Formidable! I thoroughly enjoyed this book from start to finish.
Joe, his French wife and bilingual son leave California for Paris. Joe seems well-prepared for what French life will throw at him on the whole, but the quest for a French driving license leads him a merry dance and becomes all-consuming. It’s from this point of view that we follow Joe’s adventures in the land of shrugs and snails.
He has a sharp eye for detail and a lovely, lively style. He clearly relishes the foreignness and frequent inexplicability of France. The result is a very readable and entertaining book that will have you chuckling every few pages. For example, he hilariously describes the frustrating vagaries of French road signage, details delicious but interminable meals (with helpful ‘how to survive them’ tips), and gives wonderful accounts of nervous-tic inducing encounters with bureaucrats. He throws in lots of fascinating facts along way, for example about car ownership and vehicle-related revenues, and about the Strange French Names Club aka Asso des communes de France aux noms burlesques. He teaches us some slang and swear words and weaves in plenty of helpful information too, such as about the dreaded priorité à droite rule. All excellent stuff.
For me the book was also a look at ‘how the other half lives’, the other half being employed people in France whereas I’m from the self-employed sector. All those paid days off and holiday vouchers, I’m green with envy!
The only thing I took issue with was where Joe says that if a car fails its contrôle technique it has to be repaired immediately before it goes back on the road. You actually have two months to do the necessary work. Only a minor quibble but worth mentioning in case it causes panic to would-be expats!
A splendid book, well presented and written, and most definitely a must-read.
I’m delighted to be hosting Will Bashor today as he sets out on his virtual book tour with this truly absorbing and meticulously researched book.
Marie Antoinette’s Darkest Days: Prisoner No. 280 in the Conciergerie by Will Bashor
This compelling book begins on the 2nd of August 1793, the day Marie Antoinette was torn from her family’s arms and escorted from the Temple to the Conciergerie, a thick-walled fortress turned prison. It was also known as the waiting room for the guillotine because prisoners only spent a day or two here before their conviction and subsequent execution. The ex-queen surely knew her days were numbered, but she could never have known that two and a half months would pass before she would finally stand trial and be convicted of the most ungodly charges.
Will Bashor traces the final days of the prisoner registered only as Widow Capet, No. 280, a time that was a cruel mixture of grandeur, humiliation, and terror. Marie Antoinette’s reign amidst the splendors of the court of Versailles is a familiar story, but her final imprisonment in a fetid, dank dungeon is a little-known coda to a once-charmed life. Her seventy-six days in this terrifying prison can only be described as the darkest and most horrific of the fallen queen’s life, vividly recaptured in this richly researched history.
I was riveted by this book from start to tragic finish.
Marie Antoinette must be one of the best known-about historical figures of all time, but not the best known. We’ve all heard the famous statement, “Let them eat cake,” Qu’ils mangent de la brioche, although it’s not certain she ever actually did give this tactless response to the claim that the poor people had no bread, and we also know that she was executed by guillotine during the aftermath of the French Revolution. And for most of us that’s just about it.
But there was so much more to her than that. In Marie Antoinette’s Darkest Days, historian and author Will Bashor recounts the dreadful experiences she went through between the beginning of August 1793 until her death in mid-October. Her husband already dead, separated from her sister-in-law and children she languished in a filthy prison. Yet she showed resilience and dignity in the face of hatred and enemies baying for her blood.
The book reads, I think, more like a novel rather than a history book, in that while the authors shares a tremendous amount of painstaking research with us, we’re never overwhelmed and the pace is crisp. Our tragic heroine develops before our eyes and we feel empathy for her in her wretched circumstances. She stops being a figurehead and becomes a very real person to us. Yes, she had been one of the royal family who knew no restraint in flaunting their wealth and acting insensitively and unsympathetically towards their subjects, but that was how life was then. There was a chasm between the haves and have-nots. You can understand why the people wanted to redress the balance somewhat, or at least attempt to. With the forthcoming elections here in France, it is somewhat ironic to realise that once again there is a widening gap between the people and those that govern them – there are many millionaires in the government these days. Did poor Marie Antoinette die in vain?
