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C is for...CoelacanthIn 1938, the ocean on South Africa’s east coast pitched a blue, silver-speckled coelacanth into the catch of a trawler from East London. The five-foot fish flapped and snapped at the captain’s fingers. It was armoured, inedible. After docking, he offered the oddity to the museum.Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, the curator, inspected the creature lolling on the craft’s creaking deck glistening in slime. Strange plated scales, limb-like fins, and a puppy- dog tail added to its allure. She fell in love. When the mortuary refused to embalm her fetid fish and butchers wouldn’t freeze it, she persuaded a taxidermist to stuff the remains.James Smith, an ichthyologistand friend, visited to identifythe relic. He whooped. Palaeontologists believed coelacanths had disappeared with the dinosaurs. The specimen was as anachronistic as an ape-man sipping soup at a dinner party. Smith upgraded the coelacanth from extinct to endangered,and dedicated his life to finding another. Which he did.The coelacanth’s habits intrigued marine biologists. The tetrapod could trot in water by alternating the movements of its four limbs. It drifted, rolled, and floated head- down, but despite these talents, never crawled onto land to become the missing link between fish and amphibian. It preferredto doze in caves, deep belowthe waves, waking to gape like a snake for squid. Longevity and a dolphin grin reflected its hassle- free existence.Modern techno-predators brought change. They could dive deeper than 100 metres and linger for30 minutes. Enough time to stalk the sluggish fish, capture mucus for DNA, and stab a tag between its ancient scales. The coelacanth stopped treading water with its finned limbs. It learned to get away by wagging its tail and swimming like a fish again.GWEN SAYERS is a physician whoalso publishes papers on ethics and humanities. She came second in the Fish Short Memoir Prize 2016 and her fiction is published in Hysteria 4 and Structo 16.To submit to 'D is for...' see p80As bookshops prepare to pile high the autumn crop of celebrity memoirs – although perhaps not as high as theyused to – it is worth looking again at the kind of misery which can make a memoir memorable. Because some of the most successful and revealing memoirs of the momentare being written not by irrepressible YouTubers, smiley soap stars or wise-crackingIt’s now commonplace to say that memoirs containing misery are ultimately redemptive,but Dadland is the real McCoy. Somehow, despite all the trials of his life, familial love and affection survive intact.‘I believe that when I was suffering most dearly, the universe sent me a healer in the form of a dog,’ writes Julie Barton in Dog Medicine, a beautifully crafted memoir in which she charts the anguish of her depression and breakdown, and then her road torecovery, whichcame in theunlikely shapeof Bunker, agolden retrieverpuppy. Whilstunsentimentaland definitelynot cute, herstory is atestament to the remarkable capacity animals have to bring health and healing into ourlives. In this respect it can claima kinship with books like H is for Hawk, and the conviction which runs through much recent nature writing that our fellow creatures are our souls’ best friends.From the surgically superlative Do No Harm byHenry Marsh to the clinically captivating Direct Red by Gabriel Weston, memoirs dosed with medicine have been a particularly compelling trend in recentyears. In A Smell of Burning: TheStory of Epilepsy, Colin Grant gives us an enthralling and eclectic account of the strange, often misunderstood, disorder that is epilepsy. Told partly through the lives of celebrated sufferers (Joan of Arc, Vincent van Gogh), this is mostly the story of his youngest brother Christopher, an epileptic who died after a seizure. While the best memoirs are always revealing of the self, such books seem to cut, scalpel-like, right inside the body, penetrating to the essence of what makes us human, even if it is only blood, skin, bone, faulty synapses and an unstable cocktail of chemicals. ❐CAROLINE SANDERSON is Non-fiction Editor of the Bookseller, and also reviews the genre for the Times, Independent on Sunday, newbooks and Books for Keeps.the most successful, revealing memoirs of the moment are being written by people you’ve never even heard ofWHAT'S NEWMEMOIRcomedians, but by people you’ve never even heard of, who are either sick or dealing with the sickness of others.A veteran of the Special Operations Executive in World War II, Tom Carew’s exploits earned him both the DSO anda Croix de Guerre. But in writinga memoir of her extraordinary father, Keggie Carew wanted to do more than portray him as a war hero. Instead she set herself the challenge of capturing the whole of the ‘spectacular but really human’ father who lurked under the obituary headlines of 2009. Her book, Dadland, roams compellingly across the varied terrain of his life. We track the fearless wartime Tom Carew in France and Burma. We cometo know Tom Carew, the funand fond father; Tom Carewthe chaotic husband whom peacetime career success eluded; Tom Carew the left-handed, stuttering, slightly disreputable maverick in a sarong; and most poignantly of all, Tom Carew, the vulnerable old man, whono longer recognises his own face.A complex but delightful man emerges, and so, too, does his daughter as she tries to communicate with him across the obscure landscape that Dadland has become.Dadland by Keggie Carew (Janklow & Nesbit UK)Dog Medicine by Julie Barton (Bluebird)A Smell of Burning: the story of epilepsy by Colin Grant (Penguin)TOP TIPS► What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. It also makes us more interesting. Books about grief, illness and depression are rarely designed to make us grief-stricken, ill or depressed, but rather show us how such things can be survived – orat least endured and better understood.► When writing a memoir of a loved one, you’re aiming for neither eulogy nor cradle-to- grave chronology, but rather a rounded portrait of a complex human being who starts asa complete stranger to your readers.► Whilst not sugaring the pill, aim always for some light amid the shade. Dadland captures the endearing and funny moments which punctuate the darkness of dementia.mslexia Sep/Oct/Nov 2016 71

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