Category Archives: Non-Fiction

The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell

I’ve been reading lots about the Danish concept of hygge recently, it doesn’t have a direct translation in English (or any language apparently) though I like to think that it’s quite close to the Welsh cwtch. I tend to get a bit of Seasonal Affective Disorder in the winter, so was keen to learn more about the Danish secret for surviving winters with only three hours of sunlight a day. Anyway, during this course of this reading where I came across interesting blogs like Hello Hygge and Hygge House, I came across The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell.

A successful journalist, Helen was quick to spot that the Danes are routinely rated the happiest people in the world. So when her husband was offered his dream job at Lego’s headquarters in Billund, she decided to go freelance and investigate the Danish secret of happiness and see how she could apply these to her own life.

In some ways the concept sounds a little bit like Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project, both books are structured to apply different “happiness lessons” on a month by month basis. But while Rubin alludes to large amounts of research then tends towards anecdote, The Year of Living Danishly actually delivers concrete statistics to back up numerous, very entertaining observations and recollections. If The Happiness Project is the prim, preachy and slightly inauthentic maiden Aunt (I’m not sure you should be allowed to give us proles tips on keeping your home free from clutter when you employ a cleaner…) The Year of Living Danishly reads like an old friend you could let your hair down with. Within ten pages, I’d woken the baby giggling at Russell’s turn of phrase. Worth it.

Though the book touches on some of the darker sides of Denmark (high rates of violence against women) it does tend to focus on the positive takeaways, which is kind of the point in a book on why everyone is so happy- if you want to debunk the Scandi myth there are other books for that kind of thing. What I would say though is that the causes of happiness that it identifies are highly credible and most of them are changes you could easily adopt into your own life (bar genetics and a secure social welfare system).

I’d really recommend this book. My boyfriend rolls his eyes every time I bring up a fact from the book, but we have a box set of The Bridge and I’m already plotting a city break to Copenhagen.

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The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying by Marie Kondo

iconiconI wouldn’t normally buy a book about tidying up, but everywhere I’ve turned recently people seem to be gushing about The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying or the KonMarie Method, so I thought that with a baby arriving this month it might be worth a read.

It’s a very short read but as for being a “simple, effective way to banishing clutter forever”? I’m not convinced. And that’s before you get to her claims that it helps her clients lose weight, improve their skin and transform their careers…

Firstly, I found her constant repetition of the phrase “putting your house in order” really disconcerting. I’m not sure whether that’s been translated literally from the original Japanese or poorly translated by someone who isn’t familiar with every day English, but whenever someone talks about putting their house in order in my experience, they are usually referring to putting their affairs in order before they die. So far, so bleak.

I disliked the fact that the KonMarie method focuses on throwing out anything that doesn’t “spark joy”. The author writes with pride about the hundreds of 45 litre rubbish bags her clients have thrown out, the never worn clothes that have gone to the bin and how her clients have learned to eagerly await the arrival of the bin men… it all sounded incredibly wasteful. While I appreciate the need for a good declutter now and again (we’ve taken a lot to the charity shop and put it on ebay while getting the house baby ready), nothing in the book seems to get recycled, just binned. And she has a real fixation with binning. It’s like a one woman crusade to promote landfill.

As a book lover, I think her attitude towards books was the worst for me. Not only does she encourage her clients to throw out any books they don’t truly or deeply love but she counsels people that they are burdening and oppressing their families by passing on the items that they no longer want to them. I can’t speak for all readers, but I love it when a friend or family member passes on a bag of books that I haven’t read to me. And she advises people to keep their bookshelves out of sight in wardrobes, where you should also store such items as wedding albums, souvenirs and mementoes… if you insist upon keeping these, she’d really rather you didn’t.

