NON-FICTION//Letters From the Suitcase- edited by Rosheen and Cal Finnigan*

Letters From The Suitcase (Jun) This is one of those books that I probably would never have picked up, but-oh!- I’m so grateful I was sent it. I always forget how much I enjoy collections of letters  and I enjoyed this collection very much.

Mary Moss and David Francis met in 1938 and fell in love almost instantly; the book is a collection of letters written by them to each other over the course of seven years. Two young people, from completely different backgrounds, desperate to be together but separated by war, poured their hearts out on paper. It’s a moving collection of letters that’s full of humour, frustration and utter, all-consuming love. I was also surprised at the modern tone of the letters- we tend to think of the 1930s/40s as being completely different to now, but here the couple write in a way that we would recognise: they call each other ‘honey’ and early on Mary hints at a pre-marriage pregnancy scare. Later, after their daughter Rosheen arrives, the parental pride is touching and the concerns that Mary has seem very similar to some of those I have for my own son now.

As war makes the separation deeper and longer, Mary’s descent into depression and David’s war work colours the letters. It’s a fascinating look at the way that war affected those working for the Allies (David works on high level projects and is posted to Africa and, later, India, where he would die of smallpox) and those left at home in a terrible limbo. The longing that permeates the pages is moving and heartbreaking. Little in-jokes, film reviews, the excitement over a Russian red winter coat, David asking Mary what he can send her as a treat- all these things help the reader see inside the marriage and feel sadness as it becomes apparent that the story does not have a happy ending.

After David’s death, Mary hid the correspondence in a suitcase in the attic, only to reveal to Rosheen that they were there. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to discover a cache of letters from a father you knew very little about- but I’m so glad that they have been published.

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.)

 

FEMINISM//Girls Will Be Girls- Emer O’Toole

Girls Will Be Girls (Mar):  Being a woman is a bit of a performance, isn’t it? Whether it’s debating how much makeup is acceptable for work, or pretending that you’re super confident as you walk home from work at night, keys tucked between fingers, there is a degree of ‘fake it til you make it’ in everyday life as a woman. It’s something we’ve been conditioned to and something that we talk to each other about.

Emer O’Toole is interested in this performance and what it means to us; her area of interest is the theatre and this book reads as part-memoir of growing up in Galway and part-exploration of how women are shaped by society. O’Toole writes about Halloween as an example. For years, she’d dressed up as ‘sexy’ characters, but one year decided to dress as a boy. She details how she felt physically and also how the men and women around her responded differently- women found her attractive, men found her threatening. It’s an interesting lesson on how our identity and the expectations of it are shaped by society.

Is there a lot new here? Maybe not. If you’re familiar with the work of Judith Butler and gender as performance, some of those ideas are challenged and expanded, but I think the book’s main selling point is as a coming-of-age story of O’Toole’s expanding feminism and acceptance of herself, her identity and her sexuality.

The Brontë Project//Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life- Samantha Ellis

Take Courage: Anne Bronte and the Art of Life (Feb):  As I get older, Anne Brontë just makes loads more sense to me than her sisters. The sensible, shy and youngest Brontë sister was the only one who could make a job stick, who saw the world from the view of a working woman. Sure, I thought I liked Emily best- and she still has her moments, especially when it comes to her poetry- but Anne just grows more and more relevant to me as I grow older, even though she was younger than me when she died.

It’s in this spirit that Samantha Ellis writes this book. Sure, there have been tons of Brontë biographies and a few have made a good go at writing about Anne, even though there is scant evidence of her life outside of her work- none of the Gondal stories she wrote as a child with Emily survive, only five of her letters are known and there’s no existing manuscript of her masterpiece, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, that survives, possibly thanks to Charlotte destroying a lot of her work after her death. In truth, it would be easy to see Anne as some kind of a ghost, slipping her way through literary history. Ellis remarks in her book that staff at the Parsonage Museum state that they are rarely asked about Anne- more people apparently ask where Heathcliff is buried. (Bloody Heathcliff.)

In contrast to previous biographies, Ellis looks at Anne Brontë not through what is there and then filling in the awesome gaps left by the silence, but rather by exploring the different people in Anne’s life. Ellis is a playwright and these chapters feel almost like character studies- but they work. It’s a clever idea that allows her to weave in information about Anne’s life and the society in which she lived and how that is ultimately reflected back in the novels she wrote. A chapter on the Brontës’ beloved servant Tabby (always one of my most favourite people in the Brontë story, mainly because I imagine my own relatives being from good, honest Yorkshire stock like Tabby’s own family) allows Ellis to explore how Haworth and its surroundings shaped the work of the Brontës. A chapter on Anne’s father Patrick, much maligned by Gaskell and who to me has always seemed like a sweet man trying his best, means we get a look at the role of the clergy in his lifetime and how this shaped the upbringing of the sisters and their infamous brother. Each person in Anne’s life is here and the lessons that they bring to her work- and to us- feel like they have messages that are still relevant in today’s messy world.