If you’re interested in French history then this without doubt is the book for you. It is completely absorbing and absolutely fascinating.
Security tightened in the Conciergerie as the public uproar increased. The guards searched through the queen’s laundry, and she was only allowed a change of clothing every ten days. At the same time, the queen’s health was faltering. She complained of pain in one of her legs, covering it with her cushion to keep it warm. The queen also suffered from insomnia, anxiety, dizziness, weakness, and frequent bouts of vaginal bleeding. Rosalie attributed the hemorrhaging to the “crushing sorrows, the foul air in her cell, and lack of exercise.”
These miseries were perhaps every bit as disturbing as the presence of the guards, who violated her modesty as they watched her change clothes. When the queen discretely removed the bloody dressings, Rosalie disposed of them secretly but with great difficulty; the inspections were multiplying at all hours of the day and night. And the noise became unbearable, with the locks continuously clanking and the door of the queen’s dungeon screeching as deputies entered and exited.
On October 3, Deputy Jean-Baptiste-André Amar of the Committee of General Security decreed that 129 deputies of the Gironde party be denounced as outlaws, arrested, and brought to trial. The Girondins had campaigned for the end of the monarchy but came into conflict with the more radical Jacobins. On the same day, a large number of the Girondins were imprisoned in the Conciergerie, the same prison that housed the fallen queen of France. That these Girondins would be tried and most likely face the guillotine before the queen sparked another public controversy.
They argued that the queen was the “guiltiest of all” and “her head should be the first to fall.” The committees, clubs, and cafés of Paris were all calling for a speedy trial of the Agrippina, a reference to the ruthless, domineering, and violent mother of Nero.
“I rang my alarm bell to all French ears on the infamous Antoinette,” wrote lawyer and politician Armand-Joseph Guffroy in his journal. “Keep Marie Antoinette in prison to make peace, you say drearily, and I say to you, ‘Make her jump like a carp with its hands tied behind its back.’”
“We aim to judge the Austrian tigress from twelve until two o’clock in the afternoon,” the deputy Louis Marie Prudhomme wrote, “and we demand the offenses to condemn her; if justice is served, she will be hacked up like mincemeat in a pâté.”
About the Author
earned his M.A. degree in French literature
from Ohio University
and his Ph.D. in International Studies
from the American Graduate School in Paris
where he gathered letters, newspapers, and journals
during his research for the award-winning Marie Antoinette’s Head: The Royal Hairdresser, the Queen, and the Revolution.
Now living in Albi, France,
and a member of the Society for French Historical Studies,
his latest work, Marie Antoinette’s Darkest Days: Prisoner No. 280 in the Conciergerie,
was released in December 2016.
He is currently working on the final part of his historical trilogy, Marie Antoinette’s World: The Labyrinth to the Queen’s Psyche.
Talking about sad episodes, it’s time to mention our polytunnel. Our earnings were a little healthier now that we were with Angling Lines, but there still wasn’t a lot of spare cash. Now, we’d been mulling over the idea of getting a greenhouse or polytunnel for several months. We ate a lot of tomatoes and lettuces but these didn’t thrive outdoors. Despite digging lots of poop from assorted animals into the area of ground we designated as the vegetable patch, the soil remained poor. The only things that did grow were courgettes and pumpkins, and you can definitely have too many of those. Hence, the desire to grow a wider variety of veggies. After a lot of pondering, we opted for a low budget polytunnel off eBay. Stop laughing and bear with me. It looked good in the advert, and was the right sort of size so we paid up and eagerly awaited its arrival. It wasn’t too long coming and we got it up in one afternoon. Given the number of bits of framework and the unhelpfulness of the instructions, that was surprisingly fast. We chose a south-facing spot behind the barn. It was in the female llamas’ field and they were delighted. They had a very interesting time watching us grapple with poles and plastic. Llamas are so wonderfully inquisitive. Once it was finished they seemed very pleased with the new addition to their field and inspected it every now and again. We’d have to make sure to keep it closed, or they’d be in like a shot.