I admit, I’m probably not Kondo’s target reader, but I have to say, I struggled to understand the deep admiration that fills most of the writing you will read about her. Instead, I was left with a deep concern for her wellbeing. Kondo seems to eagerly reminisce about how she started reading her mother’s lifestyle magazines at the age of five, before taking up compulsively cleaning the family home every evening after school. Throwing away her parents’ and siblings’ possessions if she felt they weren’t in frequent enough use. She recounts one occasion on which she had a kind of breakdown on the bedroom floor at not being able to get her room clean enough for her liking and heard a disembodied voice talking to her… throughout the whole book it seems as though she uses a need to tidy as a way of avoiding living life in the outside world speaking very critically of her family (she admits towards the end of the book that her issues with tidying may relate to her relationship with her mother). And really, what kind of family sees the older brother allowing his little sister to declutter his bedroom? Just weird.

I got the impression that Kondo’s insistence upon treating objects as people, thanking them for their day’s service, unpacking your handbag to allow it to relax after a hard day, holding them to feel whether there is a “spark” between you suggests she’s more comfortable with things than real life. While Kondo’s ritual cleaning of her handbag into specially constructed drawer compartments every evening might be viewed as eccentric, her storage of dishes on the veranda throughout the day sounds unhygienic to me (pollution? wildlife?) and as for her suggestion that shampoo bottles need to be towel dried after each use to prevent them becoming slimy… I can’t imagine wanting to live with someone who allows their surrounding to exert such control over their everyday life and happiness. Life is too short.

So while lots of people have fallen under the spell of the KonMarie method, I politely decline to jump on the bandwagon, preferring to sit in one of my reading nooks with a good view of my heaving bookshelf, mantelpiece and walls which are covered in family photos because that sparks joy in me.

For images of a client’s room before and after the KonMarie method see this Guardian article. Personally I think the before image looks more interesting… the after is like a room in a nursing home…

The Good, The Bad and The Furry by Tom Cox

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Buttons thinks it might be a horror story…

I’m not a cat person. I come from a family of dog people and was always taught that cats were the enemy. Even if we weren’t dog people, we had rabbits, guinea pigs, frogs and birds in the garden and cats have a really unfortunate tendency to kill things.

Despite my views on cats as a collective, I’m a big fan of @MYSADCAT on twitter. Maybe because the Bear looks like he’s doing penance for the sins of cat kind. Having grown tired of being shown every picture the sad cat account tweets, my boyfriend got me Tom Cox’s The Good, The Bad and The Furry for Christmas thinking it was a happy fusion of things I like. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love the twitter account, I even like his Guardian articles, but can you really string out a series of what are ultimately in-jokes about your pet cats into a book that’s worth reading?

It turns out you can and he has. And it’s a really fun read. While there was a lot of material that stuck close to the theme of the blog with cute pictures and funny captions, the book was so much more than that, talking about Tom Cox’s life, relationships, family, hopes and fears… just with his cats as a way in. There are actually some really sad and moving moments in the book, even for a non-cat lover, fortunately there were a lot that had me laughing so hard that I was worried that my ribs were going to break. I think the worst of these was when he was describing his friend who, burying her recently deceased cat, accidentally dug up it’s dead brother and was stood with a dead cat in one hand and a skeleton cat in the other crying her eyes out. I know that shouldn’t be funny, I know that it makes me a very sick person, but seriously, it’s the way he tells it. The only real problem with Tom’s writing in the book is that it makes me feel Shipley deserves his own twitter account to vent at the world and I don’t think he has one.

Check out Tom’s writing in this article about the pros and cons of adopting stray ginger cats and add this to your gift list for cat lovers.

Monkeys with Typewriters- Scarlett Thomas

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you may have found me banging on about my girl crush on Scarlett Thomas. I had a brief wobble over Our Tragic Universe but, after reading Monkeys with Typewriters, I am fully back on board with declaring her a genius. I started reading towards the tail  end of October and  37 pages in (when I learned that The Matrix is a retelling of Plato’s Cave) I decided that I couldn’t even think of attempting NaNoWriMo without finishing the book.

If you’re a writing enthusiast, reading enthusiast or have a crush on Scarlett Thomas, then I recommend you read it too.

