Good Morning, Mr Mandela

Mandela Day

Today, 18 July is Nelson Mandela Day, it was the date of his birthday and the day he married his wife Graça Machel. I discovered this yesterday as I was nearing the end of Zelda la Grange’s memoir Good Morning, Mr Mandela as she helped with the plan to advocate to the UN to try to make 18 July International Nelson Mandela Day, after receiving a letter of congratulations from Bono for Mandela’s ninetieth birthday celebrations held in Hyde Park, London. He wrote:

“Happy Birthday Madiba. I am working to make July 18th a public holiday in every country that acknowledges that the struggle of Nelson Mandela is not over until every individual who yearns for freedom has the chance to grasp it. I believe your birthday should be an occasion around the globe to honour those who still struggle.” Bono, U2

Good MorningWhen I saw this memoir was due for release I didn’t know anything about Zelda la Grange, but after reading this interview by John Carlin in The Guardian from 2008, I decided to find out more and finished reading it today.

Zelda la Grange was born in 1970 in East Johannesburg, South Africa to a white Afrikaans family. Her father worked in construction and her mother was a teacher. The family wasn’t rich, but being white, they enjoyed the privileges of their race, benefiting from the apartheid regime through access to health, education and a strong sense of entitlement. It wasn’t something she ever thought about, it was the way they lived, they accepted it and had little knowledge of how these policies affected black and coloured people. They were racist.

“As a child it is easy to follow when you grow up in an environment that is safe. Perhaps if I had been oppressed, didn’t have access to a decent school, a proper house, electricity and water, I would have asked different questions, and my brain would have developed into being more inquisitive about injustice at an early age.”

Not knowing what she wanted to do with her life, she enrolled in a course to become an Executive Secretary. When Mandela was voted President she was working in a government Human Resources Department and heard there was a job opening in the administrative department of the President’s office.

It was to be the beginning of a twenty-year career working for Nelson Mandela, first in his capacity as President and then when he left the government, she would be the one person he chose to take with him, to maintain in his employ for life.

Zelda la Grange served Nelson Mandela for around 20 years and you could say she gave her life to him as she had little personal existence outside her working life, so loyal was she to the man who handpicked her to be that loyal employee. Ever the strategist, he chose a woman whose skills complimented his own, she compensated for his weakness and allowed him to continue to focus on his strengths by taking care of all the things that needed to go on behind the scenes to ensure safe passage and no surprises. She was a perfectionist, though she doesn’t admit that in the book, working often through the night than have anything go wrong and was completely obsessed with every little detail.

Zelda owns up in the opening pages that this book is her story and so doesn’t contain great political insights into South Africa or its policies, nor does she ever break the trust she had with Nelson Mandela and say anything he wouldn’t have approved of. One gets the impression that she could have said so much more and perhaps even did, but any excesses have been cut from the first draft and what we read here is a clean, if somewhat lacking version of the events of those twenty years they worked together.

The book reads like a diary of events, which can become tedious, especially as the language is quite prosaic, just as the job must have been, however she is clearly passionate and dedicated to serving the man she referred to as Khulu or Grandfather and he referred to her as Zeldini. Their relationship was extremely close, but always with a respectful and appropriate distance, as was inherent in both their natures.

It is an incredible record of those years and the many voyages they made, people met and funds raised for various humanitarian projects they launched, even if we miss the perspective of the man himself.  In telling her story, she pays tribute to her boss and has created a record of her great respect and need to ensure that all those associated with him, from friends to celebrities to politicians were adequately taken care of. She never stoops to gossip, takes care not to say anything negative about the family, although you can sense the unspoken tension underneath, after all they did bar her from the funeral activities and if it wasn’t for the generosity of Mandela’s wife, Mrs Machel, she would not have attended at all.

An interesting account and makes me even more curious to read Mandela’s own words and gain an insight into what was going on inside his mind during these years.

Today's Google Doodle

Today’s Google Doodle

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Scattered Dreams

On March 4th I sent an email to Karin Crilly about a competition being run on The Good Life France. I saw this competition mentioned on twitter  @lifefrance and thought of Karin as I knew she was writing a memoir about her year in Aix-en-Provence and I thought it would be a good idea for her to send something out into the world.