We got to work constructing some workbenches from recycled building materials and quickly covered them with seedlings in yoghurt pots. My inner gardener blossomed. I spent many happy hours pottering around potting things up in there, and Chris likewise. It started to look very impressive and productive. We took the precaution of wiring the framework to two very heavy iron bars that had come with the farm. We had no idea what their original purpose might have been, but we knew they’d come in handy one day and so we left them where they were, on the grass beyond the hangar, and regularly tripped over them. However, all those stubbed toes were worth it as the bits of iron now came into their own.
They, the bits of wire and a few bits of bent framework were all that were left after the first slightly windy night we experienced after erecting the polytunnel. A few moderate gusts of wind and the whole thing fell apart. The plastic ripped and fluttered off around the farm, sending our seedlings flying, only to be consumed or trampled on by the llamas. What a disaster. All that hard work wasted. Evidently the polytunnel was intended for indoor use only. We sighed and collected up any salvageable pieces of debris, and they weren’t many, ignoring the llamas’ giggling.
We learnt our lesson from that act of cheapskateness and decided we would have to invest in a real, proper, heavy-duty polytunnel with thick plastic and a weighty metal framework. It would be worth dipping into our savings if it meant we bought something that would last longer than a couple of weeks and withstand a gentle breeze. And so our new polytunnel duly arrived. This was more like it. It came on two pallets and weighed a ton. Never mind several hours, it took several weeks to erect. The main supporting framework needed concreting in place, wooden doorways had to be constructed and it took the whole family to help with fitting the rest of the frame together and fitting the plastic over, stretching it carefully to fit and cutting off the excess. Leaving a central walkway, Chris built a raised bed to each side which, over a few days, we filled with barrowfuls of llama and chicken poop. The ten-metre long and four-metre wide polytunnel accommodated an awful lot of poop, I can tell you. We were delighted, and, although a bit late, set to on a second splurge of growing seedlings. We hung up a thermometer and marvelled at the tropical temperatures reached in the polytunnel. On a cloudy day when it was 20 degrees outside, the tunnel clocked up 35 degrees. And when it was hot and sunny outside around the 30 degree mark, the thermometer showed upwards of 45 degrees. Surely our lettuces and tomatoes would flourish now.
Word must have got round about our polytunnel because out of the blue, a young man turned up. He explained he was a neighbour, relatively speaking – he lived a good few kilometres away but there weren’t many other habitations between us and him so I guess that did make us neighbours – and that he’d just taken over Les Chapotiers and planned to make a living growing bio (organic) fruit and veg. We’d detected a hint of hippie. He had a polytunnel on order and asked if we’d come and help him erect it when he arrived. We replied that so long as he wouldn’t object to a good bit of swearing going on during the process, then no problem, count us in. We’d found from our few years of heavy labour in France that swearwords are as crucial an ingredient in constructing something as the physical constituents. Cussing concentrates the mind. We weren’t the first to think so. I remember from my childhood Dad going round to help our neighbour, who I knew as Uncle Will, with a car problem. “Damn, I won’t be able to swear so it’ll take ages,” Dad grumbled as he set off. Uncle Will was indeed a gentle soul. We’d often call round as kids and be treated to a biscuit in the kitchen. I only saw the living room once, and the walls were festooned with beautiful embroidered pictures. All Uncle Will’s work.
Another #SampleSunday, another extract from my forthcoming ‘Total Immersion: Ten Years in France’. We’re in March 2009, and we get to meet our first home-born baby llama and Chris has a very close encounter with a fox.
We’d moved Gabby, the mother llama, into a stable so she’d be warm and cosy when delivery time came and we checked on her frequently. We coated the stable floor with hay, and counted the days. We were starting to give up. She seemed intent on exploding rather than giving birth, just to spite us.
