2009 Non Fiction

Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder

Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World

Five words from the blurb: doctor, Haiti, difference, global, disease

Mountains Beyond Mountains is a book that demands discussion. It is a perfect book club choice, especially for those looking to branch into non-fiction for the first time. The book is a biography of Paul Farmer, an American doctor who has done an incredible amount to reduce rates of infection, particularly tuberculosis, around the world. The only problem is that Paul Farmer is a controversial man and this book forces us to question our concept of right and wrong. 

As a teenager Farmer fell in love with the people of Haiti. After qualifying as a doctor he set up a clinic there and dedicated his life to improving the health of local people. The only problem is that he stole thousands of dollars of medicine and equipment from US hospitals in order to do so. Much of his illegal behaviour is glossed over and this book concentrates on the immense body of good work he has done. Many reviews have criticised Kidder for “hero worshiping” Farmer, but I think this element only adds to its discussability.

Mountains Beyond Mountains is an engaging account of Farmer’s life. The sections in which Kidder recounts the time he spent with him were particularly vivid and his admiration for Farmer’s work shines through.

And I can imagine Farmer saying he doesn’t care if no one else is willing to follow his example. He’s still going to make these hikes, he’d insist, because if you say that seven hours is too long to walk for two families of patients, you’re saying that their lives matter less than some others’, and the idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that’s wrong with the world.”

Haiti was also beautifully described. The poverty of the people was often distressing to read, but the Haitians were treated with respect throughout. I admired the way individuals were highlighted – allowing their terrible problems to be humanised, instead of just being a statistic. The political situation was also explained well and I discovered that this country has one of the most interesting pasts I’ve come across. It has made me keen to seek out more books based in this Caribbean country. 

The second half of the book, in which Farmer becomes a global authority on infection, was less interesting to me. The book became more about statistics and, although what he achieved was impressive, it didn’t have the emotional impact of the first half. 

Overall this was an important book. It raised many questions about global healthcare and left me feeling strangely guilty about my privileged place in the world.



2009 Books in Translation

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

Alone in Berlin (Penguin Modern Classics) Translated from the German by Michael Hofmann

Five words from the blurb: ordinary, German, postcards, attacking, Hitler

Alone in Berlin begins in 1940 with a couple discovering that their only son has been killed fighting in France. Devastated by the news, the couple decide to drop postcards which attack Hitler across the city. This act of resistance is extremely dangerous and the couple risk their lives every time they step out of their apartment with a new piece of propaganda.

Alone in Berlin reads like a classic – the writing was simple, but had an effortless style:

It doesn’t matter if one man fights or ten thousand; if the one man sees he has no option but to fight, then he will fight, whether he has others on his side or not.

The pace was excellent in the beginning, but as the book progressed it began to flag a bit. I think this was mainly due to the inevitability of the conclusion (or possibly because this 600 page book was written in just 24 days and could have done with a bit more editing!)

The book did a fantastic job of showing what life was like for ordinary Germans living in Berlin. The difficulties and fear they faced were shown without sensationalism. Each character was well drawn and I loved the flawed nature of their personalities.

I want to criticise the book for its unlikely coincidences, but on reading the afterword I discovered that it is heavily based on fact. This makes the story more poignant, but also more frustrating. Warning, minor spoiler: Their tiny act of resistance put many people in danger, but failed to achieve anything. I prefer to read about people who make a real difference in the world and this couple just seemed to bumble around without having any real impact.

My only real criticism is that the book lacked atmosphere. There weren’t many descriptive passages and there was an emotional distance between the characters and the reader. Luckily I know enough about Berlin to be able to conjure up my own mental images of the city, but I’d prefer to have these reinforced by the text.

Overall this book has many positives, but seems to fall down the more you think about it. Recommended to those who’d like to know more about life in Berlin during WWII, but prefer gentler reads. 


The thoughts of other bloggers:

… this book is beautiful, a quiet book of common decency...The Parrish Lantern

…the momentum of this novel, which is divided into four chunks, is lost in the big baggy structure of it. Reading Matters

 …the novel brings to life superbly drawn characters… Euro Crime

I read this as part of German Literature Month – take a look for lots of great reading suggestions!