The Good Life France is an independent online magazine that celebrates life in France and attracts a number of writers and contributors who write on a wide range of subjects, keeping visitors and residents informed about France and all things French. The competition was to celebrate the 2nd anniversary since their inception and they invited contributions of work up to 1000 words on France or French related.

Good Life

Karin replied and said she would be very interested in entering the competition and asked if I would like to read the extract she had chosen, from the first chapter of her book.

Unbeknown to us both at the time, it was the beginning of the two of us working together. I read her work, made some suggestions and she polished her already excellent prose into a shape resembling 1000 words of an evocative experience in Paris that did indeed wow the judges, moving some of them to tears yet uplifting them at the same time.

Earlier this week, to our great joy, we learned that Karin had won the competition, ahead of more than 100 other entries and her story Scattered Dreams in Paris has now been published on The Good Life France.

You can read the story here by clicking on the title. Watch this space for news of the book when it comes out:

Winner of 2014 Writing Competition The Good Life France!

Scattered Dreams in Paris by Karin Crilly

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Congratulations Karin and  Bonne Continuation!

A Hundred Thousand White Stones: An Ordinary Tibetan’s Extraordinary Journey

Kunsang Dolma might have had a more ordinary life, if it hadn’t been her turn to be the family representative at the annual ten-day prayer session at their local village temple when she was 15 years old. An event peripheral to that obligation changed the path she was on, which would have been an arranged marriage to a local boy and raising children to help with the farm work. For those of us reading it however, this is no ordinary life, but an insight into an ancient culture and one courageous woman who survives its harshness, revels in its deep, spiritual wonders and travels outside all that she knows to become the wife of an American citizen.

A Hundred Thousand White StonesThe consequence of that event sets her on the path towards becoming a Buddhist nun, something she had previously considered but had been rejected by her parents, so she and a friend decided to run away from their village to ensure it happened, without parental consent.

While she doesn’t remain a nun all her life, ironically the second major turning point in her life that moved her away from being a nun towards marriage and a life in America was not dissimilar to that which motivated her action towards pursuing a monastic life in the beginning. This is a true story, however I am reminded of all those turning points in the life of the fictitious character Ursula’s in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and the significant power that one event can have to alter the direction of a young woman’s life.

Tibetan farmersKunsang shares her upbringing with a quiet, practical, honest voice and it is a childhood and adolescence we see as difficult, though in the context of where she lived, a small Tibetan village, it was quite like many other villagers and something she now looks back on with appreciation and an incessant longing, having left it all behind. It is in leaving a difficult way of life and family behind us, in making it no longer attainable that the deepest yearning for that which was willingly fled, is often felt.

Her parents married at 15 which is not uncommon, however they were unable to conceive until they were 28 years old, something that came as a relief as being farmers, children are essential to their survival as future workers. Kunsang was the youngest of 8 children and by the time she was born, there were sufficient children to manage the farm work; it was this fact that enabled her to have an education.

At the time, there was no birth control, so after thirteen years without a child, it looked like they definitely weren’t going be able to have any children, which are essential to help with work on the farm. My father’s sister already had two kids and felt sorry for my parents’ situation, so when she was pregnant a third time she told my father, “Look, this is my third child. I’m going to give him to you.” The baby was twenty-two days old when my parents took him home. After that, my mother started to have her own babies. My parents always thought that my adopted brother Yula had brought them good luck.

Tibet mapKunsang eventually makes a pilgrimage to Dharamsala to see the Dalai Lama and during her time here she meets her future husband, narrating the heart-breaking, tedious administrative process they must overcome to be together and the struggles she will face even when they succeed. It is a moving story of a life we can hardly imagine and a journey that crosses many boundaries most of us will never have to traverse, to hike over terrain while risking one’s life, to encounter a revered spiritual leader, create a way to support oneself financially in a foreign country alone and to raise your children in yet another country which will become their home, but never yours.

CIMG3772Reading stories like Kunsang’s is not just an eye-opener into another culture and way of life and another way of dealing with life’s issues, it invites us to practise empathy and patience in the way we interact with foreigners in our own country. Kindness and compassion are there in abundance if we choose to offer them to others and it is stories like Kunsang’s that motivate us to want to extend it.

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

Stet, an Editor’s Life Diana Athill

LakesideI read most of Diana Athill’s book in two afternoons, sitting under a willow tree beside the lake L’étang de la Bonde as the children swam continuously, refusing to get out until it was time to leave. Despite the fact that we were outdoors, I felt as if I had just spent two days in Athill’s living room, listening to her share this particular segment of her life, that as Editor at André Deutsch, the publishing house where she worked for four decades.

