Category Archives: Non Fiction

Dear Ijeawele, Or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

As if the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist wasn’t enough for you today there is also the release of a new Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie book. No, not the novel that we have all been waiting so desperately for (I mean the royal ‘we’ aka me, you may feel this way too) but another mini book along the lines of We Should All Be Feminists released on International Women’s Day. And a very Happy International Women’s Day to all of the women who read this blog, you are all wonderful and you all need to read this book.

4th Estate, hardback, 2017, non-fiction, 62 pages, bought by myself for myself

When a couple of years ago a friend of mine from childhood, who’d grown into a brilliant, strong, kind woman, asked me to tell her how to raise her baby girl a feminist, my first thought was that I did not know.
It felt like to huge a task.

And so opens Dear Ijeawele. Thankfully, after some thought, this is not too huge a task for Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and the results become (slightly tweaked, she admits in the introduction) the text which we read which is a light yet forceful letter to a friend discussing the fifteen ways in which she things she could bring up her daughter, and subsequently her own daughter, to encourage them to be a feminist raising her as one.

Now I am not going to be able to cover everything that Ngozi Adichie does in this book and nor should I because you should all be going out and reading it and buying it for your friends as I will be doing. However I can say that she covers everything from marriage to money, femininity to the politics of gender, and indeed the gender of politics. She covers money, sex, domestic chores, the power of reading, male role models… I could go on and on because in just over sixty pages she covers all this and more. I have no idea how she does it all, but she does. This, slightly ironically, leads me to one of the first points I found particularly interesting.

Please do not think of it as ‘doing it all’. Our culture celebrates the idea of women who are able to ‘do it all’ but does not question the premise of that praise. I have no interest in the debate about women ‘doing it all’ because it is a debate that assumes that care-giving and domestic work are singularly female domains, an idea I strongly reject. Domestic work and care-giving should be gender-neutral, and we should be asking not whether a woman can ‘do it all’ but how best to support parents in their dual duties at work and at home.

What I found particularly fascinating about Dear Ijeawele is how much Chimamanda stripes everything back and not only simplifies things but blows the wind out of the sails of anyone who would want to argue with her. There is no room for debate, no little cracks of questioning to wriggle through, these are her thoughts, these are the simple reasons why it is so and could we all please just see sense, sort it out and move on. Here’s to that.

What also makes the book/letter all the more powerful is that in writing to a friend there is a real warmth to it that seeps into your bones as you read. Not that We Should All Be Feminists is a cold book, far from it, I loved it. Yet it was a blunter angrier teenager in comparison to this wiser, calmer big sister of a book that also knows it can crack the occasional joke, often to make the power behind its humorous intent have a longer and more resonating effect as the undertone is picked up.

There have been recent Nigerian social media debates about women and cooking, about how wives have to cook for husbands. It is funny, in the way that sad things are funny, that we are still talking about cooking as some kind of marriageability test for women.
The knowledge of cooking does not come pre-installed in a vagina. Cooking is learned. Cooking – domestic work in general – is a life skill that both men and women should ideally have. It is also a skill that can elude both men and women.

The final thing that I thought was so brilliant were the constant reminders of how Feminism Lite can be more harmful than simply being a feminist yes or no. Though Chimamanda also, without ever physically writing it, brings up the point of people being Feminist Lite because feminism seems to have become an ugly word. Hmmm, and we all know which parts of society are encouraging that don’t we. I will not bring up the orange monster that shall not be named on this blog ever, but we know the type, we know the contenders. Ngozi Adichie puts it very simply, you are either a full feminist or you are not.

What she also layers on top of this is that feminism is not just about men vs. women,  it is also about women vs. women and most importantly what it is really about is one simple, yet as we are seeing seemingly impossible, word… equality, for everyone. Equal culpability, responsibility and sharing of our attitudes, minds and thoughts.

But here is a sad truth: our world is full of men and women who do not like powerful women. We have been so conditioned to think of power as male that a powerful woman is an aberration. And so she is policed. We ask of powerful women – is she humble? Does she smile? Is she grateful enough? Does she have a domestic side? Questions we do not ask of powerful men, which shows that our discomfort is not with power itself, but with women. We judge powerful women more harshly than we judge powerful men. And Feminism Lite enables this.

I am a huge fan of this book as I was its sibling/predecessor. What I love about Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is that she so eloquently and calmly takes you through it all and makes you feel, once again, like you are having a conversation with her. All in all the perfect book not only for International Women’s Day 2017 but for every day and for everyone.

I heartily recommend you get yourself a copy, which you can do here. Who else has read Dear Ijeawele or indeed We Should All Be Feminists? What other feminist texts would you recommend everyone be reading before the next International Women’s Day? I would love more titles to go off and look for as I am sure would everyone else popping by.

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Filed under 4th Estate Books, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Non Fiction, Review

The Optician of Lampedusa – Emma-Jane Kirby

When I was in London back at the start of the month I popped into the Tottenham Court Road Waterstones, which is fast becoming one of my favourite bookshops, and was drawn to a table displaying a pile of books with £5 of the cost going to Oxfam if you bought it. I didn’t really need to know more than that to buy it, partly because I never really need that much of an excuse to buy a new book and also because Oxfam is a charity I believe in. The then unknown book to me was Emma-Jane Kirby’s The Optician of Lampedusa and I think, having read it and cried through it twice, it might be one of the most incredible books, and most important books right now, that I have read in some time.

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Allen Lane, 2016, hardback, non fiction, 120 pages, bought by myself for myself

There are too many of them. Too many of them and I don’t know how to do this. I am an optician; I’m not a lifesaver. I’m an optician on holiday and I don’t know how to do this.

It is around this sentence that The Optician of Lampedusa begins, through Emma-Jane Kirby, to tell his tale. He is a regular man on the island of Lampedusa where he works as an optician. He is known and well liked by those on the island and likes to socialise but mainly him and his wife keep themselves to themselves and with dinners or trips away with friends. He wants a simple life, yet on one boating trip away with his friends, not too far away from home at all; their lives all change on a single morning.

When it came this time, the monstrous, tortured howl ripped through everyone like a bullet. Instinctively, the optician moved his hand to protect his face. He staggered to keep his footing on the cabin roof. What the hell was out there?
The howl mutated into an unbearable screeching. The optician felt his stomach knot. Something was roaring underneath the waves and whatever it was the optician had a gut feeling that when they found it, it would be truly terrible. He forced himself to regulate his breathing and tried to nod reassuringly at Teresa who was looking at him in horror.

What we then experience is the optician’s account of what follows when he and his friends come across a mass of people, alive and dead, after the sinking of a boat on which they were all trying to escape heading for Europe. And through the optician’s account, which I have little doubt Emma Jane Kirby deviated from at all as it seers its self into your brain, we are given an unflinching, horrifying look at what the refugee crisis is like first hand from someone who thinks of themselves as ordinary but is to many a hero. I found it hugely affecting, both the description of the awful day when they found the refugees and also what happened to them and the refugees afterwards which we follow. I don’t want to talk about what happens after because I think you need to read it all to experience it.

I have never seen so many people in the water. Their limbs were thrashing, hands grasping, fists punching, black faces flashing over then under the waves. Gasping, yelling, choking, screaming. Oh God, the screaming! The pitch of it! The sea boiling and writhing around them as they kicked and lashed out, clinging to each other, grabbing at pieces of the driftwood, snatching handfuls of water as they tried to clutch the tops of the breakers.

As much as this book is (rightly so) shocking, it gives the reader much food for thought on many thing. One of the most powerful things being that this is not fiction that we are reading, this was very much someone’s real life, one person in many whom have come face to face with what is going on. Emma-Jane Kirby is a journalist for BBC Radio 4’s PM show where she reported on the Mediterranean crisis and indeed focused the story on Carmine Menna, who we learn at the end (well those of us who didn’t hear the reportage – I am feeling slightly appalled at myself for having missed it) is indeed his story. So the unflinching reality is literally jaw dropping. As I said earlier it has made me cry several times on several reads of it.

It is with this in mind that I think Emma-Jane Kirby points out something very important, just how numb we become to the news. When we hear or see a story on the news, on or the front pages, we are horrified and outraged. Yet really how much do we actually do about it apart from then discuss how horrified and outraged? We slowly but surely become numb to it, and this indeed is the case with the optician himself, living life on his island knowing it is happening but in some ways becoming used to it, until it then stares him full on in the eyes.

Twenty years ago, when he could run the island’s roads effortlessly, the optician of Lampedusa would sometimes spot a scared migrant scrambling up the rocks onto his path. They had almost always been alone and would shout to him in English: ‘Where am I? Am I in Palmero? Have I reached Sicily?’
He shakes his head in disbelief. It seems a long time ago now. The Arab Spring changed everything and they never come on their own anymore. Big boatloads arrive now in a constant stream – whole families; women and children too, poor things. Only a couple of years ago the newspapers were reporting that Lampedusa now had more migrants and refugees than inhabitants! The skin on his forehead wrinkles. Best not to think too much about it really. The TV, the papers – they’re saturated with the news about migrants; it’s all they talk about. There was something else on the radio the other day about some more drowning off the coast of Sicily. Seven or eight of them, was it?

