Life Affirming Literature

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I love books. Some books I love more than members of my family. In my 30’s I’ve found myself asking a lot of big questions about life, death and grief and these books have been my saviours. The connective tissue between them may be death but if anything each one of these memoirs make me believe in the beauty of life itself.

Wild: A Journey from Lost to Found by Cheryl Strayed

In 2014 I was raw from grief and on the verge of a mental breakdown when I found Cheryl Strayed’s book during my sleepless nights Googling “how to cope with losing a parent.” My grief had alienated me from my friends who didn’t understand how to deal with my suffering and I needed reassurance that I was going to survive this despair.

I was immediately gripped by Strayed’s story of hiking 1100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail in 1995 and how that journey helped mend her broken heart, over losing her beloved mother Bobbi and the end of her marriage. Whole passages of the book could have been plucked from my own brain as the realisation dawned that I wasn’t alone. The memoir echoed my own experience of a family torn apart after losing one of our own, “without my mother, we weren’t what we’d been; we were four people floating separately among the flotsam of our grief, connected by only the thinnest rope.”

In the years following her mother’s death Strayed hit the self-destruct button hard, something I can relate to. On the adultery that contributed to the end of her marriage, “It seemed to me the way it must feel to people who cut themselves on purpose. Not pretty, but clean. Not good, but void of regret. I was trying to heal.” Some parts of the book were painful to read because the sense of recognition made me weep and I wouldn’t wish that pain on my worst enemy.

The paperback copy I bought three years ago is tear soaked, crumpled around the edges from being taken on every subsequent holiday and even made on a 700 mile round trip to a literary festival where I got to meet the author herself. Thankfully the session was recorded so I can re-watch at my leisure as I was too star-struck and excited to absorb the moment fully.

The book taught me a lot. That it’s ok to forgive yourself, even when you’ve hurt people you love. I learned that grief is messy and painful but you will survive. Just getting up every day and taking tiny steps to be kind to yourself can help rebuild the hole in your heart. The book also helped me to write about my own grief and is one of the reasons I started this blog.

Late Fragments: Everything I Want to Tell You (About This Magnificent Life) by Kate Gross

Late Fragments started life as a blog chronicling the last two years of the author’s life following a terminal cancer diagnosis aged just 34. In different hands the book could have been mawkish but the joy comes from Gross’s way with words, she explains her predicament without endless medical jargon and with little sentimentality. I’ve lived with a dying relative so know the reality of impending death can be as life-affirming as it is heartbreaking. Gross wrote the book for her twin sons, who were only five when she passed away on Christmas Day 2014. The dedication alone had me in tears, “There are two adult hands which I hope will hold a battered paperback when others have long forgotten me and what I have to say. I write this for Oscar and Isaac, my little Knights, my joy and my wonder.”

Despite the bleak diagnosis Gross finds happiness in her limited time left on earth: “For starters, there is a feeling of being alive, awake, which powerfully reasserts itself in the moments of wellness that punctuate a long illness. I have experienced joy – perhaps even the sublime – in an unexpected and new way.” Gross tells her life story with elegance, wit and just a touch of bitterness (anger would be my primary emotion if I found out I was dying in my mid-thirties).

Although Gross’s life was short it was extraordinary. She spent four years working for two Prime Ministers in her twenties, then founded a charity rebuilding essential structures of government in post-conflict Africa. Thankfully her legacy lives on – not only in print but in the fundraising and building of the inaugural Kate Gross Community School which opened in Sierra Leone in 2016. Many of us could live to 100 and only hope to leave such a legacy.

The book never fails to inspire me with its spirit and determination to embrace life (however short) and on the days when I am moaning about being tired/in pain/have a cold I glance at the cover on my Kindle and tell myself to get a grip. I’ve read the book on multiple occasions and gain new insight every time. And the postscript, written by Kate’s mother Jean following her death always make me howl with emotion.

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death by Maggie O’Farrell

A life story with a difference – one told entirely through near death experiences. I was so captivated by this audiobook I devoured the memoir in a single day. The narration by Daisy Donovan was spellbinding and at points I found myself listening with my eyes closed so I could fully immerse myself in the words. I’ve since listened to the book again and now own a hardback copy with my favourite passages highlighted.

The book is broken down into episodes zig zagging across decades and destinations, beginning with an encounter on a remote path that chilled me for days afterwards. As O’Farrell observes we are all closer to death than we may realise: “We are, all of us, wandering about in states of oblivion, borrowing our time, seizing our days, escaping our fates, slipping through loopholes, unaware of when the axe may fall.” The book is thought provoking and conversation starting – while our stories may not be book worthy a cursory count in my close family unearthed 13 near-death experiences between five of us.

