Latest book reviews 2016

What with doing teacher training and starting my brand new teaching career, I’ve been pretty busy and not read as much as I would’ve liked this year. But still, I’ve managed a few good books so far. Here they are, in the order I’ve read them in. I’ve starred the most interesting ones. I now realise that so far this year I’ve mainly read non-fiction and fairly low-brow trash. Must try harder to get some proper literature in there! Let me know if you have any suggestions…

*Slouching towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion

Didion is a legendary figure in non-fiction writing and ‘new journalism’ – reporting that reads like a story. This is a collection of her journalism from the 1960s. I enjoyed the opening story, about a murder trial in California, but after that I went off the whole thing. Didion writes beautifully and her pieces are carefully constructed. There is much to admire and find instructive here, but I don’t like her point of view. Didion was an uber-privileged arch-WASP, and her feelings about things don’t resonate with me. Or rather, they seem baffling and completely irrelevant now. Still an essential read for anyone interested in writing though.

At home, Bill Bailey

Bill is a genial, avuncular companion of this random wander about, allegedly, the history of the home. Everything that he writes is full of enthusiasm and gentle mockery of history’s most eccentric characters, wackiest anecdotes, and most interesting little factoids. But Bill obviously has no interest at all in the history of domestic life. He doesn’t consider, ever, who lived in homes, how they lived in them, what they did there, how they felt about it. He’s much more interested in things like how the Eiffel tower was built, the history of canals and concrete, international exploration and plagues of locusts on American farms. These aren’t even digressions, really: they’re just the contents of the book. Some things, such as architecture, furniture design and a history of lighting are relevant to the topic, but most of feels totally irrelevant. It’s still a jolly read, but if you really want to know about the history of the home, as opposed to a totally random bunch of stuff, read Lucy Worsely’s book on the topic instead.

The Life and Loves of a She-Devil, Fay Weldon

It’s kind of depressing that Weldon’s comic novel is 33 years old yet still feels relevant and gleefully transgressive today. Women don’t seem to have moved forward very much. The book concerns Ruth, a downtrodden, 6 foot 3, ugly woman, whose husband leaves her for a petite, attractive romantic novelist. Ruth puts aside all notions of femininity, responsibility and morality to become a she-devil in her quest for revenge. This involves her tackling, one at a time, all the factors that keep women from the things they want. Caring duties for children and elderly parents must be palmed off on someone else. Homemaking must be abandoned. The patriarchal church, state and law must be bent to her will. Money must be made. Faithfulness, love and romance must be exchanged for promiscuity. But whilst it’s blindingly clear that all these factors stifle women as much as ever, this isn’t a totally feminist novel. Ruth moves in with a muesli-munching feminist commune at one point, and they are painted as a joyless and ridiculous bunch. She seeks revenge on other women as much as her husband. She certainly doesn’t attempt to level the playing field or improve the lot of women, but rather to manipulate things to her advantage. The tools she uses are sex, housekeeping, embezzlement and blackmail. And also plastic surgery, as she finally remakes herself to resemble her rival. This is an enormously entertaining, page-turning novel. But it also presents an uncomfortably bleak view of the power relations between the sexes.

 *Black Sea, Neal Ashershon

This book is about 90% history, 10% travel writing, and it describes the history of the black sea and its peoples. It’s quite rambling and free-form. Rather than having a linear structure through time or even a circular route around the sea, it wanders around thematically. It’s pretty intellectual, and I felt a bit out of my depth at times, as I really know nothing at all about this area. But it is wonderfully engaging and beautifully written. I have learnt all about the Cossacks, about the Pontic Greeks, Ghengis Khan’s golden horde, the birth of the tiny state Abkhazia, and about trade routes, religion, languages, archaeology, grave-robbing and what Herodotus got right and wrong. There’s lot of interesting speculation about the nature of nationalism, the good points of Empires, and about the nature of history writing itself. It’s challenging but really fascinating stuff, and it feels peculiarly relevant in the light of the whole EU debacle.

