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Posts Tagged ‘non-fiction’

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Quickie review: This is a collection of David Mitchell’s** columns in The Observer newspaper from around 2009 – 2013. He has put them into chapters loosely based on particular themes, and a lot of the columns have introductory paragraphs. It can feel quite strange reading about events that were present day news stories at the time but are now almost a decade on.

As with all collections, some of the pieces resonate more than others, but all are infused with Mitchell’s wit, and I did find myself hearing his voice narrate them in my head. In short, if you like his comedy on shows such as Would I Lie To You?, QI, etc., you will probably enjoy this book.

It’s probably more of one to dip in and out of (which is how I read it – a column here and there between full length novels), rather than reading it straight through from beginning to end, but either way, there is plenty here to enjoy.

 

**Note: this is the British comedian David Mitchell, not the author of such works as Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks. It would have been a very different book if that were the case!

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David Dow is a death penalty lawyer in Texas – this must be one of the hardest jobs to do, *especially* in Texas. He believes that the death penalty is always wrong and fights to save his clients’ lives, while acknowledging that the vast majority of them are guilty of their crimes. He freely admits that he doesn’t like a lot of his clients but he is compelled to do what he believes is right.

This book however, while discussing other death penalty cases, focuses mainly on the case of Henry Quaker, a man who is convicted of murdering his wife and children – and who was almost certainly innocent of the crime. In discussing the various measures that David and his team take to try and save Quaker’s life, some deeply uncomfortable truth about the justice system are revealed. Quaker was a poor black man with a deeply incompetent trial lawyer. Despite there being another very viable suspect, and several reasons why Quaker almost certainly did not commit the crime, the lawyer failed to disclose any of this at the trial. Indeed, the book talks about public defender lawyers who literally go to sleep in the middle of trial.

I am completely against the death penalty in any and all circumstances, so I was also predisposed to be drawn into this book (I can’t say I enjoyed it, and it’s not a book that is really meant to be enjoyed, but it needs to be read). However, whatever anyone’s views, the truths about the ‘justice’ system revealed here should make anyone feel uncomfortable about the death penalty. I felt angry and frustrated learning about how bureaucracy and red tape, the laziness of judges, the incompetence of lawyers all have more to do with someone’s fate than the evidence for or against them.

The author also talks about his home life with his wife and young son. He has a lovely family and he acknowledges this. But there is no doubt that the job he does would have an effect on anybody, and he includes snapshots of their lives to illustrate this.

I recommend this book very highly. It is not always an easy read, but it is as compelling as any novel and the lessons contained within need to be heard.

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In this short book, renowned psychologist Susie Orbach discusses how our bodies have become a commodity, something to be altered by surgery, weight loss, make up, etc. Social media has reinforced ideas of the perfect body, and anyone who doesn’t have one (i.e., most of us) is made to feel that it is our fault and that we need to change it to be accepted. Our body is no longer somewhere to live from, but a commodity to prove our worth in the world. In Scandinavia, women who think they are too tall are having their femur broken and reset to make them shorter; in China, people who think they are too short can have a metal rod inserted to make them taller; women are having plastic surgery to shrink their waist and enlarge their breasts, while men are having surgery to increase the length and girth of their penis. Something has gone very askew in the way we view our own bodies.

Orbach also examines extreme cases such as Andrew, a physically healthy man who felt that he could only be happy if he had his legs amputated, and she looks at the psychology behind such stories.

It’s a short book at 145 pages and is something of an introduction to the ideas contained within, rather than a full scale investigation, but it makes for fascinating reading, talking about how the dieting industry is based on failure and plays on people’s insecurities. This is a book to make you think, it’s a book to make you angry, and it’s a book that everyone should read. Fascinating and highly recommended.

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Registered dietician Laura Thomas has written this book to help anyone who has ever had issues surrounding food, body image, dieting etc. and to help them adopt intuitive eating (IE). IE is NOT another diet in disguise as a healthy eating plan, and not another way to restrict what we eat – Thomas makes it clear that that is the polar opposite of what she wants to achieve.

This book resonated strongly with me, as someone who has had a mixed up relationship with food and body image for something like 30 years. It actually made me cry at certain times as I recognised the symptoms of disordered eating which she writes about. Crucially though, for the first time, I felt like there is light at the end of the tunnel and that there IS a way to get out of this cycle, and to have a healthy relationship with food.

Written in an engaging, entertaining and accessible way (Thomas is quite sweary and so am I, so this didn’t bother me, but may be worth pointing out to some readers), there are exercises for the reader to complete and each chapter focuses on different aspects of the issues being discussed.