O’Farrell is a natural storyteller and skilfully describes everything from devastating childhood encephalitis to an encounter with a machete wielding mugger with a lack of sentimentality which allows for more empathy than a constant stream of self-pity. There were stories that made me hold my breath, moved me to tears and filled me with rage (I wanted to find the consultant who denied O’Farrell an elective caesarean which almost lead to the death of her and her baby to give him a swift kick in the nuts).

The final section – Daughter – is set in the present day and is one of the boldest and most startling chapters of a book I have ever read. O’Farrell’s daughter was born with a severe immunology disorder and the threat of anaphylaxis means her fight for life is something the family are faced with on a daily basis. The final chapter ramps up the sense of danger and urgency and whilst O’Farrell may have downplayed her own struggles you cannot help but feel the passion for her child leap off the page. It’s a book that makes you appreciate your every breath and be thankful that the author managed to survive this long to tell her tale.

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Top of the Pods

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Hi, my name is Cath and I am a podcast addict. It’s been 30 minutes since my last download. I’ve already written at length about my love of the spoken word and podcasts help sustain me between Audible credits. My tastes are diverse but I love listening to writers, hearing about films, beauty, music and am fascinated to know what makes humans tick.

Having given up booze and men in 2017, I need some stimulation in my life so here are my ten essential podcasts of the 50(ish) I currently have on rotation. I am almost as promiscuous with my listening preferences as I am with men…

Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review

In a Nutshell:  Two middle aged men bicker, occasionally discuss films.

Why I love it: I am a huge film fan and when I bought an iPod Classic in 2005 this was my first download. The show has seen me through a divorce, the loss of a parent, multiple health crises and is my longest commitment to date. Simon Mayo hosts and acts as the voice of reason when Mark Kermode goes off on one of his infamous rants about everything from the loss of human projectionists in multiplexes to the rampant stupidity of Michael Bay films. The duo have nurtured a worldwide community with their own code of conduct, acronyms and in-jokes. I don’t get a chance to listen live but if you can, try to catch the studio webcam feed, it’s always nice to see Kermode’s flappy hands in full flow.

Desert Island Discs

In a Nutshell:  A guest is invited to choose eight discs, a book and a luxury to take with them as they’re cast away on a fictional desert island.

Why I love it: Desert Island Discs is valium in audible form. The show has the ability to calm my foulest mood and the theme tune alone can instantly lower my heart rate. The concept is so simple and the joy comes during the interview, when the host delves into the Castaway’s life and reasons behind their music choices. The online back catalogue boasts over 2000 episodes and includes royalty, prime ministers, movie icons and musical legends but I delight in discovering humans who are extraordinary but not famous and often find myself moved to tears.

All Killa No Filla

In a Nutshell:  Two British comedians discuss serial killers. Funnier than it sounds.

Why I love it: I have a morbid fascination with murderers, perhaps because I have met more than one in the flesh (a story for another day). I could blame coming of age in the 1990’s when Fred and Rose West, Aileen Wuornos and Dr Harold Shipman crimes were tabloid press fodder. The podcast is hosted by comedians Rachel Fairburn and Kiri Pritchard-McLean and each episode is devoted to a different killer with their crimes described in a style that is often hilarious, but never at the expense of the victims. Not one for the fainthearted but after nine years working in a hospital I am not squeamish and my dark sense of humour ensures very little offends me. I’ve heard each episode at least twice and can often be found cry laughing while listening on public transport.

Full Coverage

In a Nutshell:  A podcast for beauty addicts, by beauty addicts.

Why I love it: Despite my low maintenance appearance I love beauty. I can spend hours on blogs and forums researching products and rarely impulse buy cosmetics after some previous costly mistakes. The show, hosted by professional makeup artist Harriet Hadfield and author (and beauty junkie) Lindsey Kelk, gives no-bullshit reviews of new beauty releases, Holy Grail products and interviews with beauty insiders. The pair are brutally honest and hilarious; this isn’t the regurgitated PR fluff you may be used to from some Vloggers.  You may not believe a show about beauty would translate to audio but the descriptions are so vivid it’s like you are in the room as they test out products. And if you follow either presenter on Instagram you will often get a sneak peek at some of the goodies they’re trying out.

The Emma Guns Show

In a Nutshell:  Writer Emma Gunavardhana’s show features interviews with celebrities, brand creators, editors and authors on a wide selection of topics.

