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The Book Trail: From Love Lessons to Invisible Illness

I am beginning this episode of The Book Trail with a non-fiction piece which both surprised and delighted me, and which I reviewed a fortnight ago. As ever, I have chosen to use Goodreads’ ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ feature to generate this list. Hopefully, like me, you might find a few titles here which pique your interest.

1. Love Lessons by Joan Wyndham

‘”On my way to the studio there was an air-raid. I ran into the brick shelter in the middle of the road. There were poor little Leonard and Agnes sitting on their suitcases, having lost their all. Luckily Leonard had been wearing his best trousers at the time. Madame Arcana was there too wearing a gold brocade toque and a blanket. It was bloody cold and I wanted to pee badly, but couldn’t. Leonard wouldn’t give me his seat as he believes in the equality of the sexes, so I sat on the floor…”

August 1939. As a teenage Catholic virgin, Joan Wyndham spent her days trying to remain pure and unsullied and her nights trying to stay alive. Huddled in the air-raid shelter, she wrote secretly and obsessively about the strange yet exhilarating times she was living through, sure that this was ‘ the happiest time of my life’.’

2. I Remember Nothing: and Other Reflections by Nora Ephron

‘Nora Ephron returns with her first book since the astounding success of I Feel Bad About My Neck, taking a cool, hard, hilarious look at the past, the present, and the future, bemoaning the vicissitudes of modern life, and recalling with her signature clarity and wisdom everything she hasn’t (yet) forgotten.

Ephron writes about falling hard for a way of life (“Journalism: A Love Story”) and about breaking up even harder with the men in her life (“The D Word”); lists “Twenty-five Things People Have a Shocking Capacity to Be Surprised by Over and Over Again” (“There is no explaining the stock market but people try”; “You can never know the truth of anyone’s marriage, including your own”; “Cary Grant was Jewish”; “Men cheat”); reveals the alarming evolution, a decade after she wrote and directed You’ve Got Mail, of her relationship with her in-box (“The Six Stages of E-Mail”); and asks the age-old question, which came first, the chicken soup or the cold? All the while, she gives candid, edgy voice to everything women who have reached a certain age have been thinking . . . but rarely acknowledging.’

3. The Hungover Games: A True Story by Sophie Heawood

This “funny, dark, and true” (Caitlin Moran) memoir is Bridget Jones’s Diary for the Fleabag generation: What happens when you have an unplanned baby on your own in your mid-thirties before you’ve worked out how to look after yourself, let alone a child? 

This is the story of one woman’s adventures in single motherhood. It’s about what happens when Mr. Right isn’t around so you have a baby with Mr. Wrong, a touring musician who tells you halfway through your pregnancy that he’s met someone else, just after you’ve given up your LA life and moved back to England to attempt some kind of modern family life with him. So now you’re six months along, sleeping on a friend’s sofa in London, and waking up in the morning to a room full of taxidermied animals who seem to be staring at you. The Hungover Games about what it’s like raising a baby on your own when you’re more at home on the dance floor than in the kitchen. It’s about how to invent the concept of the two-person family when you grew up in a traditional nuclear unit of four, and your kid’s friends all have happily married parents too, and you are definitely not, in any way, ticking off the days until all those lovely couples get divorced. Unflinchingly honest, emotionally raw, and surprisingly sweet, The Hungover Games is the true story of what happens if you’ve been looking for love your whole life and finally find it where you least expect it.’

4. Glorious Rock Bottom by Bryony Gordon

‘In Glorious Rock Bottom Bryony opens up about a toxic twenty-year relationship with alcohol and drugs and explains exactly why hitting rock bottom – for her, a traumatic event and the abrupt realisation that she was putting herself in danger, time and again – saved her life. Known for her trademark honesty, Bryony re-lives the darkest and most terrifying moments of her addiction, never shying away from the fact that alcoholism robs you of your ability to focus on your family, your work, your health, your children, yourself. And then, a chink of light as the hard work begins – rehab; AA meetings; endless, tedious, painful self-reflection – a rollercoaster ride through self-acceptance, friendship, love and hope, to a joy and pride in staying sober that her younger self could never have imagined.


