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It seems to be expected that as you get older your hair gets grey and gets thinner. A few months back I got out the tweezers to attack the drain in the bath at my flat and was horrified to remove a lump of clotted hair about the size of a mid-sized rodent from the plug hole. Then I read a post on the Macmillan thyroid cancer forum that I use where someone mentioned that a German shampoo called ‘Plantur 39’ had helped her to stop the hair problems she’d been having. I thought it was worth a go.
Women’s hair roots are protected by the female hormone oestrogen but as you head towards menopause and beyond, the oestrogen levels drop and testosterone levels increase and your hair gets thinner and falls out more. This apparently starts around the age of 40. The wonder ingredient to stop your boy hormones fighting with your girl hormones is apparently caffeine and the manufacturers, Dr Wolff, claim it will stop your hair from thinning.
It’s not so easy to find Plantur 39 in regular stores and I had to revert to buying it online from a company in Jersey. It’s not cheap either so shop around. I’ve paid between 6-8 pounds
The product needs to be left on for at least 120 seconds which is way longer than I’d normally leave shampoo on my head. The shampoo is green but has very little scent to it. I rather expected it to smell quite medicated but it doesn’t – it’s perhaps a bit ‘fruity’ but there’s very little fragrance impact. I find it very foamy but that might because the 120 second ‘thing’ means I’m foaming it up for longer.
The manufacturers claim you need to use this every day but I don’t want to do that. I don’t think it’s good to over-wash your hair but if you, like me, wash every other day (or less), they make a hair tonic for the days in between. Since this comes in an annoyingly large bottle that doesn’t suit my peripatetic lifestyle, I don’t do this very often.
I’m more than half-way through my second bottle and I really do believe it’s making a difference. Hair as long as mine will take a long time for the full effects to show through but there’s a lot less hair coming out in the bath and on my brushes. For the first few weeks I didn’t like the feel of my hair after using this. It felt a bit coarser and dryer and I put that down to the more intense cleaning and I didn’t really like it. After a few months, I’d say it’s gone back to normal again.
This product is apparently ideal in the pre-menopausal and menopausal stages of life. Like many products, it’s something that you can’t be sure if it’s working because you don’t know how much worse it would be if you weren’t using it.
My husband buys presents for his shed. Yes, I know that sounds strange but men are strange. His most recent shed present was a weathervane with a cockerel on top. He was satisfied with it for a while and then decided it needed a bit more bling. When he needs advice on matters of bling, he asks his ‘clients’ at work - especially those from traveller community. They advised him that the best way to liven up his cockerel would be with a can of gold Hammerite so that’s what he bought from a hardware store for a few pounds.
The weathervane was supplied pre-painted with glossy black paint. Hubby rubbed it down with some ‘wet and dry’ paper to stop the new paint just sliding off the surface and after removing all the dust with a soft cloth, he set to work with his paintbrush. The can was easy to open, the paint was easy to control and went on smoothly and easily giving a good even coat. Always the thorough worker, he applied two coats, though one might well have been enough. With a whole can to use, he wasn’t in the mood to be mean with his paint. The cockerel looked splendid. Hubby was so pleased that he then decided to paint the letters on the North - South - East- West part of the vane.
The problem now is that there’s still a lot left. He’s looking for other things to bling up and the cats are looking nervous.
Today I''m reviewing the Dr Hauschka Picture Perfect Skin set of small samples. The collection comes in a metal tin and is available in two varieties - the dry to normal kit I bought and a second for oily/combination skin. Dr Hauschka are not generous with their products and you''ll find that there''s seldom enough to help you decide if these products are what you are looking to buy. It''s more than you''d get in a sachet, but several of the products are in 5g tubes and the larger ones are only 10ml. All of the products are ?natural'' and have the ?natural product'' seal of BDIH, a German Industrial association or they have a NaTrue quality label. All of the products contain kidney vetch and rose Damascena extracts which are combined with plant extracts, mineral substances, waxes and essential oi The kit contains two cleansing products ? the cleansing cream and the cleansing milk - each in 10ml tubes. The cleansing milk is a lightly fragranced, thin, white cream whilst the cleansing cream is a really odd, brown, sludgy stuff that looks a bit like a finely ground Aapri cleansing scrub and smells disgusting. This is to be used on wet skin, squeezed into the hand to make a thin sludge and then spread on the skin. It''s not intended to be used like a scrub even though it looks like one. The cleansing milk is a bit easier to get your head around and can be used to remove make up, ideally on a cotton wool pad. The third product in the tin is the facial toner. If you buy this full size it comes in a handy spray bottle but in the kit you just get a screw-top vial with 10 ml of liquid. I would suggest you use it with a cotton wool pad. This is a little more subtly scented and I quite like it, even though I''m not usually a toner user. For moisturisers, the kit includes the rose day cream, the quince day cream and one just called ?moisturising day cream'' but bizarrely there''s no night cream. Rose Day Cream is a light cream, rather tacky in texture and very rosy. For me this is just a bit too smelly to put on my face regularly. The moisturising day cream is a really thin, quickly absorbed fluid for dry and normal skin and is said to be a favourite with men. The quince day cream is the heaviest and thickest of the three and comes out of the tube looking a bit like avocado puree. This one is designed to control ?shine'' and it soaks in quickly and leaves a clean, fresh feeling. Having tested all of the products in the tin, I can confirm that I didn''t get any sensitivity, that they all felt ?ok'' and left my skin feeling clean, toned and then soft and moisturised. Using them together I had the feeling of a sensory overload from all the strong scents. Natural they may be, but they fight like cats in a bag and I felt overwhelmed by just too much natural goodness all in one go.
On a trip to scout around TK Maxx for bargains, I found a rather battered-looking box containing a pump dispenser of Korres Wild Rose Brightening and Line Smoothing Serum. The recommended price for a 30ml bottle of the serum is GBP30 so when I found this marked down to GBP9.99, I was happier than a dog with two tails. I was aware that the Wild Rose products were one of Korres' earliest success stories so I was expecting something quite established, quite functional but possibly a tad old fashioned.
Korres is a brand created by the Tzivanides Pharmacy in Athens which was Greece's first homeopathy-focused pharmacy and which employed George Korres, a visionary cosmetics formulator who drew on homeopathic principles and a knowledge of herbalism to create natural products with a premium positioning. The brand was founded in 1996 and has been doing well ever since.
The product is presented in an opaque white pump dispenser with a ridged lid and a dark brown panel on the front of the bottle. The bottle is quite basic in appearance with a standard pump dispenser. So far I've had no problems with the nozzle getting blocked which has been an issue with similar products. One quick depression of the pump dispenses a yellow-creamy pool of thick liquid. It's not so runny as to be uncontrollable or too thick to spread easily. I find I need about three such blobs to cover my face and neck with a thin layer of serum. It rubs in smoothly and easily and I tend to put this on before I clean my teeth so that it has dried and soaked in by the time I've finished.
My skin is left feeling soft but not tight. The instructions say you can use it under a moisturiser or alone but I wouldn't feel right with just the serum and no moisturiser to follow. I have used this with the Wild Rose 24 hour moisturising cream from the same range. I expected an intensely rosy fragrance from this serum but I was disappointed. It does have a distinctive scent, it's not one I'd associate with roses if I didn't know that was what it was supposed to be.
Korres claim this serum is ultra concentrated in vitamin C serum and that it brightens and smoothes the fine lines of face and eyes. I am unconvinced but then I struggle to get my head round the idea of skin brightening as I'm not conscious of my skin being in some way unbright. The Vit C apparently comes from the use of the wild rose oil which should have a repairing effect on skin colour disorders which I don't think I have. So perhaps I'm unreasonable to expect the serum to impact a problem I've not got. The line smoothing effect is said to be a function of polysaccharides (basically sugars) from the baobob tree combined with some kind of wheat proteins. To be honest, it all sounds like so much hokum to me but it feels OK on my skin and it's not doing any harm so I'm not going to get too het up about it.