Stet is not a common word and I am perhaps only familiar with it because, back in the old days, when I was a 23-year-old Market Research Assistant without typing skills, I used to write reports and had a secretary to type them. I even had my own office with a door that could be closed. Using the word stet meant I’d changed my mind after I’d crossed something out, wanting it left in. The Concise Oxford Dictionary tells us :

Not the first of Athill’s memoirs, but the one I was attracted to, since it offers a glimpse inside an Editors office. I had already read and reviewed Betsy Lerner’s The Forest For the Trees, which this book made me recall, you could say they complement each other in a certain respect, though they are very different books, as one might expect when comparing the perspective of an English Editor to that of an American Editor. Both equally interesting and insightful in their own way.

In Part One, Athill shares how she fell into publishing as a career, knowing she would have to find a job, while her great-grandparents generation had made or married into money, her father’s generation had lost it and she talks about many aspects of the job, the decisions that were made, the dramas that were lived and worked through.

“The story began with my father telling me: ‘You will have to earn your living.’ He said it to me several times during my childhood (which began in 1917), and the way he said it implied that earning one’s living was not quite natural. I do not remember resenting the idea, but it was slightly alarming…Daughters would not, of course, have to earn their livings if they got married, but (this was never said) now that they would have to depend on love unaided by dowries, marriage could no longer be counted on with absolute confidence.”

Diana Athill

Diana Athill

The start to her career was disrupted by the onset of the Second World War, however she was fortunate to have a friend working in the recruitment office of the BBC and found an information/research position in the Overseas News Department. She and a friend lived in a small apartment in London and had a good social life, at one of the parties she met the young Hungarian intellect André Deutsch, the start of a lifelong friendship and she would eventually leave her job to join him as a shareholder and working Director when he decided to start his own publishing firm.

Not the easiest of employers, Athill shares some interesting insights about working for an often disagreeable and intolerant man whom she respected despite his deficiencies. She is also quick to point out her own flaws and it is perhaps the counterbalance of their personalities that made them such a successful pair and helped keep the publisher in business for as long as it was able. She also shares her continued love of literature, reading and writing.

Stet“They brought home to me the central reason why books have meant so much to me. It is not because of my pleasure in the art of writing, though that has been very great. It is because they have taken me so far beyond the narrow limits of my own experience and have so greatly enlarged my sense of the complexity of the life: of its consuming darkness, and also – thank God – of the light which continues to struggle through.”

In Part Two, she expounds on her relationship with a small selection of writers, providing a chapter each and very frank accounts of what transpires between Athill, the publishing house and the following authors: Mordecai Richler and Brian Moore, Jean Rhys, Alfred Chester, V.S.Naipul and Molly Keane. One is left with the impression that there was a lot more drama and pandering to personalities in the past than there can be in today’s less nurturing publisher – author relationships. Eye opening indeed!

As I mentioned in the Man Booker Prize longlist post, Diana Athill won the Costa Prize for her most recent memoir Somewhere Near the End in 2009, which she wrote in her nineties, a book which is sure to be equally enlightening and one I look forward to indulging, knowing as I did with this book, it is bound to offer delightful company for future afternoon reading.

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The Faraway Nearby

After spending a few months with me in London some years ago, a very good friend was about to return to New Zealand and was making some major changes in her life, both personal and in her career. She wasn’t entirely sure what job she wanted to do, but knew it would be in the great outdoors. She loved to travel and she loved nature. I organised a subscription to Wanderlust Travel magazine for her, an inspiration of amazing photography, fabulous ideas for out-of-the-way places to visit and best of all, a link to exciting jobs for those who love to travel across cultures, to be outdoors and meet people.

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Life on the Milford Track

She completed a diploma, training in the skills required to become an outdoor guide and now works for the Department of Conversation as a guide on the Milford Track, this last season she was based in a lodge, only accessible by helicopter or a few days walk in. She is now living her dream job and it is indeed just like those jobs offered in the pages of that inspiring magazine.

