Category Archives: non-fiction books

Book Review: Men Explain Things to Me – Rebecca Solnit

This is a brilliant collection of seven essays on feminism. It sets out succinctly and in a clear, straightforward way, all the shit that we need feminism for. They describe the ways in which women are not equal. Each essay covers something different. We have the title essay – now widely known as mansplaining, but more about that term in a minute. We have violence against women, class war and terrible economic history,  marriage equality, the efforts to make women invisible in society, intellectual freedom, and finally how ideas about feminism can’t be put back in a box and ignored: they are out there and won’t go away! It’s all the things I wish I could memorise and repeat when I meet someone who scoffs and states we don’t need feminism.

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untitled by Ana Teresa Fernandez

 

Each essay has a cover page with an image by Ana Teresa Fernandez on. I really liked these. Occasionally they are referred to in the essay themselves, but not in most cases. Throughout each essay you get key sentences written out again in bold and large lettering. I think to break up the text. They are a bit annoying. The only negative thing I have to say about the whole book. There are some great phrases in these essays:

part of the same archipelago of arrogance.

I’ll leave you to imagine what this was in reference to.

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Disney store mug featuring Black Widow

The first and title essay is funny, and depressing and so familiar.

It’s about the thin end of a scary wedge. This essay is describing the phenomena now widely known as mansplaining, though Rebecca Solnit doesn’t like that phrase as she explains in an addition to the original essay featured in this collection.

The point of the essay was never to suggest that I think I am notably oppressed. It was to take these conversations as the narrow end of the wedge that opens up space for men and closes it off for women, space to speak, to be heard, to have rights, to be respected, to be a full and free human being.

Rebecca Solnit

The second essay, The Longest War, is about rape and violence against women. It’s stark and depressing and motivating. I needed a bit of a break after the second essay before I could read the third. It was just too much to take in all at once. This isn’t a criticism, it’s powerful reading.

The third, is framed around Dominique Strauss Khan and the hotel maid scandal. It touches on class war, the damaging policies of the IMF and the rich fucking over the poor.

Chapter four is marriage equality. It explores how gay marriage is an affront to people who want to preserve traditional gender roles (i.e. men being the source of power in the marriage) because a marriage between two men or two women is inherently equal.

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untitled by Ana Teresa Fernandez

Chapter 5, Grandmother Spider, is about the erasure of women. In biblical genealogy, lineage is from father to son. Women are ignored. The entire side of someone’s family on their mothers side is erased. Women’s names are erased on marriage. You used to become Mrs husbands name. I’ve had post arrived addressed to me in this way and it’s infuriating! Veils are a way of disappearing a women. So is confining her to a home and not enabling women to take part in public life. It starts out looking at the bible and ends with examples in the modern world. I really enjoyed this essay, especially because I’m already so familiar with the history of women in science and how often women have been overlooked.

When I was young, women were raped on the campus of a great university and the authorities responded by telling all the women students not to go out alone after dark or not to be out at all. Get in the house. (For women, confinement is always waiting to envelope you.) Some pranksters put up a poster announcing another remedy, that all men be excluded from campus after dark. It was an equally logical solution, but men were shocked at being asked to disappear, to lose their freedom to move and participate, all because of the violence of one man.

Rebecca Solnit

Next we have a chapter starting with a Virginia Woolf quote:

The future is dark, which is the best thing the future can be, I think

Virginia Woolf, 1915.

It wasn’t really clear what this is about at first. It talks of Sontag and if art is hopeful or dark or something. It’s a bit more abstract that the others and so I struggled with it. It references another of her books Hope In The Dark and is about having hope. How your actions might have unintended, amazing consequences. you can’t know if your actions will have the effect you want, but you should try just in case it does, or in case it has unintended consequences. There are examples to illustrate all this. It gives a great case for wandering about and walking being great for creativity and introspection.

This essay is still great, but it’s also a bit advert for Rebecca Solnit’s other books (which I know I will end up ordering and reading – in fact, Hope in the Dark arrived yesterday!), which I now want to read (Hope in the Dark was already high up on my wishlist because of Josie Long singing it’s praises on Bookshambles). I also now must read some Virginia Woolf and her essay on wandering the streets of London! I love how reading one thing makes me want to read others. Though I really don’t need any more books… says every reader, ever.

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Grace Kelly: rock star

Essay 7: Pandora’s Box and the Volunteer Police Force is about the progress feminism has made. About how once an idea has been released it can’t be put back in its box.

