June was a non-fiction month beginning with A Waiter in Paris: Adventures in the Dark Heart of the City by Edward Chisholm which is an account of the author’s time working as a runner and waiter in a Parisian restaurant. Chisholm moved to Paris in 2012 at the age of 24 to live with his then girlfriend. After she broke up with him, he decided to stay and look for work in the city despite speaking very little French at the time. Hierarchy means everything among restaurant employees and Chisholm paints vivid pen portraits of his colleagues who are all heavily reliant on tips to make ends meet. Chisholm leaves _____ gaps in the dialogue he doesn’t understand, which gradually disappear as he becomes more fluent in French. As a modern-day ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ by George Orwell, ‘A Waiter in Paris’ exposes the cut-throat intensity of long hours behind-the-scenes in the service industry, which doesn’t appear to have changed all that much in the decades since Orwell worked in the city as a plongeur. Continue reading
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About A Son by David Whitehouse recounts the aftermath of the murder of 20-year-old Morgan Hehir who was stabbed to death while he was on a night out in Nuneaton in Warwickshire on 31 October 2015. It’s a true crime book, but not written in the way that you might typically expect from the genre. Whitehouse has turned the Hehir family’s story into a really affecting piece of creative non-fiction. It is told in the second person from the perspective of Morgan’s father, Colin, based on his diaries and memories of the period following Morgan’s death. As well as processing grief and sitting through the trial of Morgan’s killers, the book also deals with the frustrating bureaucracy of the criminal justice system, and Colin’s attempts to persuade Apple to unlock Morgan’s phone so he could access his photos and music. ‘About A Son’ is a really exceptional portrait of an extraordinary event happening to the most ordinary of families, and it is very likely to appear on my Books of the Year list. Continue reading
I don’t usually read many books about music in such a short space of time, but I have read some good non-fiction titles on the subject so far this year, which largely conclude that working in the music industry is not very good for your health.
A Seat at the Table: Women on the Frontline of Music by Amy Raphael is a collection of 18 interviews with women who work in the music industry. The interviews were conducted in 2018-19 mostly with singers and songwriters across different genres while composer Jessica Curry, producer Catherine Marks and DJ Clara Amfo all reflect on similar issues with sexism and racism within the industry. In some ways, Alison Moyet and Tracey Thorn’s experiences finding fame in the 1970s and 1980s are a world away from those of the musicians who are starting out today who face the pressures of social media, #MeToo and dwindling album sales due to the rise of streaming, yet there are also some frustrating similarities such as not being taken as seriously as their male counterparts. Raphael has clearly put a lot of thought into the range of interviewees in this collection and it would be interesting to compare this alongside her 1995 companion book ‘Never Mind the Bollocks: Women Rewrite Rock’ which includes interviews with the like of Debbie Harry, Courtney Love and Bjork. Continue reading
How Words Get Good: The Story of Making a Book by Rebecca Lee offers a fascinating look at the journey of making a book from initial idea in the author’s head to finished copies on a bookshelf. It celebrates the huge number of people involved in producing books, including authors who choose to remain anonymous, ghostwriters, literary agents, proofreaders and editors, and the processes such as typesetting, translation, indexes, footnotes, cover design, printing and much more. As well as demystifying certain elements of the publishing industry, it contains lots of trivia. For example, Donald Trump asked his ghostwriter, Mark Schwartz, to cover half the cost of the launch party for ‘The Art of the Deal’ on the grounds that Schwartz received half of the advance and royalties (p.47), and the Japanese version of ‘Finnegans Wake’ by James Joyce “required three separate translators after the first disappeared and the second went mad” (p.216). Lee has worked as an editorial manager at Penguin Press for over 20 years and her wealth of experience shines through in her amusing anecdotes and encyclopaedic knowledge. Equal parts entertaining and insightful, this is highly recommended for bibliophiles everywhere, particularly those who enjoy weird trivia. Continue reading
I am rather partial to memoirs centred around food and I read two excellent ones last month, one of which was Taste: My Life Through Food by Stanley Tucci. Tucci’s grandparents emigrated to the United States from Calabria, so his childhood growing up in Westchester, New York featured a lot of traditional Italian cooking. Food has also been a big influence in his acting career, including his 1996 debut directorial feature ‘Big Night’ about two brothers running an Italian restaurant. As expected, there’s a fair bit of celebrity name-dropping, but Tucci also gives great insight into how catering works on film sets and he now has the luxury of being able to choose projects based on where in the world they are shot and whether the food will be any good. He also describes his diagnosis, treatment and recovery from a tumour at the base of his tongue which was discovered a few years ago, leaving him unable to eat properly. Less of a conventional chronological memoir and more about the importance of food in his life, ‘Taste’ is nevertheless a delectable read.
