The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander

Oh, this is the most beautiful memoir; a love story, a love letter, by a woman about a man she loved for 16 years. I devoured this book, awed by the joyous love that Elizabeth Alexander held for her husband who dropped dead unexpectedly of a heart attack. While reading it, I wondered at her skill of writing about deeply personal grief in such an accessible, tender manner, and the honesty with which she portrayed the difficulties of trying to find meaning in her new world without him. It was also heart-warming to read a book about a real love, in a time when the world is full of divorce and bitterness.


Elizabeth Alexander is an award-winning poet (probably best known for writing and reading the poem, Praise Song for the Day, at Obama’s inauguration), who presently is a professor of poetry at Yale University. She had never written a book of prose before this one and certainly never planned to write a memoir – ‘my own sense of privacy was too powerful’ –  but when she sat down and started to write, she found she couldn’t stop.

Alexander tells the story of her and her husband’s 16-year relationship from beginning to end, jumping backwards and forwards, uncovering the layers of affection from its rapturous beginning to its tragic end. She met Ficre Ghebreyesus  (FEE-kray Geb-reh-YESS-oos) in New Haven in 1996 – ‘Our love began in an instant and progressed inevitably’ – and soon they married and had two sons.

Ficre Ghebreyesus

Ficre was born in East Africa in Asmara, Eritrea’s capital, in the middle of the 30-year-long war with Ethiopia for independence. His parents had to face down soldiers who barged into their house, threatening them with death. Ficre’s eldest brother died while fighting as a ‘freedom fighter’, but when Ficre enlisted, his mother went to retrieve him from the front line, and arranged for him leave the country as a refugee. At 16, he left home and went Sudan, then Italy, then Germany and finally made America his home. Ficre was an artist and a chef and, as well as working on his art, he opened a well-known Eritrean restaurant in New Haven. His paintings are bright and colourful, deeply influenced by the Eritrean culture, and born out of the psychological trauma he experienced there (the book’s cover portrays one of his artworks).

One of Ficre’s paintings

Alexander describes Ficre with such loving description throughout the book; for example:

His voice lilted across a pentatonic scale. “How are you?” D-sharp, C, G-sharp. There was chocolate in his voice, a depth, a bottom…In this still life I have forgotten to say, he was beautiful, and utterly without vanity.


He shaved his head on account of his receding hairline, but surely no one ever looked more beautiful bald – brown like a chestnut, clear brown, like topaz or buckwheat honey.

In her writing, he comes across as a joyful, funny, kind man, with family all around America and back in Eritrea, into whose clan Alexander was gladly received. She embraced his Eritrean traditions and cooking with fervour, and much of the book covers the merging of their cultures, an experiment that happily worked. The glimpse into the Eritrean life, with its Italian and Ethiopian influences, gave another level of interest to the book.

Ficre died aged 50 while running on the treadmill in the basement of their house, soon after Alexander had come home from a reading. She tried CPR on him, but he died before getting to the hospital. She said:

“Ficre breathed his last breath into me when I opened his mouth and breathed everything I had into him. He felt like a living person then. I am certain his soul was there.”

The memoir covers the depth of her grief at her sudden loss, her disbelief that Ficre could no longer be in her life. After his death, she dreamed of him constantly and often felt his presence; she and the children talked about him constantly, remembering small details. The first poem she wrote many months after his death is titled Family in 3/4 Time, which starts like this:

We are now a three-legged table/a family of three, once a family of four./We bring ourselves into new balance./The table wobbles, but does not fall.

The Light of the World is a memoir that portrays the depth of Alexander’s loss and grieving, and the ways in which she had to learn to be in the world without her husband, but most of all it is a beautiful tribute to a man deeply loved by those who knew him.

Elizabeth, Ficre and their sons


Two books about prisoners: A Book of Memory and A House in the Sky

This has not been an intentional reading theme; it just so happened that I read two books in a row that were about prisoners. The first was a novel, The Book of Memory, by Petina Gappah, and the other was a memoir,  A House in the Sky, by Amanda Lindhout, co-written with journalist Sara Corbett.