This is an important book, and one which I highly recommend to anyone who has ever felt bad for eating too much, gone on yet another restrictive diet to lose weight, judged foods as good as bad, and or let a number on the scales dictate how good a day they are going to have.

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As a schoolboy, Ben Smith was a victim of relentless and vicious bullying, which affected him so much that he attempted to take his own life twice. Carrying his experiences through to adulthood, he suffered from severe depression and a crushing inability to reveal his true self to others. His saviour was running.

So when Ben wanted to take on a challenge to raise awareness of bullying and also raise money for two anti-bullying charities, it was to running which he turned. The challenge he decided on was to run 401 marathons on 401 consecutive days. Yes, you read that correctly!

Selling his house and all his possessions to fund the project, Ben set out on his odyssey throughout the UK running a marathon every single day. It changed his life, but as news of his challenge grew, it also changed the lives of many others. People would turn out not just to support Ben, but also to run with him – sometimes the whole 26.2 miles, sometimes a portion of it. Several people ran their first ever marathon alongside him.

This books tells the remarkable story of the 401 challenge, and it’s an absorbing and inspirational read. Not so much a running book as a lesson that if you really want to achieve something – and you are prepared to work damned hard at it – you can and will do it. Rather than a day to day retelling, each chapters covers chunks of the time, and as well as Ben’s back story, which is told alongside the story of the marathons, there are contributions from his partner, family, friends and other people who ran with him or were inspired by him. This meant that as a reader we see Ben’s experiences through other people’s eyes, and see just what an effect it had on those around him.

It’s an honest account of the good times, but also the bad times – you simply cannot take on a challenge of that magnitude without it affecting you, and Ben is quite straightforward about the physical, mental and logistical issues which the challenge threw at him and his team. Ultimately though, this is always a story of hope, dedication and a little bit of craziness. Engaging throughout and thoroughly enjoyable whether or not you are a runner.

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I listened to this audiobook, narrated by the author, mainly while out running – maybe I was hoping it would provide inspiration!

In this memoir of sorts, Rich Roll describes how on the eve of his 40th birthday, he realised that he needed to change his health drastically – overweight,  unfit and scared of dying early, Rich transformed himself into an ultra fit, vegan triathlete and this book tells how it did it.

I should have enjoyed this – it had all the hallmarks of a book I would love. I am fascinated by people who find the mental and physical strength to push their body and achieve things way beyond the capability of most of us mere mortals. And running five Ultra-triathlons in less than a week is way beyond impressive by any standard you care to use. But…I never really enjoyed this book.

Having overcome alcohol addiction and some years later deciding to turn his health around, it is difficult not to be impressed by what Rich Roll has done. But for me, there was too much whining – things didn’t always go well for Rich, but that applies to everyone – and he had a distinct ‘why me’ tone to his voice (both literally and on the page). And there was too much spirituality attached to fairly mundane events. For example, in Hawaii Rich is confronted by an angry homeowner, annoyed to find Rich trespassing on his property (to clarify – Rich was not actually trespassing; he thought he had found a quiet place to relieve himself during an Ultraman race). But instead of seeing this as something that could happen to anyone anywhere, Rich decides that this is karma for not respecting the island. And when approached by an alcoholic woman who wants to party, of course he decides that this woman must be some kind of angel sent to show him the kind of life he could have wound up living.

Also, while fully respect the author’s vegan lifestyle choice, I disliked his dismissive attitude to anyone who doesn’t share the same values.

The whole thing just came across as a big ego-trip, and honestly I was pretty pleased to finish it. Oh well, onto the next one…

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In this memoir, Helen Croydon chronicles her journey from party girl to Team GB triathlete. When she realises that her typical social activities of parties, alcohol and shopping are not giving her fulfilment, Helen joins a running club in an attempt to find a new hobby and new friendships. She also ends up finding a love of endurance sport, and specifically triathlons – and an eventual goal of qualifying as a member of Team GB.

As a runner who loves competing in half marathons and marathons (I say “loves competing;” in truth I mean I love it after I’ve done it), I was looking forward to reading this book and the first half of it definitely delivered. I myself have been toying with the idea of joining a running club, having always preferred to run solo, and so I enjoyed reading about her experiences in that regard. However, the second half of the book was taken up a lot by her experiences of improving her cycling – I have zero interest in cycling so found this part less engaging. The title of the book led me to believe that it would feature the running quite heavily, although I may have been a bit naive in that respect.

What I did like was that the author openly talked about her struggles with training, her sadness at finding it harder to create lasting friendships than she had expected or hoped, and the sheer exhilaration at discovering what you are capable of if you push yourself.

Overall, I did enjoy this book and would recommend to people with an interest in endurance sport, and especially anyone with an interest in triathlon.

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