And of course we can’t all rush off and go to the places that this is happening to help out, that is not what I or this book are saying. I am after all still sat in my house on my sofa typing this after having been moved so much by the book. Yet buying the book has sent some money to help, reading the book has opened my eyes to the refugee crisis both in terms of reading it so viscerally from an eye witness, well through an eye witness through Emma-Jane Kirby, and to aspects of it I didn’t know and led me to looking at ways I can do small things to contribute. I won’t go on about those because I don’t want to preach, part of my effort is to hope some of you will read this and rush off to Waterstones to buy it before the end of the month so more of those £5 wing their way to Oxfam and the refugees who need it. (If you haven’t a Waterstones near you just get it and read it anyway.)

I guess I have kind of digressed from the book here, yet I think that The Optician of Lampedusa is the sort of book that makes you do that. The optician of Lampedusa himself did something extraordinary that saved lives, Emma-Jane Kirby reported on it and wrote the book to share the story and awareness and get other people to do the same, that is now what I want to do with this review, even if it is just one or two of you rushing off to get it. That is where a book like The Optician of Lampedusa is so important, and reminds us how powerful books and people’s stories can be in making us see the reality of things and do what we can to help.

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Filed under Allen Lane Books, Books of 2016, Emma-Jane Kirby, Non Fiction, Review

The Argonauts – Maggie Nelson

Some books simply come into your subconscious awareness without you seemingly noticing. I had seen various tweets, articles and the like all talking about Maggie Nelson’s latest book The Argonauts but it was an article in The Pool that suddenly made me desperate to read it. I think that same article, and the background bubble and buzz around the book, also sparked the interest in quite a few people at the same time as spookily I spoke to two people on a single day who had also bought it on the same day and from the same bookshop in London, spooky.

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Melville House UK, 2016, paperback, memoir/non fiction, 192 pages, bought by myself for myself

I am interested in offering up my experience and performing my particular manner of thinking, for whatever they are worth.

If the description of Maggie Nelson’s autobiographical The Argonauts had simply been described as a woman’s journey falling in love and having a baby, it is unlikely that I would have read it. Do not get me wrong, I think women having babies is a real miracle (I seriously considered becoming a midwife six years ago) however there is something about the falling in love and trying to have a baby story that feels a bit done. This could not be further from the truth in the case of The Argonauts, so thank goodness the aforementioned article in The Pool said ‘her extraordinary book about queer family-making’ because this is a subject that I do not think has been written about or discussed enough, certainly not in the amazing way in which Nelson delivers (pun not intended) this book of bite sized thoughts, feelings, moments, questions and observations which form a work that will leave your head buzzing with ideas, information and avenues to question and explore. Oh yes, it is one of those kinds of books.

Is there something inherently queer about pregnancy itself, insofar as it profoundly alters one’s “normal” state, and occasions a radical intimacy with – and radical alienation from – one’s body? How can an experience so profoundly strange and wild and transformative also symbolize or enact the ultimate conformity? Or is this just another disqualification of anything tied too closely to the female animal from the privileged term (in this case, nonconformity, or radicality)? What about the fact that Harry is neither male nor female? I’m a special – a two for one, his character Valentine explains in By Hook or By Crook.

With The Argonauts Maggie Nelson shares with us her relationship with her partner Harry and her pregnancy with their son Iggy. At the time that Maggie was pregnant and going through all sorts of changes so was Harry as he was undergoing the hormones, medication and some of the surgery of his transition. They were both also transitioning in their relationship, from that instant attraction and initial lustful sex life to marriage, which neither of them ever thought they would do, and onto becoming a family, not just with their own child but with Harry’s son from a previous relationship. This time of great (in happiness, scale and scope) change brings with it all sorts of questions for Maggie but also many memories of her own childhood and her preconceived notions of what makes a marriage, a family, a spouse and a mother. It is these conversations with, and notes to, herself that make up the book; these also make for some of the most brilliant writing you will come across in quite some time.

What I think I liked the most about the book initially was Nelson’s frankness, which only gets more frank as she writes on. In fact almost nothing is off limits. This is not in some wild and wacky, also known as really annoying, memoirs that hope to tantalise and shock you with its direct look at LGBT issues, feminism, literature, death, love, lust, stalking, families, sex. This is a writer who is putting their life out there not to make yours better, though it very well might, but to get a conversation going and one that seriously needs to be had about all sorts of things that you didn’t even realise you wanted to talk about, and still might not (the fisting, ha) but most importantly some of the things that you really, really do. Like queer families and what it is really like to be a part of one as well as the transgender conversation which seems to be going on everywhere but feels a little safe and mainstream (overall, not completely) rather than frank and unflinching, which Nelson brings you unabashed whilst at the same time with heart, humanity, warmth, experience and intelligence.

What I liked most overall about the book was Nelson’s intellect. What I loved about it doubly is that she doesn’t expect you to be as intellectual as she is (thank goodness in my case) or that her thoughts are the be all and end all on the subject. Though when I say subjects there are so many subjects covered in The Argonauts it is pretty much impossible to write them all down, hence why I haven’t as I also really, really want you to go and read the bloody book, but if I can I will explain why her intellect and thoughts appealed to me so much.

Books teach us all sorts, often unwittingly, which is part and parcel of what makes them such marvellous things. With The Argonauts I felt like someone had, painlessly, taken the top of my skull off and was filling my brain with light and ideas and thoughts and conversations that my whole head started to buzz and tingle in a most pleasant way. That may sound like I had one too many lemsips when I was ill last week but it is true. As Maggie starts on the sound board of her pregnancy, Harry’s transitioning and their new family, we fly off in all directions and look at all sorts of things, with quotes from all sorts of brainiac’s who Nelson also makes so understandable. We follow all the directions her brain sparks off into. We have some incredibly heartbreaking moments like Harry’s mother’s death, all the times that they don’t get pregnant, the creepy stalker. We have all the happy ones, Iggy’s birth (told in glorious frankness), the first moments of a great love, all the hope. What we always come back to, and what everything boils down to is kindness, openness, respect and love. That is what this book really taught me.

A day or two after my love pronouncement, now feral with vulnerability, I sent you the passage from Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes in which Barthes describes how the subject who utters the phrase “I love you” is like “the Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name.” Just as the Argo’s parts may be replaced over time but the boat is still called the Argo, whenever the lover utters the phrase “I love you,” its meaning must be renewed by each use, as “the very task of love and of language is to give to one and the same phrase inflections which will be forever new.”

I have kind of said everything and nothing about The Argonauts here. I think overall though this is a good thing because a) I can never do justice to a book like this b) I just want you all to go and read it so you too can have the experience and the ‘I just need to put down this book and have a little think’ moments and then come back and talk to me about it. Which is Nelson’s agenda here fully accomplished frankly; as this is a book that starts a conversation that we all need to be having, openly and unapologetically. So come on, go and read it then let’s talk…

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Filed under Books of 2016, Maggie Nelson, Melville House UK, Memoir, Non Fiction, Review

We Should All Be Feminists – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

As I mentioned when I shared the Baileys Women’s Prize longlist yesterday, it was International Women’s Day. I decided to mark the occasion by reading a book that felt appropriate for the occasion which was We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who I am a huge fan of. As someone who believes in equal rights for everyone regardless of gender, race, sexuality, disability etc, I believe that I am a feminist. Yet, as Chimamanda points out in this work, the word feminist really divides people. I have been told I cannot be a feminist because I am a man, though once I was told begrudgingly that I could be one because I was a gay man, interesting. I disagree. In fact some people may say I shouldn’t even be commenting on this book, or say I am ‘mansplaining’; well I’m not and I want to talk about it so I will…

9780008115272

4th Estate, paperback, 2014, non-fiction, 62 pages, bought by myself for myself

In her essay We Should All Be Feminists, based on a TEDx talk that she gave, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie looks at her experiences and relationships with being a feminist and the reaction her feminism that people have had. Chimamanda was first called a feminist when she was young and having debates with one of her best friends, Okoloma who was tragically killed in a plane crash some years later. The thing was that when he said it, it wasn’t a flattering statement. This experience continued in her education as she reminisces about a moment she competed to be a school monitor, only to win and find out only boys could be school monitors – a small matter no one bothered to mention or question. It has carried on into her career as a novelist.

In 2003, I wrote a novel called Purple Hibiscus, about a man who, among other things, beats his wife, and whose story doesn’t end too well. While I was promoting the novel in Nigeria, a journalist, a nice, well meaning man, told me he wanted to advise me. (Nigerians, as you might know, are very quick to give unsolicited advice.)
He told me that people were saying my novel was feminist, and his advice to me – he was shaking his head sadly as he spoke – was that I should never call myself a feminist, since feminists are women who are unhappy because they cannot find husbands.
So I decided to call myself a Happy Feminist.

As she writes on Chimamanda looks at how the term ‘feminist’ has made people see her. From people thinking she doesn’t like men, to thinking she flaunts her feminism by wearing high heels, or trying to conform to the stereotype of what men find attracted. All wrong, all leading her to call herself a ‘Happy African Feminist Who Does Not Hate Men And Who Likes To Wear Lip Gloss And High Heels For Herself And Not Men’. Blimey, that is quite some title. Which leads to the question which many have asked, and will sadly continue to ask, which is ‘why then call yourself a feminist?’

