My Friday Post: The Radium Girls by Kate Moore

On Fridays I often join in with two book memes:

Book Beginnings on Fridays hosted by Rose City Reader, where bloggers share the first sentence or more of a current read, as well as initial thoughts about the sentence(s), impressions of the book, or anything else that the opening inspires. 

This week I’m featuring The Radium Girls: They paid with their lives. Their final fight was for justice by Kate Moore, one of my TBRs. It’s the true story about dial-painters, girls and women who painted the numbers on clocks, watches and other instruments using radium-infused luminous paint in the 1920s and 1930s. The girls shone brightly in the dark, covered head to toe in dust from the paint. 

The scientist had forgotten all about the radium. It was tucked discreetly within the folds of his waistcoat pocket, enclosed in a slim glass tube in such a small quantity that he could not feel its weight.

Also on a Friday The Friday 56 is hosted by Freda’s Voice, where you grab a book and turn to page 56 (or 56% of an eBook), find one or more interesting sentences (no spoilers), and post them.

56%:

‘Every week there seemed to be some emergency order that required an extra pair of hands. Then Catherine would slip her brush between her lips, dip it in the powder and paint; the girls all still did it that way at Radium Dial, for their instructions were never changed.

Ice Bound by Jerri Nielsen with Maryanne Vollers

Ebury Press | 2001 | 379 p | Own copy | 5*

I read Ice Bound: One Woman’s Incredible Battle for Survival over two months, taking my time. Dr Jerri Nielsen was a forty-six year old doctor working in Ohio when in 1998 she made the decision to take a year’s sabbatical at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Research Station in Antarctica, the most remote and perilous place on earth. She had just been through an acrimonious divorce and could no longer see her children.

The first part of the book describes life at the South Pole in detail, the layers of clothing needed in the extreme cold, the adjustments to living at 11,000 feet above sea level, and the difficulties of living at the pole with power failures, fires, frostbite, boredom, memory loss, nausea, and getting lost in the darkness and total whiteout. But she also describes the friendships she made and how she felt about celebrating her forty-seventh birthday at the South Pole:

It was the best birthday I had had since childhood. I was forty-seven and surrounded by friends, in a community that needed me, in a place that I loved, discovering more every day about what truly mattered in life. (page 138)

It’s about half way into the book that she describes when in the dark Antarctic winter of 1999 she discovered a lump in her breast. Whilst the Pole was cut off from the rest of the world in total darkness she treated herself, taking biopsies and having chemotherapy, until she was rescued by the Air National Guard in October 1999. She said this about her experience:

I can say that after living at the South Pole nothing can possibly terrify me, even looking at my own death. That is one of the many things this place does to you. Nothing after that really matters. (page 190)

The descriptions of the polar landscape are just beautiful:

I was fascinated by the concept of twilight and its three discrete stages. Yet all I truly understood was that the world outside the Dome seemed beautiful and alien every day. Now the sky was deep purple with bands of orange on the horizon. I was outside watching the sky one day when I saw my first aura. It looked like a shimmering green curtain, rolling in a solar wind, with pink searchlights shooting into the atmosphere like heaven’s own movie premier. The rest was silence and space. (page 147)

This is a true story of survival under extreme circumstances, of courage and endurance. Even without cancer I cannot imagine coping with life at the South Pole. I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011 and had a lumpectomy and radiotherapy so I have experienced some of what she went through, but it was nothing compared to what Jerri Nielssen had to go through. To take my own biopsies and administer my own chemotherapy like she did would be beyond me. It is hard for me to read even now years later and I found it immensely moving.

The book alternates between narrative and personal letters and emails and in her acknowledgments Jerri Nielssen thanks Maryanne Vollers for her help in telling her story. It held me spellbound from beginning to end.

I wanted to know what happened next to her. The book has an Epilogue that describes how she was treated – mastectomy, more chemotherapy and radiation. The cancer then went into remission, but in 2005 it returned in her bones and liver, later spreading to her brain and she died in June 2009. A brave and truly inspirational woman.

New Additions at BooksPlease

I’ve been lucky with some of the 99p e-books on offer on Amazon recently and bought three books, well five actually as one is a trilogy.