Petina Gappah won The Guardian First Book Award in 2009 for her collection of short stories, An Elegy for Easterly. The Book of Memory is her first novel and it is a powerful story of a Zimbabwean woman sitting on death row for the murder of her adopted father, a rich white man. It had been waiting on my Kindle for a long time; I’m not sure why I didn’t get round to reading it sooner because the opening sentence alone is enough to captivate one:

The story that you have asked me to tell you does not begin with the pitiful ugliness of Lloyd’s death. It begins on a long-ago day in August when the sun seared my blistered face and I was nine years old and my father and mother sold me to a strange man.

Memory is an albino woman who grew up in a poor township, spending her childhood being teased and bullied by other children, playing with her siblings, and avoiding the sun. This book is her way of remembering and interpreting her past, and of trying to gain an understanding of why her life followed the trajectory it did, leading up to her sitting in prison as the only woman on death row. Memory’s narration skips from past, to present, to way, way back, to the immediate, and carries on circuitously, as memory itself does.

Petina Gappah

It sounds like grim stuff, which of course it is, but Gappah has created the most wonderful character in Memory, whose voice is suffused with humour and a marked lack of self-pity. I enjoyed every minute of the book –  the plot itself, but also Gappah’s writing – her descriptions are so vivid that I could imagine the prison, almost taste the mangoes and smell the dusty Zimbabwean roads. Never is Memory’s albinism used as a pity-point, though when it’s brought into the text, it brings home the awfulness of the condition,  with the descriptions of her skin blistering and bubbling, and the merciless teasing from others. In the same way, the murder of which she is accused is not the central pivot of the book and we only find out about it right towards the end because this is not a book about an albino, nor one about a murderer; it is, as the title says, a book of memory.


A House in the Sky is also about a prisoner, though this time it is the true story about a young Canadian woman who was kidnapped and held hostage in Somalia with her ex-lover for 460 days. Amanda Lindhout also grew up poor, squashed into rooms with her siblings, listening to her mother being beaten up by a younger boyfriend. As a means of  escape, Amanda would buy old copies of National Geographic – with money from scrounging for recyclables – and lose herself in the photos of strange and exotic countries.

Once old enough, she waitressed in high-end clubs to save money to travel and as soon as she could escape, she ventured into countries she’d always dreamed of visiting in South America, Africa and Asia. The book starts off a bit like a travelogue, with accounts of Amanda’s travels to various destinations, none of which are ‘easy’ countries to visit. After travelling on and off for a couple of years, while waitressing in between to save money, she visits Afghanistan and Iraq and starts a semi-career as a war journalist, albeit a very naive one.


Amanda Lindhout


In the beginning, in an attempt to ingratiate herself to the captors, Amanda persuades Nigel to convert to Islam and, for a while, this tactic works as she is treated with respect and taught the Koran. Her kidnappers are young, and unfamiliar with women, especially Western women, and she describes them in such a poignant way I almost started to feel sympathy for them. After an escape attempt (for which Nigel believes she must take the blame), however, her captors begin to torture her through isolation, rape and beatings. In a vividly described section, she is even taken to the desert one night and is led to believe she is about to die, as a man holds a serrated knife to her neck.


Amanda survives by creating ‘a house in the sky’ and escaping to happier places in her mind when her body is being treated worse than an animal’s. With an incredible inner strength, she manages to reach a place of understanding and empathy for her captors. Although she and Nigel are kept separate, they remain in touch by leaving notes in the bathroom and even creating Christmas presents for each other out of scraps of rubbish.

They both are freed after their families manage to raise a fraction of the amount of money initially demanded and Amanda begins to piece her life together again in Canada. She has started a philanthropic NGO to enable women in Somalia to get to university and, when asked why she would want to help people in the very country where she was taken hostage and abused, she replied:

“You can very easily go into anger and bitterness and revenge thoughts and resentment and ‘Why me?'[…] Because I had something very, very large and very painful to forgive, and by choosing to do that, I was able to put into place my vision, which was making Somalia a better place[…] I’ve never questioned whether or not it was the right thing to do[…] What else to do after the experience that I had, than something like this?”  