Time has run away from me again this month, so I am only just getting round to reviewing the books I read in February starting with No One Round Here Reads Tolstoy by Mark Hodkinson. His part bibliomemoir part cultural history details how he became a voracious reader in Rochdale in the mid-1970s in a working-class household with very few books, eventually succumbing to what Americans call BABLE (Book Accumulation Beyond Life Expectancy – I know I can certainly identify with this, and I’m sure many readers of this blog can too). The book also interweaves the story of his grandfather who suffered from mental illness. Hodkinson is very good at dissecting the mindset of a collector and I particularly enjoyed the latter half of the book which outlines his career as a journalist on a local newspaper, publisher and writer. Local journalism in particular has changed beyond recognition from what it was when Hodkinson was starting out. Overall ‘No One Round Here Reads Tolstoy’ is rather odd structurally and not as straightforward a bibliomemoir as I was expecting, but it is nevertheless very enjoyable and nostalgic to read. Continue reading
Case Study by Graeme Macrae Burnet is set in the 1960s and consists of a fictional biography of Arthur Collins Braithwaite, a radical psychoanalyst with a practice based in north London, interweaved with notebooks written by one of his patients which have been purportedly “discovered” by her cousin and passed on to the author. The patient believes Braithwaite is responsible for the death of her elder sister, Veronica, and poses as Rebecca Smyth in order to find out more about him. As with the Booker Prize-shortlisted His Bloody Project, Burnet displays his impeccable narrative skill in presenting the story as authentic source material. There is plenty of satire in the depiction of Braithwaite’s rivalries with his contemporaries, reminiscent of the spoof biographies in Their Brilliant Careers by Ryan O’Neill, while pertinent questions about the nature of identity and reality are posed in “Rebecca’s” pursuit for answers. ‘Case Study’ is another outstanding novel by one of my must-read authors. Continue reading
Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe won the Baillie Giffard Prize for Non-Fiction last year and examines the history of three generations of the Sackler family. Radden Keefe is a journalist for the New Yorker and ‘Empire of Pain’ was developed from his 2017 article about the Sacklers. The Sackler name is mostly associated with philanthropy. Several universities, museums and galleries have wings named after the family in recognition of the substantial donations they have made towards the arts and sciences. However, the Sacklers’ role in the development of the highly addictive drug OxyContin in 1996 and the subsequent opioid crisis in the United States has only recently become subject to proper scrutiny.
A lot of my reading in 2021 has involved catching up on books published in 2020 or earlier, particularly among non-fiction. Hungry by Grace Dent and Bookworm by Lucy Mangan were among my favourite memoirs this year, and take a nostalgic look at the authors’ childhoods defined by food and books respectively. A Promised Land by Barack Obama was a hefty but impressively readable political memoir by the 44th President of the United States covering most of his first term, and hopefully it won’t be too long before the second volume is published.
Elsewhere in non-fiction, Square Haunting by Francesca Wade is an absorbing group biography of five modernist women who all lived in Mecklenburgh Square in Bloomsbury at various times between 1916 and 1940. Blood on the Page by Thomas Harding is one of the most unique and compelling true crime books I have come across in a long time, and follows the first murder trial to be held in secret in modern British history.
