Wednesday 27 March 2024

Book Review: Brian, Jeremy Cooper

This post contains affiliate links. If you click through and buy I will receive a percentage commission at no extra cost to you.

Brian tracks the life of a solitary man named Brian through his late thirties to retirement. He lives in Kentish Town and works for Camden Council, eats at the same Italian restaurant every day, and is thrown when his normal launderette is closed when usually it would be open. He lives a life of routine and repetition, feeling safe in the knowledge that he knows what’s coming. There is a sense that he longs for belonging, and he suspects he may find it if he joins the BFI and becomes a regular, something that needs some consideration before committing. Once he’s taken the step to join he soon goes every night, aware of a group of regulars who get together in the foyer to discuss the film after the showing. With time he becomes one of them and although he feels very anxious at the thought of saying the wrong thing he gradually feels confident enough to express his opinions, and becomes something of an expert in Japanese cinema.

The book is equally, if not majority, short critiques of the films he watches. In the early days of his membership it feels at times like simply a long list of films without much story development which can be a little tiresome, especially for readers not familiar with the films, but as the book progresses we see more and more of Brian and the sections describing his responses to the films he watches tells us almost as much about him as the film. In the beginning he watches films with a fairly closed mind, too conscious of protecting himself from any kind of emotional hurt that might arise from the themes presented to him, but with time he becomes more open. He remains guarded of his own heart, developing techniques whereby he can be moved by a film but without relating it to his own life however closely it might align. He’s aware that he has missed out on many things in life, and has never engaged much in politics or religion. Film gives him the opportunity to explore new avenues and experience things he doubts he ever will in real life. He goes through a phase of watching sexual content, at first deeply uncomfortable but fascinated, never having had a romantic relationship and not expecting to. We see in his developing passion for cinema the way in which it opens his mind to new possibilities, and offers him the opportunity of companionship with others whose interest in each other goes little deeper than what they thought of the film they’ve just watched. 

From the first pages of the novel we get a real sense of Brian and his personality. Nothing particularly dramatic happens throughout the course of the book, and he does not suddenly become a spontaneous extrovert, but we witness the slow growth of someone who has spent many years alone, subtle changes that indicate he is willing to cautiously let people in a little more, to consider the world beyond his flat and office. The passage of time is not clearly noted, with no chapter breaks it is a continuous piece of prose in which you are only aware that time has moved on significantly by mention of global events or his imminent retirement. It can be somewhat disorienting to realise that decades have passed since you last noted the time frame of the book, which is reflective of life, time slipping by largely unannounced. His retirement is a big moment for him, a possible point of crisis as his routine will be irretrievably changed. Similarly, medical changes that come with age prove a challenge, but he finds ways to adapt, and retirement proves an opportunity to indulge his interests further.

He had made attempts to find somewhere to fit in before braving the BFI, and sadly they always fell apart. The consistency of the screenings and the regulars, even if they change over time, is reassuring and allow him to find a sense of belonging. One regular, Jack, reaches out across the distant familiarity of the foyer discussions, suggesting they meet outside of the BFI. With time, they become friendly and Jack opens Brian’s eyes (or ears) to the depths of film scores. Brian is aware that many of the regulars would be considered outsiders by many, with their unkempt appearances and over-used plastic bags, and he finds Jack’s proclivity to talk to strangers embarrassing. Indeed, you can imagine that Brian is the kind of person people would find a bit odd, but this book reminds us that everybody is just doing their best, everyone has their own history which has shaped them, and that there are precious communities where social norms can be thrust aside and people can bond over a shared love of art.

There are many allusions to traumatic and difficult events from Brian’s past, in particular his childhood. We are drip fed information about his family life, his mother who finally took them away from his father, a brother who he hasn’t seen in 40 years, who lived in Northern Ireland, and yet who Brian is so determined not to see he frequently mistakes strangers in London for him and crosses the road to keep away. We understand that some of his behaviours stem from difficult early experiences, but it is not dwelt upon. For Brian it is merely part of his life’s story. 

An unusual, gentle book. Brian is a fascinating character to spend time with from his quiet, unassuming life, to his repeatedly confusing an accident he was in with having been a victim of one of the London bombings. From early on you want for him to find a sense of belonging. This is a book that can be enjoyed by non-film buffs, but I imagine it might add an extra layer of depth if you’re familiar with the films he discusses. It is an interesting reading experience to be eager to learn more about the protagonist, but instead to have pages of film critique. Overall a heartening read which makes you appreciate the things in life that bring us all joy, whether that be film or books, good food or games, it is to be treasured.  

Friday 8 March 2024

Book Review: Unwell Women, Elinor Cleghorn

This post contains affiliate links. If you click through and buy I will receive a percentage commission at no extra cost to you.

Cleghorn’s acclaimed exploration of the gender inequalities in the medical sphere is a fascinating, horrifying read. The period covered is broad but we see how there is still such a long way to go. For many centuries women were excluded from medicine, healers and midwives were burnt as witches, ostracised and their knowledge ignored, to the detriment of the women they were helping. Female experience of pain has repeatedly been dismissed, more weight being given to the opinion of male ‘experts’. Symptoms have been brushed aside as hysterical or all in the patient’s head. To this day, women are more likely to be prescribed anti-depressants than painkillers. Men don’t have the same problem. 

