NON-FICTION//Animal- Sara Pascoe

Animal: The Autobiography of a Female Body (May):  I like Sara Pascoe, but I’ve been a bit wary of this kind of book- there seems to have been a trend started by Caitlin Moran and it’s one that can be a bit hit and miss. However, a few people had recommended this to me, so I duly reserved it from the library.

This is a book that’s part memoir, part feminist manifesto and part scientific exploration of what it’s like to live in a female body. The book is split into three parts: love, body and consent, and Pascoe deals with each in a funny, frank way. One friend told me that she found the audiobook difficult and I can see this- there are lots of asides and footnotes that probably don’t translate well off the page. On the page, however, these mostly work well, although sometimes it did feel a little like overkill.

I found the science fascinating; Pascoe describes how our modern behaviour has evolved from essentially needing a mate and protection in the early evolution of humans and how this has been manipulated to essentially suit the needs of men. She also skillfully weaves in stories from her life- the breakup of her parents, an abortion on her 17th birthday, how she reacts in relationships. Rather than feeling heavy handed or easily dismissed, they make sense within the structure of the book. Throughout Pascoe is likeable and chatty- as if you’re having a conversation with a mate down a pub (albeit a mate who likes to burst into impromptu sketches every now and then.)

 

ESSAYS//The Good Immigrant- ed. Nikesh Shukla

The Good Immigrant (Mar): I’ve wanted to read this for ages and was very pleased when it finally arrived at the library. I love essays and I have been trying to expand my world-view in light of the recent political landscape. One of the ways I became acutely aware of how things were shifting was through the conversations I was having with my students. I am incredibly privileged to work with kids from a huge variety of backgrounds (in my school we have a noticeboard that shows all the languages spoken by the students- there are about 35 in total.) I listened to their fears and how they saw themselves being treated, first after Brexit (I teach in a town which voted to leave) and later, post-Trump.
This book really should be in every secondary school library. The stories contained within it are important and reflective of a society that we may not recognise initially- many of us do not have to go through life worrying about the way our hair or our skin colour or religion affects the way the world sees us. Sex, death, culture, femininity and masculinity, fashion,the importance of representation across all areas of life, as well as the importance of the language we use is all covered here and I devoured every page.
I loved Bim Adewunmi’s exploration of pop culture , ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Tokenism’ and Nish Kumar’s exploration of his feelings after he became a meme in ‘Is Nish Kumar a Confused Muslim?’ Another standout piece for me was ‘Cutting Through (On Black Barbershops and Masculinity)’, where poet Inua Ellams travels around Africa exploring what it means to be a man in different countries. Kieran Yates’ piece ‘On Going Home’ explores the culture shock- not only from country to country, but also city to city when she visits family in India.
Riz Ahmed’s piece about airport security and performance, ‘Airports and Auditions’, has rightly received a lot of attention for its humour and blistering anger and it is one of the best pieces in the book. I also enjoyed Selena Godden’s essay ‘Shade’, which explores being ‘other’ in a society that doesn’t quite know how to deal with those who might be seen as ‘outsiders’.
The essay that spoke to me the most, though, was Darren Chetty’s ‘You Can’t Say That! Stories Have To Be About White People.’ As a teacher, Chetty found that pupils wrote stories from the perspective of white characters, regardless of ethnicity. As I read this, I realised that this was often true of my own students. As a result, I have gone away and thought about how I can encourage my students to see themselves in the world and in their work. And then I hope they can change the world for the better.
Everyone should read this book. Everyone.

NON-FICTION//How To Be A Grown Up- Daisy Buchanan*

How To Be A Grown Up (Jan):  Let me tell you a secret: I am 33 in eight weeks’ time and I still don’t feel like a grown up. This is despite me having the following ‘grown up’ things: a four-year-old child; a husband of almost six years (who’s somehow managed to stick around for eleven years); a responsible job in which I am in loco parentis for at least fifteen hours a week; a mortgage; an annoying cat; an anxiety disorder that sometimes borders on the chronic. I very rarely miss work due to illness. OK, I can’t drive (it’s my gift to humanity. I get too distracted by cows and clouds and music to concentrate), but if there was a scale of how ‘grown up’ I am, on paper I would probably score pretty highly. But I still have the feeling that someone will come to my classroom one day and yank me out, claiming that they’re finally on to me- despite the fact that I’ve done my job for TEN YEARS. Most people feel this way- and so successful writer and agony aunt, Daisy Buchanan has written a guide that manages to a) reassure the reader that they’re doing OK, b) that they’re not alone in the madly confusing landscape of adulthood and c) that if something truly goes horrendously wrong, there are ways that it can be fixed.