Though by night Thomas is a pretty clever author who writes really interesting books, by day she is a lecturer in Creative Writing at Kent University and I have to say, her teaching experience really comes across in the text. Not only does she pitch her tone really well for the novice writer- engaging, encouraging and constructive, but she includes a lot of practical advice that I hadn’t read in any other books which profess to help you write better. And I have to say, I’ve read quite extensively in this area- from text books for Open University writing courses to books aimed at a general readership in the trade market, I have dipped into a lot of books attempting to inhabit this niche. I can honestly say, to use a £50 pound cliché (you’ll have to read the book) that Thomas’ blows them out of the water.

Where most books will focus on picking a subject and target readership or describing a banana in a truly novel way, Thomas’ book gets down to the nitty gritty of why some plots work and some plots just don’t. Though the latter half of the book does examine sentence level writing, characterisation and the writing process, the first half of the book is entirely devoted to narrative- exploring structure, cause and effect, basic plots and narrative styles showing how well constructive stories get the reader’s attention and poorly constructed stories lose both their interest and sympathy. What I especially liked about this was how clearly this was explained and how carefully it was illustrated through the examples chosen. I never felt that I was being patronised, Thomas’ tone may be friendly, but the book is well grounded in grown up land with references to Aristotle, Chekhov, Propp and Stanislavski. I found the discussion of Stanislavski’s system especially interesting, as I’ve always thought that his methods were only really of relevance in theatre studies and the dramatic arts, but really it makes total sense that understanding what he says about finding the emotional truth would equally apply to a writer… It all sounds very simple, but that’s the genius of this book. It helps you understand and makes you see where you haven’t exactly been going wrong, but haven’t excelled yourself either.

I’ve been reading sections aloud to my friends and family for a while now. I also impressed my colleagues when we were talking about Plato’s Cave and I was able to explain how The Matrix is basically the same story.

If you do want to read an alternative view, I follow The Guardian on Twitter, and a pretty wanky review from Leo Benedictus (no, I hadn’t heard of him either)popped up in my twitter feed shortly before I started the book. In it, the reviewer questions who the book is for (well, novice writers… anyone wanting to improve their writing or starting writing for the first time with little formal training…)and questions what he’ll get from it. But as he is a published author (I sometimes wonder if super snipey reviews are there to promote one’s own work rather than discuss that of others…) I hardly think he’s the target market. Either way, I think he’s totally missed the point.

I would have recommended this to my A-level students when teaching, and I wish I had read it when I was doing my OU course. It is certainly something that I will continue to refer to whenever I dabble with writing again.

If you read this book and fancy joining me in my appreciation of Ms Thomas, I recommend you also check out PopCo (it actually got me interested in maths) and The End of Mr Y.

Books, Baguettes & Bedbugs by Jeremy Mercer

A colleague in work had to go to Paris for a conference recently and was asking for suggestions of things to do in her free time. I mentioned that she should visit Shakespeare & Co. which is across the river from Notre Dame Cathedral.

I visited Paris a few times on school trips, and remember seeing the books lined up on tables outside the shop. But being on a school trip, we were quickly bustled to the Cathedral and I never had a chance to go inside. I’ve been planning to save up for a weekend trip to Paris, to visit the store and see the sights, for a long time now.

Overhearing this, another colleague offered to lend me her copy of Books, Baguettes & Bedbugs by Jeremy Mercer, a Canadian writer who fled to Paris after receiving a death threat from a thief he’d upset by revealing his name in a true crime novel. Almost penniless he took refuge at Shakespeare & Company, then run by the remarkable George Whitman, who allowed writers, poets and artists to stay in his shop free of charge while they worked on their projects and got back on their feet. In a world obsessed with money, George managed to distance himself from the drive to acquire, using his cash to feed and home relative strangers. The maxim of his store being, “Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise

The book is a portrait of a remarkable bookshop, its remarkable inhabitants, but most of all of the remarkable man who ran it. A great read which really does make you think. I read sections of it aloud to my boyfriend (who hates being read to) and even he was interested in the philosophy of the shop. My favourite quote from the book (except the one that compares self publishing to using prostitutes in unfavourable terms):

From wikipedia- sadly I can’t properly reference the Flickr account it came from as the wiki link is dead. Let me know if this is your image!