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson

Can you believe I’ve never read this classic Victorian horror story? In fact though, it’s easy to see why – it’s not very good! The concept, of a sensible, do-gooding Dr who transforms into his evil alter ego after consuming a potion, is everything. There’s little more to it than that. The story is told from the point of view of Dr Jekyll’s friend, a lawyer, who thinks mysterious things might be going on. He doesn’t really uncover these until he gets a series of letters explaining the situation though. Victorian sensibilities being what they were, we get a great deal of build-up, and a lot of talk about evil deeds! Horror! Sin! Temptation! But we never find out what Mr Hyde really gets up to, which is very disappointing. Top marks for the amazingly steam-punk description of the potion though, which goes through fizzing, frothing, steaming and multiple colour changes before being drunk.

 *Gut by Giulia Enders

This is a very jolly and readable account of the body’s most underrated organ – the gut! In fact, it takes in the whole digestive system, and lots of other bodily functions as well. It’s really fun and features great illustrations – not medically accurate, but little cartoons that just make it obvious what Enders is talking about. I now know what the appendix does (same as the tonsils – it’s part of the immune system), how salivary glands work, what the lymphatic system is, and how and why people develop allergies and food intolerances. I’ve also learnt useful stuff to incorporate into my diet: olive oil is really good for you, unless it’s heated, when it becomes really bad for you; sugar is turned quickly into fat, whereas fat isn’t turned into fat for a long time; cooked cold starched like potato salad are really good for your guts; and most people can’t digest a lot of fructose, so fruit juice, smoothies, and anything with ‘fructose syrup’ in it is best avoided, unless you want stomach ache and lots of farts, in which case juice away!

How to be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman

This book is a compendium of social history, telling you everything you could ever need to know about how real people, mostly the working and middle classes, lived their daily lives in the nineteenth century. It is structured around the daily routine and features washing, dressing, housework, work, school, childcare, leisure, sickness, food and sex. Each section talks about the different social classes and about the products available, the processes used, and a bit of historical context. What’s really interesting is that Goodman has done a lot of re-enactment work, so she can shed a lot of light on what things actually felt like. Wearing a corset while hand scything a field, the process of doing laundry, cooking on a Victorian stove, etc. are all covered in detail. One of the most interesting parts is the clothing. Ruth knows exactly how to make a set of clothes for a toddler, how long it took, how long it took to get the child dressed (at least 15 minutes), and how difficult it was to wash the stuff. The practicalities – or impracticalities – of daily life explain a lot about how the Victorians lives. I’ve always been baffled by boiled puddings, for example. But whilst it was fairly easy to boil a pan of water, you had to be upper middle class at least, or possibly a wealthy farmers wife to have access to an actual oven. So those who could afford a bit of fat and flour could boil up a savoury or sweet pudding, but a cake was out of the question for most until the twentieth century. Interesting stuff, and a very engaging, easy read.

Death by Chocolate: the serial poisoning of Victorian Brighton by Sophie Jackson

I picked this up because it concerns Christiana Edmunds, a serial poisoner who ended up in Broadmoor. I researched her and wrote a chapter about her when I did my (unpublished!) book on Broadmoor. I was never able to find any trial reports for her, which was odd, and so I wondered whether this author would have tracked them down, so that I could learn something new. It’s a bit a mystery, what’s happened to them. Unfortunately, there’s no mention of the reports here. It’s hard to imagine how something that’s therefore pretty thin on fact could be spun out to the length of a short book. Jackson does it by giving endless background information on poisoning and poisoners in general in the nineteenth century, food adulteration, forensics, the invention of chemical tests for poisoning, and background details on Christiana’s family and the families of those she poisoned and the police who investigated. In other words it all circles around the subject. It’s pretty poorly written though, low on general accuracy (e.g. ‘this is an echo of today’s health and safety culture’ – no! Today’s health and safety culture might be an echo of the Victorians, but not the other way around, because an echo never comes first, does it?) and low on historical nuance. Still, Jackson manages to spin things out into a narrative with a sense of mystery, which is more than I ever did. So, pretty poor but still better than I can do. A useful lesson.

