Category Archives: non-fiction books

Feminists Don’t Wear Pink and Other Lies – ed. by Scarlett Curtis

This is a nice collection of essays on feminism, edited by Scarlett Curtis. A large number of celebrities, artists, activists, and others are all explaining what feminism means to them (52, I believe). This means you get a very diverse range of responses, and there’s something in here for everyone. It’s been published with the UN’s Girl Up Foundation, and all profits got to them.

The book is divided into sections Epiphany, Anger, Joy, Poetry Break, Action, and Education. No surprises that my favourite essays were in Anger and Action.

I felt strongly that the first section would be a great read for someone just starting to realise they are a feminist, and may help someone who is just starting to understand the issues involved. I found this section to be personally the least interesting, although it is good to hear from younger women about how they discovered they were feminists.

The later sections were where I really connected with a lot of the writing. Particularly I loved Jameela Jamil’s essay on raising boys, and Keira Knightly’s on her daughter. Both very moving, and very powerful. Both obviously issues that are very important and close to my heart as I have a son and a daughter.

I, of course, also loved the essay on Co-Parenting by Sharmadean Reid. She states the case for separated parents to share child rearing responsibilities 50/50. It’s so obvious, yet it’s unusual. I have been in this situation for a few years now, and from the break up we have shared parenting 50/50. It’s great, honestly. I see so much resistance to it from people I know. Often from the mother who doesn’t trust the father with this responsibility. I can see where this may be valid (from both sides too, with useless mothers and fathers existing), but mostly you chose a decent person to procreate with. Let them shoulder half the job. Don’t let them swoop in for a fun weekend every fortnight. Let them have to remember when parents evening is, or when they need a packed lunch sending in, or when a birthday party is and a present must be bought for it. Don’t take the day to day care away from the other parent. Let them parent too.

There are benefits for everyone involved. The kids still get half the time with both parents. The Father (because it’s mostly the father who ends up in this low contact time situation) gets to parent just as much. And you get HALF YOUR TIME TO YOURSELF. Rejoice. You can get shit done. You can date, and have a life, and run a business, whatever you like with this regained time. In Reid’s essay, she says she wouldn’t have been able to set up and run her successful business without this parenting arrangement.

Who wrote the rule that single fathers only see their children every other weekend? This was a plot line that I scrubbed out of my life. I am not going to pretend it was easy. I would budget five years of emotional hardship for you to hold on to consistency and routine, and to discover with your co-parent what works for you both and your child together as a family. It’s not an easy ride, but stand firm! I promise, it’s worth it.

This is just one of the 52 essays in Feminists Don’t Wear Pink, and honestly is covers such a broad range of topics, it’s just the parenting ones that currently say the most to me and my life.

Another stand out essay for me was Dismantling and Destroying Internalized Misogyny: To-Do List by Dolly Alderton. Now I need to read her book immediately.

I also loved the essay Baker-Miller Pink in the Education section (written by Scarlett Curtis). I hadn’t. even. heard. of. this. before. Suddenly I want to paint my house in it.

Baker-Miller Pink: the calming colour

Overall, a huge coverage of issues in Feminists Don’t Wear Pink. An enjoyable, informative, eye opening, celebratory, collection of essays.

Pussy: A Reclamation – Regena Thomashauer

Oh wow. This is like self help on the strongest drugs currently available. To empower myself I need to locate my inner Goddess. She is accessed via my pussy. We are reclaiming that word by the way, and therefore it must be said 100 000 times over the course of the book.

I’m not normally one for such insanity. Really, really, it is not my thing. At one point it is claimed that via accessing the energy of your pussy, the outcome of a national sporting game can be influenced. I mean, urgh, come on. That is clearly BS of the highest order.

Having said that, 95% of this book is just hardcore female empowerment. Fucking the patriarchy, standing up for other women, and having the power to do what you want with your own life. I am totally on board with this.