Some people ask, ‘Why the word feminist? Why not just say you are a believer in human rights, or something like that?’ Because that would be dishonest. Feminism is, of course, part of human rights in general – but to choose to use the vague expression human rights is to deny the specific and particular problem of gender.  It would be a way of pretending that it was not women who have, for centuries, been excluded. It would be a way of denying that the problem of gender targets women. That the problem is not about being human, but specifically about being a female human. For centuries, the world divided humans into two groups and then proceeded to exclude and oppress one group. It is only fair that the solution to the problem should acknowledge that.

This I found really interesting. Firstly it is a perfectly correct and justifiable response which I hadn’t personally thought about. As I said earlier I see myself as someone who believes in equal rights which I thought automatically made me a feminist, but maybe it makes me a feminist by proxy instead, or not. It is the openness and/or interpretation of the word which differs so much that seems to cause much, not all, of the hoo-ha around it. Secondly, I wondered what Chimamanda’s thoughts on equal rights might be, as equal rights and human rights themselves can differ, dependent on the view. I think. Maybe. More food for thought. Thirdly I started to think about cultural backgrounds or beliefs and how they differ and was just pondering all this and what Chimamanda’s thoughts were on this (reading this became an interesting conversation in my head with Chimamanda that she wasn’t technically a part of but very much the catalyst of, if that doesn’t sound psychotic) when she second guessed me and brought it up.

Culture does not make people. People make culture. Chimamanda then goes on to look at how culture, informed by societies, makes the rules and sometimes those rules become outdated or simply become wrong. An example she uses is with her twin nieces who she and all her family see as a wonderful gift, however a while back in certain cultures this would not have been the case. The example she gives is that Igbo people used to kill twins 100 people, now the idea is abhorrent. This can be applied elsewhere in our more freethinking and modern world. If we keep seeing only men as heads of corporations, it starts to seem ‘natural’ that only men should be heads of corporations.

My next thought, see I did a lot of thinking about this, was if culture changes surely the term of feminism does too. Is feminism becoming more fluid as gender does? I am thinking in particular in relation to transgender and non-binary feminism, as I said I have been told I can’t be a feminist because I am a man, so what then in those instances. I would love, love, love some essays on this from transgender and non-binary writers please, I think that could create some really interesting debate. If you read this Chimamanda (I can dream, right?) I would love your thoughts on this. That said Chimamanda does look at the roles of each gender and how it is not just down to daughters of the present and future but importantly sons too.

Gender matters everywhere in the world. And I would like today to ask that we should begin to plan for a different world. A fairer world. A world of happier men and happier women who are truer to themselves. And this is how to start: we must raise our daughters differently. We must also raise our suns differently.

As the son of a woman who brought me up by herself whilst going to university, passing her degree and becoming a successful teacher, I like to think my mother has brought up such a son. So I found it all the more interesting that considering (if I do say so myself) I am very much open to all views and being a big believer in equality for everyone, this essay made me think all the more about it, question it and myself subsequently giving me a real brain work out. Hence why I think everyone should read it and why, as Chimamanda so eloquently argues, We Should All Be Feminists. We should.

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Filed under Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Fourth Estate Books, Harper Collins, Non Fiction, Review

The Last Act of Love – Cathy Rentzenbrink

Grief is still something that we modern human folk are pretty rubbish at. It is something that we don’t like to talk about along with its frequent bedfellow death. I have often felt that in The West and particularly in Britain we are told to keep a stiff upper lip and get on with it. In reality this doesn’t help. If we are going through it we bottle it inside, isolate ourselves and tend to make it look like we are fine. When people are grieving we tend to find ourselves unsure what to do and either go one of two ways by being over helpful (and accidentally overbearing in some cases) or by distancing ourselves from people thinking they probably don’t want our help or need us in their faces – or maybe that is just me. Yet until we talk about it more, in all its forms, we won’t deal with it better individually or as a society, so thank goodness for people like Cathy Rentzenbrink who have the bravery, for it is a very brave act, to share their real life experiences with grief in a book like The Last Act of Love.

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Picador Books, 2015, hardback, memoir, 246 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

I was drifting off to sleep when I heard someone shouting outside in the car park. Nothing unusual about that. Customers often pitched up in the middle of the night looking for their wallets or keys or wives. I opened my window to see what was going on. The man below didn’t look mad or drunk. He was standing next to his car. The headlights were on and I could see a woman in the passenger seat.
‘Is this where Matthew Mintern lives?
‘Yes, I’m his sister.’
‘You’d better come then, he’s in trouble.’
Trouble. It was a worrying word but a small one.

Trouble does not cover what follows as Cathy Rentzenbrink describes how after a night out with her younger brother Matthew, where she left earlier and he stayed on, he is hit by a car. Cathy arrives not long after to be by his side as the ambulance staff arrive and take him to the hospital, all she can think of is to pray that he survives, pray that he will get better, pray that he will live. Yet in the days, weeks, months and years after his accident pass Matthew, or Matty, shows very little sign of mental (and therefore physical) recovery from the accident and remains in a persistent vegetative state (which is a term I really, really hate and think should be changed for the record) the idea of life becomes less of a blessing and more of a curse. The Last Act of Love follows Cathy and her family as they come to terms with this and the life they all lead alongside Matty afterwards and question what ‘a life’ actually means.

There is so much that I admired about The Last Act of Love it is almost impossible not to fawn over it because I think it is such a beautiful, honest and important book. It is utterly heartbreaking, yet strangely hopeful and uplifting too. Cathy manages to build a full picture of relationships and situations in a few paragraphs which give her memoir an extra intensity. For example whilst the accident happens early on Cathy swiftly builds up the wonderful relationship that she had with her brother, who was also clearly her best friend and who she loved without end. Not long after the book opens we are taken with them as they discuss love together while Matty fixes an old motorbike, it is just a few paragraphs yet instantly we see the dynamic and depth of their love, which of course makes what follows all the more heartbreaking and Cathy’s despair and emotions all the more engulfing in the aftermath.

Everything apart from being with Matty seemed irrelevant. I’d always kept diaries and notebooks, but now I wrote nothing. My words had gone AWOL. I couldn’t bear to read the pointless, silly rubbish the old me had written so I tied all my diaries up in two carrier bags and chucked them into the skip at the back of the pub.
Reading was still my friend, though. I read constantly and compulsively, drowning out the sounds of my own thoughts with the noise of other people’s stories. I no longer turned out the light before going to sleep – I had to read until the moment my eyes closed. There could be no gap for the demons to jump into.

One of the things that I admired most of all throughout was Cathy’s honesty and directness, both in the good times and the bad. I mention the good times because, as we all know, even in the darkest times there are some very funny (often inappropriately so) moments amongst the sadness. Yet where I think The Last Act of Love excels and is at its most potent and poignant is in the darker moments. The moments where you have to update people on a horrific situation, how you tell people who don’t know (which during Cathy’s reflection on college she gives a list of the options and the likely responses to telling new friends about her brother), the guilt you feel, the spectrum of emotions, the way you think physical pain might take away mental pain, how you cope at points when you feel you simply cannot endure  any more and how you do or don’t deal with all these things.

It would be very easy for anyone writing something like this to leave out the bad bits, or as in some things I have read simply move all the bad bits around loss, grief and emotional turmoil and project them onto someone else making yourself look the martyr. Cathy doesn’t do that, in fact she often does the opposite. She openly talks about the intense anger and rage you feel, how uncontrollably sorry for yourself you can feel, how hard it can be to support someone who is seriously or terminally ill and indeed be the person who brings up the difficult question of whether someone really should ‘live’ through all of this – which is what makes up the second section of the book. All this before the guilt and grief that follow after someone’s death which she discusses just as honestly.

There was no pleasing me. I was angry with people who wanted to ask me about Matty, but also angry when they stopped asking and didn’t want to see him. A tragic accident and a coma are exciting, but the prospect of permanent severe brain damage much less so. People didn’t want to see him. They had loved him – not quite like one of their own, but they had loved him – and it was distressing for them to see him so transformed. They gradually drifted away.

Not to make this all about me, though as it is my blog and my reaction to books is always an emotive one as a reader it’s hard not to, but I think all of these aspects of the book were what really chimed with me and also made me think it was ok to have had those dark thoughts and moments before myself. As many of you will know I  often looked after Granny Savidge during her terminal illness and had many of these moments. I can remember having blazing rows with her and everyone else in the family because emotions were so high yet loving them all so much. I remember wanting to ignore the phone the third time in the night she wanted help on the commode because I was so, so tired. I can also remember laughing endlessly when she thought a Crunchie bar wrapper was She-Ra’s bustier or when she told me to ‘shove it in your pipe and smoke it’ after I offered her a strawberry. I remember the moments in her last weeks when I felt guilty that I wanted her to die and then the  fear when I would say to her ‘you can go now Gran, it’s ok, we don’t mind, we love you’ worrying that she might and it would be all my fault. It was reading Cathy’s story that made me realise that that was all ok, it was grief, it was normal, it was human and it was how I coped even when it wasn’t pleasant under an emotionally crushing time. I hope I haven’t over shared there too much.

Speaking of which, before I wrap up, one of the other things that I loved about Cathy’s writing was the fact that while she lets you into some very intimate and personal parts of her life not once does it feel like it is over sharing or exploitative. It is simply a book that is emotionally open and honest and in telling both her story and the story of Matty The Last Act of Love is a book that once read will help or sooth the pain or guilt that anyone who has cared for or lost a loved one feels. Oh the power of reading.