In total 77.6% of the ingredients are claimed to be natural which fails to impress me when other manufacturers achieve much higher levels. There are no mineral oils, paraffin wax, silicones, parabens, propylene glycol, ethanolamines, SLES, ALES, synthetic dyes, phthalates, retinol, animal by-products, or nuts. There are also no polycyclic something or others that I can't read because the security label goes over the list and when I tore it off, the print came with it. The product is not tested on animals.
I don't have the sense that this serum is working wonders on my skin but equally I don't have the impression that it's doing any harm either and I will continue to use it until the bottle runs out but even at a big discount, I wouldn't rush to buy it again. I'm just unconvinced of its alleged wonder properties and can't judge its action on problems I don't have.
On Saturday my husband and I were in Derby and were given a great tip for dinner by fellow review writer catsholiday who recommended ?A Slice of India'' on Mansfield Road. I was warned that it wouldn''t look like a restaurant, that it had previously been a nightclub (although I'd say it looks rather more like a carpet warehouse), but that it was worth ignoring the outwardly unusual appearance because the food would be good.
We arrived about half past seven, parked up in the enormous car park behind, and headed in, passing the tuk tuk parked in the entrance area for decoration and for kids to play in. The lady on reception said she would take us to our table, find us a waitress and - since it was our first time - she'd do the tour and explain everything. I was quite impressed by this approach. Part of me thought "Hey, it's an all you can eat buffet, not the Louvre", but actually it was very well done. She explained the veg/non-veg layout, what special foods could be cooked to order at the dosa station, the golgappa point, the Chinese wok-area, and even told us that there was a kids area with scampi and chips and pizza for the little ones. She reassured us if there was anything we didn't understand, we could just ask and the chefs will explain. This is a place that wants you to enjoy the diversity of the food on offer and not be intimidated into hunting down the chicken tikka masala and pizzas.
I wasn''t overly hungry and we probably didn't have the appetite to take full advantage of A Slice of India but it was clear that a lot of the customers were going to install themselves at their tables and eat all night. There were - sorry if this sounds rude - some seriously enormous people who looked like they could cut into the restaurant's profits that evening.
I started with a small plate of vegetarian starters and a bit of Amritsari fish which packed a punch, especially with a big dollop of coriander and chilli chutney. For main courses, I skipped all the complicated stuff and just went for rice and a selection of the vegetarian curries. I said I wouldn't have pudding but when I went to have a look, I was transported back to India by the sight of rasmallai, carrot halwa and Indian sweets. I had the tiniest bit possible of each and loved them all.
At GBP14.50 per person on a Saturday night, it's not the cheapest of buffets but it's probably the best I've seen in this country. We drank diet Pepsis which came with unlimited refills which made them good value. For the two of us it was less than GBP35 and we left stuffed to the gills and very happy.
Note. this is adapted from a post I wrote a few days ago for Bubblews under another user name.
I have been a fan of Elizabeth Arden skin care products, particularly their Visible Difference cream for many years before I wised up and realised that the product had become stuck in a time warp. Recently Elizabeth Arden have revamped a lot of their products, especially the Vis Dif range and when I saw a set of their next generation products ? a serum, a facial wash and this Vis Dif Skin Balancing Lotion SPF15 on sale in TK Maxx (where else?) for something like GBP 16.99, I snapped it up to see if they could drag an old favourite into the 21st century without totally ruining all that it had originally represented. The product came in a 30 ml stand up tube. If you fancy buying some, you can pick up a 50ml pump version on Amazon for GBP 30 which makes 30 ml tube worth GBP 20 and means it paid for the rest of the set with money left over. I probably shouldn't have bought this product because I have rather dry skin and this is designed for combination. However, when it comes to the summer, I am increasingly looking for lighter day creams that won't leave me looking slimy. I've been buying sunblocks for oily skin and wearing them over non-SPF light day creams just to avoid the whole basted appearance that can occur with dry skin products with high SPF. I can't say it's the right thing to do, but it works for me. Because the tube stands on its cap, the product is always easy to dispense, perhaps a bit TOO easy as I know it will drip straight out if I open it upright. The cream inside is a light, thin lotion and it smells very clean and fresh, like sheets that have been dried outdoors on a sunny day. It spreads across my skin remarkably well so only a small amount is needed and it soaks in really quickly, even when used over a serum. There is no white ?ghosting' effect left on the skin and it doesn't feel at all greasy. Although it's less heavy duty than most of my creams, it still leaves my face feeling soft and moisturised and I'm impressed by the balance it manages to strike between lightness on the skin and effective moisturising. I've not yet exposed this to really intense sunshine. I used a factor 40 or 30 face cream for my holidays in Morocco and Croatia and I wouldn't trust a mere SPF 15 cream in a place with really strong sun. However, for just running around in the UK on a sunny day, it seems to deliver what I need ? no burn, no sting, and no aggravation. I take care to keep it away from my eyes ? as I do any product with sunscreens ? but I've not had any problems with stings caused by accidentally rubbing it around the eye area.
I''ve never seen an advert for Aromatherapy Associates, but I''ve had several of their products as gifts with purchase on women''s magazines. A recent issue of Marie Claire magazine offered a set of three Aromatherapy Associates miniatures including the Rose Face Mask which was supplied in a 15ml tube. Last night I decided my skin needed a treat after the airline I travelled with at the weekend lost my luggage and left me without any of my normal supplies for two and a half days. I''d been without all my nice skin-care products and my skin was feeling a bit dry and unhappy. When my bag finally delivered, I gave my skin a really good clean with a foaming wash, rinsed the skin and patted it clean and then applied the product. I had hoped that the face mask would be a rich creamy lotion or cream but it''s not like that at all. It''s a clear, water-white gel. A little would go quite a long way but I''ve tried not to be mean with it. The first thing I notice is the cooling effect of the product on the skin which probably isn''t surprising because it contains aloe vera. I also notice the delicious and unmistakably rosy scent. The recommendation is to leave the gel on your face and neck for ten minutes and then wash off. As the time passes, the mask quickly dries and starts to feel tight on the skin. Whilst this isn''t an unpleasant feeling, it doesn''t convey to me any sensation of moisturising the skin. After rinsing, my skin still feels quite tight ? a little like the feeling you get after using soap. The gel contains aloe vera and sodium hyaluronate. I''m a big fan of hyaluronic acid and its salts and I actively look for products with these wonderful moisture binding ingredients but I''m baffled at how they could be expected to work in a wash off product. I will use what remains of the tube, but I won''t rush out to buy more ? not even the little tubes on the magazine cover. As a big fan of the Rose Triple Renew Moisturiser which had been an earlier magazine gift with purchase, I had high hopes for this mask but I was disappointed by just about everything except the lovely smell of the product. A 100 ml tube of this product would set you back GBP 37 or a couple of quid per application. I don''t think this is worth the price and I can''t recommend it if you have dry or very dry skin. The manufacturers claim it''s for ?all skin types'' but I''d suggest it''s more suitable for combination or oily skin and those who need more intense moisturisation should probably give this one a miss.
~My top find~
During my six month subscription to the Birchbox beauty box scheme, I received a few good samples, quite a lot of stuff I didn't want and subsequently gave away, but sadly not too many life-changing products or ones I thought I'd want to buy again. With Birchbox you can earn 'points' by answering questionnaires about the products that you've received and around Christmas time, I'd earned £20-worth of points and was determined to spend them before my subscription ran out. The only product I'd had up to that point which had really wowed me - and which wasn't a lot more expensive than my £20 target - was the Akane Mask Cocoon Nocturne which I'd received in my second month's box. My original small sample had lasted me a really long time and I thought a full sized 30ml pot at £18 was a good way to spend my points. Would I have parted with £18 of my own hard-earned money rather than a bunch of points? Maybe, but I'm not entirely sure.