The advice in the book rings true because Buchanan has been there herself- it reads like it’s part self-help, part memoir and is full of things she’s experienced:  the horrible relationships and the fear of her overdraft; she’s been sacked and faced depression. There are also snippets of the experience of women of all ages, discussing everything from body image and moving back in with your parents. The advice is sound, funny and relatable (also, you’ll never wash your hair in the same way again. FACT.) As I was reading this, I realised that I would have loved to have read something like this ten years ago and that I would now quite like to force copies into the hands of younger friends- because it’s so useful to have some of this stuff down on paper, even if it’s not all relevant to you. And you don’t mind the advice being offered because it’s done in a funny, no-nonsense way. We all need friends who tell us when we’re being ridiculous, but it’s also good to have something that tells us it’s not just us, that others are in the same boat.

This book also gave me a bit of a kick up the backside. It’s made me really think about where I am career-wise and whether I want to start seriously considering upping my freelance career (again- hello writing copy for weird credit card companies!) and it also made me want to get back into yoga, if only to quieten my mind a bit when it gets a bit whirry. I don’t know what my future holds, but I hope that this book helps others feel better about a world that can seem horribly overwhelming.

INTERVIEW//Greg Jenner

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Photo: James Gifford-Mead

Greg Jenner is known as the ‘public historian’: his work includes Horrible Histories and Inside Versailles, as well as A Million Years in a Day, his book exploring the history of everyday life through the ages. You can see my review here.

1) What drew you to the idea of becoming a ‘public historian’?
I’ve loved history since my teens, and wanted to be a university academic, but I couldn’t afford the PhD. Instead I decided that the best way to enthuse people about my favourite subject was via television, the medium with the biggest audience share. Working behind the scenes, I made documentaries, historical dramas and Horrible Histories, and then I realised I wanted to write books too. I’m writing another one now, but I’ve also recently blundered my way into appearing on the radio and TV. So I kind of get everywhere – Public Historian is the best description for that, but it’s an American term so people don’t know what it means sometimes.
2) I’ve noticed that historical books (fiction and non-fiction) tend to be published in trends- although the Tudors seem determined to hang around for a while. What do you think is the next big historical trend in books- and why?
Some subjects will always sell well – the Tudors, Romans, Victorians, WW2, Egyptians: these staples of the market are mega popular in books and TV, and probably always will be. By contrast, trends happen usually because an unexpected smash hit arrives out of the blue – a new way of doing something (The Time Traveller’s Guide To An Era, for example) – and then other publishers are quick to mimic the idea. It takes a couple of years to write and publish a book, so there is a slight lag in the trends, meaning books will continue to come out a little while after a trend has already lost momentum and become boring. That must be tough for the authors who’ve done all that hard work, only to see readers shrug and say “heard it already…” You’ll see it in Hollywood too. It’s strange how two films about the same subject can emerge in the same summer, for example the Truman Capote and Alexander the Great biopics.
I’m not sure what is the new big trend in non-fiction, although recently we have seen some really impressive grand-sweep histories by brilliant historians like Yuval Noah Harari and Peter Frankopan that have sold in huge numbers, but which are chunky tomes than cover thousands of years of human history. So, maybe we will soon see lots of big, intellectual books about wider humanity? Funnily enough, my own book is also in that category, being a global history of daily life since the Stone Age, but it is more cheerful and cheeky in tone. It has poo jokes and bad puns about Lady Gaga.
3) What’s your favourite period in history to read/write about? Do you read historical fiction, or is that a bit like a bus man’s holiday?!
I simply don’t have time for any fiction, I read about 200 books per year but they are all non-fiction history. Mostly, at the moment, I’m reading books, journal articles and PhD theses in preparation for writing my own history of celebrity. But if I get time off from that I’ll pick up any new history book, usually by someone I know on Twitter or whose work I respect greatly. Any period of history works for me – that’s the fun part about being a generalist.  Right now I’m reading Adam Rutherford’s brilliant science book ‘A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived’ – it’s about the history of genetics, but also about the genetics of history. It’s fascinating for history fans as well as science boffins, particularly if you’re interested in doing your family tree. Also, Adam is funny. Not just funny for a scientist, but actually funny.
4) Can you describe your research and writing process?
On A Million Years In A Day, I researched and wrote each chapter as I went along, about 5 weeks’ work per chapter. On this new book about celebrity I’m doing something different. I’m pretty much just doing 18 months of reading, and then I’ll write the whole thing in one big crazy marathon over a few months at the end of 2017. Hopefully that won’t backfire horribly.
Writing is a weird process. I’m a workaholic, so I’ll often sit with the laptop on my legs, mangled biscuit crumbs crushed into my t-shirt, and will write for anywhere up to 16 hours in a day. My wife usually has to drag me out of my office, and it’s quite easy to go a bit mad. But that’s why I love Twitter, it’s a really important part of keeping me sane and allowing me to experience human interaction. Also, it’s fantastic for testing ideas, jokes, or sharing thoughts about something that you’re working on. It probably takes up more of my time if I wasn’t on there, but it’s undoubtedly made me a better writer. Twitter forces you to be concise. That’s vital for a natural waffler like me.
 
