Snake (2020): Erica Wright

★★★

Bloomsbury Object Lessons

I’ve read several other books in the Object Lessons series and they’re always thought-provoking, quirky and inventive. Each book takes an everyday object and examines it from various perspectives – historical, social, ecological, cultural or mythological – offering unexpected angles on things that we might have taken for granted our entire lives. But the subject of this book is less ‘everyday’ than the others, at least for those of us in the UK. Erica Wright’s throwaway comment that, ‘If you’ve never killed a snake yourself, you probably know someone who has,‘ definitely isn’t true for me, but perhaps I just associate with particularly unadventurous non-snake-killing types. Wright is American and this book feels very heavily weighted towards a US perspective, whereas the other books I’ve read from this series manage to take a more universal approach. While there’s plenty to fascinate in Wright’s discourses upon all things serpentine, her book lacks the firm narrative command that some of the other writers in this series have achieved. Instead, Snake has a slightly frustrating, meandering quality that means we dart from subject to subject without really getting our teeth into the topic.  Continue reading

Consumed (2014): Harry Wallop

★★★

How We Buy Class in Modern Britain

Harry Wallop is well-placed to write about class. The cousin of the Earl of Portsmouth, he went to private school, learned from a young age how to tip a gamekeeper, and went on holidays with his nanny until his parents felt he was old enough to appreciate travelling abroad. But in recent years he has moved away from the world in which he grew up: he now lives in Islington and works as a journalist and television presenter (which is essentially just a different kind of social elite). Class is something that, we’ve been told, many times, is no longer relevant in the modern world, but anyone who lives in Britain knows this isn’t true. In this book, Wallop argues (and I agree) that the great post-war age of social mobility is over. Class is becoming more entrenched and more subtle than ever. He describes the new social tribes of modern Britain, and how they are defined not so much by birth but by lifestyle and consumer choices. It’s a lively and engaging book – albeit full of sweeping generalisations (but that’s the point of any work of classification) – and extremely British. The shades of nuance described here will be difficult for foreigners to pick up, and rightly so (you would be forgiven for exclaiming, on numerous occasions, “But why is that even a thing?!”), but I imagine that native Brits will feel shimmers of recognition. You might come to Wallop’s book for an accessible discussion of how class continues to shape modern society – but you stay because you want to find out which of his categories you fit into. Reading this book is, in itself, an act of class anxiety.

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The World According to Mara Altman

Mara Altman (4)

I bought these books by Mara Altman when I was going through a Kindle Singles phase last year. A New York Jewish journalist in her thirties, she isn’t a writer I was familiar with, but her essays about life as a millennial woman in the early 21st century made me smile (though not to the snort-inducing iconoclastic extent of Caitlin Moran). Altman looks at the tyranny of expectations surrounding engagement rings, body hair, having children, and all the things that we like to pretend are no longer issues, what with being a modern and progressive society. Many of her stories elicit flashes of recognition; others induce winces of sympathy; and these short pieces work well for entertainment on a commute or journey. Not all of the pieces hit the mark, but in general they make for amusing flashes of insight into the modern-day feminine condition.

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Bulletproof Vest (2020): Kenneth R. Rosen

★★★

Bloomsbury Object Lessons

After Coffee, I decided to try another of the Bloomsbury Object Lessons books, to see whether I’d misunderstood the gist of the series. Fortunately, Bulletproof Vest was a better fit for my expectations: a moving personal story woven around the object’s history. It’s a tale, first and foremost, of the human desire to both destroy and protect. Rosen experiences the former in a cataclysm of depression when, with his self-worth shredded and with years of self-loathing behind him, he comes within a hair’s breadth of suicide. Ironically, for what follows, his weapon of choice is a gun. Later, having clawed his way out of the depths, he channels his self-destructive instincts in a new direction, thanks to his work as a journalist. ‘Pointing the lens outward,’ he writes, ‘would allow me to heal my inner disruption‘. And so he signs up for work as a war correspondent in Iraq, a job which will bring him face to face with the innate human desire to conquer and kill, but which will also require him to take concrete, proactive steps to protect himself. Rosen buys his first bulletproof vest, and thus the story begins.

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Coffee (2020): Dinah Lenney

★★

Bloomsbury Object Lessons

The first Bloomsbury Object Lessons book I read was High Heel (I’ll post on it soon), and I can’t help feeling that it spoiled me. I’ve since been working my way through other titles in the series and, so far, nothing quite lives up to the poetic blend of history, mythology and social history which High Heel accomplished, and which set my expectations (unreasonably high?) for the rest of the books. Take Coffee, for example. If the aim of this series is to present everyday objects in a new light, informing readers about their place in economic, social or art history, or enlightening us about how they’re made, you’d have thought that coffee was an easy thing to do well. I’m not much of a coffee drinker myself, but my boyfriend is, and I was hoping to find lots of interesting pieces of coffee trivia with which to impress him. Instead, I found myself ploughing through a bizarre stream of consciousness about the author’s life and how she drinks, buys and feels about her own coffee. The few pieces of context that I did pick up were squirrelled away in footnotes, and it’s rather disappointing when the two things you take away from a book about coffee are: a) a recommendation of another book that seems to do what this one should have done; and b) an amusing Jewish joke.