“’People all tell me that they work too much, that they need to make more money,’ George told me. ‘What’s the point? Why not live on as little as possible and then spend your time with your family or reading Tolstoy or running a bookstore? It doesn’t make any sense.’” Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs Jeremy Mercer

Charles Dickens: A Life- Claire Tomalin

He left a trail like a meteor, and everyone finds their own version on Charles Dickens. Charles Dickens: A Life Claire Tomalin

If you want to know more about the inimitable Mr Dickens on his 200th birthday, look no further than this brilliantly written biography by Claire Tomalin. Following his journey from boot blacker to famous author, Tomalin examines the popular public face of Dickens and his shadowy private life.

Examining each facet of Dickens’ life, Tomalin explores the dichotomies in Dickens’ character which saw a on one hand a charitable man who devoted much of his life to campaigning for the rights of the poor, opening a home for fallen women, supporting the right of divorced women to retain custody of their young and involving himself in every manner of charitable endeavour but on the other, a man who coldly cut off his siblings and children when they displeased him. Not to mention his casting off his wife of twenty-two years taking their children with him and tearing her family apart.

With so much going on in his private life, it’s difficult to imagine how he managed to be so productive in his professional his life, but he was. With nineteen and a half novels under his belt, not to mention his other literary endeavours, Dickens was a power house of creativity. Carefully reading through his letters, diaries and the accounts of his friends, Tomalin traces through the people, places and events in Dickens’ own life which inspired him to write his best-loved works. The woman who jilted him and inspired the frivolous Dora, his experiences as a child labourer which allowed him to empathise with the lost children of London and the secret tragedy which one particular summer caused him to dwell on the fate of illegitimate children.

Whether you love Dickens’ books or hate them, you can’t help but appreciate the unflinchingly balanced portrait that Claire Tomalin has written with warmth, humour and humanity worthy which are worthy of the great man himself.

 

The Discovery of Jeanne Baret- Glynis Ridley

I made a vague new year’s resolution to read more non fiction. I like to keep my resolutions vague because it means that failure is less of an option. However, I am making an effort with this and kick started my non fiction year with The Discovery of Jeanne Baret by Glynis Ridley, an English professor at the University of Louisville.

Jeanne Baret was the peasant born mistress of William Commerson, the botanist, who disguised herself as a man to enable her to join her lover on the first French circumnavigation of the globe. On this trip she helped discover the Bourgainvillea. In her book, Professor Ridley attempts to offer “a forgotten heroine a chance to bloom at last” if you’ll forgive the pun in the blurb (she was a herb woman/botanist). I couldn’t really. I’m just like that.

While Prof. Ridley’s book was certainly well written and engaging, I found myself very frustrated by it.  For me it suffered from the same problem that plagues so many books about the less famous mistresses of famous men- the majority of historical records associated with the woman are actually about her more famous and powerful lover. In Baret’s case there are contemporary records which tell some of her story but they are of questionable integrity (which Ridley addresses very well) and require a degree of interpretation. Ridley’s methods for interpreting these records involve detailed exploration of the lives of Commerson and Bougainville in order to contextualize the records about Jeanne Baret which is really the only way to proceed under the circumstances, but results in a book which, for me, was more about Commerson than his mistress, making the title The Discovery of Jeanne Baret something of a misnomer.

Working in academic publishing, I read a lot of books like Ridley’s as a part of my day job and I think that my expectations as a result of this may have tainted Ridley’s book for me. It’s a dangerous strategy as a publisher to bring out a book with a very academic tone which attempts to cross over for the general reader. The book is poorly referenced throughout and though it includes some passages by way of evidence, much of the time I found myself muttering to myself “Where’s your evidence for that? What are you basing this on?” to the point where I felt that sweeping of (admittedly quite lovely prose) were pure conjecture which could easily have been remedied by replacing phrases like “Jeanne would have felt” with “Jeanne might have felt”. I’m not a fan of speculation presented as fact in these books, it read more like an exercise in gender studies than a historical account.

This is worth a read if you are happy to skip over the material which is presented in the footnotes of more academic texts. It has been well written and well researched, but I felt that by attempting to be a hybrid text it overlooked the level of detail and integrity its readers might look for.