If you hadn’t guessed already I would highly recommend people read The Last Act of Love. It is a warm, engaging, emotional yet hopeful book that I think truly is the last act of love from a sister to her little brother. And an act that will provide solace to many, many readers.

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Filed under Books of 2015, Cathy Rentzenbrink, Non Fiction, Picador Books, Review

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou

There is a sad truth that sometimes it can take the death of an author to remind you that you have always meant to read them. This was very much the case when Maya Angelou died last year and I was reminded that I had still not attempted to read any of her many volumes of autobiography. These books also happen to be some of my mother’s favourite books and on many occasion she has told me I really must read. So when I saw the first four of them pristine in a charity shop last autumn I snapped them up, it took my friend Rachael choosing I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings for book group earlier this year for me to finally get around to reading it.

Virago Books, 1984, paperback, memoir, 320 pages, kindly bought by me for me

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings covers the first year of Maya Angelou’s life, opening in the small segregated town of Stamps we soon learn that Maya and her brother were sent there to live with family after their parents marriage failed. What breaks your heart early on, and indeed sets a tone to this memoir, is the fact that they had tag attached to them labelled ‘To whom it may concern.’ The landscape and times of Maya’s childhood are not easy. Whilst Stamps is segregated that doesn’t mean that it is safe from racism or other evils of the world and nor is living with her grandmother really an exactly happy or enriching experience especially once she is sent away again to live with her mother having only just got used to almost calling one place home.

In Stamps the segregation was so complete that most Black children didn’t really, absolutely know what whites looked like. Other than that they were different, to be dreaded, and in that dread was included the hostility of the powerless against the powerful, the poor against the rich, the worker against the worked for and the ragged against the well dressed.
I remember never believing that whites were really real.

From here things swiftly go downhill as Maya where she is sexually abused by her mother’s partner and once this is discovered he is soon found dead having been murdered, Maya becomes a mute. What then follows from here is a tale of how a young woman who has already faced so much difficulty must not only try to make her way with that mental and physical scaring, but also in a world set against her firstly because she is black and secondly because she is female.

If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat.
It is an unnecessary insult.

There were several things that I found fascinating about I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. First and foremost was its look at the plight of black people during a horrendous time in America’s history, though scarily you see moments of the past in the present when you watch the news, when racial tensions were incredibly heightened. Black people were simply considered second rate, if that, and what adds such an impact to Angelou’s writing is that everything she encounters is fact not fiction. Big moments such as having to help hide her uncle from the Klu Klux Klan, how an employee of hers simply changes her name to Mary (partly because it is easier but also because it is whiter) to smaller yet just as awful moments like simply being unable to see a dentist when she has toothache as he only deals with white girls. Yet amongst all this, we read, there remainded hope.

Champion of the world. A Black boy. Some Black mother’s son. He was the strongest man in the world. People drank Coca-Colas like ambrosia and ate candy bars like Christmas. Some of the men went behind the Store and poured white lightening in their soft-drink bottles, and a few of the bigger boys followed them. Those who were not chased away came back blowing their breath in front of themselves like proud smokers.

 As I read on I both admired Angelou for the things she accomplished (which I will not spoil) before she even turns twenty, as the book ends when she is seventeen, and also because of all the things she encompasses in writing  I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings later in her life. It is interesting that in some ways you get the older and younger writer all at once, if that makes sense. I found her honesty, forgiveness, humour and acceptance both humbling and fascinating. I also found her passion for literature wonderful (there was a bit about The Well of Loneliness which I found very funny) and I loved how she talked about and looked at class, family and identity.

Bailey persisted in calling her Mother Dear until the circumstance of proximity softened the phrase’s formality to ‘Muh Dear,’ and finally to ‘M’Deah.’ I could never put my finger on her realness. She was so pretty and so quick that even when she had just awakened, her eyes full of sleep and hair tousled, I thought she looked just like the Virgin Mary. But what mother and daughter understand each other, or even have the sympathy for each other’s lack of understanding?

There is a small but for me, my mother will be reading this and raising an eyebrow sorry Mum, which that is that I actually wish I had read it back in my teens. Whilst I totally understood it is an incredibly important piece of work, one which should frankly be on the syllabus around the world especially in the US and UK, I did feel that coming to it now it did have a slight less impact that I wanted it to. This might be because so many people have told me how fantastic and important it is, which can add a lot of hype and pressure to a book, yet I think it is because I have read a lot of other works that look at this time period and the horrendousness of it all, albeit through fiction.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that you only have to have read a few books on a subject to understand it (far from it, on some parts of history we can never know enough no matter how difficult) and you can’t really compare fiction to fact. I was often very moved by the book; I just didn’t really gel with it until about two thirds/three quarters of the way through, I wondered if this was because Maya’s memories of her early childhood might not be as strong until her early teens and hence why sometimes I felt rather distant and confused with what was going on. However as Maya grew up and became more independent, I became hooked and was very disappointed when it then soon ended, meaning I will have to get to the second in due course. I have a feeling the further I read on with Maya Angelou and her story the more and more effect it will have on me.

What I found interesting was that Tracy, Rachael and Barbara, who I am in my book group with, all felt very similar. Have you read I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and what did you make of it? Have your read the following six volumes and how was your journey, no spoilers, with Maya as you went on? Do you think how old we are, or where we are in our life affects the responses we have to books along with what we have read before?

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Filed under Maya Angelou, Non Fiction, Review, Virago Books, Virago Modern Classics

One Life – Kate Grenville

I have often believed that some of the most interesting stories can come not from the rich and famous but from those people in our families past. I have the tale of my Great Great Aunt who after burying her husband returned to his grave sometime later to discover his mistress had been buried with him. We all have those family stories don’t we? Kate Grenville has many such a tale in her family, however it is the story of her mother Nance Russell that she has focused on (though we also get some other family tales) who, as we come to learn reading One Life, was a remarkable woman in many ways who lived through some of Australia’s most interesting historical times, yet to those who met her may have simply appeared to be a suburban housewife.

Canongate Books, hardback, 2015, non-fiction, 254 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Kate Grenville’s tale of her mother Nance starts from the first memory that Nance had of crying loudly and too much as she was put under her father’s arm. We start from the very beginning, and technically a little before her birth thanks to Grenville’s preface, as we join Nance at her home of Rothsay with her mother Dolly, her father Albert and her brothers Frank and Max. Yet this is not going to be home for long, and indeed this becomes a theme in Nance’s childhood, as soon the family up sticks and move, again and again and again, sometimes with her parents or a parent or sometimes shipped off to a relative or friend.

With the backdrop of the Australian Depression of the 1930’s we follow Nance’s childhood as she makes her way through school and soon come to see that Nance is going to become a woman of firsts as she studies pharmacy, graduates and becomes a pharmacist something quite unheard of at the time. And this is before she even falls in love or meets her husband and her life takes on multiple trajectories as she takes on multiple roles as lover, wife, mother and career woman. I don’t want to say too much more because part of discovering where Nance’s life goes is part of the charm of One Life, though it charmed me in plenty of ways.

It is very hard as you read One Life to remember that this is all based on fact, and indeed Kate had the help of many conversations with her mother before she died and the memoirs Nance had started. This is in part because of the way Nance’s life developed from that childhood I mentioned and onto being a successful career woman and quite amazing wife and mother at home. It is also because Nance is such a wonderful character; you can really imagine having a good laugh with her over a cup of tea. Yet whilst Grenville injects all the love and respect she had for Nance into her writing of her, we aren’t given a saint. As we discover Nance had flaws and some naughtier shenanigans in her life, we are given the portrait of a woman whole. I adored her and the way Grenville wrote about her from every angle.

Another thing that makes you forget that it is real is the backdrop that Nance’s life had in terms of Australia’s history, and Australia very much feels like a character in the book all of its own as we travel around it and see it go through bad times and good. We have the big events like the Depression and of course the World Wars, the latter which initially seems like a distant issue until her brother Frank enrols and ends up in a prisoner of war camp, which of course took me right back to Richard Flanagan’s very much fictional but all too real The Narrow Road To The Deep North. So you have these massive things happening in the background affecting Nance’s life.

Nance has seen the little man with the moustache on the newsreels, standing at his stone pulpit, his arm pumping up and down, haranguing great crowds that seemed like machines, line after line of people in the same uniforms thrusting their arms in the air. But it was on the other side of the world and in another language. It was serious but not personal. It was Britain’s war. The man with the moustache was frightening but he was also a bit ridiculous.

You also have the smaller yet equally significant domestic changes. We go through era’s where women are allowed to study and even graduate, we follow the sexual freedom and liberation that came from contraception, we watch as women could work and even set up by themselves breaking the shackles of society. We also learn how man, and some older generations of women (Nance’s mother Dolly is utterly fascinating) reacted to that both in good and bad ways. These small domestic shifts I found as interesting, if not more, than the big parts of history as I knew much less about them.

Leaving the doctors with the little beige box in her handbag, Nance thought, mine is the first generation of women, in the history of the world, to have any choice about children. All those millions of women who were nothing but baby-machines. So many of them must have been like me, wanting it both ways. Children, of course, but a life of their own too.

Grenville’s writing is wonderful; if you have read any of her novels you will know this already. Nance and her family come to life and walk off the pages. She celebrates the ordinary and the stories of the everyday. She builds the world of Australia through those times fully without hitting us over the head with research and yet highlighting important events big and small. What she also does which I think is very clever is that she highlights the plight of women at the start of the 1900’s, the struggle for change and how changes as it comes affects everyone, without ever taking a moral high ground or bashing men of the time for the society that they were also born into through no fault of their own. I mean if they behave badly then they are fair game, but not all of them did, a lot but not all. There is just great warmth, generosity and passion with this book that is really hard to try and encompass in words.