Akane Mask Cocoon Nocturne is something I had never seen before - an overnight mask that you apply before bedtime and wash off in the morning.
~Because She's Worth It~
The Akane range of skincare products are the creation of a French woman called Aline Foulet who worked for L'Oreal for ten years before starting her own company. What she did at L'Oreal, I'm not sure but all the publicity about her products seems to mention her past employers, perhaps as a way of saying "You've never heard of her but look who she worked for".
The story goes that Foulet went to Japan and found the Akane apple tree which is high in antioxidants and has a history of use in anti-ageing products. Following organic principles, Foulet created a range of products that have organic certification from both Cosmebio and Ecocert organisations.
The active ingredients are Akane apple and leaf extracts with rosehip oil, hyaluronic acid and a black tea extract called kombuchka which I suspect is the stuff that used to be in the rather nice fizzy drink of the same name a few years ago. The mask is claimed to protect the skin from stress, pollution and free radicals, and to nourish and regenerate the skin. It should be used overnight and it's also recommended for use on long haul flights - though quite what your seat neighbours are going to think of you whilst you're using it is another matter.
~How to use it~
Opening the tub the first thing to hit me is a blast of fresh juicy apple scent that reflects the high content of apple-derived essences and oils. There's also rosehip oil in there so the combination of apple and rosehips is delicious. Touching the mask the first time, I was reminded of a soft and spreadable chewing gum. It's not a cream, it's not a gel - it really is like gum crossed with silly putty and then warmed up to soften it. It's quite difficult to actually get a piece of this off the body of gooey gummy mass. Take the tiniest bit you can and spread it thinly across clean skin, avoiding the eye area and then let it dry before you go to bed. You'll probably feel the mask start to tighten as it dries. Next morning just wash it off but whatever you do DON'T forget to wash it off or you'll look like you let glue dry all over your face and then it cracked up. It's not an attractive look. Also take really good care to get it all off as I've found myself with little bits of dried on mask still stuck to my face in the evening or even stuck in my hair. I recommend to use this when you know you'll have time for a shower and a really good face wash in the morning.
When I started using this I loved the way it felt but I wasn't entirely convinced that it was really giving me the moisturising effects that it promised and I felt that this mask on its own - especially when I was using so little - might not be giving me as much moisture as a normal night cream. I asked on the Birchbox facebook page about whether I was supposed to use this on its own or over a night cream. They recommended that if I didn't feel it was good enough on its own, I should use it over a serum that contained hyaluronic acid since the mask contained only a small amount of that ingreident. I have since tried it with several such serums and I do think I get an enhanced effect although the drying and flaking of the mask which happens when it's used on its own is much reduced with another layer between it and the skin. I also find it much easier to get the mask off when it's used this way. If you have oily or combination skin, you may well be fine just using the mask on its own but I prefer a bit more hyaluronic acid.
~Does it work?~
I would struggle to tell you that this mask somehow erases all sort of signs of ageing and environmental stress but I think it's naive to believe most of the claims made by skin cream manufacturers and I am always pretty sceptical. I would say though that what I'm mostly looking for in a product like this is for it to make my skin feel 'treated' and indulged and it does deliver on that. The weird way it dries on your skin means that this is something I usually use when I'm not at home - I don't mind if the goop flakes off on hotel pillowcases and I do wonder what my husband would think if he woke up next to me with dried flakey stuff all over my face and looking like I've developed a nasty skin condition overnight. I recommend this for people who live alone, stay in hotels a lot, or have partners with short sight and poor bedroom lighting.
Akane Cocoon Night Mask is fun to use, lasts a really long time and it makes my skin feel good - especially if used with a serum underneath. I also like that I've never come across anything like it before and I enjoy the novelty of using it.
I wasn't planning to post this today but the first thing I heard when I woke up was that Tony Benn had died. It seemed to me that lots of Dooyoo members might not even know who he was or be interested in his passing. This is my little attempt to record a small taste of what Benn was about. I hope it helps to explain to those who never knew him why the media are giving him so much time. He was truly one of a kind.
When the opportunity arose to get a pre-publication copy of Tony Benn's final diaries, A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine, my hand shot up quicker than my brain could actually process what I'd just done. I've long been an admirer of this controversial political giant, egged on no doubt by my grandfather who considered him some kind of living god, but was I really in the market for a politician's diary? What if it turned out to be drier than dust and deadly dull? Didn't I already have three volumes of Alan Clarke's diaries on my shelf, still unopened many years after his death? How on earth would I find something to write about in a review if all he did was bang on about politics? Silly me. Tony Benn couldn't be boring if he tried to and his latest book - his last set of diaries - is witty, entertaining and always deeply human.
Benn is lauded as one of the great diarists of his era but most of the contents of this book were never actually written down by him. Instead he has for many years been recording his thoughts on audio tape and then trusting his friend and editor, Ruth Winstone, to pull them into a readable shape. Perhaps it's this origin as spoken rather than written word which helps the reader to feel as if Tony Benn is speaking to them rather than writing at them. At the age of 88, he no longer has anything to prove to anyone and what we see is a man entirely at ease with who and what he is, who and what he has been, and still fighting for the underdogs and the downtrodden, even at a time when he's barely able to get himself out of bed some mornings.
~It Can't be Easy Getting Old~
This is a book about reminiscing, about getting on and adding every day to his list of life's achievements, but also about taking stock and recognising what he can't do any more. The main diaries cover the period 2007 to 2009, a time when Benn and his old-style Labour politics were hard to find in Britain. He loathed Tony Blair and his 'New Labour' and in the early chapters before Blair's resignation, one of the most used phrases is "It's an outrage!" Blair's behaviour gave Benn plenty to get aerated about. He quite liked Gordon Brown but could see that his days were numbered.
We live with Benn through the military action in Iraq and Afghanistan which he deeply and passionately opposed. We also accompany him through the economic meltdown of the global economy which he feared but at the same time seemed to have expected and to almost welcome for its ability to restart a new order. Repeatedly he wonders how it is that money can be found to rescue banks and wage wars but not to build hospitals or support British trade. We wonder how a man in his 80s can leap out of bed in the small hours of the morning, grab a taxi to the station, travel to the other end of the country for a protest march or to give a few speeches, then travel all the way back again, arriving after midnight. He often tells us he's tired and it's not surprising - men half his age would balk at his workload.
~The Man and his Clan~
I enjoyed his stories about friends and family and his clear love and pride in the achievements of both. His son Hilary was a minister during the period of the diaries and despite being part of Tony Blair's inner circle and part of the deplorable 'New Labour' ways, Tony Benn is always supportive of his boy. His granddaughter wants to stand as an MP despite still being in her teens and Tony only hints in passing that he has to be a little careful what he says as her political interpretations of Labour are rather different than his. He also knows anyone who's anyone in the world of trade unions and civil rights, name dropping the great and the good from Nelson Mandela to Billy Bragg, via Shami Chakrabarti.
Benn's support of old Labour ways comes through in his tireless campaigning and attendance at campaigns and meetings all over the country. He also goes to Glastonbury every year, musing that it makes little difference who the audience are, the reactions to his speeches seem to be pretty much the same. As one of the few people old enough to remember some of the great events of Trade Union history, he's not one to ever pass up a chance to honour the dead of the labour movement. He'll turn up for an interview with the BBC and a slew of international television and radio stations to comment on just about anything that happens in the world and he'll churn out a speech at the drop of the hat. Often he'll tell us that he thinks the interview or speech seemed to be well received but it never feels like arrogance.
