I am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes

September 2, 2015

I am PilgirmTerry Hayes’s gripping debut novel is over 800 pages but well worth the read. The plot is pretty simple: Scott Murdoch (aka Jake aka Brodie aka …) is a retired secret agent. He was one of the best but now he’s hiding out in Paris, taking stock of his life post 9/11. The intelligence world has changed irrevocably, Scott is out of a job and he also knows that there are many people who would like him dead. He is very reluctant to return to his previous life but when a gritty New York cop tracks him down, he gets drawn into a very bizarre and intriguing New York murder investigation. And then, fast forward a bit, he is hand-picked by the head of the CIA to be a one-man secret operative hunting the world’s most wanted would-be terrorist.

The other side of the story is the Saracen. Hayes has done a brilliant job of getting into the head of a Saudi exile who is plotting to wipe out millions of Americans through a biological terror attack. The Saracen’s family life, his training and psychology are all detailed very convincingly.

However, when I had finished I couldn’t help wondering about a few things. I should probably put a SPOILER alert here but I will try not to give away the details of the plot. Firstly, why are Scott and the Saracen operating largely on their own? Everything that I know about al-Qaeda or ISIL or ISIS tells me that agents tend to operate in groups. They are trained in cells and they need a support network. The way I am Pilgrim plays out it’s Scott vs the Saracen. We know who will win but it’s still a nail-biting race against time.

Secondly, isn’t it convenient that the terrorists (in this case the Saracen plus some Albanian thugs) use the same interrogation techniques on Scott as the US use on their prisoners? If the CIA were trying to justify the use of waterboarding on terror suspects, they couldn’t have done a better job. Yes, they might say, this interrogation technique is abhorrent but see how the terrorists are using it themselves. All is fair in love and war.

Thirdly, I did wonder about the boy with Down’s syndrome. Call me cynical but did we need the added heart-string-pulling of a child with disabilities? Disability as a plot-device leaves me a little uneasy.

All told though, an excellent thriller up there with the best that you will read. Hayes is also a very successful scriptwriter so we can expect that when this becomes a movie it will be huge.

The Man Who Couldn’t Stop

July 6, 2015

Man who couldn't stopDavid Adam has written a wonderful book about his decades-long struggle with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Adam, a journalist for several years with The Guardian and who now writes for Nature, has written both a personal account of his OCD and a factual and historical account of this debilitating mental condition.

For him the OCD centred around an irrational fear of getting HIV/ Aids. In practice this meant that every possible public surface was a source of fear. However much his rational mind told him that he couldn’t get HIV from a door handle, the irrational fears won out (with crippling consequences).

The Man Who Couldn’t Stop (Picador: 2014) is open, engaging, punchy as well as very interesting. There were moments when I could have done with less history (e.g. on lobotomy and leucotomy) and more personal narrative. But given that this must have been a very difficult book to write, Adam has done incredibly well. The parts I found most interesting were those in which he described the genesis of his own OCD, the description of his treatments (both drug and CBT), as well as the discussions about neuroscience and the difficulties of categorisation. As with all the best Science writers, Adam manages to be interesting, knowledgeable and very accessible.

I do have a few gripes though, and perhaps the first one is his dismissal of Freud and psychodynamic therapy. He gives a shortish account of Freud’s famous OCD case (the “Rat Man”) and then laughs off Freud’s emphasis on the psychosexual origins of the Rat Man’s obsessions and compulsions. Psychodynamic psychotherapy has moved a long way from Freud’s original ideas and the emphasis these days tends to be far more on the early bond and relationship with the mother (or primary caregiver) than on any sexual rivalry with the father. Interestingly, while CBT is the psychotherapeutic treatment of choice (together with SSRIs) for OCD, the current research on the importance of primary attachments means that psychodynamic therapy is still incredibly relevant here as well.

Adam provides a glimpse of possibilities (admittedly quite dismissively) in his final chapter:

This should be … the point … where it all comes together. Having discussed the possible causes of OCD – the genetic, family, social, Freudian, environmental, infectious, psychological, medical, traumatic and just plain unfortunate pressures that might contribute – I should reach a triumphant and emotional conclusion. … It was my parents what did it or my childhood fear of dogs … [the] betrayal by the boy who I thought was my friend … [that] my mother had a stroke and couldn’t hold me as a baby …

I couldn’t help noticing that this was the only mention of his mother in the book. Similarly, his wife is only mentioned in the acknowledgements. Surely Adam’s OCD must have been incredibly difficult for this relationship as well? But I can also well understand the reluctance to go there. It’s one thing admitting that you have a mental illness without dragging your nearest and dearest into the mix as well.