No book Nance had ever read described burned dinners or messed children. None had even mentioned trivial domestic details, let alone been exact about them.
The night Ken brought the new novel home for her she burned their own dinner, reading in the kitchen, so engrossed that she didn’t smell the potatoes until they were almost alight. At Mrs Lippincote’s was about the world she knew: the invisible armies of disregarded mothers and housewives. Elizabeth Taylor proved what Nance had always known, that the quiet domestic dramas of women’s lives might be invisible to men, but they mattered just as much.

I have chosen that final quote as I think (without having read At Mrs Lippincote’s, which I now desperately want to) that Kate Grenville does something in One Life which Elizabeth Taylor was trying to do with her writing. Not only does she write about some of the forgotten voices and the underdogs in society, she also writes about the domestic and the working class and celebrates them. In giving us the voice of her mother, Nance Russell, she gives voice to a generation of women who are often left unheard and yet who once known about should be the role model’s we should be championing to future generations. I cannot recommend you discovering Nance Russell’s story enough.

If you would like to hear Kate Grenville talking about One Life, you can hear her chatting to me on the latest episode of You Wrote the Book – which is back!

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Filed under Books of 2015, Canongate Publishing, Kate Grenville, Non Fiction, Review

This Book is Gay – James Dawson

So I thought I would end my mini Pride weekend with a book that I spent the whole of Pride reading as I was stuck in bed with the snuffles. Shockingly despite how forward thinking we are as people sex education in the UK, and as far as I am aware in the US, Canada and Australia, still fails to encompass information for LGBT people – and at a time when HIV is rising in the younger generations. And this is in progressive countries around the world where it is legal. I certainly wish I had been able to get my younger gay hands on this when I was going through some of my turbulent (to say the least) teens. Oh and if you think this book is just for LGBT people, think again this is a book for anyone and everyone whatever your sexuality or preferences.

Hot Key Books, paperback, 2014, non fiction, 272 pages, kindly sent to me by the publisher

Lesson One

  • Sometimes men fancy men.
  • Sometimes women fancy women.
  • Sometimes women fancy men and women.
  • Sometimes men fancy women and men.
  • Sometimes people don’t fancy anyone.
  • Sometimes a man might want to be a woman.
  • Sometimes a woman might want to be a man.

Got that? It really is that simple.

Of course whilst things should be that simple, taking into account that some men fancy women and some women fancy men obviously, they aren’t. This is where James Dawson starts This Book is Gay, because things aren’t that simple, which when you see it written in black and white like that makes it seem all the more idiotic, or ‘cray’ as James often mentions in the book. What follows is a guide to the world of the LGBT community from the very beginning and those first questions in their heads to what the possibilities can be in the future.

Now I am a 33 year old gay man and I thought this might be preaching to the converted but I learned so much from this book, which I binge read in just over twenty four hours, so I can only imagine how eye opening James frank yet funny book would be to someone at the early ponderings of what they may or may not be. First there is the history of LGBT rights, which again we didn’t learn at school, then there is the state of LGBT affairs all over the world. I still cannot believe that it is illegal in some countries let alone be treated with the death penalty.

Then there comes the science bit. Dawson looks at all the varying scientific discussions there have been from genetics to epignetics, from brain structure to evolution as to why people might be gay (making me feel so much cleverer) yet also highlighting that it doesn’t really matter and we should all just get on with it. He also looks at other things which are often just as complex to negotiate. Coming out, the gay scene, apps, dating, and sexy times Dawson looks at every possible angle of sexuality whatever yours might be. So much information and yet delivered in such a digestible and upfront way, marvellous. I came away understanding so much more, especially as Dawson intersects his text with the accounts of LGBT people of all ages from places all over the world.

Before you think that this is just some rainbow bright version of events, think again. Dawson also looks at all the darker and more difficult parts of LGBT life. From bullying in schools or parents and friends having issues with you when you come out, to homophobia in general and things like drug addiction, cheating spouses and other difficulties that can be faced. I have to give huge credit to Dawson here as he could have just said ‘these people are idiots’, instead he looks at reasons for their homophobia (internal, religion, uneducated, etc) tries to get you to see where its coming from and then how to deal with it. Even the more negative aspects of the books have a positive message or way of dealing with them.

The word ‘gay’ started life meaning joyful, carefree, bright and showy, from the French term ‘gaiety’, which is still used. However, by the seventeenth century, the word had evolved: a ‘gay woman’ was a prostitute, a ‘gay man’ was promiscuous, and a ‘gay house’ was a brothel. Nice.

Initially I did worry that when the book started that there might be one too many stereotypes and what if people didn’t feel they fit in with bears, twinks, otters, butch, femme etc. Or indeed what if they don’t identify themselves as L, G, B or T. But as one chapter is entitles ‘Stereotypes are poo’ and while Dawson discusses labels he is by no means saying you should identify with any particular one, he also says while being gay/lesbian/trans/pan/queer is an important part of you it shouldn’t be the only important part and define you. Bravo!

What is I found oddly uplifting and amazing is that This Book is Gay is only a year old and is already slightly out of date. This is not James’ fault of course, I am sure that he is thrilled by the fact that progress keeps on coming. Ireland has of course had the referendum vote on equal marriage which went through and the supreme court in the United States has ruled that that equal marriage is legal in every single state. Yet with countries like India going backwards, the all kinds of crazy stuff going on in Russia and the fact there is still no mention of LGBT in sex education (due to old legislation in 1988 and its ripple effects still lingering) in the UK we still have a long way to go for full equality.

Once upon a time, there was a very bad lady – let’s, for the sake of argument, call her Maggie. She decreed that teachers must not include ‘gay lifestyles’ in sex education lessons. This was called ‘Section 28’, and it explains why I, as a young man, had no idea what a gay man was OR what they did.

I am the same generation as Mr Dawson and I feel exactly the same, whilst my life wouldn’t have necessarily been less difficult growing up as a gay man if I’d had a copy of This Book is Gay I would certainly have felt less alone and at least a little more prepared for what might have been coming my way. With This Book is Gay James Dawson writes a guide to gay lifestyles from coming out, to dating, to sex, relationships and beyond in a style that makes you feel like you having a conversation with a caring friend.

I think This Book is Gay is an incredibly important book and one which needs to have several copies stocked in libraries and schools everywhere so it can be read by LGBT people, people questioning their sexuality or just people who want to know more or understand, whatever their ages. (As the book states our heterosexual allies are incredibly important too.) It’s rare that you can say a book could save lives, but this one could especially as education of safe sex for young gay men is so thin on the ground and HIV transmission is increasing. Mr Dawson, I applaud you and this book.

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Filed under Hot Key Books, James Dawson, Non Fiction, Review

The Lady in the Van – Alan Bennett

I have been somewhat berating myself of late over the fact that I seem to be reading more shiny new books than I do the backlists of authors that I am either big fans of or think I could be big fans of. (I have mentioned my thoughts on an author binge of late who I have been meaning to read much more of.) I was therefore delighted when my lovely friend Barbs chose Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van, both as it was short and I have been prize judging (she’s very considerate) and because Bennett is a writer I love who I haven’t read enough of. Shockingly though I have read it twice I don’t have a review of The Uncommon Reader on the blog which is a HUGE favourite here as it is with most readers. Anyway, I was excited to read this and chat about it with three ladies in a restaurant…

Profile Books, paperback, 1989 (1999 edition), non fiction, 96 pages, bought by myself for myself

‘I ran into a snake this afternoon,’ Miss Shepherd said. ‘It was coming up Parkway. It was a long, grey snake – a boa constrictor possibly. It looked poisonous. It was keeping close to the wall and seemed to know its way. I’ve a feeling it may have been heading for the van.’ I was relieved that on this occasion she didn’t demand that I ring the police, as she regularly did if anything out of the ordinary occurred. Perhaps this was too out of the ordinary (though it turned out the pet shop in Parkway had been broken into the previous night so she may have seen a snake). She brought her mug over and I made her a drink, which she took back to the van. ‘I thought I’d better tell you,’ she said, ‘just to be on the safe side. I’ve had some close shaves with snakes.’

And so The Lady in the Van starts as it means to go on and throws us straight into the (very much true) story of Alan Bennett and his neighbour Miss Shepherd. Well, when I say neighbour, I actually mean the woman who lived in a van on his road until some people complained to the council and Bennett kindly offered her the space on his drive/front garden in front of the garage. What Mr Bennett didn’t realise was that the invite to stay there for a couple of weeks turned into the small time of a mere fifteen years. Through short sharp diary entries he lets the reader into a relationship and friendship of sorts which he never expected.

It is almost too obvious to say that what I loved most about The Lady in the Van was Alan Bennett’s writing, yet it is true – I just love his writing. The way he captures people’s characteristics is wonderful and Miss Shepherd’s full (or full on) personality comes loud and clear, what a character she was. Some people might have made me more of a figure of fun, some might have made her a tragic case, Bennett brings all of her sides and intricacies to life; at times she is witty, difficult, frustrating, upsetting, a villain and a victim. Bennett is also very good at writing honestly (or as honestly as one can) about himself. He isn’t some hero in shining armour who befriended an old lady and made her life wonderful, he is a man who did something very kind and sometimes wondered why on earth he had bothered yet at the same time he made as much a difference to her life as she did to his. It is deftly done.