Fast forward a few years and I come across a book called Wanderlust : A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit. I was interested in it, though stronger was the feeling that I should send it into that remote wilderness to my friend, it seemed to describe where she had arrived at. So I did. I then forgot about the book until I saw the name Rebecca Solnit come up recently on NetGalley, she had a new book coming out The Faraway Nearby. Here is the book I will read I thought and requested it.

Some weeks later while in London one Saturday, I discovered The London Literature Festival was on and at 3.30pm, I could attend a talk by Rebecca Solnit speaking about her book The Faraway Nearby. Serendipity? I bought a ticket, a hardback copy of her book and went to listen to the author, curious, though I had never read a word of her writing.

FarawayThe book is good, but Rebecca Solnit’s ability to captivate an audience is spectacular. I’m almost sorry to admit it, but the live version was even better than the passive written version, which I really enjoyed, the reading experience enhanced significantly by the additional anecdotes and philosophical meanderings of Solnit in person, as she spoke without pause, the voice of a poet.

The talk was hosted by the literary critic Alex Clark, who suggested that the media coined her book not a memoir, but an anti-memoir. Part anti-memoir and part matremoir, it starts with her recounting the gift of 100 pounds of apricots from her mother, one of the few gifts she ever received from her mother and not disconnected from the fact that her mother is undergoing something of a personality change since her Alzheimer’s diagnosis. She lays them out on her bedroom floor, wanting to appreciate their abundance, but instead embraces a soon to be dissected anxiety.

“The fruit on my floor made me start to read fairy tales again. They are full of overwhelming piles and heaps that need to be contended with, the roomful of straw the poor girl in Rumpelstiltskin needs to spin into gold overnight, the thousand pearls scattered in the forest moss the youngest son needs to gather in order to win the princess, the mountain of sand to be moved by teaspoon. The heaps are only a subset of the category of impossible tasks that included quests, such as gathering a feather from the tail of the firebird who loves at the end of the world, riddles, and facing overwhelming adversaries.”

Nature essays, how stories create the narrative of our lives, philosophical meanderings, her chapters weave in and out of many subjects, flitting here and there, as she recounts pieces of a year that passed whilst her mother was regressing. She contemplates and then makes an escape to Iceland, mentions friendships and her passion for visual art, the occasional Buddhist legend, Frankenstein, Mary Shelley and her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, pain and leprosy likening her narrative to a Russian matryoshka doll, even going so far as to repeat chapter names in reverse, once she arrives at the hard core (the doll that has no doll).

“My story is a variation on one I’ve heard from many women over the years, of the mother who gave herself away to everyone or someone and then tried to get herself back from a daughter.”

ApricotsThere are many anecdotes, insights and great lines throughout the narrative, however Solnit stops short of going too deep into her subject, she observes the apricots and watches how they change, just as she does her mother, but stops short of looking too deep into the past, of really describing their relationship and how they were with each other, it is implied, not described.

I understand this reluctance, for that percentage of women out there who had the kind of relationship with their mother that Solnit did, there will be many nods of the head in recognition of what she says without having to go into detail. For the rest, it may seem superficial or even harsh, but they are the words of a mature 58-year-old women, who admits:

“If I had written about her earlier, the story would have had the aura of the courtroom, for I had been raised on the logic of argument and fact and being right, rather than the leap beyond that might be love.”

At the end of the talk, a few people asked questions and at the last minute, but too late I put up my hand, my question deemed to remain silent. Or so I thought. As everyone left the Purcell Room, a woman called Helena sitting next to me who was also visiting from the country for the day, asked me what I had been going to ask. And so I told her – and had a delightful conversation, just as interesting as it might have been, had I asked the author.

The question I wanted to ask was:

Did she believe that a challenging relationship could be a gift, that it could bring her something that she may not otherwise have developed in herself, had it been otherwise?

I suspect the answer is yes, that these relationships do give people something that can be used proactively, if self-awareness is developed to prevent regressing into the negative aspects or effects of those childhood and adulthood experiences. She may not have been able to fix her mother, but it may not be a coincidence that Rebecca Solnit is outspoken and active in terms of her support of nature, the environment, politics and art.

“I didn’t have much sympathy either; it was not that I refused to give it, but that there was none in my equipment yet, perhaps because I had experienced so little of it.”

Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

She Left Me the Gun

The GunNeither the title nor this book cover would normally attract me towards picking up this book, however it was through neither of those avenues that I came to hear about the book. It was a random tweet that included the following:

Any sentence that contains the words “Maya Angelou and Emma Brockes, who both…” works for me.