This memoir reads as smoothly and beautifully as any good quality novel, and I felt privileged to have read it, to have been given an insight into such an intimate, frank account – yet devoid of self-pity – of a woman’s experience to hell and back. Amanda Lindhout is an incredible woman to have been able to go through this experience and to survive it with forgiveness and goodwill in her heart.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

This slim novel is, to me, fiction at its best: it fascinates, shocks, elicits sympathy, and well written (and expertly translated).  Written by a Korean author, Han Kang, The Vegetarian was a new reading experience for me in that didn’t remind me of any other books I have read, nor the author’s style didn’t remind me of any other author’s.


It is a book that can be read on different levels, but the basic story is about a South Korean woman who turns vegetarian. Yeong-he is a bored, dutiful wife to an ordinary man, an office worker with humble ambitions. Their marriage is ‘normal’, with Yeong-he playing the expected role of a subservient wife until she explodes into the rebellious act of becoming a vegetarian and throwing all meat outtheir freezer. She offers no explanation to her husband other than ‘I had a dream’, although she never gives him the details of this disturbing bloody dream. The repercussions of her decision to give up meat ripple throughout her family leading to acts of betrayal, violence and tragedy.


The book is told in three parts, the first in the voice of Yeong-he’s husband who is mortified by his wife’s deviant behaviour that becomes more bizarre over time; he watches her starve herself as she eats only plants, and act inappropriately in front of his business colleagues. The second is told from her brother-in-law’s point of view, an artist who becomes obsessed with her body, and with whom she has a disturbing sexually-charged relationship. Her sister tells the third part of the story, by which time she has become Yeong-he’s sole carer and watches as Yeong-he fades away into anorexia and madness.

This is Han Kang’s first book to be translated into English, and it provides an insight into a restrictive Asian culture in which women are expected to behave in a certain subservient way. It is a book about fantasy , dreaming, and madness,of suffering and grief, and ultimately of escape from one’s place in the world.

Han Kang (c) Park Jaehong
Han Kang


Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume

I’ve never really read a book like this before. It’s strange, poetic, sad, ambitious, powerful, and, as a debut novel by a young Irish author, it’s quite extraordinary.

book cover


It’s a love story; one about a love between a man and a dog, a story often told, yet there are no cliches in this book. Ray, a 57-year-old man, is a social misfit who alone lives in his father’s ‘salmon pink house’ in a small coastal village. His father is dead, yet Ray still wears his slippers and puts out two towels in the bathroom. Considered feeble-brained by his father, Ray never went to school and was looked after all day by ‘Aunt’ while his father worked at a factory. He knows his mother is dead and presumes she died giving birth to him.

As an antidote to his loneliness, Ray adopts a dog he sees advertised in a shop window and he says:

You find me on a Tuesday, on my Tuesday trip to town. You’re sellotaped to the inside pane of the jumble-shop window. A photograph of your mangled face …’

The book continues in this style, with Ray talking to his dog, who he names One Eye. It is an extraordinary device as it allows Baume to ‘show’ us, the readers, his as he describes it to his dog. We learn about Ray’s growing up, the village he lives in, the mysteries he questions, and the countryside which Baume describes in glorious detail.

Now follow me down the slope, through the ferns and furze, to the beach. Here at sea level, the grass turns sharp and straggly. It gives way first to an uneven row of hefty pebbles, desiccated bladderwrack, drift junk, and now sand. Have you ever seen a beach before? I don’t expect so. What do you make of it?’


We gain insights into Ray’s questioning mind – and there so much he ponders upon – and the utter loneliness he has experienced throughout his life.

Don’t you ever wonder what exactly people do all day long, every day? ... Secure inside their magnolia dens with the Venetian blinds tilted, what do they do? I can imagine; I do imagine, but my father and Aunt are the only people I’ve ever actually been shut behind a door with, before you.’

One Eye is also a social outcast, ugly and suspicious. He’s lost an eye and had his lip torn by a  badger; his face is scarred, and he doesn’t fit it in his social circle either, attacking dogs with no provocation. He first goes for a collie when Ray takes him for a walk, and the second time he attacks a little shih tzu on the beach:

You’re braying, braying, braying a bloodthirsty bray. It seems to come through every pore of your bandy body. So this is your kill noise, I’ve heard it only in murmurs before, but now here it is in its furious zenith.’

When an inspector comes to the house to take One Eye away, Ray, in his fear of losing his only companion, packs up a few things and they drive away, not to return home for months. When Ray finally runs out of money and food, they have to return home and circumstances force Ray to act as he does at the end of the book.