October 1984. Some new staircarpet fitted today. Spotting the old carpet being thrown out, Miss S. says it would be just the thing to put on the roof of the van to deaden the sound of rain. This exchange comes just as I am leaving for work, but I say that I do not want the van festooned with bits of old carpet – it looks bad enough as it is. When I come back in the evening I find half the carpet remnants slung over the roof. I ask Miss S. who has put them there, as she can’t have done it herself. ‘A friend,’ she says mysteriously. ‘A well wisher.’ Enraged, I pull down a token piece but the majority stays put.

As much as it made me laugh at times, especially when Miss S decides to become a member of parliament or hints at moving in or pretends the utter mess she lives in is merely blown from all over the road, I was also very much moved by The Lady in the Van. As whilst it is a tale of a crazy lady who ended up in Bennett’s garden, it is also the story of a woman with no family or friends to speak of who has been spending the most of her last decades alone and seen as ‘a character’ which may be the case on the outside but what about on the inside and why she ended up surrounded by cake crumbs, papers and a spotless cutlery set in a van and clothes in a robin reliant. You chuckle, then you think a little deeper.

Through Alan’s observations and thoughts we ponder old age and how no matter how old we get there is still the same person and personality within that body that looks somewhat different than it once did. It also looks at care for the elderly and the benefits (and pitalls) that independence can bring. It also highlights the fact that we tend to forget that elderly people have lived a full life, possibly full of all sorts of secrets and lessons we could learn, yet all we see is the result of those years and sadly sometimes judge them. In fact I would say judging people is probably one of the biggest themes of the book along with kindness, after all how many of us would have done what Bennett did if we found ourselves in that position?

So for me Alan Bennett triumphed once again with The Lady in the Van. As with his fictional writings such as Smut, The Uncommon Reader and his Talking Heads series (which I used to have on tape and listened to religiously before bed in my teens) and with memoir like A Life Like Other People’s he hits us just at the spot where humour and poignancy meet. He is a lover of character and characters and celebrates them with their flaws and all. I must read more of his work and I must see this when the movie comes out in November…

What about all of you? Have you read, or seen the play of, The Lady in the Van? Which of Alan Bennett’s other works have you seen or read and should I head to Untold Stories, Writing Home or Telling Tales next?

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Filed under Alan Bennett, Book Group, Books of 2015, Non Fiction, Profile Books, Review

Levels of Life – Julian Barnes

I feel a bit like I owe Julian Barnes an apology. You see for some unfathomable reason, known only in the unreachable part of the 90% of my brain that I don’t use, I had decided that he wasn’t an author for me. I think around his Man Booker win and the way everyone was talking about him I created an author who I wouldn’t like, would find dry and miserable and a bit worthy – completely forgetting I had read and loved Arthur and George which resides happily on my bookshelves in the lounge. Imagine then the horror I felt when Rob chose Levels of Life for Hear Read This! and not long after Claire had chosen Flaubert’s Parrot for book club. I decided to start with the short one first…

Vintage Books, paperback, 2014 (2000 edition), fiction, 128 pages, kindly sent by the publisher (almost passed on if Rob hadn’t chosen it for Hear Read This!)

I have to admit that when I started Levels of Life the odds were stacked against it. I had been told that it was a book about ballooning and grief, in particular the grief Barnes has been going through since the death of his wife. Ballooning? And grief? Ballooning and grief? This wasn’t going to work. I was internally chanting ‘thank goodness it is short, thank goodness it is short’. Well silly old me because a book that is indeed about ballooning and grief had me enthralled and then in absolute tears, and I admired every sentence of it. Barnes does something very clever indeed with Levels of Life, and not in a clever pretentious way, by creating three sections (or levels in a way) which link in some ways you would expect and many ways you wouldn’t hazard a clue at.

The first section, around 24 pages, of the book are indeed about the history of ballooning. Now ballooning doesn’t appeal to me; a lot like boats, submarines, cricket (or indeed sport in general), horses (full stop) or talking animals of any variety, it is just a subject I don’t think I have any interest in. Well apparently I am a liar to myself because I found the history of ballooning, in Barnes’ capable hands, utterly fascinating. Who knew? It is the sign of an accomplished author and sparky narration to make anyone interested in something they swear they couldn’t really give two hoots about.

You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed. People may not notice at the time, but that doesn’t matter. The world has been changed nonetheless.

The second section/level of the book is all the love affair of French actress Sarah Bernhardt and English colonel Fred Burnaby, who happened to be two of the pioneers of ballooning. We read about them a little in the first section, yet it is really Gaspard-Félix Tournachon who is in the limelight of that section, here these two lovers become full focus and we look at how independent people might or might not make the ideal couple and tame one another, or possibly not. Again I was gripped by this section, especially by the story of Sarah Bernhardt and her menagerie including a pillow eating python she bought here in Liverpool. I did begin to ponder if Barnes had a mind to write a fictional account of her and used it in this instead, she fully comes to life with Fred and their affair is totally tantalising.

You put two people who have not been put together before; and sometimes the world is changed, sometimes not. They may crash and burn, or burn and crash. But sometimes, something new is made, and then the world is changed. Together, in that first exaltation, that first roaring sense of uplift, they are greater than their two separate selves. Together, they see further, and they see more clearly.

Then everything changes and the real force behind the book comes to the fore as in the third and final section of the book Barnes writes about his grief after the death of his wife, literary agent Pat Kavanagh. Grief is a very, very personal thing and something we are not prone to discussing even though we all go through it. Barnes does something exceptionally brave, though he probably wouldn’t see it as such, in sharing the brutal honesty of how much the loss has affected him. From contemplating suicide to talking to his wife or dreaming her up at night, even though he knows she is dead. He shares his story of grief but also the stories of others and how everyone grieves differently. It is raw, devastating and incredibly moving.

You may here of course be wondering how the ballooning does interlink to it all and this to me added even more depth and, as clichéd as it will sound because of the title of the book, levels to this final section. Firstly there is the slightly obvious motifs of the rise and fall of the balloon, from how at a great height, and in hindsight, we appreciate everything around us etc. Secondly there is the fact that actually loving someone is a risky business, like early ballooning. You might crash and burn, you might soar off into the sunset, their maybe storms and unknown danger ahead. Love comes with risk. There are also the links to earlier moments. Barnes will compare grief to the python overstuffed with pillows Bernhardt has in the second section, he will compare it to the fall to the death one man had who ended up embedded in a flower bed his own legs forcing his internal organs to be ripped out, his world and himself exploding. These all add an extra dimension to the book, so difficult to describe yet so totally affecting.

You put together two people who have not been put together before. Sometimes it is like that first attempt to harness a hydrogen balloon to a fire balloon: do you prefer crash and burn, or burn and crash? But sometimes it works, and something new is made, and the world is changed. Then, at some point, sooner or later, for this reason or that, one of them is taken away. And what is taken away is greater than the sum of what was there. This may not be mathematically possible, but it is emotionally possible.

I can’t quite put into words how brilliant I thought Levels of Life was. In terms of a piece of literature it is incredibly original and so cleverly constructed. Yet there is so much more to this book than it’s amazing construction, it is an emotionally driven and filled work. I don’t think I have read anything so raw and visceral about love and grief. Possibly ever. Having gone through the death of Gran last year this book chimed so much on an emotional level with me I couldn’t stop crying through the final section of the book, though I think anyone who reads this and doesn’t cry probably has a piece of coal where their heart should be, and I am so thankful to Barnes for being as honest as he is and urge you all to go and grab a copy of this book.

Of course I am now feeling a) all the more stupid for writing him off as an author I didn’t like after this mini masterpiece b) very excited about reading Flaubert’s Parrot. I am also pondering which others of his books I should read as it appears Barnes is very much a ‘me’ kind of writer. You can hear more of my thoughts on Hear Read This, along with Kate, Gav and Rob. Who else has read this book and what did you make of it? Can any of you recommend any other books on grief, as this seemed very cathartic for me, that I should look out for? Oh and any recommendations on books about Sarah Bernhardt are most welcome, she sounded fascinating, I could become obsessed!

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Filed under Julian Barnes, Non Fiction, Review, Vintage Books

Did She Kill Him? A Victorian Tale of Deception, Adultery and Arsenic – Kate Colquhoun

With a title like that and a well-known obsession with all things Victorian, there was little doubt that I was going to miss out on reading Did She Kill Him? A Victorian Tale of Deception, Adultery and Arsenic (which from now on we will just call Did She Kill Him? to save my poor fingers) was there? My only slight worry before I embarked on Kate Colquhoun’s latest book was that I haven’t got the best track record with non-fiction, however I needn’t have worried. Truth be told if more non-fiction was written like this, or I discovered more non-fiction with this kind of narrative, I think I would be a huge fan of it.