She is basically trying to give women the power to make decisions that are the best thing for them, regardless of how society, or other people around them, will react. Live your best life sisters.

Combined with this, and how you become so empowered, is by harnessing the power of your pussy, and the goddess within you. Stay with me, I know we are heading into the land of batshit crazy. But we stay on just the right side of this line. Juuuussstt about. Although it’s all dressed up a bit crazily, the message is sound. Part of being a strong, empowered women, is being in touch with your own sexuality, and sexual power. There a chapter where Thomashauer takes you through some exercises you can do to get in touch with this part of yourself. Frankly, I know a lot of women who could do with taking this advice.

Thomashauer runs The School of Womanly Arts, in New York, as Mama Gena. Is this Hogwarts for female empowerment?? I’d like to think so. We hear a lot about it in Pussy, and honestly, I would attend a class at it if I could.

In summary, this is a REALLY EXCELLENT book on the power of female empowerment and truly embracing equality. It gives sound advice on putting yourself first and helping smash the PWC (the patriarchal world culture). It talks utter sense on being at one with your own body and embracing your sexuality. It absolutely then encourages you to support other women and help them free themselves from a lot of this PWC bollocks (sister goddesses, yes). And even though there was quite a lot of fluff and bullshit, that I have barely any tolerance for, it was still a great book full of sound advice. Yes, I managed to even cope with talk of the GPS (the great pussy in the sky). please read the book for further details. Haha. Then buy it for your friends who need it.

A People’s History of the United States – Howard Zinn

An American history book written from the perspective of people’s movements rather than great leaders and politicians. A People’s History of the United States is an EXCELLENT book, taking us from Columbus (a massive twat btw, really didn’t know enough about him before) all the way to 9/11.

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On a coach to Washington DC

And considering the time span of the book, it’s not too bad at around 700 pages. It’s dense text though, as you’d expect, and it took me around 6 weeks to read. I’m normally a book a week kind of reader. So it’s messed up my reading stats, but it’s been well worth it.

Why did I want to read a book on American history? Two main reasons. Firstly, the lovely politics department at college allowed me to accompany them on a politics trip to New York and Washington. I said I’d better learn something about US history and politics before going, and they recommended this book. Secondly, I am part of an online quiz league and American history is one of my weakest areas. And I want to be better at that.

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Zinn’s book is apologetically told from the perspective of the people. It is biased toward a certain world view and he says this is fine, because 99% of other history books are biased the other way to great leaders, usually men, dictating the course of history. Zinn also wanted to make this book accessible to most readers (and it is), by not having footnotes scattered through the text. It is very easy to read.

I felt a bit shocked by the first chapter on Columbus. Shocked and embarrassed that I didn’t already know just how horrific the actions of early European settlers were. I’ve studied history before, but it was modern European history mostly. I’m so ignorant about a lot of what has happened in the rest of the world, and I am trying to change that. In the Columbus chapter, Zinn explains some of his choices with regard to what he decided to include in his book. Sorry this is a bit of epic quoting, from across 4 pages in the book, but I think it really sets out the tone of this book:

To emphasis the heroism of Columbus and his successors as navigators and discoverers, and to deemphasize their genocide, is not a technical necessity but an ideological choice. It serves – unwittingly – to justify what was done.

… the easy acceptance of atrocities as a deplorable but necessary price to pay for progress (Horoshima and Vietnam, to save Western civilisation; Kronstadt and Hungary, to save socialism; nuclear proliferation, to save us all) – that is still with us.

The treatment of heroes (Columbus) and their victims (the Arawaks) – the quiet acceptance of conquest and murder in the name of progress – is only one aspect of a certain approach to history, in which the past is told from the point of view of governments, conquerors, diplomats, leaders.

..in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.