Labor Day by Joyce Maynard

Labor Day Movie Tie- In Edition: A Novel (P.S.)

Five words from the blurb: mother, love, stranger, secret, betrayal

Labor Day is set in a small American town and begins with thirteen-year-old Harry and his divorced mother looking after an injured stranger. They quickly realise that this man is an escaped prisoner, but he charms them so they agree to hide him from the police.

The characters were all beautifully drawn and I completely understood their motivations. The depiction of Harry was especially realistic and I loved his adolescent view of the world.

The book was packed with flaws, but some of these added to the book’s appeal – especially for those planning a book group discussion. The writing continually introduced good concepts, but the sentence structure was clunky and so the real beauty of the statements was watered down :

No doubt Richard’s father, like my mother, had once held his infant son in his arms, looked into the eyes of his child’s mother, and believed they would move into the future together with love. The fact that they didn’t was a weight each of us carried, as every child does, probably, whose parents no longer live under the same roof. Wherever it is you make your home, there is always this other place, this other person, calling to you. Come to me. Come back.

The plot was unrealistic and the treatment of the issues was heavy-handed, with twists and characters added just to ensure all sides of the debate were covered. The ending also tied things up too much for my liking – I’d have preferred the book to have ended about two chapters earlier, leaving some ambiguity to events.

This review sounds negative, but I loved the fact that the scenes were larger than life. This made them memorable and allowed me to forgive most of the flaws. I don’t recommend Labor Day to someone looking for great literature, but if you’re after a gripping story then this could be for you.


The film is released in the UK today. I’m looking forward to seeing how they’ve adapted it, but think I’ll wait until the DVD is released.

The thoughts of other bloggers:

 ….a unique and creative story about love, family, believing in others and loyalty. The House of Seven Tails

… one of the most ridiculously one-dimensional, unrealistic stories I’ve read in a long time. The Book Stop

I loved how this book challenged my thoughts on right and wrong and made me think about love and loss in a different way.One More Page

2009 Books in Translation

Wetlands by Charlotte Roache

Wetlands Translated from the German by Tim Mohr

Five words from the blurb: intimate, body, provocative, taboo, hygiene

Wetlands is a provocative book that investigates all aspects of female hygiene. It contains graphic descriptions of bodily functions, including detailed descriptions of vaginal discharge and the after effects of rectal surgery. The central character is Helen, an eighteen-year-old girl who is in hospital after a shaving accident resulted in an infection “down-below”. Her parents are divorced and she thinks that if she stays in hospital they may get back together.

I was unsure about whether or not to review this on my blog as it was nauseating to read. It contained endless disgusting descriptions of everything from popping boils to leaving used tampons to sweat in a box. I’ve never read anything like it and was totally gripped by the shocking frankness. When I reached the end I realised that this is an important book. Why do I accept graphic sex and violence in books, but wince at the mention of vaginal discharge?

Whenever I went to the bathroom, sat down, and let my sphincter muscles relax so the piss could come out, I would notice afterward when I looked down – which I like to do – that there was a lovely, big, soft, white clump of slime in the water. With strings of champagne bubbles rising form it.

This book discussed many of the last taboos that exist within our society and, whilst I was repulsed by most of the things Helen did, it was fascinating to learn what goes on inside other people’s heads!

I picked this book up at my local library, where it was sat on a shelf of books that will be released as films in 2014.  Having read the book I am amazed it is being turned into a film and can only imagine the divided response it will get! I’m not sure I’m ready to see all those bodily functions on the big screen, but if you have a strong stomach you’ll find this book different from anything you’ve experienced before.



2009 Non Fiction Recommended books

The Noonday Demon: An Anatomy of Depression by Andrew Solomon

The Noonday Demon

Five words from the blurb: depression, research, history, society, recovery

Earlier this year I read Far From the Tree, an outstanding book that made me look at the world in a new light. Keen to repeat the experience I found Andrew Solomon’s earlier book, The Noonday Demon, and am pleased to report that it is equally insightful.