~Loving and Losing~
Perhaps the saddest passages in the book are those where he reminisces about the loss of his wife, the woman he was married to for 6 decades and to whom he proposed on a park bench in Oxford - later buying the bench and moving it to his garden. He tells us often that he thinks he won't live much longer, that nothing seems to work properly any more, that he's up every few hours in the night with prostate troubles and having tests all the time for various health problems. He loves the National Health Service and praises it at every chance, also reminding readers that the NHS would not survive with the tireless work of the very immigrants that the BNP and UKIP would love to 'send home'. Benn's socialism is of a type I can relate to and I cannot help but like this man and think it might be time to track down his diaries from his younger years.
He's bright, bubbly, always on the ball and always capturing the minutiae of life that we might otherwise miss. One moment he's flying off to chat to ex-President Jimmy Carter, the next he's mentioning that Michael Jackson's death was all over the papers. I was so into the political vibe that my first thought was "General Sir Mike Jackson's dead?" and then I realised he meant the OTHER Michael Jackson. He has lots of friends in the political and media worlds, flirts with Natasha Kaplinsky, Kate Silverton and Saffron Burrows, takes phone calls from Kofi Annan, and spends a lot of time in Pizza Express and Starbucks. Not so much as 'champagne socialist' as a 'latte labourite' and a 'pizza pacifist'.
~An End to a Lifetime of Writing~
The diaries stop in 2009 when a hospital operation doesn't go as expected and he's bedridden for a period. He stops writing and when he's well again, he's lost the taste for keeping a diary. In his final chapter he brings us up to date on the changes of those intervening years, reflecting on the new Conservative government, the Coalition and even the death of Margaret Thatcher - a leader he seems to soften to a little after suffering years of Tony Blair's leadership.
The main thing you'll take away from A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine will probably be the energy, the passion, and the warmth of this man. Whether the flavour of his particular brand of politics aligns with your own is not important - he's a British institution, a political giant and has a personality that's larger than life. He cannot live forever, nobody can, but I'm inspired by this book to want to go and buy his earlier diaries. I can think of no more pleasant way to fill in the gaps in my knowledge of 20th Century political history.
A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine by Tony Benn
Published by Hutchinson, December 2013
With thanks to the publishers for providing a review copy and to www.curiousbookfans.co.uk where an earlier version of this review appears.
Not to be reproduced without the written consent of the review's author.
I suspect most people think that they ought to drink more water than they actually do. I would guess that many put 'Drink more water' on their New Year's Resolution lists and some may have thought about buying something like the Brita Fill and Go bottle. Let's be honest, water is one of life's essentials but it's a bit boring and forcing yourself to drink more of it can be a drag. Tea, coffee, cola - whatever your chosen poison, it's not easy to cut back on the stimulants and boost your intake of water so anything that can help you do that has to be a good thing. Or does it? One such product that is designed to help is the Brita Fill and Go bottle.
The problem as I see it is that there's an awful lot of tosh out there about the pros and cons of drinking more water. For every health and beauty 'guru' swearing you'll radiate health and vitality and drop a few pounds from running back and forth between the water cooler and the loo, there's a cynic pointing out that too much water (as is the case with too much anything) can kill you. People love to tell you about horrendous things happening to people who go too far. But we're sensible folk, we're not going to burst our bladders or knock our electrolyte balance out of whack by overdoing it - we're just Joe and Joanne public, looking to drink more water but confused by reports about nasty chemicals leaching out of bottled water if it's stored too long, or worrying over the quality of their local tap water. Bottled water is controversial stuff, contributing shocking amounts of plastic waste to landfill and costing silly amounts of water. If your New Year's resolution about water was a financial one - a drive to cut back on the money you spend on bottled drinks, this might well be something you'd want to investigate.
~A good idea - but a poor interpretation~
Brita have tried to tap into what is undoubtedly a genuine consumer need to find easier ways to drink more water without costing a fortune. They got that bit right at least. What they've done with the Fill and Go bottle is to create a safe-to-use water container that uses Brita's famous filtration technology to upgrade the quality of your finest tap water. It's a pretty easy idea to get your head round. Instead of filtering your water at home and then having to find something to put it in to take it with you on the move, they've made a bottle with the filter built into the cap and it sounds like genius.
I bought my Brita Fill and Go in the Salisbury branch of TK Maxx in November 2013 ago and it's seen a lot of action ever since. They come in a range of colours but mine is pink because it was the only colour they had in the shop at that time. If I'm honest, it was the colour I would have picked if there had been a choice. I had been looking at these bottles for a long time online without ever getting around to buying one, but seeing one 'in the flesh' persuaded me to part with my money. I paid £10, give or take a penny, which was as good as any price I'd seen on-line and considerably cheaper than most websites were offering.
The bottle is big - considerably bigger than I'd expected - and it holds up to 600 ml. That's a little more than a pint or a little less than two cans of Coke. However, the bottle seems even bigger because the cap is quite bulky. It's worth keeping this in mind if you want to carry the bottle around with you because it's a lot more bulky than a neat little half litre bottle of commercially sold mineral water. You need a large handbag if you're going to pop one of these in it and I wouldn't advise to just shove it in a backpack or a work bag if you can't be sure to keep it upright as it isn't as watertight as I would like it to be.
The bottle came with a pack of four filters and the advice from the manufacturers is to replace the filter every week. I don't do that because when I use it at work I'm filling it with water that's already been filtered, and most weeks I'm away from home and only using it at the weekend. The best price I've found for the filters is £6.80 for 8 on Play.com which means that even if you do change it every week, it's going to cost less than a £1 a week - or look at it another way, less than a single bottle of shop-bought water.
~Ready, get set, (fill and) go!~
To set up the bottle the first time, you simply open one of the filters from the box, run it under the tap to remove any dust, and then unscrew the top of the bottle and pop it inside the cap. The cap comes in two parts and if yours is anything like mine there's no effort involved to separate the two parts because they keep falling apart the moment I screw the lid off. The lower part of the cap is the coloured section and it has a circular pit into which the filter fits. Attached to the bottom of this part of the cap is a long, quite wide 'straw'. I think that the pink part ought to click firmly into the other part of the cap but it doesn't and I am irritated almost every time I have to fill the bottle and the cap falls apart. If I'm really unlucky, sometimes I can't get it to align properly first time and I have to make several attempts to get the water to 'suck' through the filter.
I like the fact that the water is freshly filtered as you drink. The act of sucking on the sport's cap pulls the water up the straw and through the filter. Apparently you can remove the straw and drink from the bottle by just tipping it up but when I've tried that I've been well and truly dribbled on so I gave up really quickly and put the straw back in again. The bottle fits perfectly into my cup holder in the car and that's where a lot of my water gets drunk. It has helped me to cut right back on the amount of diet Coke I was previously drinking whilst I drive. At work I found keeping the bottle on my desk really helped when I had a horrible cough and I set myself a target of drinking two or three fill-ups per day. It's certainly easier to drink more water when you've got something like this to hand rather than running back and forth to the cooler.
One of the main reasons for me to buy the bottle was that the flat where I live when I'm working has horrendously poor water. I don't know why it's so bad but I suspect it doesn't help that the location is so close to the salt mines of Cheshire. The main storage depot for the salt that's used for gritting the nation's roads is a mile or two up the road which means the roads around that area are always clear in the winter because the gritters got back and forth but the water is a disaster. It's so poor that my husband says he can't even drink fruit squash that's made with the tap water and I can't drink it 'raw'. I hoped the filter bottle would help and it does - slightly. I cannot say that it makes the water 'nice' but it makes it less awful than normal.
As an 'on the go' bottle - which the name 'Fill and Go' surely implies - this product has some serious design flaws. It will fill and go in my car in the cup holder but it won't go in anything other than a large handbag and it needs to be kept upright. As a bottle that you 'Don't fill and go' but which you take with you and fill when you get there, it's absolutely fine and dandy but I don't really think that's what the product is supposed to be. If that's how you want to use it then it's going to be fine but if you imagine yourself running around with water at your beck and call, then it may well disappoint. I like that it's BPA-free and so safe to use but some days I'm ready to chuck it out of the window for the frustration it causes with the cap that falls apart every time you try to fill the bottle. It improves the water at my flat a bit but not completely but I suspect that's a challenge beyond the capabilities of anything other than boiling the nasties out of every single drop that comes out of the tap.