Why I love it: Spending time with Emma and her guests is like hanging out with old friends. The range of interviewees is huge, from well-known faces to knowledgeable health and beauty professionals. Emma tackles tricky subjects with ease – anxiety, ageing, hormones, diet, motherhood, work ethic and entrepreneurship – no topic is off limits. In a world of facetuning and filters there’s a joy in the way Emma engages with her listeners on social media on bad days as well as good. Every episode leaves me a little bit inspired and with another girl crush to add to my ever increasing list.

Anna Faris is Unqualified

In a Nutshell:  Interviews with celebrities and cultural figures followed by advice calls with listeners.

Why I love it: On paper the show shouldn’t work – a famous actress interviews celebrities and gives (unqualified) advice to members of the public. I’ve watched enough shitty chat shows with “personalities” to know that fame doesn’t always equal talent. Unqualified plays to Faris’ strengths – she has personality, humour, intelligence and empathy in buckets. The show is unfiltered, foul mouthed and candid with no subject too delicate for Faris, her producer/co-host Sim Sarna and their guests to discuss. The shows are often chaotic and hysterical, even when tackling difficult topics.

Made of Human

In a Nutshell:  Sofie Hagen chats to a guest about life and how to cope with being an adult.

Why I love it: The world has gone a bit batshit crazy recently. My faith in humanity is at an all-time low but when I need to top up my belief in Good People I listen to the Made of Human podcast (or MohPod). Danish comedian Sofie Hagen talks to fellow comics, activists, academics and celebrities to get to the heart of what makes us all human. Spoiler alert – nobody knows what the heck they are doing, but that’s ok. Thought provoking, often funny, sometimes heartbreaking and always emotive. Just like real life.

The High Low

In a Nutshell:  Writers Dolly Alderton and Pandora Sykes present a weekly pop-culture/news roundup.

Why I love it: This fast paced, quick-witted take on the week’s events could feature anything from period poverty to Taylor Swift and the hosts cover all cultural bases from highbrow to lowbrow. The duo are prolific readers, host regular author specials and I have yet to disagree with a book recommendation from either presenter. In a world where podcasts can ramble on for 90 minutes or more it’s always nice to download an hour long show that takes me from home to office and leaves me educated and entertained instead of bored.

Soundtracking

In a Nutshell:  Edith Bowman sits down with film directors, actors, producers and composers to talk about the music that shaped their work.

Why I love it: I adore this show because Bowman is clearly a huge film and music fan and her enthusiasm comes across in every episode. Her relaxed interview style puts guests at ease and if she’s ever been starstruck it never shows. I have learned more about the music of the movies than I ever did through years of listening to director commentary on DVDs. The range of guests – from composers to directors and producers helps us understand how a soundtrack is constructed, how it weaves through and shapes the narrative and you’ll find yourself picking up more musical cues when you’re at the movies than you ever did before.

Griefcast

In a Nutshell: A podcast hosted by Cariad Lloyd, comedians talking about death.

Why I love it: Regular readers will know how much I enjoy wanging on about grief, it’s pretty much why this blog exists. I found the experience of losing a parent so isolating and responses from friends and family so polarizing that I actively sought out stories from others in “the dead mum/dad/sibling/friend club.” Comedian Cariad Lloyd, who lost her father at 15, talks to fellow comics, writers and actors about death and grief in a way that is funny, touching and real. Each episode brings comfort from knowing that although grief is unique so much of what you experience when you lose a loved one is universal. There is still so much taboo around death that I recommend this podcast to friends who have suffered loss and those who haven’t as the show can also teach you about empathy and how to be a better human.

If I had to pick my own Desert Island downloads I’d be happy with any of these. What’s your “must listen” podcast? I’m always on the lookout for my next great listen so feel free to drop me a comment below!

An Ode to the Audiobook

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One of my earliest memories involves being read stories by my mother.  Raised in North America, she had the kind of sing-songy reading voice that is perfect for children’s literature.  We had a load of old Dr Seuss and Disney fairy tales sent over from my granny in the US that I loved listening to.  After a while we no longer needed the text, we both knew the stories off by heart.

I adored books, I devoured at least one a week as a child. I exhausted the local library, begging staff to order unobtainable titles from other sites and generally avoiding having to actually fork out any pocket money on a trip to Waterstones.  I wasn’t fussy about what I read either: teen fiction was quickly followed by crime and horror novels, I then became fascinated with biographies and later travel guides, plotting journeys across the globe from my tiny bedroom in Edinburgh.Read More »