First a nonfiction book, Winds of Change: Britain in the Early Sixties by historian, Peter Hennessy. The centre of the book is 1963 – the year of the Profumo Crisis, the Great Train Robbery, the satire boom, de Gaulle’s veto of Britain’s first application to join the EEC, the fall of Macmillan and the unexpected succession to the premiership of Alec Douglas-Home. Then, in 1964, the battle of what Hennessy calls the tweedy aristocrat and the tweedy meritocrat – Harold Wilson, who would end 13 years of Conservative rule and usher in a new era. It’s the final book in Hennessy’s Post War trilogy.

Then three novels – all historical fiction: The Regeneration Trilogy: Regeneration; The Eye in the Door; The Ghost Road by Pat Barker, three novels set during the First World War. I already had the third book, but hadn’t read it because I wanted to read the trilogy in order. It tells the story of three men, shell-shocked soldiers, who were sent back to the front. It’s based on the experiences of poets, Siegfried Sassoon and Wifred Owen who met at Craiglockhart Hospital near Edinburgh.

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton – A few years ago I borrowed this book from the library but had to return it unread. Later on I watched the TV series and thought I’d like to read the book. So, when it was on offer for 99p I bought it. It’s set in Amsterdam in 1686. Nella Oortman marries a rich merchant, but life in her new home is unfulfilled. Even her cabinet house brings a mystery to the secretive world she has entered as the lifelike miniatures somehow start eerily foreshadowing her fate.

This last book is my choice this month from Amazon First Reads free books:

Tears of Amber by Sofía Segovia – a novel set during the Second World War in East Prussia between 1938 and 1947. In her author’s note Sofia Segovia says her novel was inspired by the story of Ilse and Arno Schipper, who established a factory in Monterrey, Mexico, her home town. It is a mix of fact and fiction. Publication date 1 May 2021. I have started reading and it’s looking good so far.

My Friday Post: Weeds by Richard Mabey

On Fridays I join in with two book memes:

Book Beginnings on Fridays hosted by Rose City Reader, where bloggers share the first sentence or more of a current read, as well as initial thoughts about the sentence(s), impressions of the book, or anything else that the opening inspires. 

This week I’m featuring a non-fiction book, Weeds: How Vagabond Plants Gatecrashed Civilisation and Changed the Way We Think About Weeds by Richard Mabey. This is a book that I’ve dipped into, mostly at this time of year, when the weeds in our garden begin to grow again. It is full of fascinating facts – a cultural history of weeds. Richard Mabey argues that ‘we have caused plants to become weeds because of our reckless treatment of the earth. They are part of nature’s immune system, of its instinctive drive to green over the barrenness of broken soil and decaying cities.

Plants become weeds when they obstruct our plans, or tidy maps of the world. If you have no such plans or maps, they can appear as innocents, without stigma or blame. My own discovery of them was my first close encounter with plants, and they seemed to me like a kind of manna.

The Friday 56 hosted by Freda’s Voice, where you grab a book and turn to page 56 (or 56% of an eBook), find one or more interesting sentences (no spoilers), and post them.

To gaze at Albrecht Durer’s extraordinary painting Large Piece of Turf (Das Grosse Rasenstuck, (1503) is to glimpse an imagination pierced through the artistic conventions and cultural assumptions of its time and projecting itself forward three centuries. This is painting’s discovery of ecology. This is any corner of any waste patch of land in the early twenty-first century, or at any time. This is a clump of weeds looked at with such reverent attention that they might have been the flowers of Elysium.

Durer’s painting is not reproduced in the book, but this is it:

Large Piece of Turf Durer 1503

I’ve had this book for ten years – I think it’s time I read it through from start to finish.

Throwback Thursday: 1 April 2021

I’m linking up today with Davida @ The Chocolate Lady’s Book Review Blog for Throwback Thursday. It takes place on the Thursday before the first Saturday of every month (i.e., the Thursday before the monthly #6Degrees post). The idea is to highlight one of your previously published book reviews and then link back to Davida’s blog.

This month I’m looking back at Giving Up the Ghost: a memoir by Hilary Mantel, which I first posted in April 2008.

This is the first paragraph:

In the first chapter of Hilary Mantel’s memoir she writes, ”I hardly know how to write about myself. Any style you pick seems to unpick itself before a paragraph is done.”  She then advises herself to trust the reader, to stop spoon-feeding and patronising and write in ‘the most direct and vigorous way that you can.’ She worries that her writing isn’t clear, or that it is ‘deceptively clear’. It comes across to me as being clear, honest and very moving. She’s not looking for sympathy but has written this memoir to take charge of her memories, her childhood and childlessness, feeling that it is necessary to write herself into being.