Homophobia, like misogyny, is still terrible; just not as terrible as it was in, say, 1970. Finding ways to appreciate advances without embracing complacency is a delicate task. It involves being hopeful and motivated and keeping eyes on the prize ahead. Saying that everything is fine or that it will never get any better are ways of going nowhere or of making it impossible to go anywhere. Either approach implies that there is no road out or that, if there is, you don’t need to or can’t go down it. You can. We have.

Rebecca Solnit

I’m going to need to reread these essays several times, just so the next person who says we don’t need feminism to me, can get a well thought out, intelligent earful about exactly why we definitely do. I struggling to put quotes in this review because I highlighted almost every other sentence. Rebecca Solnit is my new hero.

 

 

 

Book Review: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking – Susan Cain

I am a quiet person. I’m an introvert. I get frustrated with people who mistake quiet for shy. Some people assume that everyone who is quiet is a wannabe extrovert who’s just too afraid to be loud. I’m quiet and I’m happy. And I don’t want to be loud and the centre of attention. I will do karaoke in front of strangers when I want to and I speak my mind (when I feel it’s appropriate). I’m not crippled by my quietness. And I don’t want to be an extrovert. Thank goodness for Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. Thank you Susan Cain for writing this book.

Shyness is the fear of social disapproval or humiliation, while introversion is a preference for environments that are not overstimulating. Shyness is inherently painful; introversion is not. One reason that people confuse the two concepts is that they sometimes overlap (though psychologists debate to what degree).

I went into Quiet knowing I would love it because it’s entirely set up to big up (so to speak) introversion and point out how introverts have enormous amounts to offer, and should be seen as just as important as extrovert voices. The ‘extrovert ideal’ world we live in is flawed because it tends to diminish and ignore the introverts. What we need is the balance that both offer.

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Quiet is an interesting book that can give you insights into both the introverts and extroverts around you. It’s serious, but also quite funny. Reading (introvert) Susan Cain’s descriptions of attending a Tony Robbins seminar to help you be more outgoing are hilarious:

“But I’m not an extrovert, you say!” he told us at the start of the seminar. “So? You don’t have to be an extrovert to feel alive!” True enough. But it seems, according to Tony, that you’d better act like one if you don’t want to flub the sales call and watch your family die like pigs in hell.

and getting a tour round an fMRI machine:

Before Schwartz opens the door, he asks me to take off my gold hoop earrings and set aside the metal tape recorder I’ve been using to record our conversation. The magnetic field of the fMRI machine is 100,000 times stronger than the earth’s gravitational pull – so strong, Schwartz says, that it could rip the earrings right out of my ears if they were magnetic and send them flying across the room. I worry about the metal fasteners of my bra, but I’m too embarrassed to ask. I point instead to my shoe buckle, which I figure has the same amount of metal as the bra strap. Schwartz says it’s all right, and we enter the room.

Quiet goes on to describe how introverts and extroverts like a different level of stimulation from the outside world to feel comfortable. Introverts get easily overstimulated and so need to retreat to a less stimulating environment more frequently. I’m massively oversimplifying the description here – it covers several chapters in the book. We tend to seek out the right level of stimulation for ourselves, naturally. By having an awareness of what is happening it can help you plan your life, social interactions and navigate relationships.

Quiet gave me some insight into why I found being a high school teacher so incredibly draining. What was I even thinking? A job where you are interacting with hundreds of people everyday. Where you are in a conflict situation frequently. It’s so clear now why I had to change things after 8 years. I now work in a sixth form college. All of the teaching and subject teaching I love with none (well, hardly any) of the conflict. So much better for my mental well being! Wish I’d finished Quiet when I vaguely started reading it (in 2011, according to goodreads)!

I knew Quiet would help me feel empowered and help me see more of the strengths I have, but I never foresaw that it would help me understand my 4 year old daughter more. My daughter shows all the traits of being quite an extrovert and honestly, I find her completely exhausting. Reading Quiet has enabled me to understand her more and has helped me be more tolerant to her loudness, sociability and constant need to be accompanied and busy and noisy! I hadn’t considered this might be a feature of Quiet at all, and it’s been quite a revelation.

I recommend this book for introverts, extroverts, everyone.  And if you can’t be bothered reading the whole lot, have a look at the conclusion chapter, it’s a beautiful summary of all of these ideas. Here are two of my favourite parts of the final chapter:

Love is essential; gregariousness is optional. Cherish your nearest and dearest. Work with colleagues you like and respect. Scan new acquaintances for those who might fall into the former categories or whose company you enjoy for its own sake. And don’t worry about socialising with everyone else. Relationships make everyone happier, introverts included, but think quality over quantity.