It was a fine, sunny morning during the kids’ winter holiday fortnight so we decided to go for a walk. We did one of our local strolls, the Chambon shuffle we call it (ch = sh in French, so it’s a nice alliterative name). Coming back along the green lane between fields, we spotted a fox in the hedgerow, but it didn’t run away. We peered close and saw that it had a metal snare around its stomach, getting tighter and tighter every time the animal moved. It was probably stupid of us, but we couldn’t leave it like that. Chris had gloves on and tried to free the fox but it bit him, not surprisingly really, and we were forced to abandon the rescue mission for the time being. When we got back, Chris went to put Germolene on his bite and then find thick gloves and wire cutters for a second attempt. I went to look in on Gabby. And there, in a hideous, spindly heap, was a llama cria. Gabby had chosen the darkest, dirtiest corner of the stable to deliver in, studiously avoiding the birth-friendly hay carpet we’d put down. The baby was cold and grubby. Caiti and I got busy with towels drying the little female down while the boys went off to deal with the fox.
Both missions proved successful. Caiti and I soon transformed the baby into a clean, dry, fluffy cria. She was mainly white with some pretty brown splotches on her face and back. At the time Comet Lulin was visible, and we thought that Lulin was the perfect name for a little llama. Again with the alliteration. Benj and Chris came back, fortunately with no more bites, thanks to the thick gloves. But we still had the one bite to worry about. And worry a lot about, as France was then still officially a rabid country.
We hopped in the car to go to the doctor’s. We explained what had happened, and he asked us if we had the fox’s head. I stared at him blankly. No, he can’t have said that. I must have misunderstood something there. I asked him to repeat the question at a non-Francophone-friendly speed, and the same words came out. Chris and I shot other a ‘what the heck’ look. I warily replied that we didn’t have the head. We’d left it on the fox as it clearly had need of it. There didn’t seem a lot of point in freeing a fox from a snare only to immediately decapitate it, not the thought of doing so would ever have occurred to us.
The doctor sighed and told us, in a long-suffering tone, that if you get bitten by a fox, or any other possibly rabid animal, you’re meant to kill it and bring its head with you for testing. As with so many things in France, you’re meant to instinctively know this. Well, we didn’t, and we hadn’t got a vulpine head with us, so what next? The doctor quickly cheered up and said that Chris would need to go to Guéret hospital for rabies-neutralising shots. These would start at the rate of several a week, then one a week, then one a fortnight and so on at increasingly long intervals for at least the next six months. He might have said years, I was too shocked to listen properly. This really was a blow. We’d been expecting Chris would need a few injections, but not that many or for so long.
The doctor phoned the nearest Department of Information about Rabies and we watched as the smile dropped from his face. Our hearts were in our boots. He must have underestimated the treatment process. But it turned out that Boussac was a rabies-free zone. There hadn’t been any cases reported here for some officially sanctioned period of time, so we didn’t need the injections after all. The doctor was clearly very disappointed about this. I think he’d been quite looking forward to having a case of rabies to tell all his medical chums about. Or maybe, odd as this may sound, he liked seeing English people suffer. All that needed doing was to give Chris some antibiotics. Our anti-tetanus shots were up to date, so no more jabs were necessary. Talk about relief. The incident has, however, left Chris with an intense dislike of foxes. He also vowed he would never try and free another animal from a snare, a vow he steadfastly kept until Christmas when we came across our next case of a snared animal, a deer this time, which, of course, we set free.