Red Fortress by Catherine Merridale 

This book relates the history of the Kremlin, used as a focus through which to tell the whole of Russian history. There’s an awful lot of Russian history, and as I don’t really know anything about Russia, it was a lot to take in. I sometimes felt there was either too much information or not quite enough. Ivan the terrible turned out to be genuinely terrible. He was pretty much insane and had some kind of proto-Nazi death cult of mercenaries and they just rampaged about the countryside slaughtering everyone and burning everything indiscriminately for no real reason. Like something out of Mad Max. Peter the Great was also interesting, as were the more contemporary bits. But I think I would have got more out of this if I’d already known a bit about Russian history. So interesting, byt probably not a good read for total beginners in Russian history.

Wolf Borders by Sarah Hall

I’ve read a couple of her books before and enjoyed them, and was very disappointed by this. It concerns a women who is some kind of poorly defined wolf expert who helps a wealthy aristocrat reintroduce wolves on his Cumbrian estate. The wolves are terribly metaphorical of course, and there’s plenty of cringeworthily A-level discussion of social class and politics. But mainly the book is about a string of curiously boring and pointless family dramas, with very stereotyped characters, and at least 50% of it is descriptions of landscapes. Apparently there’s a lot of landscape in Cumbria. I wouldn’t know that of course, as I’m an elitist metropolitan Londoner, and we’re all idiots, according to Sarah Hall. Another thing I didn’t know was that there are seasons in Cumbria. Luckily Hall is on hand to tell me what seasons are, very thoroughly, for about 45 million pages. We don’t have seasons in London, so I had no idea. One of the boringly humdrum events of the plot is that the main character has a baby. Before she has a baby, like all childless women, her life is worthless and she’s a despicable person. Afterwards, she becomes a holy saint, and suddenly the world is meaningful. Honestly, as a childless Londoner I’m such a piece of worthless scum I should just be put down, for my own good. I can’t believe I actually finished this.

 *The Girl with all the Gifts by MR Carey

This is a zombie book with an interesting twist – it’s from the point of view of a sentient zombie. It’s a very readable, exciting thriller. Some of the characterisation is a bit clichéd, and the plot features all the elements you’d expect, but somehow that doesn’t matter. The plot feels driven naturally by the characters and the decisions they make so that it never feels contrived. The world building is beautifully done without straying too far into flowery descriptions, there are some good twists, and it adds to zombie mythology in some fantastic new ways. There are even a few moral conumdrums to ponder over. This would be a great holiday read.

 *Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

There are books that are desperately trying to cool, shocking and subversive, and then there are books that actually are cool, shocking and subversive – this is one of the latter. It’s about a family of travelling carney folk who decide to create their very freak show. The mother – Crystal Lil – dutifully plys herself with cocktails of drugs and radioactive substances throughout pregnancy to produce suitably disabled offspring. There’s a boy with no limbs, a pair of Siamese twins, a hunchbacked albino dwarf and one who appears perfectly normal but actually has telekinesis. The plot meanders around, but it’s beautifully written, with a strong flavour of Tom Waits about its descriptions of lonely, desperate stretches of the USA abandoned by normal people. There’s incest, rape, drugs, madness, bodily fluids galore and a pretty high body count. The limbless Arturo is truly a monster and he sets up his own cult, persuading people to gradually have their own limbs cut off so that they ultimately resemble him. The ‘freaks’ pity the normals and revel in their own weirdness. I wouldn’t say the book has any particular moral message, other than to cherish your own weirdness, but then perhaps that is a powerful message.

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