husband, though obviously memories of him do feature, but only in relation to Didion experiencing them resurfacing, which often results in some of the book’s more moving moments. She will mention in a very matter-of-fact way that she can no longer drive down certain streets or let herself see certain landmarks because the memories they recall threaten to break her, and it is only when you think about what she has said that you realise how close to the edge she is.

“One day when I was talking on the telephone in the office I mindlessly turned the pages of the dictionary that he had always left open on the table by the desk. When I realized what I had done I was stricken: what word had he last looked up, what had he been thinking? By turning the pages had I lost the message?”

Because what’s interesting about this book is that although it is raw and honest, Didion’s emotions are processed in a very cerebral, intelligent way, so initially she seems a little cold or detached (which is no doubt partly shock), and it takes time to realise that this is a very emotional, hurt person, dealing with that pain the only way she can. As the book goes on, feelings come more to the fore, and some of the more recognisable signs of grief such as regrets and obsession over details emerge.

“What would I give to be able to discuss this with John? What would I give to be able to discuss anything with John? What would I give to be able to say one small thing that made him happy? What would that one that one small thing be? If I had said it in time would it have worked?”

The precarious health of Quintana does of course complicate the grieving process. It gives Didion something to focus on but also an excuse not to get back to “real life”. It’s also the aspect of the book that consolidated my sympathy for Didion, because while it may sound harsh, it’s hard to ignore the fact that Didion and her husband lived a very privileged life – they were famous, successful and well paid, with multiple homes and an intimate knowledge of the best hotels in many a city. I think this bald fact ran the risk of detracting from any sympathy I felt, but for the most part I was fully on Didion’s side, absorbed in her story.

I liked that I was able to recognise the style of Didion the novelist in this book, even though it was a very different beast. She makes use of quotes, repetition, research and fractions of thoughts, returns over and over to certain moments, in an otherwise linear narrative. I was reminded of how much I enjoyed The Last Thing He Wanted and will continue to check out her back catalogue.

First published 2005 by Alfred A Knopf/HarperCollins.

Source: Foyles Bristol.

Challenges: This counts towards the Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge.

When real life gets terrifying

Some Other Rainbow
by John McCarthy and Jill Morrell

When I was visiting my parents the other weekend, I spotted this on the bookshelves. I had been meaning to read it since my Mum bought it shortly after publication but somehow hadn’t got round to it. Since then I have become a fan of John McCarthy as the host of BBC Radio 4’s excellent programme Excess Baggage so I thought I would take a trip back to the events that made John a household name for a few years in my youth.

If you lived in Britain in the late 1980s/early 1990s you will know who John is but for everyone else, a quick summary. John went to Beirut in 1986 as part of his job as a TV news producer. He was supposed to work there for four weeks and then come home to his girlfriend Jill who he had left looking for a flat that they could buy together. Lebanon was in the midst of civil war at the time and westerners were being taken hostage but the situation had seemed to be getting better. Then, on the drive to the airport to fly home, John was kidnapped. He was held hostage for five years.

Though I lived through these events, I was quite young so a lot of the detail was either new to me or I had forgotten. It is an incredible story. The book is split so that John will narrate what happened to him over a certain time, then Jill will tell her story of that time. And while John’s story is inherently more interesting, some of the real shocks come from Jill’s side. It was not until his release that a political group claimed John as their hostage (Islamic Jihad, who actually released him as their envoy to the UN). There was no video or photograph of him sent home. In fact, for four years, until his fellow hostage Frank Reed was released, Jill had no way of knowing that he was alive.

There are so many details in this book that shook me hard. The hostages had to be blindfolded whenever the guards were within sight, which in some prisons meant all of the time. They were chained to the wall most of the time, with – if they were lucky – two trips a day to the bathroom. They were moved around a lot, staying in prisons anything from a few days to a year. And with each move they would not know who they would be with at the next location. Both guards and fellow prisoners would disappear and reappear.