Keeping women from knowledge about their own bodies led to centuries of embarrassment and misunderstanding. The sexual revolution allowed women to have the words to describe what they were experiencing, and to feel ownership over their bodies. In the nineteenth century it was particularly common to carry out procedures on women without their knowledge or consent. Clitoridectomies were common, with Isaac Baker Brown being their most enthusiastic practitioner. He believed that female masturbation was the cause of many health issues, and clitoridectomy would be the cure. His barbaric surgery was carried out on women we would now recognise as suffering from the likes of endometriosis, epilepsy, or MS. Naturally, it wasn’t successful. Even at the time his practice was considered barbaric, he drew the line only at operating on girls under the age of ten(!) but performed huge numbers of operations on women and girls who hadn’t consented. The other side of this was that girls and women who had been raped were also subjected to this ghastly procedure, indicating the social view that the blame landed squarely with them. As with many of the practices described in the book, the ‘treatments’ were not really designed to help those suffering, but to control them, ultimately making their lives harder.

Control was also wielded in sterilisation practices. Forced sterilisation was legal in the US from 1907 and it led to young women under the age of 18 who were suffering with mental illness or epilepsy being sterilised. Again, it was also used on those who had been victims of sexual assault. There were racist undertones to forced sterilisation, with women of colour being subjected to it in far higher numbers. It is sad that the rise of birth control, ostensibly a positive move for women, giving them more control over their reproductive rights, was turned against them to such a horrifying degree. Cleghorn does not shy away from the racial disparities in the treatment women receive, with worse outcomes much more likely in maternity care for women of colour. She explores the history of racism in medicine, discussing the horrific experiences enslaved women endured as they were experimentally operated on repeatedly without anaesthesia. Only recently has the misconception that people of some ethnicities have a much higher threshold for pain been questioned. 

In a sea of shocking tales of mistreatment and abuse, one that stands out is the prevalence of lobotomies in the twentieth century. Again, used as a form of control for any woman who didn’t conform to the happy housewife image that was considered their natural state. There was no argument that it would cure their ailments, merely that it would sever the emotional tie. The measure of success was how obediently they went back to their domestic roles. Sadly, many women became suicidal as a result of this barbaric practice, and even those who didn’t would often die within a few years of the surgery. A truly chilling practice that is hard to believe was ever sanctioned.

This is a well researched book which covers a lot but acknowledges what has been omitted. If you are an unwell woman struggling through the healthcare system it might help you feel less alone, but also acutely aware of the need to persist and be your own advocate. Having studied some medical history, especially related to mental health, during my undergraduate studies, a lot of what was included was familiar, yet still shocking. Cleghorn draws out the voices of women who were silenced in their own time and highlights the sacrifices of the past which have brought us as far as we have come now. Essential, albeit difficult, reading.

Friday 1 March 2024

Book review: An English Library Journey, John Bevis

This post contains affiliate links. If you click through and buy I will receive a percentage commission at no extra cost to you.

After health issues force Bevis to shift his work focus, he finds himself driving his wife around England for her work with prisons, and setting up in the local library to work on his writing, now his full time occupation. From here he has the idea of trying to collect library cards from every authority in the country, allowing him to access the resources of each of them. There are stumbling blocks along the way - the quirks of local authority administration, consortiums that restrict his ability to collect cards, and the fact that he doesn’t live locally. He opts to keep his true purpose hidden as he tries to persuade librarians to allow him to sign up with varying levels of success. Many will allow him visitor status, others have quirky methods for proving he is at least staying locally (posting a postcard to the address supplied for him to return on his next visit brings in the help of a kindly B&B owner). His quest introduces the reader to towns that don’t usually make an appearance in guidebooks, and makes you think about the true value of libraries and their sad decline with chronic underfunding.

If the concept for the book sounds repetitive and perhaps unexciting, Bevis’ writing style and witty observations, reminiscent of Bill Bryson, keep you engaged. He comments on the architecture of the library buildings and how well they serve their purpose once inside. Some, he surmises, spent all their resources on creating striking buildings without much thought as to how the space would be used. Others may look unassuming from the outside but manage to create perfect havens inside for those who want quiet study alongside the myriad other uses libraries offer. Some, most dispiritingly, consist merely of a few bookshelves on the edge of a cafe, an afterthought with empty floors above that could happily house a well-stocked library.

Not only are the library buildings commented upon but the library cards themselves. Some offer a choice from a selection of designs, others go for a more utilitarian design while others still feel more like a ticket to the local football team, the small print revealing that it is indeed a library card. He carefully plans his days to maximise possible library visits, yet on some, reaching the heady heights of six in one day, he admits that it is not all that satisfying. Part of the joy of collecting is going in and using the space, browsing the shelves, and encountering the other users. 

The book opens with a dramatic tale of a fire at a local library in his youth, the community coming together to help salvage as many books as possible. This leads into a brief history of public lending libraries, including the surprising (to me) fact that Boots used to run one. The book, which tracks his pursuit of library cards over roughly ten years, also examines how library provision changes. Sadly, in most areas the number decreases, with yet more being shifted to community run services, run by volunteers with a qualified librarian available to assist for short periods each week. Libraries are increasingly moved into buildings that house other public services, decreasing the space for books and quiet contemplation. It is a sad decline of a provision that is so incredibly valuable, as anyone who has ever worked in or used a public library will know. 

This is a light, enjoyable read which will make you appreciate the value of the local library, it certainly made me miss my closest one, closed indefinitely due to the discovery of RAAC. It is informative yet conversational, with little snippets of life witnessed on his visits and in the local areas. Each library receives no more than a page or two of space, some even less, yet Bevis manages to bring them to life. A wonderful read for any book lover, and a bright beacon calling us all to do whatever we can to keep these wonderful institutions open and accessible.