Whoever you are, bear in mind that appearance is not reality. Some people act like extroverts, but the effort costs them in energy, authenticity, and even physical health. Others seem aloof or self-contained, but their inner landscapes are rich and full of drama. So the next time you see a person with a composed face and a soft voice, remember that inside her mind she might be solving an equation, composing a sonnet, designing a hat. She might, that is, be deploying the powers of quiet.

Book Review: Lion – Saroo Brierley

Lion is Saroo Brierley’s moving life story. Until he was five years old he lived, with his family, in a western part of India. He then accidentally became trapped on a train and found himself in Calcutta, in the eastern part of India, 1500 miles away from home.

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With poor language skills and with the whole being five years old thing, he couldn’t find his own way home, and couldn’t get anyone to help him. He survived a truly frightening time on the streets.

Eventually, miraculously, he found himself being helped. His family couldn’t be found and so he was adopted by an Australian family.

Fast forward to him being around 30 years old and he realises Google Earth, and the little knowledge he has of where he grew up, can possibly allow him to locate his family.

It’s an amazing, terrible, horrifying story. I had to keep reminding myself that the early part of the story is only in the 1980s, and not a hundred years earlier than that. It’s written in quite a matter of fact style that I quite liked, but I could see how this could be a bit annoying to some readers. It’s quite obviously an extremely emotional story, but that is quite lacking in the storytelling.

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Saroo with his Australian mum and his birth mother.  Photo from www.thenational.ae

The book cover is Dev Patel playing Saroo in the film version. I haven’t seen it yet, but I can’t wait to. I think the story with the added heart string pulling emotional aspect will be stunning.  Also, the name of the book is a really sad, yet sweet, reveal moment in the book, so I won’t tell you now. 🙂

Book review: The Good Immigrant – ed. Nikesh Shukla

The Good Immigrant is a brilliant collection of stories about being a black, asian or minority ethnic immigrant in Britain. It’s an awesome collection of lots of viewpoints. It’s written by 21 BAME people and I highly recommend giving it a read. I LOVED it.

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Some themes include the lack of thought people generally put into their use of language. The missing role models in popular culture. In A Guide to Being Black by Varaidzo, the idea that white people will use the n-word if no black people are around, especially in the context of singing along to rap lyrics, is discussed. I can imagine this happening and those people behaving differently if a person of colour is present. I think this is similar to those people that only behave well because they think God is watching.

…if a white kid raps all the lyrics to ‘Gold Digger’ and there isn’t a black person around to hear it, is it still racist?

Varaidzo

There are stories about the conflicting emotions when visiting family abroad – the feeling of not quite fitting in anywhere.

The over riding theme is just of being and feeling OTHER and how shit that can be. There is also plenty of celebration of how great being an immigrant can be. There is joy in these stories as well as sadness and struggle. Some parts have made me laugh, some have made me cry. Sometimes both on the same page. Reading The Good Immigrant just gave me ALL THE THOUGHTS, so apologies if this review is a bit rambling and all over the place!

Of the 20 stories, I didn’t dislike any of them. I loved the story of the unmasking of Kendo Nagasaki. I was heart broken for the Daniel York Loh, the author of Kendo Nagasaki and Me. Many of the stories include the terrible representation of BAME on television, films, and in the media in general. The importance of this is summed up in Window of Opportunity:

Storytelling is the most powerful way to promote our understanding of the world in which we live and the vessel to tell these stories is our media.

Himesh Patel

I think Bim Adewunmi has it about right in What We Talk About When We Talk About Tokenism:

But it seems obvious to me, a naive layman with beautiful dreams, that there are three steps to writing a good character of colour:

  1. Write a stonkingly good, well-rounded character
  2. Make the ‘effort’ to cast a person of colour
  3. That’s it!

Bim Adewunmi

You Can’t Say That! Stories Have to be about White People, by Darren Chetty, is about representations of BAME characters in children’s literature, and is really thought provoking. The idea of books as mirrors and as windows really made me think. I’m already aware of issues like this. I try to buy my children books with a range of characters in. It’s difficult though, and you have to make a real determined effort to find any. (My quick recommendation is Ruby’s Sleepover. The main characters are girls, they are non white and they are brave. My kids love it.) Even with an awareness of the issues I wonder how well I have done. I’m going to audit the children’s bookshelves and I already know I will be disappointed with the results.