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Will Storr vs. the Supernatural (2013): Will Storr

★★★

One Man’s Search for the Truth about Ghosts

What’s your take on ghosts? Believer, undecided or sceptic? I lean towards the sceptic point of view, although I know very sensible people who believe they’ve seen ghosts. I don’t discount the possibility of there being some kind of scientific explanation, like those suggested at one point in this book, but in the cold light of day I can’t admit to ever having seen anything abnormal myself. That’s despite the fact I am the most over-imaginative, jumpiest and wimpiest of creatures – I spent much of Stranger Things Season 3 hiding behind a cushion – and that I spent a large part of my teenage years hanging around in an ancient graveyard after dark (I was a bell-ringer; practise nights were obligatory). But I don’t have all the answers and that’s why I bought this book when it was on offer. It does indeed prove to be an intriguing journey, which explores various aspects of the paranormal and – more fascinating still – brings you into the company of (forgive me) some very odd people and profoundly weird events. Whether you’re convert or cynic, you might end up leaving the light on…

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Two Sisters (2018): Åsne Seierstad

★★★★

On 17 October 2013, Sadiq and Sara Juma experienced one of the worst things that can happen to a parent. Their two teenage daughters, 19-year-old Ayan and 16-year-old Leila, left the house as usual in the morning, but never came home. That evening, their frantic parents received an email from the girls, explaining: ‘we have decided to travel to Syria and help down there as best we can… Please do not be cross with us.’ In that one moment, the Juma family’s world shattered. In this impeccably balanced book, journalist Åsne Seierstad tells the story of what followed, as Sadiq desperately tries to get his daughters to come home. She also looks back, drawing on texts, emails and interviews to understand how two young Norwegian women could be so deeply radicalised without their parents even suspecting. It is a very difficult story to read, and it is harder still to emulate Sierstad’s admirable detachment, but I believe it’s an important book: a rare flash of compassion and humanity in a dialogue that seems to have increasingly broken down.

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The Men Who Stare At Goats (2004): John Ronson

★★½

This is the third of Jon Ronson’s books that I’ve read and probably the most famous thanks to the film based on it; but it’s also the most bewildering. I enjoyed it far less than the other two, The Psychopath Test and So You’ve Been Publicly Shamedbecause it required me, straight off, to give credit to some absolutely ridiculous things. It reads like absurdist fiction and even now I don’t quite believe that it hasn’t all just been made up. Ronson tells us the story of some very senior people in the US military who start believing that they have very strange powers; and whose principles gradually begin to filter throughout the wider military. Quite frankly, I don’t suppose it’s much of a revelation – given the current political climate – that there are some seriously odd and misguided people in power; but are we really expected to believe this? But I’m jumping ahead of myself. Let’s go back to the beginning. Basically, it all begins with these goats…

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So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (2015): Jon Ronson

★★★★

We can all agree that there are some pretty terrible people in the world; but they’re rarely the people you see being publicly eviscerated on Twitter. Those who face the onslaught of social media are rarely murderers, child abusers, dictators or other bona fide nasty types. They’re far more likely to be celebrities, or even ordinary people, who’ve made a stupid comment or worn a misguided piece of clothing and have consequently become Public Enemy No. 1 for the next day and a half. We’ve all seen these furies explode on Twitter and then die off within a week, when the next big thing turns up. But the impact of this public annihilation doesn’t disappear so easily. Jon Ronson sets out in search of those who’ve been publicly shamed, seeking to understand why it happened, what it felt like, and how – and if – one can recover from it.

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Bite-Sized Books

Bite-Sized Books

I’ve recently begun exploring the shorter books available for Kindle, some of which are free with a Prime subscription. There are Penguin Specials and Kindle Singles, along with the odd short story which doesn’t fit into my regular Tor.com series. As these books are often so short, averaging around fifty pages, I can easily read them on my commute and they’ve encouraged me to take a punt on unfamiliar authors or subjects. And the results are mixed. Some of these works give a brief, striking perspective on a problem or a theme; others, as with all books, promise much but don’t quite fulfill. Here is the first of what will probably become another series, documenting my travels through the world of these shorter, bite-sized pieces of literature, history and journalism.

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