…I prefer to try to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the viewpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees, of the Civil War as seen by the New York Irish, of the Mexican war as seen by the deserting soldiers of Scott’s army, of the rise of industrialism as seen by the young women in the Lowell textile mills, of the Spanish-American war as seen by the Cubans,the conquest of the Philippines as seen by black soldiers on Luzon, the Gilded Age as seen by southern farmers, the First World War as seen by socialists, the Second World War as seen by pacifists, the New Deal as seen by blacks in Harlem, the postwar American empire as seen by peons in Latin America. And so on, to the limited extent that any one person, however he or she strains, can “see” history from the standpoint of others.

… this book will be skeptical of governments and their attempts, through politics and culture, to ensnare ordinary people in a giant web of nationhood pretending to common interest.

Other things I found particularly eye opening: the Clinton years, US foreign policy for the last 100 years, just how little difference it makes whatever party is in charge – they are all basically following the same pattern of keeping the few percent up at the top.

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New York hotel room reading

I imagine there are people reading this review who are rolling their eyes at me not knowing all this already. But, there you go, I’m a physicist, so know a lot about that, and I do try to continuously educate myself about new things, and I think that’s a good thing šŸ™‚

Special shout out to the Iroquois society, where land was owned and worked in common, women were important and respected, and the family line went down through the female members. Zinn quotes from Gary B, Nash:

This power was shared between the sexes and the European idea of male dominancy and female subordination in all things was conspicuously absent in Iroquois society

Ahhh, just imagine.

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Overall, I am really glad I have read A People’s History of the United States. I feel like it was well worth the effort and time. I should probably read something similar for the UK. What should I read??

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light bed time reading

Becoming – Michelle Obama (audiobook)

Michelle Obama’s story is the princess story I’ve been dreaming of. Raised in a modest home on the south side of Chicago, she worked her arse off to get to an Ivy League University (Princeton), followed by Harvard Law School (and I’ve watched Suits, so I know how important this is). She landed a really super brilliant lawyer job, but realised she wanted to do something more helpful, so she changed focus and worked with more community driven something or other (read the book for actual details).

Meanwhile, she meets this wonderful, brilliant man. They fall in love and support each other to achieve their dreams. Never holding each other back. They are strong, and in love, and, my god, reading about them falling in love is just what I needed to read right now. It’s so pure. And then she becomes the First Lady of the United States.

Even in this new role, she isn’t swept away by the glamour. She is uncomfortable being a person who is supposed to be defined solely by her husband. She is uncomfortable with the focus on her appearance. She is uncomfortable with the inconvenience she now brings to other people by her mere presence and all the extra security that is required.Ā  She didn’t want her husband to run at all. And, by the way, she can not stand the business of politics and will never run for office herself. That’s not to say she didn’t conform where she needed to, and she has been her husband’s greatest support. I like Michelle Obama for her straight talking, determination to do a good job, and for her honesty.

You can take it that I liked Becoming. I really did. I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Obama herself, and it’s a joy.

The insight into daily life in the White House is interesting. The staff and the routines. The international travel and the duties that now fall on her. The getting used to living in a giant house, only to visit Buckingham Palace and realising your new giant house is small fry.

Huge shout out to Michelle Obama’s mother, a true hero. The stories of Obama’sĀ  upbringing, and her mother’s attitude to parenting and how she dealt with her children, I found inspirational. It’s hard to describe succinctly, but she was always aware she was preparing her kids to go off and be independent, strong adults. She never tried to step in and sort out troubles for her kids, she gave them chance to deal with things themselves. She listened and supported, but she didn’t go overboard. She said she wasn’t raising babies. A lot of it resonated with my own parenting style, a lot of which goes against much of current popular parenting.

It’s impossible to read Becoming without making comparisons to the White House today, and hopefully making a horrified face at the same time. Obama’s description of the Trump inauguration, and her decision at some point to stop fake smiling and just go with showing the emotion she was feeling is so relatable. I recall watching it on TV and being in awe of her face.

I loved Becoming. There’s so much more to it than I have described here. Give it a go.