John was fortunate not to be held alone after the first six weeks. For the majority of his captivity he shared a cell with Irish schoolteacher Brian Keenan. They formed a strong friendship and found ways to help each other cope. They also found innovative ways to communicate with prisoners in other rooms or cells (their prisons varied between houses, apartments, basements and purpose-built prisons). A moment that really got to me, after reading so much about John and Brian’s companionship, was when they heard knocking from the room next door and translated it as “My name is Terry Waite, I have been alone for over three years.”

Jill, in the meantime, had a lot of difficult decisions to make. She had to decide to what degree to get on with life, whether talking to the press (against Foreign Office advice) would help or hinder John (she had to weigh up the chance of John seeing her on TV or in the press, hopefully lifting his spirits, versus the risk of making him seem more valuable to his captors), whether to do her own investigations into the political situation (again, counter to FO advice). She made the decision, with many of John’s close friends, to campaign for his release. This was partly to keep him on the political agenda, so that deals would not be done with Middle Eastern countries without the hostages being mentioned. But it had the effect that, on his release, she was as much a celebrity as he was and there was a lot of press interest in their renewed relationship.

Both John and Jill had worked in journalism, though neither of them on the writing side, and that does show. Not that the book is at all badly written; rather that it is surprisingly conversational, open, honest but all grounded in the bare facts of what happened. Brian Keenan also wrote a book about his captivity, An Evil Cradling, which I read shortly after publication and found hauntingly beautiful. This is a very different take on the same events.

John is amazingly positive and cheerful, one of those people who is deeply affected by others’ troubles, so he takes great effort to learn how to help his fellow prisoners. He also reaches out to the guards and in some cases makes a connection, though it is never something that he can trust, as he can of course never forget that these men are keeping him like an animal, subject to occasional beatings and with his “belongings” (books, playing cards, dominoes, very occasionally a radio or television but they would usually be banned from listening to news) taken away on a whim. Jill is less cheery, but she makes up for this with incredible determination and brutal honesty about her darkest doubts.

A quick Google reveals that John later co-wrote a book with Brian Keenan, which I would very much like to read. But I also hope that I can go back to enjoying his Radio 4 show without picturing him locked in a dark concrete basement. It’s a horrid image and I have to contradict his statement that he is not a hero. He survived (and helped others to survive), he went on to live life, he is living proof of what the human spirit can endure if it must.

Published 1993 by Bantam Press.

Not that Herzog one again

It’s Only a Movie
by Mark Kermode

I bought this book at an author event for the Bath Literature Festival just before I launched this website. I thought about writing up the talk and book signing but writer’s block prevented me and I figured I’d just combine it with the book review I’d surely be writing in the following few weeks. And then the book sat around for 8 months before I read it. So all I can really remember about the event was that I had a great evening, Kermode was good fun, smug and self-deprecating at the same time, and I failed to think of anything to say to or ask him when I got my book signed. Hey ho.

This book, and indeed the talk about it, are really just like extended versions of listening to Kermode on the radio, which is something that I have enjoyed doing for about 16 years. He has a genuine deep-rooted love of and enthusiasm for film but he doesn’t come across as snobbish or exclusive in any way. I have always preferred his reviews to anyone else’s, even if I don’t agree with him any more or less often than other critics, and this book helped me to see why.

Firstly, he’s immensely knowledgeable on the subject. He has a PhD and is a visiting lecturer in film studies and all he has ever really wanted to do is review films. He genuinely enjoys watching as many films as he can and still finds time to watch his favourites over and over (and over). His favourite films aren’t highbrow inaccessible fare but the rather more approachable The Exorcist, Mary Poppins and Local Hero but he can argue intelligently and cogently why they are great films.

He’s also a good storyteller. He recognises good anecdotes and knows how to tell ’em well. He opens the book with the admission/warning that he has a bad memory and is prone to exaggeration, so this is the story of his life as seen through his own viewpoint, or rather camera angle. He uses the analogy of this being the film of his life (complete with who would play all leading roles), which is a fitting, if slightly cheesy, way of looking at it.

