Books for a medical Christmas

Christmas is rapidly approaching and an abundance of compelling newly published books to choose from. From ‘A Listening Doctor’ by Jeremy Bendy, a moving memoir by a renowned physician and pioneer of modern diabetes treatment examining the caprices of human nature to Virago’s beautiful Centenary edition of Vera Brittain’s ‘Testament of Youth’, still the best account of military nursing during World War I.

I also recommend ‘The Pebbles on the Beach’ by Clarence Ellis, an exploration of the beautiful pebbles on our beaches and riverbanks, which we often take for granted to ‘Doing Single Well: A Guide to Living, Loving and Dating without Compromise’ by Gemma Cribb. ‘Bird Cottage’ is a fascinating account of the life of ornithologist Len Howard, who gave up a successful career as a concert pianist to move to Sussex and spent the rest of her life studying birds and writing research papers about their behaviour.

One hundred years on from 1918 and the Armistice that finally silenced the guns, Vera Brittain’s ‘Testament of Youth’ remains the best account of military nursing during World War I and the scale of human suffering, sacrifice and loss that resulted from four years of intensive fighting.

One hundred years on from 1918 and the Armistice that finally silenced the guns, Vera Brittain’s ‘Testament of Youth’ remains the best account of military nursing during World War I and the scale of human suffering, sacrifice and loss that resulted from four years of intensive fighting.

Brittain gave up her place at Oxford to nurse wounded soldiers in hospitals on the front line. She tragically lost her brother and his best friend, whom she was in love with. To mark this centenary Virago have produced a beautiful centenary edition with a new introduction by Brittain’s biographer, Mark Bostridge.

In his new memoir ‘A Listening Doctor,’ Dr Jeremy Bending recalls touching incidents from his work and personal life with warmth and black humour that has served him well throughout his long, distinguished career as a consultant physician specialising in diabetes, a disease that has reached epidemic levels in the UK and around the world. During his time as a research fellow at Guy’s Hospital, Bending helped develop insulin-pump treatment, a technological advance that would revolutionise medical care for diabetes, and improve the lives of countless patients. This book is full of useful advice for people affected by diabetes and includes many patients’ stories that will help others understand the condition better.

Only a generation ago an important part of childhood seemed to be collecting plants, leaves, shells and pebbles on the beach. Recently this aspect of education seems relatively neglected, which is a shame. This autumn, Faber & Faber republished Clarence Ellis’s quirky 1954 book ‘The Pebbles on the Beach’ encouraging us to de-stress by visiting our lost childhood world. ‘Autumn is the best time of the year to collect pebbles, as there are fewer people on the beaches, lakesides, or riverbanks,’ writes Ellis, who served on the Western Front in the First World War and had a career in further education. Pebble hunting is a pleasant hobby that makes little demand upon one’s patience and still less upon one’s physical energy,’ he writes. It is easy to imagine him searching for his pebbly treasure, bent over on Britain’s beaches. These include demi-precious stones such as Whitby jet, which was sought after by the Romans, amethyst, in violet, transparent and purplish hues, shale and granite and even amber. If you need to escape from your family over Christmas – head for the beach, or a riverbank. The book is ideal for both children and adults alike.

Relational psychotherapist Jayne Haynes’s compelling new book; ‘If I Chance to Talk a Little Wild’ uses both personal and clinical experiences to explore complex issues such as parenting, emotional and sexual abuse and unresolved conflict and is full of fascinating case histories and anecdotes. The memoir vividly explores Hayne’s early life and complex relationship with her mother who suffered a nervous breakdown. Haynes also writes about her own struggles with IBS and panic attacks and juggling motherhood with a successful career as a psychotherapist. In recent years, watching her grandchildren grow up, particularly her youngest grandchild, Bell, aged seven, has inspired her to ‘think more about the mysteries and magic of child development’. Her entertaining, unpredictable book is filled with literary references and discussion of the author’s controversial first mentor, the legendary R.D. Laing and his wife. An unconventional and enlightening read, full of quirky detail and literary references, with a chapter on Proust, that makes you think, even if you don’t agree with all of it. I tremendously enjoyed it, although I skipped parts of it.

A charming, quietly written book, ‘Bird Cottage’ is a fictionalised account of the life of Gwendolen “Len” Howard, a successful concert pianist, in London, in the 1930s, who gave it all up to devote herself to her greatest passion: birds. Although she was an amateur, her bird studies were published in various scientific periodicals and two books under her pseudonym, Len Howard. Howard moved to “Bird Cottage” in Ditchling, Sussex, where she wrote two bestselling books, full of fascinating observations of her feathered friends, who she gave individual names: Jacob who perched on her shoulder as she typed, Baldhead, the Great Tit, ‘so tame he nestled in her lap all day long,’ and Twist, another very unusual Great Tit who would ‘give her a kiss when she asked her’. And Star ‘the cleverest Great Tit, who even learned how to count,’ up to four. Becoming increasingly reclusive and mistrustful of humans, even the postman, Howard left her windows open all day, even in January, so that tits, blackbirds and robins could fly in and out freely. She let some of them build nests in her bedroom ‘using threads from her Persian rugs’ (not very hygienic)! This bewitching book draws you to completely identify with the eccentric Howard and encourages you outdoors to see the birds with fresh eyes. A slow-paced, gentle read it should appeal to lovers of birds, and nature alike. A passionate book makes you want to throw away your oyster card (and NHS smartcard) and move to a remote cottage in the countryside.