Sara Baume

This novel is suffused with a sadness and an edge of loneliness, yet the friendship between the dog and human is so palpable that there is hope throughout it. Baume’s writing is poetic and descriptive and her words are used in an inventive way, so much so that at times I reread sentences, just to savour their loveliness and often unusual structure.

In the beginning, it’s possible to be reminded of Mark in’The Curious Incident Of the Dog in the Night-time’, as Ray has hints of autism, yet that is the end of any similarity between the books. This is somewhat dark and very mature book with a truly unique style that makes it a pleasure to read.






Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

Subtitled A story of trees, science and love, Lab Girl was an expected and utterly joyful read. This book  ranks as one of my favourites this year, if not for a couple of years. Whether you are remotely interested in science and trees or not, still read this book. I am not a scientist in any remote fashion (I got told to give it up  in grade 7) and I know very little about trees, other than I like them, but I found Lab Girl fascinating, addictive – and it has a beautiful cover.

lab girl

Hope Jahren is a highly successful scientist who equally could have been a highly successful poet or writer, such is the beauty of her sentences and her talent for writing about scientific material. Her bookintersperses her personal story, both private and professional, with short chapters about trees, making it at once an intimate memoir as well as a scientific account of the lives of trees. She just fascinated me – she is honest and funny about her bipolar disorder, her addiction to work, her relationships, her struggle to gain recognition as a female scientist. I would like to meet her.


She started out studying English literature at university but soon found out that ‘science was where I actually belonged’, saying: ‘In science classes we did things instead of just sitting around talking about things … Science lectures dealt with social problems that still could be solved …’ 

Jahren grew up in Minnesota in a Scandinavian family, and spent much of her childhood in her father’s laboratory with him. Her relationship with her family, in particular her mother, had a powerful influence on other relationships in her life.

“The vast emotional distances between the individual members of a Scandinavian family are forged early and reinforced daily…When I was a child I assumed the whole world acted like we did and so it confused me when I moved out of state and met people who gave each other the simple warmth and casual affection I had craved for so long.”

Her love of science grew from spending hours in the lab with her father, ‘…playing beneath the chemical benches until I was tall enough to play on them.’ Back at home, she says, ‘…while my mother and I gardened and read together, I  vaguely sensed there was something we weren’t doing, something that normal mothers and daughters naturally do…We probably do love each other, but I’m not entirely sure…Being mother and daughter has always felt like an experiment that we just can’t get right.’

The reason I mention this relationship with her mother is that when, towards the end of the book, Jahren falls pregnant, she write with great honesty about her self-doubt of becoming a mother. After her son’s birth, she says:

‘I decide that I will not be this child’s mother. Instead I will be his father. It is something I know how to do and something that will come naturally to me. I won’t think about how weird my thinking is; I will just love him and he will love me and it will just work. Perhaps this has been a million-plus-year-old experiment that even I couldn’t screw up.’

Throughout her personal story, Jahren weaves the development of her career as a scientist who studies plants, becoming a geobiologist. To say she loves plants is an understatement; she writes about them in such an affectionate way, as though they are friends and draws analogies to humans. She made me feel passionate about plants and understand a great deal more about trees than I knew before. She talks about cacti surviving in the desert, and trees managing sub-zero temperatures, big trees and small trees, the structure of leaves, the properties of wood; she makes trees interesting. For example, in a chapter about seeds, she closes with: ‘Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.’

hope 2

She writes a great deal about her colleague, Bill – an odd, reclusive, anti-social man who works with Jahren intimately and is at once a brother, a friend, a soul mate in a way. Bill comes with her whenever she moves and sets up a new lab, variously living in the labs, in his car, rundown flats and finally a house. They both end up in Hawaii.She says: ‘People still puzzle over the two of us, Bill and me…We eat almost every meal together, our finances are mixed, and we tell each other everything…but people I meet still want a label for what is between us…I don’t have an answer for that one. I do us because us is what I know how to do.’  

Jahren unexpectedly falls in love with and marries another scientist, then has a child, both of which astound her as she feels she does not deserve such happiness. He must be the most understanding husband, as she carries on working with a single-minded fashion at all hours, always with Bill, always passionate about every aspect of her work, but equally in love with her husband and child.