Marching Powder – Rusty Young

I am glad I have read this book. It was interesting, and was something I would never normally have picked up in a thousand million years. Thank you book club for continuing to expand my reading horizons.

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Marching Powder tells the story of Thomas McFadden, around 20 years ago. He was a British drug smuggler who ended up in the San Pedro prison in Bolivia. Thomas ends up as the prison tour guide, taking tourists around and even letting them stay the night. That’s how Thomas meets Rusty and they decide to tell his story. The prison tours ended up in the Lonely Planet guide for a few years.

The set up of the prison is bizarre, with inmates having to buy their own cells, and provide their own food. Those without family or friends are in great trouble. Learning about the prison system and daily life in the prison was the best part of Marching Powder. Huge amounts of cocaine is also produced within the prison.

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hmmmm

I found it bizarre that the book is described on the back cover as ‘darkly comic’. There is nothing comic about about any of it. There are children brought up in the prison, there is death, abuse, drugs, and no hope for many of the prisoners.

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Going through Thomas’s story was a good way to find out about the prison, and Rusty helps Thomas out with his case. There is a follow up documentary about them returning to the prison many years later, and I really need to find that and give it a watch!

I Am, I Am, I Am – Maggie O’Farrell

A memoir told through seventeen near death experiences. Wow. Some of these stories just floored me. Maggie O’Farrell has had a lot of adventures, and not all of them very much fun. This is a fascinating look at her life, and the way she has chosen to present her memoir is brilliant.

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As much as I want to dissect many of the different stories, I won’t. I don’t want you to read this book already knowing the outcome, or surprises, or the details. It’s a much better experience to take O’Farrell’s hints about things she hasn’t fully told you about yet… and wait for her to get around to that bit.

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The seventeen stories are not ordered chronologically. We are time travelling through O’Farrell’s life and piecing the timeline together ourselves. Each story is named for the body part involved in the near death part of each story. The beginning of each chapter has an accompanying medical illustration, and I loved these. The book title is from The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath:

I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart: I am, I am, I am.

Gorgeous.

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I Am, I Am, I Am is brilliantly moving, unbelievable – yet believable,Ā  jaw dropping, tense, and magical. So much is horrendous, but there are moments of sheer joy. There are true quiet heroes in I Am, I Am, I Am.

I loved how O’Farrell took every near death moment in her stride – though I feared for her recklessness too! Some moments are truly chilling. Come and find me when you’ve read it too, then we can talk about it!

Calypso – David Sedaris (Audiobook)

I’m used to Sedaris’ books making me cry, always with laughter before this one. Now I can add tears because of how heartbreaking some of the stories are in Calypso. Here, Sedaris has hilarious stories mixed in with tragedy, most notably when talking about his sister, Tiffany’s, suicide, but they also cover relatives becoming elderly, and the death of his mother, who was an alcoholic.

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A lot of the stories in Calypso are about family. His father is ageing, his sister has committed suicide, he reminisces about his mother’s death, but this is not a depressing book. Of course it isn’t, Sedaris is hilarious. Most of these more sombre subjects are still dealt dark humour.

I found myself laughing out loud at some of this book – particularly the stories to do with language and observations about strangers and their behaviour. His discussion of creating his own ‘English for business travellers’ is a highlight.

Additionally, parts of Calypso were very moving. His sister’s suicide is so tragic. But he also talks emotionally about the US allowing gay marriage at last. Calypso is a true emotional roller coaster, and you get the feeling you are actually seeing some of the real Sedaris – mostly missing from his other books I’ve read.

It still leaves so many questions though. Did Sedaris really let someone who came to a book signing cut out a benign tumour he had, in order that he could keep it and feed it to his favourite turtle? Did he??

You go on an adventure of emotions with Sedaris, and you come out the other side with a renewed sense of wanting to make life more interesting. He makes you want to explore opportunities and to make the most of what presents itself to you. And he will make you laugh, that’s for sure.