I was reading Maya Angelou’s Mom & Me & Mom at the time and so wondered who Emma Brockes was, intrigued by the reader’s comment implying she’d enjoy curling up with both books. I saw that Brockes had published a memoir about her mother and then read an excellent article in The Guardian, where it turns out Emma Brockes works (in the New York office).

Emma Brockes was born in England, her mother leaving her own country of birth South Africa in her early twenties. After some years living in London, she met her husband and they moved to an English village. She was a mature mother, having her only child later in life and lived a quite routine-lead life with her small family and had a job doing accounts for a jeweller in a neighbouring town.

Brockes recalls her mother mentioning that she’d one day tell her about her life in South Africa before coming to England, however the daughter didn’t press her mother and that moment of revelation never arrived. Apart from a couple of offhand comments hinting at some dark past and a court case, any opportunity to quietly share her past with her daughter in her later years was cut short by her illness and premature death, a time when the days seemed better spent just appreciating each other’s company.

It seemed absurd at this stage to ruin what time we had left with painful and long-avoided subjects.

Whether it was the journalist instinct or some kind of closure in making an effort to understand her mother more fully, Brockes decides to find out what it was that drove her mother to abandon her family and her country and never look back.

Jo'burg High Court

Jo’burg High Court

Knowing there was a court case against her grandfather and using her journalistic knowledge and access to resources, she searches archives, only to discover an earlier judgement, one that preceded his marriage to her grandmother, a murder conviction.

She requests the file to be sent to her and then discovers the second court case, in which mother is named in bringing a charge against her own father. The file is too large, so she makes plans to visit South Africa to do her research and to meet the numerous family members, her mother’s half sisters and brothers, the seven aunts and uncles who live there.

When she was in her mid-twenties, she said, she’d had her father arrested. There had been a highly publicized court case, during which he had defended himself, cross-examining his own children in the witness-box and destroying them one by one. Her stepmother had covered for him. He had been found not guilty.

Emma Brockes

Emma Brockes

This is a book that once started is hard to put down, the way Emma Brockes writes, it is as if you are on the same journey, with the same feeling of curiosity tempered by an instinct not to get too involved.

In fact, for me there was a turning point somewhere in her travels, just when she starts to become part of a local crowd of journalists, when she begins to become part of the weave of family fabric, when it felt like it was time to get out. That while she was there and had a clear purpose and was fulfilling some kind of tribute to her mother, all was well, but that getting any further involved might in some way rub something into her that her mother had spent a lifetime trying to protect her from.

She was right to leave when she did.

And the gun? Well you know whenever a gun is mentioned, a shot must be fired and so it was, yet while the title stretches the truth somewhat, all must be forgiven, since it was suggested to the author by the late Nora Ephron, another fitting tribute.

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

Istanbul Memories of a City by Orhan Pamuk

IstanbulAlthough I carried the book  to Istanbul and back, there was no inclination to read it while I was there, I started it on the return plane journey, the appropriate occasion to do so, for Pamuk’s Istanbul is laced with more melancholy than the city I visited and I realise with hindsight, the importance of constructing my own unfettered impressions, free of this philosophical consequence of the decline of a grand empire and the inclination of its progeny to feel somewhat bereft at missing out on an era when their prominence was that much greater than it is today.

However, I remain as intrigued about the author now as I did before I started the book, it is a unique form of memoir, more of a nostalgia trip through selective memories of his childhood and his city, sharing anecdotes from both that formed him into the writer he is today.

The imagination features large in Pamuk’s  life from a very young age, when he was five-years-old he was sent to stay with an Aunt on his own and she used to point at a picture of a child and say it was him. He came to know him as the other Orhan and while he knew it was not him, this shadow of himself never left him behind. Neither did he ever leave the city of Istanbul in the fifty years up to writing this book.

CIMG4275“But the ghost of the other Orhan in another house somewhere in Istanbul never left me. Throughout my childhood and well into adolescence, he haunted my thoughts.”

Though he never left the city, he read many works by writers and poets who published impressions of Istanbul, Gustave Flaubert, the poet Gérard de Nerval, Théophile Gautier, Pierre Loti, Edmondo de Amici and laments that in the same period they were writing about the city,  little was written or painted by its own artists and writers, therefore, whilst the work of others is familiar, it remains an outsiders perspective and does not quite capture the essence of how the Istanbullus see themselves.