Snaring is legal in France, under certain conditions, and also trapping. Our local friendly farm supply shop, run by incredibly nice people, has a whole rack of gruesome looking devices for these very purposes and obviously they don’t give it a second thought. It’s still a way of life for some country dwellers. We haven’t come across any trapped animals for a long while now, it has to be said. However, I don’t suppose the practice has died out, just that whoever’s setting the snares is keeping them off our usual stamping grounds. The snarer has possibly worked out that the proximity of our farm to the cut-through snares they’d laid was more than coincidental. Because they were quite close to us, the only inhabitants in a sizeable chunk of very many square kilometres. Mine were the only local chickens, or in fact livestock of any kind, that a fox might have helped itself to, so I can’t see the need for anyone to have set a snare in that location. OK, deer eat crops which must be annoying if you’re a farmer, but this snare was on a bit of fencing (erected by the gas board) bordered by scrub land. Unnecessary and unpleasant.
Now that the first draft of Haircuts, Hens and Homicide is in the bag, I’ve been able to return to part Deux of my memoir of our lives in France, Total Immersion. To whet your appetites here’s an extract from the chapter ‘2012: The Year of the Pig’.
The Big Freeze of 2017 is going on as I write about the Even Bigger Freeze of 2012 so it’s helping to put me in the mood. It’s brought back precise memories of exactly how flipping cold it was.
The year started off harmlessly enough. Once New Year was over, the kids headed back to école primaire (Rors), lycée (Caiti) and fac (Benj) and Chris and I settled into our daily routine of this time of years of jobs around the farm, lake maintenance and our online businesses. However, Chris’s inner swineherd was proving hard to ignore. He’d been becoming more and more interested in getting pigs, and talking about them to such an extent that some returning angling clients of ours gave him a book about pig ownership. Perhaps that was the deciding factor, or maybe he just felt ready for a new challenge as by now, between us, we’d mastered llama and alpaca, goat, sheep and poultry ownership. It was time to conquer another animal species.
Chris did some research and found someone who did pig management courses in Poitou-Charentes, about four hours away. He booked himself in on the next available session and sorted out a night’s accommodation nearby as there was an early start to the day’s training. All he had to do now was wait.
January was ridiculously mild, to the extent that the daffs were coming up, the chickens were laying fit to bust and buds were starting to appear on many trees. What a lovely short winter we’ve had this time, we thought with a smile. But Mother Nature had the last laugh.
Chris set off on a sunny Sunday afternoon, waved off by me and the two youngest. Once he was gone we pottered around in the warmth, doing the farm chores and getting some fresh air before focussing on getting everything ready for school next day. For Rors this was just making sure there were clean clothes ready and waiting, but for Caiti it was the usual painful process of packing the suitcase for a week of boarding. We should have had it down to a fine art by now, and we had done with Benj, but somehow every week seemed like the first with our daughter. She always left packing till the very last minute, long after parental patience had been ground down. I’ve never been a late night person and since moving to France and taking up a much more physically exhausting lifestyle, then bed starts calling at nine o’clock, sometimes earlier. So things would tend to get fraught on a Sunday evening. But Caiti inevitably produced the proverbial rabbit from the hat and was all ready for the off, although she regularly resembled the proverbial slow snail and reduced me to a nervous wreck on Monday mornings. However, as it turned out miraculously we only ever missed the bus once.
This particular Monday morning was very chilly but with Chris away I had no alternative but to load a warmly wrapped sleepy Ruadhrí into the car to be taken for the ride when delivering Caiti to the bus stop in Clugnat. The road sparkled with frost and it was nippy. One low, hill-bottom stretch of the road was, as usual, particularly cold. We called it the ‘frost bucket’. This arose from a very young Caiti mishearing us using the expression ‘frost pocket’. Well, since ‘frost bucket’ is so much better we adopted that one as a family saying. The car showed a temperature of minus three or so. Brrr.
Meanwhile Chris was getting up to minus five, which came as a bit of a shock. Fortunately he’d taken plenty of warm clothes with him as a lot of the training was done outside and the day itself was sunny and bright. He had a wonderful time learning about the finer points of pigmanship with trainers David and Lorraine. They specialised in English old breed pigs and so Chris got to meet Gloucester Old Spots, Berkshires and Oxford Sandy and Blacks. He got to eat them at lunchtime too but not the ones he’d just met, obviously! The whole point of getting pigs was to become self-sufficient in pork. We weren’t going to be a pig sanctuary – we were going into this venture with hardened hearts and a love of sausages. Chris was immediately struck with how much nicer the pork from these old breeds was than what we were used to eating from the supermarket.