A lot of the stories talk of childhoods where they were the only, or one of a handful of non white faces at school. I grew up in an area like this, and I now live in one. My children go to a school where the overwhelming majority of faces are white. This concerns me and I make sure we visit cities often and we have better representation in the books we read and TV we watch, but I still don’t know if I could be doing anything else. Does even asking that make me a massive twat? I can’t move though, I guess that would be one answer.

There are stories that detail abuse received on the streets of Britain, particularly in And UK Fashion by Sabrina Mahfouz. It’s disgusting and shameful. It’s good to be reminded about this. As a white person, in a white family, living in a mostly white area, it’s too easy to forget that these incidents are a daily occurrence for some people. This has been a problem in the past, and I can only imagine what it must be like in twatface Brexit Britain. I welcome being reminded about other people’s reality. In fact, I think it’s vital to be forced out of the cosy echochamber we can set up for ourselves and understand more about the real world.

Perpetuating Casteism, by Sarah Sahim, is story about the Indian caste system:

My family never concerned themselves with casteism and neither did I: we didn’t discriminate or abide by its rules. However, this ‘caste-blind’ attitude is extremely harmful and you cannot and must not turn a blind eye to injustices that your people are responsible for. I have the freedom to be wilfully ignorant, but others, especially Dalits, cannot afford to do so.

Sarah Sahim

When I was younger I thought being colour blind was a good enough approach to combat racism. Now I know more about it and realise this is just ignoring a problem by not addressing it. Only people who benefit from white supremacy can take this dismissive viewpoint and I strive to be better than complacent, and to teach my kids that immigration and having a multicultural society is a great, positive thing. I found this TED talk by Mellody Hobson to be a really informative:

My absolute favourite story was Shade by Salena Godden. I can’t stop thinking about this story. It’s beautifully written and devastating. I urge you to get hold of this book and read it.

Human colour is the colour I’m truly interested in, the colour of your humanity. May the size of your heart and the depth of your soul be your currency. Welcome aboard my Good Ship. Let us sail to the colourful island of mixed identity. You can eat from the cooking pot of mixed culture and bathe in the cool shade of being mixed-race. There is no need for a passport. There are no borders. We are all citizens of the world. Whatever shade you are, bring your light, bring your colour, bring your music and your books, your stories and your histories, and climb aboard. United as a people we are a million majestic colours, together we are a glorious stained-glass window. We are building a cathedral of otherness, brick by brick and book by book. Raise your glass of rum, let’s toast to the minorities who are the majority.

Salena Godden

Also, literally no one buys clothes from Amazon. My tiny bugbear in an otherwise superb book. And final thought, if you haven’t read Coconut Unlimited by Nikesh Shukla, go and read it now – it’s a very enjoyable read.

Book Review: Welcome to Biscuit Land: A year in the life of Touretteshero – Jessica Thom

Jessica Thom has Tourette’s syndrome. This means she has involuntary physical and vocal tics. She is one of 10% of Tourettes sufferers who say obscene things in her vocal tics (coprolalia, if you want to be fancy about it), but these obscene tics only make up a small part of her daily ticcing. Mostly she says ‘biscuit’ a lot, hence the title of her book. This is a book about a year in her life, taken as extracts from her blog, and it gives a fascinating insight into the life of someone with a condition like this.

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I first heard of Jessica Thom because she was on a Stephen Fry BBC program about language – Fry’s Planet Word. It really helps to see a video of Jessica before reading her book. It gives you a real idea of what talking to someone who, amongst other things, says biscuit around 16 times a minute would be like. You also get to see just how her physical tics manifest.

Reading Welcome to Biscuit Land has given me a window into Jessica’s world. Most of us have some awareness of Tourettes syndrome and know the stereotype of a continually swearing youth. I know for me (and probably most UK people above a certain age!) the only thing I knew about Tourettes was from the QED documentary ‘John’s Not Mad‘ from 1989, and honestly, what I took from this was the comedy of swearing all the time without being able to stop it.

I (hopefully obviously) don’t think it’s funny at all any more (I was a child when John’s Not Mad aired), and I didn’t really know about the physical tics, which are much worse, in a way, that the vocal tics. The involuntary movements that Jessica suffers from mean many things including:

  • she can’t use anything sharper than a plastic knife. Too dangerous. She hits herself in the face a lot, and does it with whatever is in her hand.
  • one of her ticks is her knees buckling and her falling to the floor. This makes it hard for her to get around and stairs are very dangerous for her.
  • she beats her chest a lot and causes bruising (this is why she wears gloves to protect her hand)
  • She struggles with medical examinations that require you to be still, for example, going to the dentist, or for a smear test.
  • and on, and on…

As well as this constant physical discomfort, she also has the vocal tics, which can be very funny, but also mean she is almost constantly explaining to people that she has Tourettes. She also receives a lot of abuse from people in public who just don’t understand her condition, even after she has tried to explain it. It all adds up to a life that is difficult, constantly challenging, and bloody hard work!