A meticulous, scholarly new biography of Oscar Wilde by academic Matthew Sturgis scrutinizes letters and the libel trial transcript to provide a deeper picture of the troubled genius wit’s dazzling rise and tragic fall. Sturgis presents a devoted husband and father alongside Wilde’s parallel, complex gay life and his dizzy erotic odyssey through Victorian London’s sexual underworld.

A meticulous, scholarly new biography of Oscar Wilde by academic Matthew Sturgis scrutinizes letters and the libel trial transcript to provide a deeper picture of the troubled genius wit’s dazzling rise and tragic fall. Sturgis presents a devoted husband and father alongside Wilde’s parallel, complex gay life and his dizzy erotic odyssey through Victorian London’s sexual underworld.

One hundred and eighteen years ago, Wilde uttered his last words in Hôtel d’Alsace in Paris – he is said to have quipped – “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us must go.” It was the great playwright who went first on November 30th 1900, aged only 46. Ever since, doctors and academics have argued over the exact cause of his death. One theory was that Wilde succumbed to the ravages of syphilis that he had contracted while an undergraduate at Oxford after an brief encounter with a prostitute named ‘Old Jess’. However, it is more likely that he succumbed to an out of control ear infection caused by a rapidly growing cholesteatoma, an expanding tumour in the middle ear before the days of antibiotics. It is known that Wilde was seen by several ear surgeons and physicians; coincidentally his father, Sir William Wilde had been Ireland’s most eminent ear surgeons and often treated ear infections like the one that killed his son. Even if you think you know all about this Victorian icon, Sturgis’s highly entertaining book will still surprise you.

Are you find being single at Christmas tough? ‘Doing Single Well’ by Gemma Cribb is an intelligent, but accessible self-help guide offering singletons of all ages straightforward advice on how to live happily with more confidence and better relationships. Cribbs, an Australian clinical psychologist, contentedly single herself, believes the key lies in a ‘rich inner world’, rather than external factors and ‘not looking backward with regret or forward with worry.’ Her book challenges the idea that a woman needs to be married to be fulfilled, and takes an intriguing look at the pleasures and possibilities of remaining single, ‘time to read,’ ‘no snoring,’ ‘no in-laws,’ ‘freedom to travel, whenever,’ ‘internet dating if you feel thus inclined,’ as well as its negative side, ‘having to pay for everything alone’, ‘no one to cuddle’ and ‘loneliness’. Drawing on her own experiences and stories from her patients, Cribb provides an insightful psychological perspective on what makes single women vulnerable to depression and anxiety and provides practical tips to deal with negative thoughts, feelings and situations if they occur for you, including ‘having plenty of social connections of different types’, ‘fulfilling work,’ befriending younger people, absorbing hobbies and pets. A compelling, optimistic and inspiring book you will happily dip into and out of all winter.

Good luck with trying to cram all these fascinating books into your Christmas stocking.

The Listening Doctor, by Jeremy Bending, published by Quartet Books, November 2018, priced at £17.50p
Testament of Youth: The Centenary Edition, by Vera Brittain, with a preface by her daughter Shirley Williams, published by Virago in paperback, 2018, priced at £14.99p
If I chance to talk a little wild: A Memoir of Self and Other, by Jane Haynes, published by Quartet Books Ltd, November 2018, Priced at £20
Bird Cottage by Eva Meyer, published in hardback by Pushkin Press, November 2018, Priced at £12.99p
Doing Single Well: A Guide to Living, Loving and Dating without Compromise, by Gemma Cribb, published as a paperback by Trigger Publishing June 25th 2018, Priced at £14.99p
The Pebbles on the Beach: A Spotter’s Guide by Clarence Ellis, republished by Faber & Faber, 2018, priced at £9.99p
Oscar Wilde: A Life by Matthew Sturgis, published by John Murray in hardback, priced at £25 November 2018

Rebecca Wallersteiner

Rebecca Wallersteiner

Rebecca Wallersteiner is a health and arts journalist, who writes for The Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, NetDoctor, Telegraph, The Times, Traveller and
The Oldie magazines. She also works for the NHS and is the Hippocratic Post's roving reporter.
Rebecca Wallersteiner

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