Chris learned about fencing, handling and breeding pigs, and about all the relevant legislation. There was plenty of hands-on experience of rounding up and feeding. He was struck with how intelligent the pigs are. You can interact with a pig. Llamas, alpacas, goats, sheep – not so much. The action with them is one way, i.e. from the human, with the creature in question simply regarding you vacantly as The Mysterious Being That Dispenses Food. A pig, though, will come over for a chat. A pig will listen. A pig will scrutinise you and size you up with those shrewd eyes, rather than just gaze dumbly at you. A pig is altogether a different kind of animal from other farm livestock.
Temperatures began to plummet as the day wore on. I distributed extra hay to the animals and took a hat for Rors with me when I walked to Nouzerines to meet him from school. It was the walking-to-and-from school season in the winter, but the rest of the year we cycled him in and out. Despite living the furthest away, and Chris and I being the oldest set of parents by at least a decade, we were the only ones who were able to get to and from under our own environmentally-friendly steam rather than resorting to car or bus. As well as allowing us to feel morally superior to the rest of the world, it kept us all fit and we enjoyed the exercise as a family activity.
Chris got back quite late and reported freezing fog and icy roads all the way. It was by now a good few degrees below freezing, and it was going to be several weeks before it warmed up. The Big Freeze had begun.
It seemed to come out of nowhere. Admittedly we didn’t watch the Météo, weather forecast, regularly. We’d tried and failed to adapt to French television generally. With its love of short and frankly bizarre (‘quirky’ doesn’t come close) vignettes, and its overly-verbose chat and quiz show hosts, it just wasn’t for us. The culturally divide turns into a chasm when it comes to the TV. But we soon started watching it every night. And the news, where ice-bound scenes from around the country filled most of the half-hour slot. However, we were far more concerned with our own ice-boundness, which was dramatic and wholesale.
(The artwork for the cover of Total Immersion is by the incomparable Roger Fereday. The photo is of our own Berkshire pigs, Rosamunde and Oberon.)
Knitted toys tend to get rather a bad press. People think old fashioned and twee, but they can be every bit as good as any other toy, and often much longer-lasting. More than twenty years on, toys I knitted for my two eldest kids are still going strong, and still get the odd cuddle!
This collection, Knitted Toys: 20 cute and colourful projects, by Jody Long is modern and fun, and illustrates everything that’s good about knitted toys. Namely, they’re child friendly, they’re versatile in that you can use your own or the recipient’s favourite combinations of colours for them, they’re appealing and (mostly) washable, and they’re timeless.
Jody Long gives us a wonderful selection: transport (aeroplane and fire truck), creepy crawlies (caterpillar, ladybug, bee), animals and birds (duck, hedgehog, bear, mouse, rabbit, pig, puppy, snake), sea creatures (octopus, fish, starfish), teddy bears, dolls and some squishy balls. If that isn’t an impressive array of patterns, then I don’t know what is! And you get more than that in that the author gives a range of accessories for many of the patterns. For example, Henry the Hedgehog comes along with a patch of grass and flowers, a toadstool and a ladybug, and Percy the Pig has a bib, a spoon and a cherry-covered cake to eat. There are also food bowls, a bucket of flowers and a hot water bottle, to name but a few more. I think these are a wonderful fun feature.
One of my favourite toys in Knitted Toys is Ruby the Russian Doll. She’s beautiful and unusual, and such a clever idea. I also particularly like Rio the Fish with the very effective scales.
The instructions are clear and easy to follow, and the illustrations are inspiring and helpful. The book comes with all the basic know-how you need to create and put the toys together. This gem of a book will be a great addition to every knitter’s shelf.