5) Your new book is going to be about the history of celebrity- can you tell me more about it, and where you got the idea from?
The idea came from my research over the past few years into a Black slave who became a famous boxer in Regency Era London. His name was Bill Richmond and historians didn’t know much about his personal life, so I spent a few years finding out new details. Along the way I realised he was probably the first Black celebrity in British history, and then I started wonder what the definition was for a ‘celebrity’, and if the idea goes back further than that period.
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Bill Richmond
Then, everyday on Twitter, I’d seen constant discussion of celebrity gossip as if it were important news – KimYe versus Taylor Swift, Brangelina’s breakup, Justin Bieber’s penis – and it dawned on me that celebrity culture is perhaps the most powerful and pervasive force in modern society. So, it really affects our lives. Now I had a proper reason to go and find out how it came to be so dominant. Thankfully my publishers agreed that this was a good idea.
6) What’s your favourite fact in ‘A Million Years in a Day’?
There are loads of amazing facts that totally astonished me when I first read them, particularly the fact that dental surgery, including fillings, was practised in the Stone Age. But the fact everyone seems to love is that King Tutankamun was buried with 145 spare pairs of underpants! It’s rather charming.
 
7) Of all the sketches/songs you’ve written for HH, which is your favourite?
I’ve written about 20 in total, not many in the grand scheme of the series, but they were so exciting to see on TV! A few of the Stupid Deaths sketches are mine, and I co-wrote the Admiral Nelson football song, as I’m a huge footie fan, and also Death’s Favourite Things song in the Halloween Special. But the song I’m proudest of was on series 6: I wrote an Elvis parody about Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries (it’s titled A Little More Reformation, A Little Less Monastery) and I had no idea who was going to sing it until a week before filming. My producer phoned me up late at night, when I was in a busy restaurant, to tell me that Rowan Atkinson was going to be performing the song which I had written while taking a shower. That was pretty exciting! I couldn’t tell anyone at the table, as his casting in the show was a huge secret, so I just sat there grinning like an idiot.
 
8) What advice would you give to someone interested in writing about history?
It’s a difficult balance. You have to write with energy and flair. Try to avoid cliche, but you also have to make the unfamiliar accessible and intelligible, so analogies can be helpful. I think it helps to imagine the reader is in the room with you, and you’re talking over a couple of drinks. That’s not to say you need to be conversational in style, although that is my own personal brand of authorship, but I think it helps to imagine their face as you type out your paragraph: are they bored at this bit? Do they look confused? Do they need more background context? Do they trust that you are telling the story in the most interesting way?
Writing for other people is hard because other people are not like us, and you are writing for hundreds, or even thousands, of strangers with different life experiences, interests and levels of knowledge. Surprise them. Move them. Set the scene with vivid language, so they can imagine they are there amidst the tumult. Don’t patronise them by assuming they are not as smart as you, but don’t leave them behind with jargon and assumptions of prior knowledge. Writing is hard work. I rewrite constantly. I’m still learning loads about the craft, but the best way to learn is to read other people’s writing.
 
9) If you could invite six people from history for a dinner party, who would you invite (and why?)

 

Assuming my robot butler can translate all the various languages, I’d invite:
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Dinner party guests: Da Vinci/Bentham/Gwynn
1) Leonardo Da Vinci – a genius in so many fields and my favourite person from history
2) The eccentric-but brilliant- philosopher Jeremy Bentham (he had a pet teapot called Dickey!)
3) Nell Gwynn – 17th century actress, and mistress to Charles II – for her famous saucy wit
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Roosevelt/Su Song/Bell

4) Eleanor Roosevelt, because she sounds fascinating

5) Su Song, genius medieval Chinese scientist. I’d love to see him debate with Da Vinci about the nature of the universe.
6) Gertrude Bell, 20th century explorer, for the extraordinary anecdotes of her travels through the Middle East.
You can buy A Million Years in a Day here. Greg’s website is here.

HISTORY//A Million Years in a Day: A Curious History of Daily Life- Greg Jenner

A Million Years in a Day: A Curious History of Daily Life (Jul):  As a kid, I was a huge Horrible Histories fan; we had all the books and I was probably really annoying at school, as I liked to regale people with INTERESTING FACTS. Luckily, once the TV series started, I could watch that instead (don’t let the fact it’s a CBBC show put you off- it’s very funny.The first two series are on Netflix. You’re welcome.)

