What I’ve been reading (January – June 2020)

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A positive aspect of my lockdown experience was having more time to read, which enabled me to finish a very long book – The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel. This is the final volume of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy set in England during the reign of Henry VIII, the first two books in the series being Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. Although I would have enjoyed it even more if it had not been quite so detailed, the trilogy – a product of extensive historical research and vivid imagination – is a monumental achievement.

Another “faction” book (that is, a book based on a historical figure or events interwoven with fictitious elements) is The Surgeon of Crowthorne by Simon Winchester. The surgeon in question, WC Minor, murdered a man under the influence of paranoid delusions and was committed to Broadmoor Hospital in 1872. During the long years of his confinement there he devoted himself to researching the origin of words, contributing over 12,000 quotations to the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. This book was recently made into a film called The Professor and the Madman.

Having spent my professional life in general hospital psychiatry I am interested in popular books based on real-life case histories. Writers in this genre face a challenge; they must alter the details enough to preserve patients’ confidentiality, but not so much as to sacrifice medical accuracy. Three such books I have read this year are Love’s Executioner by Irvin Yalom, an American psychotherapist; Into the Abyss by Anthony David, a British neuropsychiatrist; and The Prison Doctor by Amanda Brown, a British GP.

I enjoyed autobiographies by two very different women. Lady in Waiting by Anne Glenconner is an engaging description of the life of a socialite who was born and married into the British aristocracy and had close connections to royalty, especially Princess Margaret. Her family’s privileged and hedonistic lifestyle was no protection against a series of tragedies, and after reading this book I felt glad that my own social background was more ordinary. Becoming by Michelle Obama is a longer book written in a more serious style. Born into a modest, hardworking black family in Chicago, she qualified as a lawyer and could have pursued a high-flying corporate career, but elected to focus instead on community and social issues, and as the wife of Barack Obama spent the years 2009-17 as First Lady of the United States.

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Jennifer Barraclough is a retired doctor, originally from England but now living in New Zealand, who writes medical and fiction books. Her latest novel You Yet Shall Die is a mystery about family secrets and a long-ago crime. 

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