Shining a light on the deep connection between addiction and mental health issues, Glorious Rock Bottom is in turn, shocking, brutal, dark, funny, hopeful and uplifting. It is a sobriety memoir like no other.’

5. Some Body to Love: A Family Story by Alexandra Heminsley

‘Today I sat on a bench facing the sea, the one where I waited for L to be born, and sobbed my heart out. I don’t know if I’ll ever recover.’

This note was written on 9 November 2017. As the seagulls squawked overhead and the sun dipped into the sea, Alexandra Heminsley’s world was turning inside out.

She’d just been told her then-husband was going to transition. The revelation threatened to shatter their brand new, still fragile, family.

But this vertiginous moment represented only the latest in a series of events that had left Alex feeling more and more dissociated from her own body, turning her into a seemingly unreliable narrator of her own reality.

Some Body to Love is Alex’s profoundly open-hearted memoir about losing her husband but gaining a best friend, and together bringing up a baby in a changing world. Its exploration of what it means to have a human body, to feel connected or severed from it, and how we might learn to accept our own, makes it a vital and inspiring contribution to some of the most complex and heated conversations of our times.’

6. Hungry by Grace Dent

‘From an early age, Grace Dent was hungry. As a little girl growing up in Currock, Carlisle, she yearned to be something bigger, to go somewhere better.

Hungry traces Grace’s story from growing up eating beige food to becoming one of the much-loved voices on the British food scene. It’s also everyone’s story – from treats with your nan, to cheese and pineapple hedgehogs, to the exquisite joy of cheaply-made apple crumble with custard. It’s the high-point of a chip butty covered in vinegar and too much salt in the school canteen, on an otherwise grey day of double-Maths and cross country running. It’s the real story of how we have all lived, laughed, and eaten over the past 40 years.’

7. Blueberries: Essays Concerning Understanding by Ellena Savage

‘The body frequently escapes her, but is always very much present in these compellingly vivid, clear-eyed essays on an embodied self in flight through the world, from the brilliant young writer Ellena Savage.

In Portuguese police stations and Portland college campuses, in suburban Melbourne libraries and wintry Berlin apartments, Savage shows bodies in pain and in love, bodies at work and at rest.

She circles back to scenes of crimes or near-crimes, to lovers or near-lovers, to turn over the stones, reread the paperwork, check the deeds, approach from another angle altogether. These essays traverse cities and spaces, bodies and histories, moving through forms and modes to find a closer kind of truth. Blueberries is ripe with acid, promise, and sweetness.’

8. Show Me Where It Hurts: Living with Invisible Illness by Kylie Maslen

‘Kylie Maslen has been living with invisible illness for twenty years-more than half her life. Its impact is felt in every aspect of her day-to-day existence- from work to dating; from her fears for what the future holds to her struggles to get out of bed some mornings.

Drawing on pop music, art, literature and online culture, Maslen explores the lived experience of invisible illness with sensitivity and wit, drawing back the veil on a reality many struggle-or refuse-to recognise. Show Me Where it Hurts- Living with Invisible Illness is a powerful collection of essays that speak to those who have encountered the brush-off from doctors, faced endless tests and treatments, and endured chronic pain and suffering. But it is also a bridge reaching out to partners, families, friends, colleagues, doctors- all those who want to better understand what life looks like when you cannot simply show others where it hurts.’

Have you read any of these books? Will you be adding any of them to your TBR?

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‘Love Lessons’ by Joan Wyndham ****

I had had my eye on Joan Wyndham’s Love Lessons: A Wartime Diary for quite some time, and borrowed a gloriously musty second edition copy from my local library. First published in 1985, at the urging of Wyndham’s daughter, these diaries, which span the first two years of the Second World War, begin in August 1939. At this point, she is a student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in the capital, but it closes down just as war is declared. Along with its sequel, Love Is Blue, Love Lessons recounts Wyndham’s life during wartime.