Greg Jenner, the writer of A Million Years in a Day , works on the Horrible Histories show (you may also know him from the Inside Versailles bit after, well, ‘Versailles’) and the book does read a bit like a grown up version of the Horrible Histories books. Witty and knowledgeable, it’s a very enjoyable book and an easy read.

The premise is simple: Jenner takes the reader through a ‘typical’ Saturday; each section of the day, from waking up to bedtime, is explored through the rituals that have marked it throughout history. It’s a fantastically vast journey, taking us from the Stone Age to the 20th Century and from China, to the Romans, to America and via Islamic cultures. Everything from toilet etiquette to meal times is covered and it’s an astonishing task to have put all this together in a fun, readable way. As a primer for domestic history, it’s great.

 

ESSAYS//Making It Up As I Go Along- Marian Keyes

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Marian Keyes’ work has always been a bit of a safety blanket for me- I remember reading Sushi for Beginners (my first of her books) units entirety at Leeds Festival. I read her novels during my first big bout of depression in my third year of uni after a bad breakup (there was a secondhand bookstall in Preston market that bought and sold paperbacks. I’d go every week, buying and selling Jackie Collins and Minette Walters books, after lectures. Then I’d buy a heap of junk food, go home, read and sleep until I had to leave the house for more uni work.) There was something comforting about Marian’s novels-characters were friends, I could relate to them. Slowly, I got better and knowing that there was a writer who understood made a difference, I think.

Over the years, I kept reading, although not with the frequency I had been. Then I saw this book and, following on from my newfound enjoyment of reading essays, I picked it up. It’s a collection of published and non-published work from magazines, newspapers and Marian’s website. I did wonder if the tone would have changed from the last collection of Keyes non-fiction.

Nope, it is a complete scream. If you follow Marian on Twitter (we have had conversations about our mutual love of Pasha off Strictly and I swear my current, raging addiction to interestingly flavoured Magnums is her fault), you will know what you’re getting here: plenty of funny anecdotes about family, friends and generally being Irish. It’s also written in a way that I can imagine Marian is talking (if you’ve ever seen her on TV or watched her YouTube videos, you’ll know what I mean!) That’s really her USP: friendliness and it shines through this book in droves.

For me, the highlights were the travel writing; I’m not sure if anyone else on this earth could persuade me that going on an Antarctic cruise to see penguins-even though I BLOODY LOVE PENGUINS- is a good idea. I also enjoyed the beauty section (obviously) and the account of actually meeting Aung San Suu Kyi. Actually meeting her!

Most of all, this book makes me want to go back and revisit those novels I read and rediscover those characters that helped me through dark times. Thanks, Marian.

Review: Moranifesto- Caitlin Moran

Moranifesto (Apr):

I have met Caitlin Moran twice: once in an official meet and greet and once when I accosted her outside Wagamama’s in Brighton-as a sort of dare by my friend Ben- as she waited for her family (who she promptly introduced me to as if we knew each other really well. They were all lovely, if slightly baffled.) I have enjoyed her writing and think that every teenage girl should be given a copy of How To Be A Woman, alongside We Should All Be Feminists by Chiamanda Ngozi Adichie and a complete boxset of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

I borrowed this from the library, which I have no doubt Caitlin herself would approve of. It’s a big book and is mostly a collection of her columns, which is great for someone who enjoys her work, but not The Times’ paywall. Everything you’d expect is here: Bowie, Cumberbatch, life growing up in Wolverhampton. As a working class girl, I get where Caitlin Moran comes from; there are things that you experience in your childhood that are hard to articulate to those who have never experienced them.

There’s also politics, both in terms of past columns- her piece on the death of Thatcher is sublime and sums up exactly how me and those I know felt; the pieces about the refugee crisis are angry, passionate and despairing- and her ideas for how we could change the world (not exactly 100% serious, tbh.) But it did get me thinking about what I’d do if I was in charge of the world, which although I’m not 100% sure of what I’d do, is a good thing to think about.

Of course feminism is here too. From the serious issues such as FGM, to the frivolous (the ridiculousness of high heeled shoes), there’s something here whatever your strain of feminism is. Caitlin Moran acknowledges that feminism has its foibles, but suggests that instead of fighting, we should all stick together to fight inequality. The analogy of a patchwork quilt she uses is a useful one. If everyone takes a square, we’ll soon have something.

But it’s not all politics. There are also rants about printers, obituaries and laments about history, and the decline of Soho. There’s a good chance you’ll find something in here that strikes a chord.

Things that were problematic in past work are touched on here, although I’m not sure those who dislike the style of writing will be won over. But if you enjoyed Moranthology and Caitlin Moran’s work in general, you’ll enjoy this.