Pamuk often visualises the city in black and white and throughout the book on nearly every page are photographs depicting the city in monochrome. He spends an entire chapter describing Hüzün, the Turkish word for melancholy explaining how if differs from sadness and finishes by almost convincing the reader that it is something close to a virtue, absorbed with pride and shared by a community.

“the hüzün of Istanbul is not just the mood evoked by its music and its poetry, it is a way of looking at life that implicates us all, not only a spiritual state, but a state of mind that is ultimately as life affirming as it is negating.”

“… hüzün brings us comfort, softening the view like the condensation on a window when a tea kettle has been spouting steam on a winter’s day.”

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Entrance to the Grand Bazaar

I did not come to Istanbul expecting to see sultans, dervishes or crystal chandeliers, though there are traces of them all if you seek them out. I came to see a city that comfortably exists while straddling two sides of a significant divide.

Bosphorus

The Bosphorus with the Castles of Europe and Asia by Thomas Allum

The Bosphorus, that deep channel of powerful surging water and current that separates two continents is deceiving. The reasonably short distance from one side to the other, only 2 to 3 kilometres, the fact that it embraces one city reminds us that there is less than we might think between the people who inhabit each continent.

A deep and powerful separation of continents, yet humanity passes across it with ease. Great divides can indeed be overcome.  The streets of shops and the Grand Bazaar attest to that passage of traders and pilgrims who have entered and passed through the city over hundreds of years.

It takes until the very last chapter before we meet the more mature Orhan who will become a writer, because unlike many born to write, his first love was painting and he shares much through his observation and study of artists who painted his city, something he practiced prolifically in his youth. The demise of this early calling occurred not long after his teenage muse was packed off by her family to Switzerland, his mother’s relentless cautions against pursuing the life of an artist transforming his rebellion against completing his architectural studies into announcing:

“I don’t want to be an artist.” I said. “I am going to be a writer.”

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“I was, as I had begun to discover even then, the sort who could always wear the same clothes and eat the same things and go for a hundred years without getting bored so long as I could entertain wild dreams in the privacy of my imagination.”

A treat for admirers of Orhan Pamuk’s work and those who have had the good fortune to visit his wonderful city, which is not nearly as melancholic to the visitor as it is to a philosophical resident.

Next up, murder at an archaeological dig! Time to leave Istanbul and travel inland with Ahmet Umit.

Mom & Me & Mom

Maya Angelou starts her conversation book by mentioning something people often ask, how it is that she became the women she is, a question she says she has been tempted to respond to using lines quoted from Topsy, the young black girl in Uncle Tom’s Cabin who said, “I dunno, I just growed.”

Mom Me MomInstead, Angelou has written this thought-provoking tribute, sharing a slew of matriarchal experiences among the many others already shared in her remarkable series of autobiographies, to highlight a little of how she did become that brave, sensitive, adventurous and caring women she is, in part due to the grandmother she loved and the mother she came to adore.

It is a story written with utmost compassion and forgiveness, for this is a woman whose mother admitted when she and her husband separated that she could not mother young children, so sent them to live with their grandmother for ten years. Angelou closes the prologue reminding us that love heals and throughout the book will prove that kindness is the greatest gift we can ever give and foster in others.

Love heals. Heals and liberates. I use the word love, not meaning sentimentality, but a condition so strong that it may be that which holds the stars in their heavenly positions and that which causes the blood to flow orderly in our veins.

Vivian Baxter, Maya Angelou’s mother, was the eldest of a large family of mostly boys, for whom threats, intimidation and violence were a part of their way of their life and this petite force was often at the forefront of their skirmishes. Their father encouraged tough boy talk and tasked his daughter with ensuring the boys didn’t soften. Little wonder that after falling in love, marrying and realising that it was a mistake, they were also unable to agree on who should raise their toddlers, they separated and sent the children to their father’s mother in Stamps, Arkansas. Maya was three and Bailey five-years-old.

Ten years later, when their grandmother felt that Bailey had grown too old for Arkansas, when he had reached a dangerous age for a black boy in the segregated South, it was arranged for them to return to their mother in California. Bailey was enthusiastic, Maya much less so. It would be difficult, but for all her flaws, their mother knew how to communicate with her children and didn’t push her mother status on them. Maya decided she would call her ‘Lady’ and her mother’s response to this is one of many small pleasures Angelou offers up in her book.