Little Brown, hardback, 2014, non-fiction, 432 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Being non-fiction the true story behind Did You Kill Him? is not difficult to look up. However I am going to assume that you know very little, or absolutely nothing like myself, of the case of Florence Maybrick. This means I don’t want to spoil it for any of you, as wondering the outcome of this book was one of its many wonders to read. I think it is enough to say that during 1889 Florence Maybrick became a household name all over the country, not just in the city of Liverpool where she (and now I) lived at the time, after she was arrested under the suspicion of murdering her husband by arsenic poisoning. The question on everyone’s lips was ‘Did She Kill Him?’ and Kate Colquhoun looks at the weeks leading up to James Maybrick’s death and just what was happening behind the façade of the Maybrick’s well suited marriage and happy household.

Sitting in the Battlecrease parlour that Saturday morning, 16 March 1889, Florence felt suffocated. It was too quiet. The nursemaid, Alice Yapp, has the children. James was in the city fussing over his deals. Mrs Humphreys, the cook, was preparing lunch. The young maids – Bessie Brierley and Mary Cadwallader – were tucking, polishing and tidying, putting to rights the nursery, straightening the upstairs rooms, quietly moving down corridors as they completed their chores.

It makes for fascinating reading. Again without giving anything away we learn of their marriage and how Florence left her American home, as many women did at the time, being a woman of new money looking for a title and old money in the UK – the husbands also looking for new money and fine young wives making it mutually agreeable. We learn how this initially was a marvellous thing for the Maybrick’s and then discover that for both parties it was not quite what they had pictured. Soon, we discover, arsenic addiction, infidelity and isolation were all part of the Maybrick household. All of this becoming more clear later on when the case goes to trial, when James falls suddenly ill and starts to deteriorate and suspicions over fly papers, bottles of medicine, mental states etc. all come to light, yet we as the reader know this already.

This is part of what makes Did She Kill Him? so wonderful to read. We learn about all the before and then see it through the various witnesses eyes at the time again when it goes to court. If you are like me the very idea of a court case in a book (all those docks and all that lawyer speak) makes you instantly think ‘boring’, think again. You are fascinated to hear the evidence from the witnesses and how different, untrue, cunning, misunderstood it all is (Alice Yapp and one of James’ brothers are such marvellous characters that you just couldn’t make up). Colquhoun also makes it incredibly fast paced and, to use an overused (I am so sorry) cliché, this book reads like a thriller – as will another court based fiction book I will discuss later this week. I digress…

There are some books I read that I call ‘google’ books, though really I should call them ‘run along to the reference section in the library’ books, where you just find out so much fascinating stuff you long to find out even more. Things like the 1857 divorce act and the 1870/1882 married women’s property acts, fascinating. I never thought I would want to know all about the history of arsenic as a substance and how it was used in its raw forms and in day to day life, well I can reveal exclusively here that I was gripped. Who knew?!? Yet Colquhoun makes it fascinating both in how it relates to the case but also Victorian society at large and without ever seeming to show off (some authors do, we’ve all read those books) and condenses pages and pages of what she must have read into marvellous factual titbits.

Some, like Queen Victoria in the late 1870’s, were concerned enough to order suspect wallpapers to be removed from their homes. Newspapers like The Times condemned the government for its laissez-faire attitude, suggesting that MPs would rather allow the slow poisoning of our little ones than the economic repercussions of trying to eliminate arsenic from a wide range of products. Others remained sceptical: William Morris refused to avoid even the most pernicious pigments, believing the scare to be a mere folly. Yet with so much arsenic in the domestic air, it was little wonder that a rest by the seaside could be so beneficial to the middle-class invalid, nor the digestive disorders, redness of eye and odd cramps in the legs resumed as soon as they returned home.

The other thing that makes this book so wonderful is that, as the title suggests, people really could not work out if Florence had or hadn’t killed her husband. The case was debated fiercely in the papers, in the Houses of Parliament and even in the Queen’s chambers, well the palace at least. At some points the case gained more coverage than a certain killed in London called Jack, indeed it worried many people more because Jack the Ripper was clearly some mentally unwell psychopathic heathen, yet if women from good homes and of stature in society were seemingly killing their husbands then no one was safe. Women in particular seemed to have the biggest problem with it, society was moving forward for women and then some supposed ‘sister’ of the cause would go and do something like that. Again, society’s history and state at the time both adding pressure to the case and making for fascinating reading.

The greengrocer’s fruit may have arrived at her cell every day with a note of sympathy, but the women attending the coroner’s inquest hissed when the contents of her letter to Brierley became known. Apart from her mother, few among her own sex were generous to regard her as innocent until proven guilty. Women, it turned out, would be among her most entrenched and bitter critics; it seemed to be widely accepted that unnatural urges and scandalous sexuality went hand in hand with predatory murder.

Considering I read so little non-fiction, whilst true, it doesn’t really put any weight behind my saying that Did She Kill Him? is one of the best non-fiction books I have read. However if I say it is one of my stand out favourite books of the year I am hoping you will all want to give it a go. If you love the Victorian period and society then you will love this, especially as a city other than London takes centre stage – and people forget how important a city Liverpool was in the Victorian era. If you love a good crime novel then with its pace, gripping nature and sense of ‘did she do it?’ you will devour this. In fact if you just love a good read then this really is a book you need to get your mitts on. It is as addictive as the arsenic that features so much in it, maybe the publishers have sneakily filled the pages with it?

If you would like to hear more about the book you can listen to Kate having a chat with me in an old Victorian prison cell on this episode of You Wrote The Book!

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Filed under Books of 2014, Little Brown Publishing, Non Fiction, Review

Maggie & Me – Damian Barr

Back at the start of last year one of the lovely publicists at Bloomsbury told me, with great certainty and authority, that they were publishing Damian Barr’s memoir and that I was going to ‘adore it’. In my usual contrary-Mary style I said something like ‘oh really’ with eyebrow cocked. Well Alice, who also told me I would love ‘The Song of Achilles’ and ‘Diving Belles’, you were right again with ‘Maggie and Me’ and in hindsight you really should have bet me a tenner that I would have loved it, in fact in the future you really must bet me that, plus interest. Anyway…

*****, Bloomsbury Books, hardback, 2013, non fiction, 256 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

‘Maggie & Me’ is Damian Barr’s memoir, mainly of his youth – though we do get to know more about him now thanks to the last chapter epilogue. It is the sort of book that I have pondered since reading if it would have been easier to have written as fiction. Why? Well, Damian’s childhood is one that came littered with difficulties, a broken home life, not much money and people around him who took advantage of that an abused him. One thing is for certain though; this is no misery memoir, not by a long shot.

‘We watch the news for our revision and it’s always strikers chanting ‘Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, Out, Out, Out”!’ Except for John we all join in. But it doesn’t quite feel right – hating her just helps me fit in. I don’t need to stand out anymore: six foot tall, scarecrow skinny and speccy with join-the-dots spots, bottle-opener buck teeth and a thing for waistcoats. Plus I get free school dinners and I’m gay.”

I do feel that ‘Maggie and Me’ is a book that you need to know as little about as possible in order to get the most from it. There were several times when I was genuinely horrified by what I was reading, yet never (and this is mainly thanks to Damian and the generosity he provides, possibly through hindsight) did I start to judge anyone, it is like Damian is saying ‘here is my life, this is what happened, take from it what you will’. He doesn’t want people to feel sorry for him, though I did at times (sorry). What I felt he really wanted, and it is what I got from the book, was that through his story, and in people reading it and passing it on, he hopes he might help other younger people in that position or older ones who had been through it.

I am worried I have made it sound like it is the misery memoir that I state it’s not, because honestly it isn’t. Despite the hard home life and lack of money and the coming to terms with his sexuality whilst the epidemic of Aids had arisen, there is always a shred of hope or escapism which keeps him going. As much as I was horrified and moved, like all the best reads I also found myself laughing out loud. This either came in the form of the wonderful Granny Mac, who Maggie Smith is destined to play at some point I feel sure, and her wonderful sayings like “Wit’s fur yae disnae go by yae.” or from many of the family members when they react to the people or situations around them.

‘Bottle blonde’, she huffs, furiously bleaching the inside of a teapot that we’ll all taste later. ‘Pound Shop Dolly Parton. Midden. Hoor’s handbag,’ she curses into the suds before shooshing me for asking what a ‘hoor’ is?’

‘Maggie and Me’ is also very much a book about books and how they can save someone and provide a huge sanctuary for someone. Interestingly (well I think it is) myself and my Granny Savidge were talking about how books and reading, which is by its nature a lonely pastime, has made us so many friends. This is what books did for Damian along with providing a huge amount of escape for him, intriguingly he had a taste for horror which one wonders might have been because they showed a more horrible world than his own could be at times.

‘Somehow he’s managed to smuggle new horror books out of Newarthill Library – our junior cards don’t permit Stephen King, James Herbert or Dean Koontz. But here they all are. I’d never dare but Mark would. We take turns reading out loud. Particularly gory bits get read at least twice. Pennywise the Clown smiles his big red gash and boils our blood for candyfloss. Cujo is off the leash. Red-eyed rats swarm around our feet, their filthy fur tickling our ankles before they shred our shins.’

Interestingly as I was reading Damian’s memoir I was also thinking of Kerry Hudson’s ‘Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma’ and is like a fictional naughty little sister of ‘Maggie & Me’. I kind of like the idea of just having them next to one another on my shelves, companions to recommend to everyone, though as I like my books alphabetised the idea is abhorrent in reality. Like Hudson’s wonderful book, with ‘Maggie and Me’ I found a background which really evoked mine to me again. Whilst I was never abused we didn’t have much money (I remember water on my cereal when we couldn’t get milk), I wasn’t particularly popular and was the last person to get picked for games (until I started forging my own notes, ‘bad knee’) and always felt somewhat apart and so turned to books. I wish the younger Damian and the younger me had been friends really, or at least geeky book and boy loving penpals.