So do I recommend? Yes and no. Yes if you want a way to encourage yourself to drink more water at home, in the office or wherever, but No if you want to be able to take it with you wherever you go. The leaking and the falling apart are two very basic failures for a product of this type. Brita really did make a few bad boo-boos with the design and I hope they give it another go and create something that can not only filter water, but can also keep it inside the bottle.
~Grandpas for Adoption~
When we are children we tend to take family for granted. We expect a mum and dad and a standard issue of two of each when it comes to grandmothers and grandfathers. With today's complex 'patchwork' families you can add in a bunch of step-grandparents to up the tally of Christmas presents and keep the kids showered with attention. But what would you do if you had almost no living grandparents - almost no relatives at all? What if both your parents had lost their parents in the war - victims of Hitler's mission to wipe out all of your kind? Perhaps you couldn't afford to be too be too literal in your interpretation of grandparenthood. In 'Our Holocaust' by Amir Gutfreund, young Amir and his friend Effi are encouraged by their parents to 'adopt' additional grandfathers, bestowing the title on elderly gentlemen they consider worthy of the honour. And since many of the neo-grandfathers have lost their own families, the community applies what one character calls 'The law of compression' - a philosophy whereby genetic connection is not a prerequisite for being part of a new family. If you like an old chap and he's of a grandfatherly disposition, then adopt him. Hence Amir finds himself with lots of grandfathers and plenty of uncles, almost none of them biologically connected to him or his parents. Necessity is the mother of lax interpretations of familial definitions.
'Our Holocaust' is quite simply the most impressive book I've found so far via the Kindle Owners Lending Library, the free service offered to all Amazon Prime members who have a kindle. You can 'borrow' a book each month, and this is the first that's left me thinking that I want to own it and not just return it. I have hung onto it for far longer than I intended because I don't want to let it go, but now I've found another Amir Gutfreund book on the Prime scheme so I'm grudgingly going to do the swap.
I got so hooked up in the stories of Amir, his friends, his parents and adopted grandparents, and his neighbours that I didn't want to let them go. I had never thought before of what it would be like to have no grandparents and about the enormous gap their absence can leave in a young life. My mother's parents were an enormous influence on my life and whilst the death of my father when I was just four meant we pretty much 'lost' the Irish grandparents we really didn't miss out on anything by having only one 'set'. Amir is not so lucky. He tells us his real family was "pitifully small" with just one grandfather, one aunt and one cousin, plus his mother's half-brother.
~Haifa is Home~
Amir and his friend Effi live in Haifa, Israel, in a community that's rich in survivors, most of them from eastern Europe. These are people who fled to Israel after the war and brought with them the kind of emotional and psychological baggage that most of us will thankfully never know. The two young friends share several grandfathers. There's Grandpa Lolek, the miserly old boy with an ancient Vauxhall which seems to run on little more than willpower and the kindness of mechanics. He has "a wonderful ability to catch colds in tandem with us" which enables him to conserve his own stocks of cough syrup and use Amir's families syrups instead. Towards the end of the book when he's very ill, someone jokes that if it looks like he's a goner they'll tell him the cost of headstones has gone up and that should keep him hanging on to life a bit longer. Grandpa Lolek can get multiple cups of tea out of a single bag, lining up his used bags and joking about his 'selection process', hinting unkindly about the activities in the concentration camps where inmates would be regularly assessed to select those who would be killed and those who would be saved. Grandpa Lolek is a war hero, a man who fought against the Germans whilst his community went to the camps and were slaughtered. He looks down on the 'victims' of the camps, refusing to be seen in the same light as them and he's loved by the local labourers who applaud "a Jew who could tell of victories, but not over Arabs".
Grandpa Yosef is the clever one, the academic who fills in as a sort of rabbi when his community needs religious support and his holocaust story touches a total of twelve concentration camps, ghettos and death camps. Along the way he's met pretty much anyone who was anyone in the Holocaust. You name a ghetto or camp and Yosef will have a story to tell - only he won't tell them to the children and even later when they're older the story he doesn't want to tell is why he saw so many and how he kept on moving on. If Grandpa Yosef has a penny, he'll find someone who has none and give it to him. He's generous to a fault and beyond. These are the two star grandpas but there are more. One is even sort-of related to them but he's gone a bit senile and he's not such an attraction to the children.
Amir and Effi long to know more about the horrors of World War II but their grandpas and their neighbours don't want to talk about the war. The children are not old enough to be told of the horrors and so they hatch ever more complicated tricks to try to get the older folk to tell them of the past. They make up school projects so they can ask questions, they try to pretend other people have told them things in the hope that more information will be forthcoming. They have a morbid fascination with knowing more about the things that keep their elders awake at night, the things that printed upon them the horrors of the past. But they also know there are things that can't be told, and questions that can't be asked, let alone answered. Why is Amir's mother so frightened of ants and does he really want to know what led to that fear? We also learn of this Israeli community's hierarchy of loss where losing your whole family in a camp won't earn any particular respect - you'll need to be able to line up a succession of dead babies and children as well as your spouse to climb the tragic tree of sympathy.
The friends and neighbours in this Haifa suburb all have stories, most of them deeply tragic but such tragedy becomes the bread and butter of Amir and Effi's daily life. There are disabled children, sole-survivors of villages who've lost every other living being from their home community, women driven crazy by grief and yet this is a story of great hope. Prejudices abound, both within and between the different groups. This is illustrated beautifully when a young, good-looking German called Hans comes to study the community and nobody wants to like him but in spite of themselves they do. An older Amir tells him "I just want you to know that, personally, I have a bit of a problem with Germans" whilst Grandpa Lolek looks him up and down and declares "I killed a lot like him". There's a bittersweet irony towards the end of the book when we learn why Hans might be as much a 'victim' of the Nazis as the camp and war survivors.
~A trinity of tales~
The book is structured in three parts and part one is mostly about Amir and Effi's childhood and their attempts to find out about what happened to their neighbours and 'family'. The second part follows Grandpa Yosef's mission to go to the Caribbean on his own kind of secret mission, and the final section is one where Amir is a father with his own wife and son to take care of. Someone asks him if his child is his 'eternity', telling him "We had children too, but it was not enough". This is a community living in fear of the past. the present and the future.
'Our Holocaust' is filled with whimsical and life-affirming stories of survival. But don't let that ever let you forget that it's also filled with the kind of horror stories that history almost demands that we don't forget. It addresses all the sacred cows and says the unsayable things. That not everyone who was killed was a 'good' person, that people in the camps were forced to do such unspeakably awful things that some will struggle their entire lives to not think back on those abominations, and that good and bad is never a simple matter of black and white. Survival is as much about luck and being in the right place at the right time as it can ever be about deserving to survive.
If I had a complaint, strange as it might seem, it would be that the book is very long. In effect, Gutfreund could easily have made three books out of this and I'd have wanted to buy them all. It's a little as if he's undervalued his work to make one big book when it's structured as if it were three volumes.
~Fiction or Faction?~
Our Holocaust is fiction, but not entirely - if you see what I mean. It's fiction with its feet planted firmly in fact. I read this entire book assuming it was biographically accurate, that these things happened to these people but I was wrong - and it didn't really matter too much that I was. I think the author intended we should assume it was autobiographical and that the stories were all true, although in retrospect I can see that finding quite so many amazing people with fascinating tales all clustered together might be a bit too much to expect.