Her epilogue in the book is a plea to humans to try and stem the destruction of earth as is happening at the moment. ‘Human civilization has reduced the plant, a four-hundred-million-year-old life form, into three things: food, medicine and wood…we have devastated plant ecology to an extent that millions of years of natural disaster could not.’ She asks us all to plant a tree to to counter the destruction, and to look after that tree: ‘You are your tree’s only friend in a hostile world.’








I am grateful that there are people like this in the world, ones who care enough to be working tirelessly towards trying to save the earth, but I am also immensely grateful that Hope Jahren wrote this book – a delight on all levels.

Two books on brains: Do No Harm & Brain on Fire


Do No Harm is written by one of Britain’s most eminent neurosurgeons, Henry Marsh, and it is a beautifully eloquent and candid account of his 30-year career as a brain surgeon. Marsh writes with honesty about many of his patients and the operations he has performed, including the triumphs of his successes and the awful consequences of his failures. When operating on the brain, he says:

“All I can see in front of me is matter. Yet I know if I stray into the wrong area, into what neurosurgeons call eloquent brain, I will be faced by a damaged and disabled patient when I go round to the Recovery Ward after the operation…”

I loved the way Marsh writes about himself with such humility, candour and insight – he tells us of his self-doubt, his uncertainty about the successful outcome of certain operations, the exquisite vulnerability of the patients who trust him, literally with their lives, and he tells us of the focussed joy he experiences when operating on the brain.

H Marsh

The details of the operations are fascinating and never once did I find my eyes glazing over because of obscure medical terms. He exposes the machinations of the NHS in England and the excruciating hindrances of bureaucracy, often with a wry sense of humour.  I thoroughly enjoyed the book and was engrossed in the process of cutting into the human brain. Perhaps I should have been a neurosurgeon?  I now intend getting hold of both documentaries that have been made about Henry Marsh: Your Life in Their Hands and The English Surgeon.  I have also watched a BBC Newsnight interview with him: BBC interview with Henry Marsh



The second book I have read about the brain recently was the compulsively readable account by Sarah Cahalan of her descent into insanity, called Brain on Fire. At age 24, Cahalan, a successful journalist for the New York Post, slowly started becoming what appeared to be psychotic, interspersed  with epileptic fits and odd jerking physical movements. No doctor could find out what was wrong with her and she slowly deteriorated as treatments for misdiagnosis after misdiagnosis failed (including ‘partying too much’ and schizoaffective disorder).

Blessed with a determined and, I have to add, wealthy family who would not commit her to a psychiatric institution, Cahalan was eventually diagnosed by several physicians – the main one being a Dr Najjir – as having a very rare autoimmune disease of the brain called Anti-NMDA Receptor Encephalitis. With the correct treatment she slowly recovered and was able to resume her ‘normal’ life, including going back to work. One of her first assignments was to write an article about her disease, which then grew into this book. She admits in the introduction that she is an ‘unreliable witness’:

Because of the nature of my illness and its effect on my brain, I remember only flashes of actual events, and brief but vivid hallucinations, from the months in which this story takes place. The vast majority of that time remains blank or capriciously hazy.

As a result, she used her journalistic skills to piece together the vast amount of evidence available, ranging from medical records, interviews with doctors, her own journal, her father’s journal, and video footage. I found this a fascinating process, as her account is peppered with different viewpoints. Her memoir has resulted in people all over the world contacting her about the disease because either they have had it or a family member. Unfortunately not everyone recovers as well as Cahalan did. Despite her full recovery, though, towards the end of the book, she admits:

…with every memory I recapture, I know there are hundreds, thousands even, I cannot conjure up. No matter how many doctors I speak with, no matter how many interviews I conduct or how many notebooks I scavenge, there will be many experiences, bits of my life that have vanished.

I was so intrigued by the this book that I read it over a weekend.

Sarah Cahalan

A Mother’s Reckoning by Sue Klebold

If I asked you who Dylan Klebold is, I reckon most of you won’t know. I didn’t. But if I asked you if you remembered the Columbine High School massacre, most of you will. Dylan Klebold was one of the Columbine shooters who, with his friend Eric Harris, walked into the high school on the morning of 20 April 1999 with a backpack filled with guns and explosives. In the course of about an hour, the two of them killed 12 students and a teacher, wounded 24, and then took their own lives.