Earn More Tips on your Very Next Shift – even if you’re a bad waiter
Steve J DiGioia
This title on a very slick cover immediately gives you a very good sense of what the book is about. It’s direct and can apply to everyone, no matter how much help you might need to be a better waiter. Actually, in my opinion it’s not just for waiters. Anyone on a reception desk or like me in the hospitality trade running holiday cottages can benefit from the common sense and comprehensive tips and advice we’re given. For example: Treat guests like you’d treat your grandma. Don’t refer to their age or sex. Smile. Don’t talk about yourself. Be ready with extra advice, extra service. Make the guests’ exit as special as the entry was.
The books is very well laid out with boxes, bold type and bullets to make sure we grasp the key points and keep on track. The information is given in easily digestible chunks and advice is interspersed with examples and encouragement. The whole tone is lively, positive and conversational. Steve DiGioia cleverly runs each chapter on to the next so you just have to keep reading – even though you want to anyway.
From the start the author is honest. He tells us why he wrote the book, why he cares if we earn more money or not after investing in this book, and what he won’t cover. He genuinely wants us to wow the people we deal with, for both their sakes and ours. If they’re happy, we’ll get a bigger tip and we’ll be happy, and feel fulfilled from doing our job well. As Steve DiGioia says, it’s a win-win situation. And those are always good.
Does it mean being sycophantic? A little flattering certainly. Willing to please? Definitely, but no, the author never suggest we debase ourselves and openly grovel. It’s about sensible and practical respect and attention to detail. It’s about a mindset of service, using DiGioia’s Magical Table Greeting and caring for the guest.
This is well thought out, hands-on, straight talking book with a wide field of application.
In Through the Withering Storm, author Leif Gregersen bravely describes his descent into mental illness. Takes a lot of courage since as he says in the book, it’s hard to reveal how “I was slipping into a deep cloud of near-desperation and depression. I didn’t want to admit any weaknesses.” Any family that has been touched by mental illness of any kind knows what a difficult time this can be for everyone concerned, but obviously most of all for the sufferer. Books such as this are so incredibly valuable since they are a ray of hope, a reminder that there is light at the end of the long, dark tunnel, and sharing someone else’s experiences helps keep your own in perspective.
Leif Gregersen describes how the bipolar disorder slowly but surely took a firm grip on him and how he behaved as a result. There are touches of humour in the book, and it’s healthy to be able to recognise the fun moments even though they’re the result of a sinister illness. There’s shocking behaviour too. Generally the author has a very robust attitude to the problems he went through in the past, and I think it’s this clear, no-nonsense retrospective view he gives that highlights how confusing and frightening it must have been at the time .
Drink, depression and despair swamp Leif Gregersen’s life, interspersed with miserable stays at an antiquated mental hospital. However, courage wins through and the author finally emerges from the prison his mind has thrown him in and begins to build a healthy, rewarding life.
There is a real need for books like this one given the widespread occurrence of mental illness. There often isn’t much support from the professionals for the families involved – if any frankly – so ‘from the horse’s mouth’ accounts like Through a Withering Storm are invaluable in the insights they give. They boost you with a new lease of energy to continue supporting and loving through the stormy times.
About the Author: Leif Gregersen
“I grew up somewhat isolated from the harsher forces of the world in St. Albert, a small town just outside of Edmonton, Alberta. Most of my younger years were filled with images of very happy times – trips everywhere from California to Copenhagen, constant school successes and football games in the field near my house that seemed to last forever.
“But all was not okay. There were times when my father would discipline me severely or I would come home to find an ambulance in our backyard taking my mother to the hospital for yet another suicide attempt. Although I knew that depression ran in our family, I had no clue of the fearsome beast that was growing inside me.
“At that time, I was more concerned about my growing collection of comic books, bought with money my sister would give me for doing her dishes or earned as a bean-picker or weed- puller on a farm not far from town. To be able to buy more comics, I even lied about my age to get a paper route and picked up more money by shoveling walks that hadn’t been done on the route.