Much of the book is founded on fact - but the things that happened happened to someone, just not necessarily thel grandpas. There are also parts that are historically correct - some of the Nazi killers documented by a character called Attorney Perl were real people but others were made up - representing a sort of amalgamation of bits of people and their crimes. Attorney Perl himself was a real man, but he died in the camps. Gutfreund chose to use his name and give him the job of documenting the atrocities, perhaps to keep him alive in his own strange way. This book is full of such complexities and I can't rule out that some readers will feel a little bit cheated when they discover that what they assumed to be truth is slightly adapted from reality. For me it doesn't matter - it takes nothing away from the book.
Earlier this year film footage shot in the Nazi camps came to light and a documentary was widely shared on facebook. If I remember correctly, some had been filmed by Alfred Hitchcock. Many will have watched some or all of this documentary and those who couldn't get through the whole thing can be forgiven for not being able to stomach the horrors of the footage. We sit back 70 years after the end of the war and feel horrified by what the film shows, but in Amir's Haifa community, people lived every day with having been present when the bodies were piling up, when people were starved to death or tortured beyond it. If you read only one book to learn about the Holocaust, but also about the impact it had on generations that followed, Amir Gutfreund's superb book should be one that you consider. By giving names to the people affected, by inviting us into their lives, he offers more than you can ever find from disembodied names and photographs. This book is truly extraordinary in offering horror and endearing humour, all rolled up together.
~I'm a Passionate Moleskine Lover~
As a great lover of all things Moleskine, a few bad experiences have never stopped me in my quest to fill my shelves, bags, boxes and life with their products. Whilst the standard notebooks and diaries deliver every time, I have a more chequered past with their 'Passions' journals. I've previously reviewed their book and travel Passions format and am now going to review the third of my purchases - the Recipe Journal.
When I was a kid my grandmother had a recipe book that kept all her culinary secrets. Nan was a spectacular baker and would probably be laughing in her urn if she knew that all the Saturday mornings she spent teaching me to knock out shortbread, flapjacks, scones and apple cake and rustle up a Vesta curry would one day see me working for one of the world's biggest producers of sweet bakery products. Her cookbook was an old hard-backed notebook filled with grease-stained pages of neatly written recipes, pages torn out of her Woman's Weekly and scraps of paper that others had given her over the years with all their secrets. This was the book I had in mind when I ordered my Moleskine Passions notebook.
~The Ingredients for Success?~
All of the Passions notebooks are black and they differ only in the patterns embossed on the cover. To me this universal blackness is as short sighted as Henry Ford was when he said you could have one of his cars in any colour so long as it was black. If you have several of these - as I do - it's a recipe for confusion to have them all looking the same. Passions are large format notebooks - measuring 21 by 14 cm and a little under 2 cm thick. The cover is embossed with line drawings of cooking equipment and the book is kept closed with the classic Moleskine stretchy band.
Once opened, you'll find all the usual characteristics of a Moleskine product. There's the return address panel on the fly leaf (as if I'd ever be taking my recipe book anywhere other than my kitchen) and the back cover has a large double 'pocket' for holding those recipes you've ripped out of magazines and not got round to copying out in your own fair hand or glued in to the main book. The pocket also contains several sheets of sticky labels for those who enjoy sticking labels all over the place. You can perhaps tell that I'm not one of those people and I find the sticky labels annoying and pointless. You'll also find not one but three ribbon place markers - a nice touch which will allow you to mark your starter, main and pudding recipes and flick back and forth between them.
This is quite a substantial book with over 230 pages to write upon. It kicks off with a section on 'planning' where you could - if you are so inclined - plan your forthcoming culinary 'events'. I'm not sure that I would ever find a need for such a tool but I guess Moleskine know what they're doing. I could instead imagine getting more use from some pages to keep a record of what you've served at different events so you don't keep feeding the same people the same stuff over and over again.
After the planner you'll find a Food Calendar with indications of which foods are in season during different months in the Northern Hemisphere followed by the same info for the Southern Hemisphere.
Three sides list common foods with their calories, carbs, protein and fat contents and there are two additional pages left blank for you to list additional foods. You can also find conversion tables and information about different measures - handy if you come across an American recipe and don't have 'cups' to hand.
The main body of the journal is split into six tabbed sections for different types of food. The first covers appetizers followed by first courses, main dishes, side dishes, desserts and - somewhat bizarrely - cocktails. Each page is pre-printed with templates for your recipes. They start with a space for the recipe name, a larger one to list the ingredients and then two-third of the page height is given for the preparation instructions. To the side of each page there are various reminders of useful info you should include in a good recipe such as the number of servings, how long it takes to prepare and to cook, and whether the cooking is oven, microwave or on top of the hob. If you are so-inclined you can list suitable wine-pairings and keep other notes. As a lot of my recipes come from websites or magazines or friends, I tend to list the source in the small section marked 'notes'.
Behind the six pre-printed tabbed sections are another six for you to choose what you do with. I have one for veggie or vegan recipes but I've not found a use for the others. These sections are ruled into five equal sized page-portions and I'm struggling to see what I might need such a page format for. At the back of the book there's an index section which relies on you remembering to copy across the names of your various recipes so you can find them quickly.
Although I don't LOVE my Passions recipe journal, I do use it quite a lot and I find it one of the simplest of the Passions formats to use and to understand. They've kept things relatively simple, not tried to be too clever and so it's pretty intuitive how to use it. This is not something I can really say for their Travel Passions journal and I do appreciate that the designers have resisted the temptation to try to dictate how I should use their product.
This journal currently sells on Amazon for £12.78 although the recommended price a few pounds higher. At full price I don't think this is worth it but if you can get it for £10-12 and you think it would be something you'd use, then it's not a bad bet. As a potential Mothers' Day present or for someone building a recipe collection - going to college, setting up home or making a collection for specific nutritional needs - it's a nice idea. If you really want to make an impact, why not buy one and copy up your favourite recipes to pass on to a friend, child, god-child or nephew or niece.
I would have loved for my Nan to have left me her cook book - I have no idea where it went when she died but it would have been a fabulous thing to have. The book can easily be wiped clean, the paper is the usual high-quality Moleskine paper which should last for decades, and for a friend or relative with culinary leanings, this could be a really thoughtful and personal gift.
My husband likes a good bargain and found this blender in the retail park near where I work at a knock-down price of just £10 in the Tesco Direct store. Normal price would be £49.99 so it was a shocking saving. "I guess they were just trying to get rid of them" he said, excitedly.
I am not surprised by his blender excitement because this piece of kit has all the classic appeal of a super-charged power tool. There's nothing wimpy about its stylish black and chrome good looks and once you get it plugged in, the 800w motor packs one heck of a punch.
Over the last 20 years I've had a lot of different blenders - cheap and not so cheap, own-label and branded - but never one that's a patch on the Breville. The last time I saw something this powerful it was in an industrial kitchen. This is less of a blender and more of a pulveriser, but it isn't all about beating the bejesus out of everything in its path; when called upon it can be quite subtle too.
~So what do you get?~
In my perfect world, you'd get the stick hand blender and that would be your lot. If I look through the boxes in the garage, I could find several each of the accessory bits that blender manufacturers use to boost the perceived value of their products. We'd had so many of these blender 'packages' and it's always the blender that breaks and the other bits rarely get taken out of the box. And then when the blender's kaput, the rest is obsolete.
With this Breville you get an egg whisk attachment, an 800ml 'goblet' for putting stuff into before you zap it with the stick blender, and a 500 ml chopper attachment. IF you don't have an egg whisk, a suitable bowl or jug or a chopper, these may all come in handy but we do have them and we don't need the extras. In fact I've not only not used the other bits, I've not even seen them. My husband 'tidied them away' and can't remember where he put them. But let's be honest, if the stick blender is good then this is worth buying and if it's bad, any number of extra gizmos won't make it more attractive. We have a small Russell Hobbs chopper and an elderly Kenwood Chef food processor so we don't need the chopper or the egg whisk either.