Downing Street has been in the news rather a lot this week, so it seems rather timely to have been reading Number 10: The Geography of Power at Downing Street by Jack Brown recently. Brown was the first ever Researcher in Residence at No. 10 and his book examines how the role of the Prime Minister and the architecture of one of the most famous addresses in the world have influenced each other. Originally built in the 1680s, significant reconstruction was undertaken in the early 1960s and much of the book focuses on how the prime ministers of the second half of the 20th century lived and worked there. Security reasons presumably prevent clear diagrams of the interior of Downing Street being included to accompany the text which is slightly unfortunate. However, Brown’s analysis of how the iconic residence projects soft power to its visitors and its strengths and weaknesses as a modern office and living space offers a convincing argument that successive prime ministers have impacted the building as much as the building has shaped their way of working. Continue reading
The world probably doesn’t need another review of Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney by now, but you’re going to get one anyway. Rooney’s much anticipated third novel tells the story of Alice and her friend Eileen, both approaching 30 and living in Ireland, having met as roommates at university. Alice is a successful novelist who meets warehouse worker Felix through a dating app. Eileen is getting over a break-up by flirting with a man called Simon who she has known since childhood. Rather than getting in touch via texts or calls, Alice and Eileen continue their long-distance friendship by having lengthy earnest conversations via email about capitalism. On balance, I found this epistolary device too convenient and less convincing than the instant messaging chats in Conversations with Friends which remains my favourite of her three novels to date. Nevertheless, ‘Beautiful World, Where Are You’ further cements Rooney’s signature narrative style, which is more about pacing than plot and achieved very skilfully, and she remains particularly good at portraying power dynamics through dialogue and writing endings which are open yet not frustratingly so.
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo was the joint winner of the Booker Prize in 2019 alongside The Testaments by Margaret Atwood which I read earlier this year. It follows the lives of 12 characters, mostly black British women, spanning several decades in four overlapping clusters. In the first part, we are introduced to Amma, a theatre director, her daughter Yazz, and Dominique who is Amma’s former partner in the theatre group. Then there is Carole who works in banking, her mother Bummi and her school friend La Tisha. Shirley is a teacher whose mother Winsome is retired in Barbados and has worked with her colleague Penelope for several years. Finally, Megan/Morgan is a non-binary social media influencer, whose relatives Hattie and Grace were based in the north of England in the early 20th century.
The Country of Others by Leïla Slimani, translated from the French by Sam Taylor, is the first book in a planned trilogy of historical fiction. In a very different setting and genre from Slimani’s breakout thriller Lullaby, ‘The Country of Others’ opens just after the Second World War when a Frenchwoman from Alsace, Mathilde, falls in love with Amine, a Moroccan soldier fighting for the French and moves to Morocco with him in 1946 when they get married. Mathilde raises their daughter, Aïcha, and son, Selim while Amine works on the farm, but she becomes increasingly disillusioned with her choices. Inspired by the life of Slimani’s grandmother, who also left Alsace after marrying a Moroccan soldier, ‘The Country of Others’ is a very personal project for Slimani. It suffers slightly from a lack of narrative drive, often reading as a series of vignettes, but perhaps a bigger picture will emerge as the trilogy progresses. I look forward to reading the next instalment which will be set in the 1960s. Continue reading
I have read a lot of great books over the summer and I now have a massive backlog of reviews to catch up on. Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller tells the story of 51-year-old twins, Jeanie and Julius, who still live with their mother in rural isolation, until her sudden death forces them to confront some harsh realities of life in the modern world and the truth behind some dark family secrets. It’s quite a meandering novel, often melancholic in tone, but I really enjoyed Fuller’s richly descriptive prose which captures the oppressive atmosphere of the twins’ daily lives. ‘Unsettled Ground’ was shortlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, and while it wasn’t too surprising that the judges crowned ‘Piranesi’ by Susanna Clarke as the winner last week, I think ‘Unsettled Ground’ would have been a worthy winner too, and I will definitely seek out Fuller’s other novels. Continue reading
This summer has mostly been a non-fiction reading binge for me. Blood on the Page by Thomas Harding is one of the most unique and intriguing true crime books I have come across in a long time. Photographer, writer and expert on the playwright George Bernard Shaw, 86-year-old Allan Chappelow was found beaten to death at his home in Hampstead in north London in June 2006. He was also a recluse and hoarder and his house was so cluttered that it took the police three days to locate his body buried under four feet of paper. Harding outlines Chappelow’s life, the investigation into his death and the background of the main suspect, Wang Yam, a Chinese dissident. The final part of the book covers Yam’s murder trial, which was the first in modern British history to be held in camera – that is, totally secret with no reporting of the defence case in the press. Even speculation about why the trial was held in this way remains completely banned. Despite the obvious limitations posed by this, Harding makes good use of the available background material to produce a gripping account of a truly bizarre and unique case.
Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back by Mark O’Connell follows his Wellcome Prize-winning exploration of transhumanism To Be a Machine with another book about the future, this time looking at the ways in which people prepare for ecological and societal collapse. O’Connell travels to South Dakota to visit underground survival bunkers, attends a Mars convention in California, visits New Zealand to find out why it is the favoured location for billionaires to ride out the end of the world, and goes to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in which the post-apocalyptic scene of the world’s worst nuclear disaster has become a popular tourist attraction in recent years.
In the paperback edition, O’Connell notes in a new foreword that the timing of the hardback publication in April 2020 was “impeccable”. Nevertheless, it does mean that certain parts read a bit differently from how they would have done without a global pandemic. For example, the actions of the “preppers” who stockpile supplies to live on in the event of a possible worst-case scenario now seem a lot less extreme these days. O’Connell’s writing is dense and cerebral and ‘Notes from an Apocalypse’ contains as much food for thought as his first book, albeit with an even larger dose of anxiety about the future this time round. Continue reading
After a long period of neglect, I have been reading more books in translation recently, including some recently published titles. There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job by Kikuko Tsumura has been translated from the Japanese by Polly Barton and sees an unnamed woman in her mid-30s walk into an employment agency looking for a job that has the following traits: it is close to her home, requires no reading or writing and preferably very little thinking. The book follows her attempts at five different roles: surveillance, recording voice ads for buses, writing fun facts to be printed on cracker wrappers, putting up posters and park maintenance. Tsumura wrote her debut novel after her own experience of job burnout and it captures a sense of listlessness in a way that will have you counting down the days until you are entitled to claim your own pension. With deadpan humour and a bit of magical realism, it ends up being a bit of an aimless novel overall, yet also quite thought-provoking about the meaning of job satisfaction, particularly in the context of workplace culture in Japan which is known for extreme presenteeism.
Bluemoose Books is one of my favourite indie publishers and I have been reading some more of its titles over the past few weeks. Should We Fall Behind by Sharon Duggal has recently been featured on the BBC’s books programme Between The Covers and has deservedly won plaudits for its sensitive and non-judgemental portrayal of the most marginalised groups in society. Duggal’s second novel tells the story of Jimmy Noone who is homeless in an unnamed city and has been searching for his friend, Betwa, who grew up in the local area. He is seen as a threat by Ebele, a single mother who lives with her six-year-old daughter Tuli, while her landlord and employer, Nikos, who owns a furniture shop nearby thinks he is a nuisance. Jimmy does, however, generate more compassion from their neighbour, Rayya, who is a carer for her terminally-ill husband Satish. The way in which the characters’ backgrounds are slowly revealed is very effective, emphasising that ordinary people have extraordinary stories to tell, that actions are not all that they appear to be and how people can end up on completely different paths and become invisible to the rest of society. This is a perceptive and poignant novel and I look forward to reading more of Duggal’s work. Continue reading
I first read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood about 10 years ago and recently reread it followed by the long-awaited sequel The Testaments. Atwood’s dystopian classic first published in 1985 depicts the Republic of Gilead, a totalitarian and patriarchal state created after the downfall of the United States some time in the 21st century. It is narrated by Offred, a handmaid who is forced to produce children for Commander Waterford and his wife Serena Joy.
As a reread, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ was fresher in my mind than it would have been thanks to the recent television series which is a very faithful adaptation of the novel. I particularly admire Atwood’s skill at detailed world-building in relatively spare prose. Even though there isn’t a huge amount of description of what Offred’s surroundings look like or even much explanation about the creation of Gilead initially, Atwood paints a vivid and shocking portrait of this dystopian world, gradually building towards a dramatic conclusion. Continue reading
The title of the book A Short History of London: The Creation of a World Capital by Simon Jenkins gives a fair warning to the reader that there is inevitably quite a lot left out of the city’s 2,000 year history in its 400 pages. The focus is very much on the architecture and planning of the city centre in the last century or so with a bit about its governance alongside this. As a lifelong Londoner, Jenkins is clearly passionate about his home city. He has witnessed a remarkable amount of change in his lifetime and doesn’t hold back on his forthright views about recent developments. Having already produced short histories of Europe and England, Jenkins is well-practised at the most important aspect of writing a deliberately short book which is that he writes with pace and is very good at conveying the general sweep of events succinctly in easily digestible chapters. Continue reading