Click here to read my full review

The next Throwback Thursday post is scheduled for April 29, 2021.

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn

Just days after Raynor learns that Moth, her husband of 32 years, is terminally ill, their home is taken away and they lose their livelihood. With nothing left and little time, they make the brave and impulsive decision to walk the 630 miles of the sea-swept South West Coast Path, from Somerset to Dorset, via Devon and Cornwall.

Carrying only the essentials for survival on their backs, they live wild in the ancient, weathered landscape of cliffs, sea and sky. Yet through every step, every encounter and every test along the way, their walk becomes a remarkable journey.

The Salt Path is an honest and life-affirming true story of coming to terms with grief and the healing power of the natural world. Ultimately, it is a portrayal of home, and how it can be lost, rebuilt and rediscovered in the most unexpected ways
.

I first wrote a short post about The Salt Path in this post. I bought the book in 2018 and was keen to read it, but so many other books intervened, and it was only when I saw Raynor Winn on Kate Humble’s Coastal Walks programme on the South West Coastal Path that I remembered about her book.

Raynor and Moth Winn, a couple in their 50s, were homeless, with no means of income except for £48 pounds a week. They had lost their home, business and livelihood, after investing in one of a friend’s companies that had failed. They found out that they were liable to make payments towards the debts of the company, were taken to court and ended up losing not only their savings but also their farm and home.

Despite finding out that Moth has a rare terminal illness, they decided to walk the South Coast Path. He had been diagnosed with corticobasal degeneration (CBD), a brain disease for which there is no cure or treatment apart from pain killers and physiotherapy. The consultant told him that he shouldn’t tire himself, or walk too far and to take care on the stairs. Their decision to walk the Path and camp wild seemed to me both brave and foolhardy and I read this book with absolute amazement that they could take themselves away from medical care and set off, almost totally unprepared and not fit enough to walk 630 miles along a coast path.

At first it was really difficult as Moth struggled with pain and exhaustion, and it horrified me that he could carry on in that condition. They had reached the Valley of Rocks in north Devon, when he sat down on the rocks. He felt he was eighty and was so tired that he hurt everywhere:

Can’t tell if I’m half asleep, or wide awake. It’s like my head’s in fog and I’m walking through treacle. This is the most bollockingly stupid thing we’ve ever done. I want to lie down.(page 58)

He had been taking Pregabalin to ease the nerve pain and had been told not to just stop taking them because of the immense list of withdrawal symptoms. But that is what he had done – they had left his supplies behind them, ready to put in the rucksack, but had forgotten them. Fortunately after a while the pain lessened, he felt much better and his head was clearer. The walking had helped!

They had little to live on, their diet involved lots of rice and noodles, supplemented with wine gums and foraging for blackberries, mushrooms and dandelions. They took it at their own pace, following Paddy Dillon’s Walking Guide of the trail from Minehead on the Somerset coast right round Devon and Cornwall to Poole in Dorset, stopping to pick up their money and buy supplies along the route. But as winter was on the way when they reached Lantic Bay and Pencarrow Head they decided to take up a friend’s offer to stay with her for the winter free of rent if they could help with her building and on her farm.

However, once they stopped walking, Moth’s stiffness and his neurological pain increased and he struggled to move. He seemed to be deteriorating so quickly without the Pregabalin. But they were determined to finish the walk and completed it the next year. Once more, as they walked Moth’s condition improved. He didn’t understand how, thinking it may have ‘something to do with heavy endurance exercise‘, causing some sort of reaction that that they didn’t understand. He didn’t know how it worked but he just felt great.

Living with a death sentence, having no idea when it will be enacted, is to straddle a void. Every word or gesture, every breath of wind or drop of rain matters to a painful degree. For now we had moved outside of that. Moth was on death row, but he’d been granted the right to appeal. He knew CBD hadn’t miraculously disappeared, but somehow, for a while, it was held at bay.(page 243)

The Salt Path is not a book about walking the South Coast Path because you love walking, nor because you want the challenge of walking 630 miles, nor because you love wild camping. And it is not just about about the beauty of the surroundings and the experience of being close to nature (although that is there in Ray Winn’s beautiful descriptive writing). It is about the determination to live life, about overcoming pain and hardship, and the healing power of nature. It is about homelessness and the different reactions and attitudes of the people they met when they told them they were homeless. Some were hostile, some recoiled in horror and moved away as though they were social pariahs. Others were sympathetic and generous.