At the outset of war, sixteen-year-old Wyndham lives with her mother and ‘her religious companion, the enigmatic Sid’. Her parents divorced when she was very young, and her father is a bristling, sometimes absent figure, in her life. Wyndham is described in the blurb as a ‘teenage Catholic virgin… [who] spent her days trying to remain pure and unsullied and her nights trying to stay alive.’ One critic rather memorably called its young author ‘a latterday Pepys in camiknickers’.

Wyndham is open in that she falls for people incredibly quickly. When she visits her local first-aid post for the war effort, she makes a friend, and comments on the 4th of September 1939: ‘At the moment, Laura and I are enjoying a gentle lesbianism of the mind, but I’m afraid it won’t last and soon I shall be in love with her properly.’ There are similar situations with various men, some of whom treat her very badly; many of them seem intent only upon taking her virginity.

Wyndham can be quite fickle, in the tradition of adolescents; she shifts admiration and adoration from one individual to another, and is often momentarily heartbroken between. She does impart wise comments upon her condition and position at times, though, and seems very aware of her own self. In April 1940, she writes: ‘What an extraordinary thing this love is that comes and goes, making a completely different person of you while it lasts… You have to be terribly careful when you are young.’

Nothing about this journal is typical, particularly given the time in which it was written, and I feel as though this account would probably shock a lot of her contemporaries in its frankness. From the very first, Love Lessons is wonderfully evocative, rather amusing, and quite risqué. In the first entry, for instance, Wyndham remarks: ‘Granny is a bit of a bore, always chasing me to wash my hands and wear a dress – but luckily she’s in bed a lot of the time, wearing a chin-strap and a little circle of tin pressed into the middle of her forehead to keep the wrinkles at bay – it’s hard work being an ageing beauty.’ She has a lot of affection for her Aunt Bunch, of whom she comments: ‘Mummy says she takes drugs and goes around with Negroes, but I don’t care.’

I found Wyndham’s entries immediately compelling, and her tone refreshing and quite modern. I was not expecting the explicit sexual content which crops up here from time to time, but it feels authentic to show just what a modern woman Wyndham was, and the shifting world in which she became an adult. She offers comments on everyone, and everything. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything so frank from this period, and it certainly opened my eyes a little. As a teenager, she ‘strayed into London’s Bohemian set’, meeting rather eccentric characters at every turn. One of her friends from drama school has a ‘sugar daddy’, and becomes ‘the first of my friends to go over the edge’ by losing her virginity. Another friend, Prudey, ‘married a Greek don who seduced her in every field in Cambridge. He used to make noises like a wolf and got very enraged if she wouldn’t bleat. When she was unfaithful to him he was so amazed he had her put into a lunatic asylum, but she ran away to Greece and got herself three lovers.’

She and her friends discuss taboo subjects with regularity, and she seems to recount each of these episodes. In May 1940, she writes, for instance, of a married male acquaintance, Leonard: ‘I think he would have kissed me, but I gracefully freed myself and ran down the steps, because it’s rather embarrassing to kiss a man smaller than yourself standing up. I think I’m becoming the most awful bitch.’

Of the war, which is of course all around her, Wyndham writes of her confusion in May 1940: ‘I don’t seem to be able to react or to feel anything. I don’t know what’s real any more. I don’t think I’m real or that this life is real. Before this last winter everything seemed real, but since then I seem to have been dreaming.’ When the air raids in London become too much, her mother has her ‘evacuated’ to the Kent town of Tunbridge Wells, to stay with her aunt. Although Wyndham is only here for a couple of weeks in the end, when she is first sent away, she recounts her discontent: ‘This morning was zero hour – the place, the country, seemed unbearably remote, cut off from the warm stream of life.’

I had only read the first two weeks of entries in this book before requesting Love is Blue from the library. Throughout Love Lessons, Wyndham gives important commentary about being a young woman in the context of wartime London, whilst being really very funny about it. There are some serious moments here, of course, but her sense of humour really shines through. Wyndham is warm and witty, charming and candid, and readers are sure to have so much fun with her highly readable accounts of wartime life.