The Noonday Demon is a thorough examination of depression. Taking different areas in turn it looks at everything from the politics surrounding mental health; through medications used to treat the condition; to reasons the human brain might have evolved to include depression. Throughout the book there are personal stories that bring the subject to life, giving the reader a deep empathy for those who are suffering. Long-term administration оf tianeptine саn prevent thеѕе unhealthy impairments bу blocking stress bеfоrе іt does іtѕ damage.

This isn’t a book for those with depression, although they’ll probably benefit from reading it, but as 25% of the population suffer from mental health problems this book is relevant to our whole society. It raises many issues, some of which are controversial, but all are discussed in an intelligent and thought provoking way. Everyone will be able to relate to the deep sadness brought on by grief and this book explains why some people will have to endure this experience for other, sometimes unknown, reasons.

In Far From the Tree Solomon showed that disability and difference can be viewed in a positive light. In The Noonday Demon he shows how depression can also be viewed in the same way. Those who come out of a depressive episode have more empathy for others and a greater ability to find pleasure in the simple things in life.

On the happy day when we lose depression, we will lose a great deal with it. If the earth could feed itself and us without rain, and if we conquered the weather and declared permanent sun, would we not miss grey days and summer storms? As the sun seems brighter and more clear when it comes on a rare day of English summer after ten months of dismal skies than it can ever seem in the tropics, so recent happiness feels enormous and embracing and beyond anything I have ever imagined.

The author shared his personal experiences and this insight added a painful authenticity to the text. I found the section in which the author talked about the assisted suicide of his terminally ill mother particularly striking.

If you have never tried it yourself or helped someone else through it, you cannot begin to imagine how difficult it is to kill yourself. If death were a passive thing, which occurred to those who couldn’t be bothered to resist it, and if life were an active thing, which continued only by virtue of a daily commitment to it, then the world’s problem would be depopulation and not overpopulation.

My only minor quibble is that the statistics tended to focus on the US. The plight of the poor without medical insurance was heartbreaking to read, but I would like to know the limitations of the UK system and how other countries cope. I also found the chapter on medications a bit boring. I’m sure it will be of great use to those on these drugs, but I found the detail of doses and side effects hard to get through.

Overall this is a masterpiece of research. It made me look at mental health in a new light and I highly recommend it to everyone.


2009 Books in Translation Other Prizes

Jerusalem by Gonçalo Tavares

JerusalemTranslated from the Portugese by Anna Kushner

Five words from the blurb: lonely, together, pain, human, impulses

I hadn’t heard of Tavares until Stu listed him as one of the best writers alive today. I decided to investigate and discovered that Saramago, one of my favourite authors, was also a fan, saying:

Tavares has no right to be writing so well at the age of 35. One feels like punching him! 

That was enough evidence for me. I immediately ordered myself a copy of Jerusalem and am very pleased that I’ve now discovered this amazing author.

Saramago was right. Tavares is an extremely good writer. The quality of the prose oozes from every sentence and it is possible to find beautiful quotes on every page. The writing was simple and engaging, but the clarity made every statement somehow seem profound.

The book focused on four characters: Ernst, who is about to commit suicide; Mylia, who is terminally ill; Hinnerk, who is walking the streets with a gun, and Theodor who is studying the relationship between history and atrocity.

…my greatest fear isn’t that the end of horror might mean the end of history, like the flatline of a man who’s just died, but rather that the graph doesn’t run to either of these extremes, but instead shows nothing but stasis, a terrifying consistency of horror over time, a sustained continuo of atrocity that leaves us no hope whatsoever.

The book was quick to read, with short chapters encouraging a fast pace. There was no central plot thread, but instead the details were woven together as the characters met and revealed their connections to each other.

I loved reading the entire book, but I’m afraid it wasn’t perfect. The ending felt a bit contrived and there were times when I felt the book was trying to be too clever.

I also found that the plot had no lasting impact on me – after just a few weeks I had forgotten almost everything about it.

Luckily these were minor problems. Tavares is clearly a very talented writer and Jerusalem contained lots of original ideas. I’m keen to read the rest of his books.



Have you read any Tavares?

Are all his books this good?