Jenny Turner, reviewing in the Guardian, writes:

His fear … seems to be some sort of death-fear, associated with blood and sex and other usual suspects, triggered perhaps by his misfortune in having reached sexual maturity just as an emerging disease became the focus for a massive moral panic. So Adam’s Aids fear, too, makes most sense when looked at sensitively and symbolically, as a story.

It’s easy, I suppose, to say that we would like Adam to be able to look at the symbolic side of his crippling fear. What he has done is extraordinary enough.

Current reading

June 9, 2015

currently reading 090615A screenshot of my current reading.


Know your teenager is one of those books I need to read for work. I’m enjoying parts of it and learning about how to manage adolescents.

Awakening the dreamer by Phillip Bromberg is a self-psychology book for my small psychology reading group. A bit too academic in parts but I’m also really enjoying some of the insights. At the moment Bromberg it talking about bringing in the dreamer to the therapy. He says that whenever a patient brings a dream to therapy his goal as the therapist is to bring the dreamer into the process. An interesting change from focusing on what the dream means to encouraging the dreamer (as a different self-state) to enter the therapy space.

The man who couldn’t stop is a book about OCD. I’m struggling here since there are more urgent books and more enjoyable books that I’m busy with. But it’s well-written and a very accessible and personal book about the writer’s struggle with OCD as well as a general discussion about it.


The Narrow Road to the Deep North (audiobook). Looks like a really good one. Interesting characters and story. But to find the time to really get into it is a challenge.


Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris (audiobook). Sedaris is brilliant. Funny, poignant, excellent story-teller. I keep thinking that he will be too frivolous but he’s not.


One Hundred Favourite Poems (audiobook). I’m listening to this in the car and I wish I had a long car journey to savour them all. Great to hear some old favourites and some new poems, read beautifully as well as part of a Classic FM compilation.


Right to the Edge: Sydney to Tokyo by any means by Charlie Boorman. This is my stuck-in-the-car-with-a-sleeping-child book. Charlie’s a likeable chap and, to my surprise, this book actually makes me want to don some suitable clothing and take to the road on a decent-sized (but not too powerful) bike. I’ll let you know if I ever get that sorted!

Which book would you choose for your coffee mug?

May 18, 2015
Penguin classics coffee mugs

Penguin classics coffee mugs

I saw these Penguin classics coffee mugs over on Pinterest and I really want one. Not one of these titles particularly – although I think drinking my tea out of a “Pride and Prejudice” mug would be pretty cool. One title that springs to mind is “One Hundred Years of Solitude”. If I want to go with a psychology theme then I would have to choose “The Interpretation of Dreams”, but that’s not a Penguin title. Personalised mugs come at a price though (as do vanity plates) but I think not more than R100. I do think they’re more playful than pretentious. Any thoughts on what you would choose for your daily beverage?

How to eat a raisin

May 13, 2015

One of the highlights of the conference I attended this past week was the “mindfulness of raisin” exercise which the presenter borrowed from Mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn. Kabat-Zinn, professor of medicine at Massachusetts University and who founded Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) uses it to give people a first taste of mindfulness meditation. It’s very simple.  Take just one raisin, hold it on the palm of your hand, look at it, touch it between finger and thumb, smell it, chew it with your teeth, taste it on your tongue and then …. finally  ….. swallow it. The exercise takes at least 5 minutes and my fellow attendees agreed that it was the tastiest raisin we’d ever had.

mindful raisin meditationThis exercise was particularly pertinent to me because over the past few weeks I’ve been having tummy issues. I won’t bore you with the details suffice to say that I’ve lost a few kilograms, I had a colonoscopy (clear) and now I am scheduled to see a dietician next week. I have IBS and need to follow a more restricted diet. I’m still working out what my tummy will tolerate but it clearly doesn’t like sugar and dairy for a start. Gluten is an obvious suspect (although I’m not sure). And then other food stuffs which are high in fermentable sugars. At the moment I’m trying to follow a low FODMAP diet but the trouble is that I get bored and so end up trying to eat normally again. I keep thinking that if  hunger is anything to go by, then I’m well on the road to recovery.