Some things I learned that I hadn’t previously realised (though perhaps if I was paying more attention over the years I’d have figured this out) – Kermode is an ardent feminist and formerly a bit of a political radical (a “red-flag-waving Bolshie bore” in his own words), a vegetarian (or “near-vegetarian”, according to Wikipedia) who keeps chickens as pets and he has an appalling lack of geographical knowledge (he once flew to Moscow to get to a film set in the Ukraine, failing to realise that Odessa is significantly closer to London than Moscow). Really the only one that’s a surprise and yet clearly affects his response to films is the feminism and I’m not sure why this surprised me. I certainly don’t disapprove; it’s good to see a high-profile, reasonable man talking feminism rather than it being a fight between extreme and less-extreme women.

This isn’t a very personal autobiography, it lives up to its title in that respect. While his wife and children get occasional mentions, this really is the story of Kermode’s love affair with film and his resultant career. Which is what he’s good at talking about, so fair enough. It’s structured thematically, with an almost chronological order, and really my only problem with it is that it starts and ends with that Werner Herzog incident, the one I watched on The Culture Show and read about in the paper and listened to Kermode talk about in various interviews since. Yes, it was interesting, shocking even, at the time, but it’s not the only interesting event in Kermode’s life and I do wish he’d stop banging on about it.

Published 2010 by Random House

I may have written far too much this time

Becoming Drusilla
by Richard Beard

This isn’t an easy review to write. For a start, the book is about a friend of a friend, fellow blogger Dru Marland. If my friend likes her, then I’m predisposed to like her too. Which means I didn’t approach this book neutrally. But then when do we ever? Aren’t we always biased or conditioned in some way that we probably don’t even realise? That’s the kind of question this book asks a lot. It’s very well written but a little tiring.

What started out as a biography, written by Dru’s good friend Richard, turned more into Richard’s story of his own attempts to understand Dru. Or, more specifically, Dru’s decision to become a woman.

Dru was born male and transitioned to female in her 40s. She and Richard had been friends for many years, sometimes going off on camping and walking holidays together, and the announcement that she was going to start living as a woman came as a shock to him. They remained friends through the years of Real Life Experience, hormone treatment and gender reassignment surgery, not to mention divorce, family rejection, workplace troubles, cruel newspaper articles and public taunts and stares.

A couple of years after the surgery, they went on a fortnight’s walking holiday, their first since Dru became Dru. The book is structured around that holiday, using their journey across Wales as a metaphor both for Dru’s transition and for Richard’s understanding. Which is a little cheesy, and also initially confusing because it means that there are three timelines – the holiday (2 weeks), the transition (7 years), Dru’s life (49 years at the time of writing, I think). There were also frequent breaks from the story for facts – statistics; details of how gender reassignment works on the NHS, privately and in some other countries; quotes from autobiographies and biographies of other transsexual women; and other research that he has done, which there’s a lot of. A lot of this was absorbing but I’ll admit that I found the quotes superfluous. I get that this background reading was an important part of Richard’s attempt to understand, but I didn’t find a quote about someone going through gender reassignment in the 1970s all that relevant. Not only was the world very different then, but it’s also not Dru’s story. And Dru’s story is a fascinating one, even without including the sex change.

This book is a thorough examination of its subject and it’s sensitively done. Obviously, Dru’s his friend. Their friendship is very sweet and engaging. And yet Richard doesn’t shy away from asking difficult questions. In fact he’s far braver than most people would be, I suspect. He not only probes into every aspect of Dru’s transition, he also probes himself for his own feelings about the whole thing and he’s startlingly honest. For every potential insult of Dru (is she deluded? mentally unbalanced? too masculine-looking to pass as a woman?) there’s an equally negative question aimed at himself (am I scared to be seen with her in public? because I think it’s obvious that she has changed gender and people will judge me for being with her? because I think she’s not an attractive enough woman to appease my masculinity? because I’m irritated by her not trying hard enough to be feminine, even if it has been a long arduous day of walking in the rain?).

Richard asks more general questions as well – how much of gender identification is down to social conditioning? how much influence do the parents have? is sexual orientation a factor? Some of which can’t be answered. And there are questions that Dru can’t or won’t answer. So while we discover Dru’s full biography and almost none of Richard’s, we come away having got to know Richard just as well, if not better.