~Give it some stick~
If you are thinking of buying a stick blender, I'd recommend you consider two things. Firstly be sure to buy one with a removable blade attachment so you can stick it in the dishwasher or the washing up bowl and not just run it under the tab whilst desperately trying to keep the electrical bits out of the water. Secondly, try to get one that has multiple speeds and a high wattage engine. The cheapest ones have only one or two speeds and limited power.
The Breville has quite a heft to it's certainly the heaviest hand blender that I've ever owned. If it were not so stunningly powerful and therefore really quick, I suspect I'd soon find it got too heavy to hold for very long even with its rubberised grip. The black body has a button on either side which helps the body to clip onto the relevant attachment. These are also the buttons you click to remove the attachments too. On the top of the body there's a dial with setting from one to twelve to vary the power of the blending action and on the front of the body there's a swivel switch to either set the blender to 'ON' or 'TURBO'. If you use ON, the speed varies according to the setting on the dial. If you go TURBO, it just blasts the daylights out of anything nearby.
We mostly use the blender for making vast vats of soup with the stick blender attachment. This attachment is stainless steel so it won't make any difference how deeply coloured the soup is - it won't stain or discolour. We've had plastic stick blenders that were badly stained and looked like they had a 60-a-day smoking habit after making carrot or pumpkin soup. We've also had low powered blenders that could barely cope with the softest of lumps and took forever to zap a large saucepan of soup. This isn't the case with the Breville. I like my soup smooth and this blender when set to TURBO will zap through a vat of soup in less than a minute leaving it lump free. I have also used it to beat eggs for scrambled eggs. If you want to make smoothies or baby food, this should deal with them without breaking sweat. It's quite possible you could use it for making cakes, but we would always use the Kenwood and it's much bigger bowl for that. For me a 500ml chopper bowl is a bit too small but you could zap up some hummus, salsa or guacamole if small batches are all you need. I guess the egg whisk would be handy for meringues if you don't have an alternative, but again that's something I'd put in the Kenwood Chef.
What you'll use the Breville VHB065 for will depend on what you like to make and what other equipment you already have in your cupboards. However, even if you don't need the other bits and bobs, this is an absolutely outstanding stick blender. I'm not sure I'd pay nearly £50 for it, but if you aren't fussed about the other attachments, then at any price up to around £35 it would be a stonking great bargain.
~There's research and there's immersion and they're not the same thing~
Norah Vincent is an investigative journalist and writer who goes much further than most would in search of a good story. She calls it 'immersion' - I'd say it's closer to obsession. For her first book - Self Made Man - she lived as a man for 18 months in order to better understand the differences between the sexes. As a result of her research, she ended up on a locked ward of a mental hospital. Let's say that some of the things she learned were just a bit too hard to handle. Norah is not gentle with herself; she puts herself into positions of danger time and time again. Like a kid with a stick poking it into a wasp nest, getting stung and then doing it again, Norah is drawn to trouble and puts herself into vulnerable situations. Many people with 'issues' would handle those problems by avoiding them. If you're scared of crocodiles, keep away from crocodiles. Norah doesn't do that. Knowing that she has a long history of mental health issues and chemical dependency, she doesn't go down the safe route of avoiding the triggers of her depression and sticking to the drugs she knows are least damaging to her. Her experiment with mental illness is the foundation of her second book 'Voluntary Madness - My Year Lost and Found in the Loony Bin'. Before you condemn me for the use of words like 'loony' and 'bin' these are Norah's words which she uses frequently, especially 'bin' as it does reflect the composition of most of the places she visits - they are full of societies 'refuse', the people and situations that polite society would prefer were swept away and dealt with by someone else.
~Loony Bin Addict~
After her post-'Self Made Man' incarceration, Norah decided to test the 'system' - to evaluate the options available for the treatment of mental illness in North America. She set out to experience three very different treatment regimes by checking herself into first a public inner-city hospital packed with down and outs, homeless folk and people whose family and friends had given up on them, then a rather more exclusive private treatment centre in the countryside, and finally to a Buddhism-inspired 'spa' packed with alternative treatment ideas. For her first admission she had to fake her illness, exaggerate and play it up in order to get in. She thought she was going in 'under cover' as an interested observer, a sane person in amongst the insane. By the second and third admissions she'd gone off her normal small dose of Prozac and into a genuine depression. She wasn't faking any more, she really needed treatment.
In her first book Norah learned a lot about men - and women - and got quite a few surprises. Sadly it sometimes seems like all she managed with 'Voluntary Madness' was to prove to herself what she's already suspected before she started her experiment - that if you simply medicate the fight out of people it's cheaper and more effective in the short term, that if you treat people nicely and with respect, they'll probably perform more positively again in the short term, and that if you get someone like her who's a high-performing depressive, then a bit of yoga, 'talking about it' and going for a run every afternoon will be a viable alternative. Sadly she also comes to the realisation that she's not a 'normal' patient because she wants to be better. She differs from most of the people she meets because she wants to change and has chosen to have treatment whilst others are there because family, friends or the law sent them for treatment. Regardless of whether they're medicated into indifference or given daily exercise classes, most just want to get out, get drunk, get stoned or invite total strangers to see the truth of their particular religious beliefs whilst walking down the street.
~Partly fascinating, partly boring~
I found most of the book very interesting although I started to glaze over towards the end once Norah actually seemed to be understanding her problem and the root causes. The problem is - and there's no nice way to say this so apologies to those who've been through it - other people's depression just isn't really very interesting. Norah knows why she's 'different' though she could have saved us all a lot of trouble by confessing a lot earlier than she does, but even with several hundred pages of deep introspection, she still seems to be denying the cause and effect of things that happened in her childhood. I won't tell you more - it's quite a revelation when it comes but it's swiftly followed by not very much at all.
In Meriwether, the inner-city hospital, the main treatment is medication. It's the easy way to get control - to pump the inmates full of one drug after another. When the first has side effects, they add a second to counter those effects and then a third to deal with the side effects of the second. Eventually the chemical cosh leaves the patients in a zombie like state. After years of therapy, Norah knows her meds - knows the potential side effects and what she will and won't take. Palming her pills and then flushing them down the toilet later, she's able to give the appearance of compliance whilst taking notes on her fellow patients in brown Crayola crayons because pens and pencils are considered too much of a suicide risk. Touching isn't allowed - so no sympathetic hugging can go on, and playing cards for Skittles is forbidden as it encourages gambling. The patients are dealt with rather than treated. She describes in detail how her room mates make tents of their bedding and hide away inside to try to get some privacy, and how she uses oranges to make bathroom 'pot pourri' to try to cover up the horrible smells of the aftermath of sharing a toilet with heavily medicated women who are too stoned to keep themselves clean and have lost the control to aim properly. Meriwether is a horrible place that will remind many of the asylum in the film 'One Flew Over the Cookoo's Nest' - albeit without the lobotomies and electric shock treatments.
When Norah checked into Meriwether, she told the hospital that she had no insurance. They ran checks, found she had and billed her insurers for more than $14,000 in fees. Norah tried to pay the insurers back and landed in a classic Catch 22 situation. You'd have to be crazy to want to reimburse an insurance company, and if you're crazy, then they pay the bills. She was never able to give them back the money that she'd assigned for her 'research'.