One thing I have noticed is that when I’m stressed and anxious then my digestion suffers. Being anxious about my eating certainly doesn’t help! So I’m trying to slow down a bit (not easy with two small children) and savour my food. At the time that things started going downhill, I was feeling really down — right about the time of my 45th birthday. A whole of issues seemed to overwhelm me at once. I was stressed about getting older and not having achieved half of what I would like to achieve. I was terribly frustrated with the demands of parenting small children and never having enough time for myself. I also quit therapy and we were stressed about money. Not to mention feeling the pressure at work and the acquired stress of worrying about my parents. My mom is not always in such good health and my dad, although retired, had a massive work project which was coming to a head.

A month later I’m feeling so much better. I do love my food and so even snacking on healthy things such as rice cakes and bananas and rooibos tea can be enjoyable. I’m certainly not depriving myself, which is why it’s a cruel irony that I should have lost weight whilst other people struggle to lose anything at all.

Today it’s also Leah’s turn to do Bakerman at school and so last night the house was full of the smell of Nutella and Marie biscuits. I should really have taken a picture of the biscuits beautifully decorated with chocolate spread, sprinkles and tiny marshmallows. Completely illegal in terms of my diet but quite delicious! I forgot to take one as I was so busy trying not to eat any while at the same time doing the normal, endless cleaning-up routine.

On the book front I have managed to read a few short stories and I’m almost finished with Ali Smith’s How to be both which I’ve enjoyed immensely. But that can wait for another time. I think it’s time for lunch!

Reading to a 4-year old

March 23, 2015

Here are three books that I’ve been reading to our four-year old recently. They are actually pretty good, apart from the princess pop-up book. Oh boy, do I get sick of those princess stories!

c&l_sizzles_300 dr xargle sleeping beauty pop up

Leah is going through a toilet-humour phase at the moment so I’m seriously considering investing in one of the Captain Underpants books. Yesterday we sang the “Diarrhea song” and managed about 12 verses. It is terribly silly and also quite addictive. Google if you don’t know it – or rather don’t since it may become an ear-worm!

Any other book recommendations for this age group? I downloaded an audio version of Charlotte’s Web but I think she’s too young for that.

As for Tessie, she just wants to rip out the flaps in all her books. I wish she would direct her energy towards something useful such as crawling!

Here’s a pic of the two of them this week. Tessie was not feeling great but she’s still a cute bunny.

Two bunnies


October 23, 2014


‘Do you like the race so far?’

I looked at her, trying to find sarcasm, but she was serious; she really wanted to know. And I thought of how to answer her.

I had gotten lost, been run over by a moose, watched a dog get killed, seen a man cry, dragged over a third of the teams off on the wrong trail, and been absolutely hammered by beauty while all this was happening. (It was, I would find later, essentially a normal Iditarod day — perhaps a bit calmer than most.) I opened my mouth.

‘I …’

Nothing came. She patted my arm and nodded. ‘I understand. It’s so early in the race. There’ll be more later to talk about …’

And she left me before I could tell her that I thought my whole life had changed, that my basic understanding of values had changed, that I wasn’t sure if I would ever recover, that I had seen god and he was a dog-man and that nothing, ever, would be the same for me again, and it was only the first true checkpoint of the race.

I had come just one hundred miles.

Gary Paulsen is an award-winning writer of adventure stories for children and young adults and Winterdance is a wonderful account of his experiences on the world’s greatest dog-sledding race, the Iditarod.

I absolutely loved this book and it made me want to run the Iditarod for myself. I appreciate that there is controversy about how some of the dogs are treated (over 140 dogs have died since the race’s start in 1973) but if Paulsen’s account is anything approaching a typical experience then the majority of the dogs are treated extremely well. Part of this is pure survival – your life literally depends on these dogs.

Two of the things I loved about this book was the bond between man and dog as well as Paulsen’s prose style. Paulsen describes in wonderful detail the change that he undergoes as he lives with the dogs all the time and really gets to know them (including the aptly-named crazy Canadian Eskimo dog Devil) in preparation for the race. The second part describes the race itself – from the ‘phony start’ in downtown Anchorage to the treacherous descents of Rainy Pass, the bone-chilling cold of the Yukon and the starkly beautiful Norton Sound.

This is an adrenalin-filled, funny, life-affirming account of a 43-year old Minnesota man’s journey with 15 dogs on the ultimate dog-sledding race. Easily one of the best books I’ve read this year.


I would also recommend watching a clip of the type of sledding that the mushers experience on the Iditarod. Having read Paulsen’s book, I was expecting  a hair-raising crash-filled dash with larger-than-life dog-wolves. The reality is a lot more sedate – until they get to the downhill part. And bear in mind that this clip is taken by one of the experts, a four-time Iditarod winner.