Have you read this book? Would you disagree?

Keeper by Andrea Gillies

keeper by andrea gilliesIf your mother was old and unable to look after herself, what would you do? Take her in and look after her yourself, or would you find a suitable nursing home and admit her to it? This is a sensitive subject in our society which has been described as a ticking bomb due to the vast amount of people over retirement age who are living to be older and older due to better access to drugs which unnaturally prolong their lives. No doubt you have an opinion about what you would do in the hypothetical situation, though whether you would be prepared to share it honestly with your friends is another matter. Les Dennis jokes aside, would it make a difference to you if it were your mother-in-law, and not your own mother, who needed the care?

At first glance, these questions seem irrelevant to Keeper, Winner of the Wellcome Trust Book Prize 2009. Described as “a book about memory, identity, isolation, Wordsworth and cake”, Andrea Gilles’ book with its swirly, feminine, pastel coloured fonts initially looks like common or garden chick lit, unworthy of a second glance. Normally I would have done exactly that, but this book piled on a table in the Medical Reference section of Blackwell’s Oxford seemed profoundly out of place.

The book, you see, is about as far away from chick lit and happy endings as it’s possible to get. A gut wrenching personal account of a struggle to care for an elderly mother in law, retain a sense of your own identity and survive the havoc and destruction that Alzheimer’s disease wreaks upon family life, the book the experiences of Gillies’ family with unflinching honesty. This account, Gillies will be the first to admit, is subjective and that of one particular case. So the book goes further, exploring this history of medical opinion surrounding Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia and the future of diagnosis and treatment. The book is chatty not preachy; full of anecdotes about the workings of the mind, famous dementia sufferers and philosophical musings about the nature of the soul and identity. Hard science is offset by human experience, leaving an end product which both informs and involves.

Despite her efforts in raising awareness of the disease, research into which is pitifully underfunded, Gillies has been as widely criticized for writing the book as she has been praised.

The praise is easy enough to understand. Alzheimer’s is a terrifying disease, but one which people are still reluctant to talk about. Seen as being an illness of the elderly or a natural decline into old age, research on the subject is slow and treatments hit and miss. Such a powerful memoir outlines the nature of the disease for those who have not encountered it themselves showing its crippling effects up on the individual suffer and the people who love them. Why then the criticism?

As an outsider, it’s easy to claim that Gillies was naive in moving their family from the familiar surroundings of Edinburgh to a remote Scottish peninsula to care for her mother-in-law. Naivety is no crime, and is in the most part forgivable. I did however find myself filled with the urge to criticise and judge when Gillies talks about her search for what she terms “the Sublime”. The capital R which characterises the Romantic poets, early in her memoir Gillies speaks of this immense union with nature she believes her mother-in-law will find healing, and which will fill her with the power to write a Great Work of Fiction. At best I found this vaguely ridiculous. I don’t think I need to discuss the vanity and conceit in this notion, that the decision to write a book by the sea will save a dementia sufferer where medicine can’t. Though, who knows what desperate people will do?

Worst of all though, was the dark hints between the lines that the situation might be somewhat manufactured. Cooking Julie and Julia style had been done, so let’s uproot the family, settle in the middle of nowhere with our vulnerable elderly relatives and see what happens.. sinister references to “the experiment” end early into the book, which was a relief, quite frankly, as they made me feel quite hostile towards Gillies. When they ended, along with the vainglorious wittering about the sublime, the account becomes less impersonal and more human.

Jo Brand described the book as being “darkly comic”, and Gillies herself admits that people have criticized her for writing about her mother in law who is unable to agree or disagree with the publication for the book. Personally, I don’t feel that the book was darkly comic. I certainly don’t feel that Gillies is poking fun at her mother in law. What might pass for slapstick in a tasteless Hollywood comedy is a bleakly tragic. The reader is not so much invited to laugh at the crazy old lady, but gently persuaded to see the frustration and terror that dementia sufferers live with day in and day out. Not knowing friends and family, losing your whole sense of self.

Don’t expect a happy ending, but do read the book. This is a topic which will affect us all before too long and merits deeper consideration.