Like her previous work, Ellis weaves her own exploration of Anne Brontë’s work. It’s a deeply personal tale of discovery for the author, too. Somehow, I think Anne would have liked that. She wanted her work to be a lesson for the reader, to help how they view the world. What she didn’t realise is the impact that she would keep on having nearly 200 years later.

 

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.

Secret Diaries Past & Present- Helena Whitbread and Natasha Holme

Secret Diaries Past and Present (Jan): For my entire life, my grandma- Helena Whitbread– has been studying the life of Anne Lister, a remarkable Yorkshire woman who wrote a prolific diary in code. The diary held a secret- Anne, an upstanding citizen and landowner, well known in her hometown of Halifax, was a lesbian. What my grandma was working on (and some of my earliest memories are of her on her electric typewriter) was one of the earliest surviving records of lesbianism. I remember being fascinated by the code- it’s tiny and cramped and almost illegible if you don’t know what you’re looking at- and later, after I read the translated diaries, I was fascinated by the woman herself. She really does feel like an extra relative.

I’ve read most things my grandma has written, so I was pleased to get my hands this latest project, a Q+A with modern diarist, Natasha Holme. Natasha has written a diary-also in code, also dealing with her sexuality- since she was thirteen. This book looks at the two diaries together and discusses how diarists approach their work.

It is interesting to compare and contrast the two diaries, written 200 years apart but with so many similarities, through the use of an interview between Helena and Natasha and extracts of both diaries presented side by side. The discussion of the lives of Anne and Natasha (and, of personal interest to me, my grandma!) was very interesting. Although much in the world changes, some things stay the same it seems.

This is a book for those who enjoy reading diaries and maybe want to learn more about what motivates someone to write them; a chance to peek behind the curtain perhaps. There are also rumours that Sally Wainwright is to write a series about Anne Lister; you might want to get in there before it gets huge and find out more about coded diaries now- you could do worse than start here.

 

BEAUTY//Pretty Iconic-Sali Hughes

Pretty Iconic (Nov):  Before I review this book, I need to tell you the story of the kindness that brought it into my life. Pretty Iconic had been on my Amazon wishlist ever since its publication was announced (I am a HUGE fan of Sali’s and will pretty much slavishly read anything she writes), but what with Christmas and other things, had resigned myself to not having enough money to buy it right off the bat. Instead I hoped I’d get it for Christmas and had left heavy hints in Benn’s direction. The signs looked promising and I forgot about it for a bit.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I came home from work at the end of a personally stressful week to a rogue Amazon package. Inside was this! I wondered whether someone had bought it from my wishlist and sent it to me accidentally (I have done this before…) There was no name inside and so I took to social media to thank my mysterious benefactor. My friend Sarah told me it was her and her kindness, at the end of a really horrible few weeks personally and professionally genuinely made me cry. She didn’t even know that life had been a bit crappy, she just knew that we are often on the same wavelength about beauty/Sali and thought I would like it. It was a lovely gesture and I am massively grateful- I have promised to take her out for tea and cake to discuss the book.

Because, oh, there is SO MUCH TO DISCUSS. There are three places I trust for makeup advice: Sali, Jane at British Beauty Blogger and drag queens (Courtney Act is the reason I use a knock-off Beauty Blender sponge.) The book is fairly straightforward: there are 200 products in here, illustrated with beautiful photos, that have in some way changed the way we do our faces/treat our skin/smell. Some are proper icons- Chanel No.5, Eve Lom Cleanser, Bourjois Little Round Pots- and some are upcoming contenders, such as contouring kits and the aforementioned sponges.  What I love, though, is that this isn’t just stuffed full of expensive kit, but also the things that you’d expect to find in a working class home of the 70s and 80s- Vosene, Matey, Old Spice.

And it’s not just bland product descriptions, either. Sali has woven together stories and memories with her picks: the smell of her children and her grandad (which is the same smell my own grandad had. I think I looked a bit odd in Boots the other day sniffing Old Spice and trying not to cry); the Copperknockers lipstick she wore for her first kiss. I found myself thinking back to my own memories- the year I, unlike Sali, got Tinkerbell makeup for Christmas (totally wasted on me-I was a tomboy until the age of 16), the smell of the Rive Gauche my Grandma has worn for years. These products are tied up with our lives and ourselves and that’s so powerful. Sali explains how these products have impacted on culture as a whole, too, in ways that you might not always expect.

There are things we disagree on, too. I love Carmex and Cetaphil; I’ll never get on with the smell of Chanel No.5. But I also left this book with a shopping list as long as my arm and a desire to walk into Boots and smell everything. It’s a funny, feminist and wonderful book and one that I am lucky to have read. I definitely owe Sarah a huge slice of cake for this one.