Somewhere after the end of elementary school, there was a profound shift. It seemed the wind ran out of my sails and the transition to junior high was not a smooth one. I gave up on sports and I began to hate school and the people in it.
The remaining school years became a painful, out-of-control descent into madness. Gripped by mental illness, my thoughts, actions and behaviours became increasingly bizarre. My world became a true life horror movie of growing up mentally ill. Despite delusions, fights, arrests, reprisals and being institutionalized, years were wasted fighting any form of treatment, denying the illness and refusing medications.
Fortunately, for the past 15 years, my life has stabilized. I have accepted treatment and medications. Today, I have steady work and can afford some of the things I only dreamed of before. My computers, my 1994 VW Golf, a decent apartment and, above all, my books. From the age of three, my father exposed me to literature of the highest quality. Today, he is a much kinder, gentler and alcohol-free 72 year-old. I have him to thank for my passion to read and write.
By William Arthur Sirmon, reproduced by: Brannon William Sirmon
This book is the actual diary as written by William Arthur Sirmon. The diary is reproduced from 1st January 1918. The book records faithfully the long periods of tedium that are part of the army routine although this appears to be interspersed with quite a lot of entertaining for the officer class. The excitement and patriotism builds up as the 82nd Regiment makes ready for war and finally gets its orders to travel from Camp Gordon, Georgia to the port of New York. The regiment sailed on the 25th April joining up with a large convoy for the crossing. Lt Sirmon observes that the main difference between one day and another is just the state of the sea.
The regiment reaches the safety of Liverpool after twelve days at sea and just one week later they arrive in France. Three weeks after landing on French terrain they get their wish and are posted to the front line. Little by little they experience the grim reality of war, seeing friends and comrades wounded or killed. Lt Sirmon is slightly wounded but continues to conduct offensive operations until his unit is attacked with mustard gas and he suffers severe skin burns.
This has been a fascinating read and while the diary format is not the most free flowing, it has been a riveting insight into the life and beliefs of a young US officer. It is very clear that the army and populous believed what their government told them about the reasons for the war being the defense of freedom and democracy. They also accepted without question the claims of atrocities committed by the German war machine against civilians. The grand geo-political causes as large empires vied for power and territory are never debated.
Yet this should not detract from the quite matter-of-fact bravery displayed by Lt Sirmon and his generation very much in contrast to the Hollywood hero. In his first action he admits to being badly frightened and shaking but swearing to himself that he wouldn’t run. After the engagement he was over he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Legion of Honor of France and the Croix de Guerre with Palm.
The book has not been edited for political correctness and while some of the attitudes are a shock in the modern day context, they have to be considered for the insights that they provide.
Ramblings in Ireland by Kerry Dwyer is really two books in one. One the one hand we have a humorous, incisive look at expat life as seen by this witty, fascinating author, but which only hints at all the experiences she has clearly had. On the other we have an enjoyable travelogue that depicts Ireland with all its outward charm and friendliness. This precisely reflects how Ramblings is used as the title to depict Dwyer’s thoughts and observations about various matters and also the physical unhurried walks that Dwyer takes on holiday. France-based, the author and her husband take their first child-free holiday for a long time and end up in Ireland when other holiday plans go awry. However, they’re as happy to be there as anywhere more exotic and the trip introduces them to a wonderful country and allows the author the chance to tap her rich imagination and share her point of view about many and various things with us.
Kerry Dwyer has a wonderful eye for detail and uses it to depict very clear mental images for the reader of everything she experiences. We can see the full Irish breakfasts on the plates in all their glory, picture husband and wife teetering on a fogbound, narrow ledge and get a good idea of what everybody they meet looks like. We get a clear feel for the friendly atmosphere they encounter everywhere. We also learn what makes this author tick – her likes and dislikes, her optimism, her enthusiasm, her love for Jinx and her husband. Just occasionally the reproduced conversations go on a little too long, but that’s a minor and easily forgivable fault given the general excellence of this unusual, quirky gem of a book.