Maya has a baby very young, without the foundation of a loving relationship, however with the love and support of her mother, this event in no way prevents her from pursuing her life’s dreams and ambitions.

I thought about my mother and knew she was amazing. She never made me feel as if I brought scandal to the family. The baby had not been planned and I would have to rethink plans about education, but to Vivian Baxter that was life being life.

Some years later deciding to marry Tosh tested the mother daughter relationship, Vivian didn’t try to stop her daughter from making what she thought was a mistake, but she chose to leave San Francisco, not wishing to witness the fallout. Like any young women living off the heady ambiance of newly married love, Maya wished to prove her mother wrong.

To begin with she continued doing all the things she loved, the things that made her Maya Angelou, seeing her friends, attending a dance class, going to church and speaking freely about God. However her activities slowly became issues between the young couple, so she stopped them in an attempt to maintain peace between herself and her husband.

At first the dimness is hardly noticeable but not alarming. Then with a rush, the light is vanquished by darkness.

This gem of a book, complete with gorgeous photos, is a wonderful addition to her already masterful collection of autobiographies and chronicles that one relationship that runs through our entire lives, that with our mother. It may not always be easy, but Angelou shares those moments that tested and ultimately strengthened the love and respect they had for each other. She accomplishes it with incredible honesty and selflessness, something that shines through in the brief interview I have linked here. What a wise and loving soul she is.

Interview - Learning to Love My Mother: Maya talks about her mother with a BBC interviewer.

“Exercise patience with yourself first, so you can forgive yourself for all the dumb things you do. Then exercise patience with your children.”

Note: The book was an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

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.

In Her Wake – exploring the mystery of a mother’s suicide

In 1963, Nancy Rappaport was 4 years old and the youngest of six children when her mother, an ambitious woman who balanced raising a large family, organising regular society events and political campaigning, committed suicide in the wake of a heart-wrenching custody battle.

Nancy now has three grown children of her own and has written this book both as a daughter needing to find answers and as a professional child psychiatrist, bringing together her education, experience, the wisdom of years and a compassionate perspective to narrate this compelling memoir of an extraordinary life whose end was sad and tragic.

From a childhood in which the nurturing love of a mother was ruptured so abruptly, through adolescence and early adulthood where the subject of her mother appears to have been taboo, it is extraordinary and something of a blessed gift that Nancy comes across a trunk of belongings that has virtually been in hiding or at best forgotten all these years. It is a credit to her father and stepmother that it wasn’t destroyed and so Nancy in her quest to know her mother better, gains access to lists, notes, notebooks, a journal and astonishingly, the manuscript of a complete novel. At last, she begins to gain a first-hand insight into who her mother really was, aside from all that had been written publicly and most importantly she begins to piece together how her mother was thinking in the time leading up to her death.

Rappaport follows leads like a master sleuth hesitating to question herself only briefly in pursuing her mother’s former lover, an estranged best friend and a former confidante of her grandmother, to unearth as much information surrounding the events of that period during her parents’ marriage and subsequent divorce. Little by little, she draws back the carefully drawn veil of secrecy, though not entirely without getting her fingers burnt.

It’s tempting to search for the villain and it could be said that each of the main characters in this true story are tried out and tested in that role, but none endure. Such is the faculty of being human, perhaps we all have the potential if pushed sufficiently but here we find few heroes or villains, just victims, bystanders and those trying to do their best under the circumstances.

It is a bold move to publish a family story when so many are touched by past events and family ties remain tenuous. Nancy suffers the expected consequences to a certain extent though she tries to navigate her way with compassion and empathy as much as she can. It’s a difficult and interesting topic, to write a version of the truth that recalls the faded memories of real life characters, while respecting those who wish to remain silent.

In my reading of this courageous memoir, some of the lessons come not from digging in the past or even from the professional perspective, but from Nancy’s own children, who are a constant reminder of the present that we live in and the role and responsibility of a mother to her children, doing her best, learning as she goes, loving them above all so that they have the best chance to be loving, caring and successful people themselves and that no matter what anyone says or does or whatever the circumstances, a mother will maintain that role whether she is fulltime, part time, at a distance or just a faded memory.