All those probing questions forced me to ask some difficult questions of myself. Did I want to read this book just because it’s about sex change? Why is that of particular interest? Is it because it’s something I haven’t experienced and I want to know about all things human? That would be acceptable. Or does it have a particular draw for some darker reason? A voyeuristic preoccupation with men dressing as women, like in all those TV shows (transvesticism does seem to have a certain place in British humour), perhaps. Did I want to read it because it’s about Dru, who I have come across in a few places on the internet and found engaging?

I’d like to think that I am completely accepting of transsexual people, that I agree with the medical view that gender dysmorphia is a real condition and that the best cure is to “give them what they want”, as Richard puts it. And from a distance that’s absolutely true. I also think it’s very brave to go through something that’s so alien to other people, that requires constant explanation and effort, for the rest of your life, that’s physically difficult and painful, though those involved clearly feel that the alternative is worse. But up close, do I stare? Do I comment to my companions that I think that woman over there might not be “real”? Or if someone else points that out to me, do I eagerly watch for the clues that they saw before me? I honestly hope not, and if I ever do, I am deeply ashamed of it, but can it be helped? Aren’t we all conditioned to try to fit in and reject what doesn’t seem to conform?

One thing that really hit me about this book probably says a lot about me and my confusion on this topic. Richard casually mentions that the name most commonly chosen by transsexual women in the UK is Kate. By quite some way, apparently. Which caught my attention for obvious reasons. On one level I find that very interesting and am curious why it’s top of the list. Is it for any of the same reasons that my parents chose it for me? Not so much the “short and simple enough for my then-toddler sister to pronounce without difficulty” but more the unambiguously female, familiar and popular, timeless. Or is it for reasons that my parents probably didn’t consider? It’s definitely a girl’s name but it’s not soft and feminine. There are many famous examples, maybe including people who some transsexual women admire or aspire to. On another level I definitely experienced a moment of annoyance. Why must they choose my name? Which is significantly less accepting than I thought I was. I can justify myself a little bit by pointing out that I have always been annoyed by how common my name is, but that’s not much of an excuse.

I found this book engrossing, I greatly enjoyed it, but I didn’t tear through it and did sometimes put it down for days at a time because Richard’s self-examination can’t help but prompt a person like me to self-examine as well and it’s exhausting, challenging and a little scary to reveal yourself, even to yourself. Which makes what Richard did pretty brave in my view. It’s also reassuring that everything I could think and question about this topic and far more is covered. It’s not just me. And if the close friend of a transsexual woman admits to these thoughts then it’s probably okay for me to think them too.

I definitely recommend this book if you’re interested in friendship, the everyday life of someone who’s in some way “different”, gender roles and self-examination. Is it alright to recommend it to people who are interested in gender dysmorphia? Should I stop with these questions now?

By some kind of fortuitous timing, Dru and Richard have just launched a new joint website, Being Drusilla. Check it out!

Published 2008 by Harvill Secker, a division of Random House

Loser comedy

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People
by Toby Young

This infamous “memoir” is funny and entertaining but not brilliantly written. Young repeats himself endlessly and uses too many quotes from philosophers and sociologists in an attempt to make himself sound intelligent. I’m sure he is, but that isn’t the way to convey it. He also rails on quite a bit about his slightly famous titled father, which gets tedious.

What this book does provide, and this is probably the basis for its success, is a satisfyingly glib insight into the more glamorous side of the media. He drops many a household name, giving away all sorts of details you can only assume no-one agreed to in advance. As a journalist who readily admits that he wasn’t suitable for the job he was given at Vanity Fair, Young’s viewpoint and experiences are accessible and even likeable, despite the title.

Apparently, if you want to know which friends he actually lost by writing this, you have to read the sequel, The Sound of No Hands Clapping, but I am not at all tempted. Young has a lot of fans, and maybe their ardour and hype had raised my expectations unnaturally high but, though I have no problem with the “loser” premise, I just didn’t think was very good.

Published 2002 by Abacus
ISBN: 978-0-3491-1485-9