In this post I have concentrated on Moth’s health, because that is what struck me most as I was reading the book. But there is so much more in it than that. It’s one of the most remarkable books that I have read. I admired their determination and persistence in the face of all the difficulties and obstacles they met, but it is definitely not something I could ever undertake. It both fascinated and appalled me.

After I read The Salt Path I wondered how Ray and Moth are now and came across this article in The Herald, dated 20 September 2020, in which Raynor Winn looks back over these life-changing and challenging events. At lot has happened since then and the story of that is in her second book, The Wild Silence. You can follow Raynor on Twitter @raynor_winn.

  • Publisher : Michael Joseph; 1st edition (3 Sept. 2020)
  • Language : English
  • File size : 3148 KB
  • X-Ray : Enabled
  • Word Wise : Enabled
  • Print length : 280 pages
  • My Rating: 4*

My Friday Post: The Salt Path by Raynor Winn

Every Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

This week I’m featuring a book I’m about to start. It’s The Salt Path by Raynor Winn. It was her first book and it was shortlisted for the 2018 Costa Biography Award and the Wainwright Prize. I want to read it because it’s a true story about a couple, Raynor and Moth, her husband who is terminally ill, who had lost their home and their business. Faced with this terrible situation they decided to buy a tent and walk the Salt Path, the south-west coastal path, from Minehead in Somerset to Poole in Dorset, via Devon and Cornwall.

There’s a sound to breaking waves when they are close, a sound like nothing else. The background roar is unmistakable, overlaid by the swash of the landing wave and then the sucking noise of the backwash as it retreats.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader. If you have to improvise, that is okay.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

Page 56:

The first time I saw Moth across the sixth-form college canteen I was eighteen. He was wearing a white collarless shirt as he dipped a Mars bar in a cup of tea. I was mesmerised.

Since travelling the South West Coastal Path, Raynor Winn became a regular long-distance walker and writes about nature, homelessness and wild camping. She lives in Cornwall. Her second book, The Wild Silence, is her follow-up book. I bought The Salt Path in 2018 and was keen to read it, but so many other books intervened, and it was only when I saw Raynor Winn on Kate Humble’s Coastal Walks programme on the South West Coastal Path that I remembered about her book.

Additions to My TBRs

I am missing going to an actual bookshop, but I have been book shopping online. These are all books I’ve bought this year:

  1. The Sun Sister by Lucinda Riley – the sixth book in Lucinda Riley’s series, The Seven Sisters, which tells the story of adopted sisters and is inspired by the mythology of the famous star cluster. This one is about Electra D’Aplièse, who seems to have it all: as one of the world’s top models, she is beautiful, rich and famous.
  2. Infinite by Brian Freeman – my Kindle First choice in February, a thriller about parallel universes.
  3. The Radium Girls by Kate Moore – the true story about dial-painters, girls and women who painted the numbers on clocks, watches and other instruments using radium-infused luminous paint in the 1920s and 1930s. The girls shone brightly in the dark, covered head to toe in dust from the paint.
  4. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh – the story of Charles Ryder’s infatuation with the Marchmains and the rapidly-disappearing world of privilege they inhabit. This is a book I’ve wondered about reading for years, so when I saw it was 99p on Kindle I bought it.
  5. Virginia Wolf: a Biography: 1882-1912 (vol 1) by Quentin Bell. Reading Woolf’s Orlando recently made me want to know more about her, so I bought this secondhand copy of her biography from AbeBooks.
  6. The Pembrokshire Murders by Steve Wilkins and Jonathan Hill -the true story of a brutal murderer and the detectives who worked the cold case for six years in order to bring him to justice. I bought this after watching the ITV mini series in January.

Now, the questions are –

Which one to read first?
Or should I read one of my older TBRs first?
What do you do?
And how do you decide which book to read next?

Throwback Thursday: The Verneys

I’m linking up today with Davida @ The Chocolate Lady’s Book Review Blog for Throwback Thursday. It takes place on the Thursday before the first Saturday of every month (i.e., the Thursday before the monthly #6Degrees post). The idea is to highlight one of your previously published book reviews and then link back to Davida’s blog.