Klebold book

Dylan’s mother, Sue Klebold, has written this memoir (subtitled Living in the aftermath of the Columbine tragedy) as a way of trying to understand what happened to her son that he  landed up committing murder-suicide in the most horrific manner . She attempts to get us to understand, but also, it seemed to me that she needed to write it to try to get herself to understand. And, as an extension of that, to forgive herself. The introduction is written by Andrew Solomon, an author who has experienced suicidal depressions and written extensively on the topic.

On the day of the shootings, Sue was getting up when she heard Dylan run down their stairs and open the front door.  Surprised at how early he was up, she shouted his name, but he just replied, ‘Bye’ and shut the door behind him. She was unsettled by this:

There had been an edge to Dylan’s voice in that single word I’d never heard before – a sneer, almost, as if he’d been caught in the middle of a fight with someone.

But later in the morning when she heard about the shooting going on at her son’s high school, her first thought was, “Is Dylan safe?” When, however, she realised that her son was in some way involved in the shooting, she prayed that he would die before he hurt anyone else further.

Sue Klebold had no idea her son was as depressed as he was, so far gone down a black hole that he wanted to commit suicide and, along the way, harm others.This is what the author was faced with – the truth that she had raised a child who could be responsible for such horror and that she had not known something was wrong. This anguish runs as a thread throughout the book: the shame, the questioning, the probing,  the trying to understand; and along with this, the deep deep love she has for her child and the grief of losing him to suicide.

Much of the book, therefore, is looking back on Dylan’s life and at how she and her husband brought up their children (there is an older son). The thing is that their lives were pretty normal – loving, attentive parents with kids who achieved at school, ‘nice’ kids. Kids like you and I have. There are photos of a sweet toddler, one of family groups, another of an awkward tween. A photo of him with his prom date, just days before the shootings. She was a typical suburban mother who had two boys who grew into teenagers and, like many teenagers, they both got into a bit of trouble. She thought Dylan’s issues were caused by typical hormonal teenage angst.


This is an incredibly honest book. Sue Klebold never makes up excuses for herself or for her son; she acknowledges that she missed signs that Dylan was unhappy or depressed.  He was sometimes sullen and withdrawn, he got suspended from school for breaking into students’ lockers, he wrote an essay that disturbed the teacher enough to talk to the Klebolds about it. Sue and her husband put it down to his being a teenager – Dylan had friends, he was socialising, he was chatting over the dinner table; he seemed ‘normal’.

Yet when the Klebolds were shown the evidence that police had collected, she was shocked and profoundly shaken to learn the reality of her son’s inner world. His journals were full of rambling, sometimes incoherent, sentences that reflected a deep depression and a wish to die. He had stashed guns in his room. He and Eric had made videos before the massacre – known as The Basement Tapes – and in them she saw a son she had never ever known.

He and Eric were preposterous, posturing, given a performance for each other and their invisible audience. I had never seen that expression of sneering superiority on Dylan’s face. My mouth gaped open when I heard the language they were using – abominable, hate-filled, racist, derogatory words, words never heard or spoken in our home.

From one of the videos

After all his ugly ranting, by the end of the tape, surrounded by their weaponry, Dylan’s last words were: ‘Just know I’m going to a better place. I didn’t like life too much…

The one interpretation that she clings onto throughout the book and examines closely in relation to Dylan is that he was depressed and suicidal, not psychotic or evil. As one the FBI’s psychologists put it: ‘I believe Eric went to school to kill people and didn’t care if he died, while Dylan wanted to die and didn’t care if others died as well.‘ Another expert told her that it was not her fault that she had not picked up on Dylan’s depression because he had hidden it to incredibly well.

This was an emotional read, and sometimes a difficult one, yet I could not help but sympathise with Sue Klebold. Any mother could relate to some of what she says, and to the depth of her grief. She never excused what Dylan did, but tried to understand it and down the line became very involved in helping parents with children who had committed suicide or tried to commit suicide. I would recommend this book for parents of teenage children – not to scare them, but to make them aware of  what might being going on in their children’s lives, and to seek help as soon as possible.