Norah's second port of call was St Luke's, a small Catholic clinic in small town America. She didn't have to fake anything at her admission interview, crying and begging them to help her. She'd stopped her medication and found herself curled up in an empty bath one morning wondering what the point of everything was. At St Luke's they classify the patients as MI (mental Illness) or CD (chemical dependency). Those with both are DD - dual diagnosis. Norah comes to wonder - chicken and egg like - whether mental illness makes people susceptible to chemical dependency, or whether chemical dependency causes mental illness. Either way, rather a lot of the patients are 'DD', Norah included. The staff are nice, they don't force her to take medication she doesn't want, they respect her choices. She meets a doctor she really respects and enjoys being with, has a room and bathroom to herself, and even gets a daily 'two hour pass' so she can go out for a run. She can cook the food she wants to and make her own decisions. People are trusted at St Luke's in a way that the brown Crayola and no hugging brigade at Meriwether would never allow or understand. There's even a slightly crazy nun who lives in the grounds and who helps out at the clinic, dispensing her own brand of love and good will to the patients. At St Luke's Norah seems to be making good progress until the same insurance company who wouldn't let her pay them back decides that if she can be allowed out for two hours a day, then she's not sick enough to stay there and she has to leave.
~Rebirthing and Yoga~
Norah's final visit is to a place called Mobius, a detox/spa/treatment centre where well-meaning and well trained staff try to help people via less conventional, and less medicated routes. They do energetic yoga exercises every morning, encouraged to let their emotions out through lots of primal noises. They do a lot of group work, from art therapy to 'rebirthing' and they also have one to one consultations every day with the therapists. Everyone seems to be terribly 'nice', ever so wholesome and genuinely bought in to helping the patients. At 'just' $6000 for two weeks, it's less than half the price of St Luke's or Meriwether and medication is purely by agreement. Admittedly they're dealing with a different grade of mental illness and dependency than some of the other places, but they do seem to work well for Norah. This is part of the problem with the book - Norah's not 'as ill' as many of those around her and she's a lot more eager to improve and to find enlightenment.
In Meriwether Norah 'buys' friendship in Big Macs and sweets, getting friends and family to bring in supplies for her fellow patients until she realises that no matter what she gives, they'll always want more. When she realises she can't eat anything she's brought in without others trying to take it from her, she sees that mental patients are not easy people to hang about with. In the other places, she sees that many of the patients are there because they have no alternative - they've been sent to detox before jail sentences, on court mandated assignments, or they've been checked in by parents and doctors who think they need help. Whilst Norah introduces us to a colourful cast of fellow inmates, tries to see the good in many of them, she eventually comes to the revelation that most of them aren't very nice, don't really want to be better and will be back again soon after. That's not the company that's designed to help a depressive who's empathetic to the negative side of other people's lives.
I like Norah, and I mostly like her writing. Sometimes when she gets a bit too excited about something she thinks she's just discovered, or goes into too much detail about her feelings, I did find it a bit of a drag. Yes, maybe I as the reader am being disrespectful to the writer and her problems but in places she's so deeply self-indulgent that I struggle to care as much as I should. Hey, at the end of the day, I paid for the book, I'm allowed to judge a little bit.
So did I learn much from 'Voluntary Madness'? Yes, I suppose I did. I learned that medication is a slippery slope and that far too few people know what they're getting into. That pharmaceutical companies are making a mint out of medicating the mentally fragile and that side effects are a way to sell even more drugs in a vicious circle of cause and treatment. Norah is on only 20 mcg of Prozac when she decides to slowly stop and come off the medication. I now feel very worried for the millions of Americans (and of course others around the world) who seemingly only have to be feeling a bit down in the dumps to be offered medication that's supposed to make them feel happy. Norah tells us of patients who started off as difficult children and were given Ritalin, only to end up with Crystal Meth habits. She concludes that it's much easier to medicate people than to get to the bottom of their bad behaviour or their psychoses.
Would I recommend this to a friend? I'm going to say yes, but it depends very much on that friend. I'm probably a bit too sane to get as much from this book as many readers will. I'm not sure I'd recommend it to people who have issues with depression or pharmaceutical dependency because - not wishing to spoil it - it doesn't have a completely happy ending. Norah's intention was to write a book in which she'd show that she got off the meds, took control and got her life back but discovered it wasn't quite so straightforward. If you're slightly medicated or slightly depressed, this might help you see that the answer to your problems is unlikely to be found in a pill. But sadly it won't really give you an alternative answer either. I would be slightly concerned that some parts of this book could be 'triggers' for people with similar problems. This might be a better book choice if you have loved ones who have such issues, but for a sunny optimist like me, it's quite hard to get your head around quite how self-destructive so many people can be.
Voluntary Madness, My Year Lost and Found in the Loony Bin
287pp Published by Vintage.
I have a bit of an obsession with nice notebooks. I love Moleskine in particular, can spend hours looking at Paperblanks notebooks in book stores, and whenever I come across good quality notebooks that aren't too shockingly expensive, I buy them in numbers that would shock most people and which lead my husband to shake his head in weary resignation every time he sees them piled up in the cupboard. I'm a firm believer that if something is worth writing down, then it's worth writing down on good paper in a good notebook. Whilst I'm happy to scribble with disposable Biros and hotel pencils, I am a stationery snob and cheap writing pads set my teeth on edge like nails on a chalk-board.
I'm far too mean to use my good notebooks at work and luckily I don't need to because we have a wonderful secretary who never quibbles about what we request from the stationery catalogue. In order to prevent myself from frittering away hours browsing in the catalogue, I now have a standard order that I place every six to nine months for a set of five Oxford Office notebooks in A4 size. I don't really know how much we actually pay for these as the prices in the catalogue are notoriously inflated to discourage us from spending too much.
Oxford Office Notebooks come in a number of different formats. You can get different sizes - my preference is A4 but one of my colleagues always orders the A5 size. I've had one of her A5s when I ran out of A4s but I really couldn't get the hang of the smaller size. There's also a size called A4+ which is slightly wider than A4 and has perforations and pre-punched pages that you can tear out of the book. Those are only relevant if you are the sort of person who keeps things in ring binders and I most certainly am not one of those.
Oxford Office notebooks come in both wire-bound and hard cover versions. I'm faithful to the wire-bound format because hard covered notebooks are both heavier and more expensive. As a notebook obsessive, I still can't quite believe I'm allowed to order nice notebooks at the company's expense and I don't want to take the Micky by going for the more expensive formats.
If like me you stick to the wire-bound format, the other variable which has some impact on the costs is the choice of cover. For several years I was choosing the ones with the flexible plastic semi-transparent covers. When I made my last order, I downgraded to the slightly cheaper pearlescent cardboard covers but I probably wouldn't bother again as the plastic covers are so much nicer and I am prone to putting coffee mugs on them so I appreciate the wipe-clean surface. If you buy a pack of five, they come in five different colours. I find this helps me to remember which one I'm using and avoid taking old ones with me by mistake.
~Take the Money or Open the Book~
All of the Oxford Office notebooks I've had come with a clever plastic ruler inside which clips round the wires and can be used as a bookmark as it can be easily pulled out and repositioned. I don't do this but it is often the only thing I can find for measuring with so that's how I use it as a rule (sorry, pun entirely intended).
The first and last pages are unruled. I use the first page for my name, contact details and the date I start the book. After that I have 90 pages of ruled and margined paper to play with. I choose the unperforated notebooks so the page is true A4 in size. The paper used is smooth and doesn't drag at your pen or pencil like cheap paper can do. It has a level of whiteness which the manufacturers claim is designed to be easy on the eyes and is of a quality that weighs 90g per square meter which makes it strong, non transparent and not prone to tearing or damage. The lines are ruled at 7 mm intervals which is wide enough for even my horrible scruffy writing.
The world is full of wire-bound notebooks but I would suspect that anyone whose used cheap ones will have had the problem of the wires pulling out and distorting. I've had dozens of Oxford Office notebooks and to date none of them have done this. Mine normally looks just as good when I complete the final page as they do when I start writing on the first.
~What's the Damage?~
I'd been assuming that these notebooks were stupidly expensive because the stationery catalogue has them at around £40-50 for a set of five. Checking on Amazon, I realised just how much the catalogue prices are inflated as depending on the cover choice, a set of five will cost around £20 to £25 which is the sort of price I would pay if I really had no alternative and if work started to cut back on stationery spending.