Today I’m looking back to 25 October 2007 when I wrote longer posts than I do now! This one, The Verneys of Claydon is about the Verney family who lived at Claydon House, a country house in the Aylesbury Vale, Buckinghamshire, England, near the village of Middle Claydon. It is now owned by the National Trust.

The Verneys: a True Story of Love, War and Madness in Seventeenth-Century England by Adrian Tinniswood.

This is how I began my post:

I became very fond of The Verneys as I read Adrian Tinniswood’s book The Verneys, shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction 2007. If you’re interested in seventeenth century England you simply must read this book, or if you like reading biographies and family histories read this book. I think it would make a fantastic film or TV series.

It is a tour de force, a mammoth of a book. It is huge, both in its scope, its extraordinary detail and its length. It is also heavy, but only in weight. It is impressive in its coverage of not only the lives of the Verney family but also of the seventeenth century itself.

Madness, piracy, murder and adultery – The Verneys tells the story of a unique English family in the seventeenth century. Based on the near-miraculous survival of tens of thousands of Verney family letters in an attic, Adrian Tinniswood explores the history of one family in the most intimate detail. By drawing on this wealth of personal correspondence, he reveals the private and public world of members of the Buckinghamshire gentry, offering extraordinary insights into 17th Century family life.

Click here to read the rest of my review

Adrian Tinniswood OBE FSA is the author of fifteen books on social and architectural history, including Behind the Throne: A Domestic History of the Royal HouseholdThe Long Weekend: Life in the English Country House Between the Wars, a New York Times and Sunday Times bestseller; His Invention So Fertile: A Life of Christopher Wren and The Verneys: a True Story of Love, War and Madness in Seventeenth-Century England, which was shortlisted for the BBC/Samuel Johnson Prize. He has worked with a number of heritage organisations including the Heritage Lottery Fund and the National Trust, and is currently Senior Research Fellow in History at the University of Buckingham and Visiting Fellow in Heritage and History at Bath Spa University. (Amazon)

~~~

I visited Claydon House in October 2007, which was when I found out about this book. One of the most interesting rooms is Miss Nightingale’s bedroom. Florence Nightingale was Sir Harry Verney’s sister-in-law and often stayed at Claydon House between 1857 and 1890. Sir Harry had first asked Florence to marry him but she declined and he married her older sister Parthenope. I wrote about the House in this post.

English Pastoral by James Rebanks

Penguin| 3 September 2020| 283 pages| Kindle review copy via Netgalley| 5*

English Pastoral: An Inheritance by James Rebanks is an absolutely marvellous book, the best book I’ve read this year and although it’s still February I can’t imagine that I’ll read a better book all year.

About the book:

As a boy, James Rebanks’s grandfather taught him to work the land the old way. Their family farm in the Lake District hills was part of an ancient agricultural landscape: a patchwork of crops and meadows, of pastures grazed with livestock, and hedgerows teeming with wildlife. And yet, by the time James inherited the farm, it was barely recognisable. The men and women had vanished from the fields; the old stone barns had crumbled; the skies had emptied of birds and their wind-blown song.

English Pastoral is the story of an inheritance: one that affects us all. It tells of how rural landscapes around the world were brought close to collapse, and the age-old rhythms of work, weather, community and wild things were lost. And yet this elegy from the northern fells is also a song of hope: of how, guided by the past, one farmer began to salvage a tiny corner of England that was now his, doing his best to restore the life that had vanished and to leave a legacy for the future.

This is a book about what it means to have love and pride in a place, and how, against all the odds, it may still be possible to build a new pastoral: not a utopia, but somewhere decent for us all.

It is inspirational as well as informative and it is beautifully written. I enjoyed his account of his childhood and his nostalgia at looking back at how his grandfather farmed the land. And I was enlightened about current farming practices and the effects they have on the land, depleting the soil of nutrients.

But all is not doom and gloom as Rebanks also explains what can be done to put things right, how we can achieve a balance of farmed and wild landscapes, by limiting use of some of the technological tools we’ve used over the last 50 years so that methods based on mixed farming and rotation can be re-established. By encouraging more diverse farm habitats, rotational grazing and other practices that mimic natural processes we can transform rural Britain.

I loved this book and came away with much to think about and also hope for the future.

My thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for the review copy, and as it is such an excellent book, after reading the review copy, I bought the e-book.