Anyway, back on track away from the waffling, as you may have hazarded a guess I really loved ‘Maggie and Me’. I related to it – something that only happens to your very core or bones once or twice in a blue reading moon – and empathised with it. It was the sort of book my younger self was crying out for someone to put in my hands. I can only hope some lovely relatives, librarians, teachers or other influential bods make sure this is passed on to both the younger generation, especially those who call rubbish things ‘gay’, and to everyone they know really. Books like this help make being different both more acceptable and understandable, we need them.

Who else has read ‘Maggie and Me’ and what did you think of it? In a way I have a feeling it’s like Augusten Burroughs book, which is high flattery indeed as I love those, and hopefully will get the attention that ‘Running With Scissors’ had, or indeed Edmund White’s memoirs or Maupin’s ‘Tales of the City’. I am waffling again. What other books about being a ‘child of Thatcher’ do you know as I would like to seek more out?

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Filed under Bloomsbury Publishing, Books of 2013, Damian Barr, Non Fiction, Review

In Search of a Character – Graham Greene

You are all probably going to get most bored of the expression ‘this reading by whim malarkey throws books you weren’t expecting in your direction’, yet it is proving to be the case and I am sure will remain so throughout the year. As usual I have completely over packed, in terms of books, for a week at Gran’s. I brought four thinking that a) as the journey is 4 – 5 hours each way so that is really a book each way, roughly b) I will have plenty of time to read with her or when she is asleep. Well in truth a) I tend to end up watching all the beautiful scenery and listening to peoples conversations, don’t pretend you don’t b) it is just non stop at Gran’s. I am only managing to write this as she has been sent to bed, well sort of sent, ha. The other thing I had forgotten was whim and Gran’s bookshelves have proved too tempting in the hunt for some short reads to gobble down when I can. That is how I came to Graham Greene’s ‘In Search of a Character’ a book I didn’t even know existed until I spotted it yesterday whilst having a nosey.

*** Penguin Books, paperback, 1961 (1981 edition), non fiction, 106 pages, from my Gran's own personal library

*** Penguin Books, paperback, 1961 (1981 edition), non fiction, 106 pages, from my Gran’s own personal library

‘In Search of a Character’ was never really meant to be published as it is a (very short) volume of two sets of his journals that he kept on two visits to western Africa. The first, a trip to the Congo in 1959, was the setting, researching and seed sowing of ideas for his novel ‘A Burnt Out Case’ (which I haven’t read), the second in 1941 on a convoy which inspired ‘The Heart of the Matter’ (which I also haven’t read, oh dear). As he keeps his journals he interweaves them with the ideas he is having about the books he has in the periphery of his mind and so really we are shown the internal workings of Graham Greene’s writing mind. He puts it best in the introduction…

“Neither of these journals was kept for publication but they may have some interest as an indication of the kind of raw material a novelist accumulates. He goes through life discarding more than he retains, but the points he notes are what he considers of creative interest at the moment of occurrence.”

Regardless of whether you have read the novels that the period Greene describes in these journals they do make for interesting reading. Firstly there is the way that such a famous authors, though I am sure it is similar to less well known/budding authors too, mind works. He tells of overhearing the case of a man who spied his wife having an affair with his clerk, saved up enough to buy a old car that he used to run the clerk down before then deciding full of remorse to kill himself – he then later puts this into ‘A Burnt Out Case’ as a small side story that manages to solve another gap in plot strands. It also shows how much doubt goes through his head as he writes, and indeed how little he really knows and how slowly his own story reveals itself to its author. As someone who loves books and the crafting of them I found all of this fascinating.

“Perhaps the first argument concerning X will be whether he should be classed as a leprophil. At the moment X stands still in my mind: he has hardly progressed at all. I know only a little bit more about his surroundings. Perhaps it will be necessary to name him – and yet I am unwilling to give him a definite nationality. Perhaps – for ostensible reasons of discretion – he should remain a letter. Unfortunately, as I learnt before, if one uses an initial for ones principal character, people begin to talk about Kafka.”

The other thing that I found equally fascinating was the subject of leprosy in the novel. Greene doesn’t just watch from afar by any means. He finds himself working closely with a specialist doctor of leprosy and indeed living amongst the lepers himself, which at the time many people thought was sheer madness as they didn’t understand how contagious or not it was. Occasionally it is not for the queasy reader but it highlights a period in history that I knew very little about, and one that wasn’t that many moons ago. Here, through Greene overhearing tales he doesn’t use, we discover how infected men will drag their wives with them regardless of the fact their wives may catch the disease yet how if a wife catches it she is abandoned, unless she takes a lover and all hell breaks loose. We also learn how people started to figure out how the disease worked and how they might be able to cure it, which also lead to the novel Greene was writing’s title.

“Leprosy cases whose disease has been arrested  and cured only after the loss of fingers or toes are known as burnt-out cases. This is the parallel I have been seeking between my character X and the lepers. Psychologically and morally he has been burnt-out. Is it at that point that the cure is effected? Perhaps the novel should begin not at the leproserie but on the mission-boat.”

It might seem odd to have read ‘In Search of a Character’ before reading the books that it inspired, though it has made me want to read ‘A Burnt Out Case’ (which I think I have somewhere in the TBR) before the year is out. It might also seem an odd choice as my fourth ever Greene read, my first being ‘The End of The Affair’ followed by ‘Our Man in Havana’ and then ‘Brighton Rock’. Yet it worked for me. I found getting inside the authors head, learning about him and seeing how it all came to fruition really, really interesting. Maybe I missed a few things I wouldn’t have if I had read the books first but I can always come to this one again afterwards at some point can’t I? If you have ever wondered how an authors mind works and where they get their ideas (if that doesn’t make them sound like a rare endangered breed of beast, oops) then I would recommend you give this a whirl, of course if you are a firm Greene fan already it will be a no brainer to pick this up.

Weirdly it seems apt that I dropped reading ‘HHhH’ by Laurent Binet as it has the same sort of duality as this one, and I think Binet’s is even more fascinating. I will be reading that again when I leave Gran’s and reporting back in due course. Back to Greene though… Which of his novels would you really recommend? Should I read ‘A Burnt Out Case’ next or something else?

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Filed under Graham Greene, Non Fiction, Penguin Books, Review

Poetics – Aristotle

I have visions of my mother seeing that I have read this and fainting, I thought I would share that image with you, at the idea of me reading something by Aristotle. I think before this last week or so the only reason I knew who Aristotle was was because my mother named one of our cats after him, see she is a classicist through and through. However recently I have been reading lots of books about how to write and why people write and the mechanics of it, both for myself as a writer and indeed as a reader. In the wonderful ‘Monkeys With Typewriters’, which I am loving reading on and off at the moment, Scarlett Thomas says that everyone should read Aristotle’s ‘Poetics’ as the first, and possibly ultimate, book on writing, how to write, how books work and how to read them. So I thought I would give it a whirl.

9780140446364

Penguin Classics, paperback, c.335BCE (1996 edition), non fiction/literary theory, introduction and notes by Malcolm Heath, 144 pages, from my personal TBR

Apparently Aristotle’s ‘Poetics’ is the oldest surviving piece of dramatic theory on earth. That is quite something for a start really isn’t it? In twelve sections, which only span around 45 pages, Aristotle looks at, and indeed breaks down, how  and what creates the perfect play (and indeed these were in the days of c.335 BCE really acted books if you will) and why. He looks at genres, plots, characters, and language and its rhythm stage by stage – no pun intended.

I have to say I thought that I was going to be bored by this book. I couldn’t see how something about poetry would make me think about how I write (for work or for pleasure) or indeed how I read. I was wrong. What I didn’t understand, though have since discovered, is that ‘poetics’ actually translates as ‘making’ and so that is why many people say it is the first piece of literary theory. I can now see why, from the way he takes apart how characters function and plots work. I am sure we all think we know how these work already, and so it could be preaching to the converted, as we read ourselves (I know I was dubious) yet this gives a whole new slant and appreciation to the art of creating a story and one that has drive, plot and characters you empathise with.

Who knew a piece of theory could still be so relevant all these hundreds and hundreds of years later? Especially when he had no idea that novels or films (because the theories work on films too) would exist in the future though this is actually good in a way. You see I think there is always a slight danger with literary theory and with books like ‘Poetics’ that if you learn too much about the mechanics you don’t look at the machine, in my case books in general, in the same way again and so you might be put off reading. This isn’t the case with ‘Poetics’ though, how could Aristotle ruin something he didn’t know of? Plus I think he had the utmost respect for the Arts and a good old yarn itself, if done well admittedly.

I have to admit that some of the book did occasionally go over my head. It isn’t a book you can just read from cover to cover and I certainly advise, like with any book actually, you read the introduction and notes afterwards and then read it again – which at 45 pages is easily done. Some of his thoughts still don’t quite make sense to me, but then Aristotle was an incredible philosopher and I am… well… not. Plus I do think this is a book that I will revisit and gain more from each time I re-read it now and again, in fact I should have called this post ‘Poetics; First Impressions’ really shouldn’t I?

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Filed under Aristotle, Literary Theory, Non Fiction, Penguin Classics, Review