Despite this, Jessica manages to work with children, and their take on her condition will bring a smile to your face. She has embraced her condition and her positive outlook is phenomenal.

The structure of Welcome to Biscuit Land is lots of short, disjointed stories. The chapters are each a month in her year. I found this structure a bit jarring, and it’s clear that the stories are taken from a diary or blog. Overall, I really enjoyed this book and feel like I’ve learnt a lot from it, as well as seeing the comical side to Jessica’s vocal tics (It’s OK – this is encouraged! ). The ones linking a Shakespeare quote with an obscenity are my favourites.

Here is a link to her TEDtalk to get a better idea of Jessica and her life:

Book review: The Story of my Life – Helen Keller

Helen Keller had an illness at 19 months old that left her deaf and blind. This book, written when she was 22, and at college, is an account of how she has lived her life and came to be at college. It was published in 1903. It’s the story of how she has flourished, against the odds, with the help of an great teacher.

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There’s no doubt that Helen Keller is a certified bad ass. She graduated from college when not many woman did, and she did it all as a blind and deaf person (the first to hold a Bachelor of arts degree). She went on to be a campaigner and activist.

A member of the Socialist Party of America and the Industrial Workers of the World, she campaigned for women’s suffrage, labor rights, socialism, antimilitarism, and other similar causes.

Having said that, you could have knocked a third off this book and it still been really fascinating. Later parts are a string of mini book reviews from her studies and accounts of all the famous people she has met.

A lot of it is written in very flowery language; lot of smells and feelings, but clearly that’s how she experiences the world and so is totally fine. She describes brilliantly how she felt before she could communicate effectively, and how utterly amazingly life changing her teacher, Anne Sullivan, was. Incidentally, I didn’t realise Anne was also blind! I only realised this when I just looked up her wikipedia entry to check her name.

An interesting short (but still too long) read. 🙂

And I read the whole thing with this song on repeat in my head:

Book review: The Diet Myth – Tim Spector

Wowweeee a book about food and science! This is a scientific look at various ideas about food. The bottom line: it’s all about gut microbes. Eat natural food, lots of fruit and veg, some beer, coffee and chocolate (thank you, thank you, thank you). Don’t eat loads of processed food.

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The book takes on each food type and tells us about what scientific studies have had to say about them. It’s heavy on science (good) but even I got a bit lost in the various microbe names and some of the details of the studies. Luckily, you don’t really need to know them to get the point.

I wanted to read this book because I want to gain some scientific perspective on the conflicting diet and healthy lifestyle advice you get bombarded with. Happily, most of what I found out in The Diet Myth is what I suspected (or hoped) was the case.

The biggest challenge to my physics loving brain was getting rid of the idea that we are all identical black boxes, and losing weight is just a simple matter of calories in vs calories out. Of course messy, complicated, biology isn’t that simple. This book helpfully describes scientific studies (usually on identical twins – thank science for identical twins!) that show one calorie of food for one person is not the same for another person. And the difference usually comes down to genes, or your gut microbes. I’m not going to try and describe any of this in any detail here (and the book has many pages of references to the science if you are interested!). Of course, this is not magic, you will still gain or lose weight roughly on a calories in vs calories out basis – just that for one person this may work more easily than for another, and your microbiome health can tip the balance to it being difficult, or easier.

It’s not all great news though. Your microbiome is largely genetic, or passed from mother to baby during birth. There a section on birth and breastfeeding which I found to be largely unhelpful because these events are not something you can change if they are in your past. I found this chapter may actually just serve to make a mother feel guilt if they have either had a C-section or didn’t breastfeed. I felt quite strongly about this because I was reading the book to find out how I can change things for the better in my diet, in my future. I realise it fits in with the book narrative, but it was unexpected and mostly unwelcome. Probably all a bit too close to home given that my children are still quite small!

Overall I like the approach to food this book has given me. And it says I can eat cheese. Praise the Lord (of science), hallelujah! (to microbes), cheese is good! as is beer, and dark chocolate, and full fat yogurt, just not too much of it, and you must eat plenty of fruit, veg and whole grains :-). This is a way of eating I can get behind. Also, having slightly mucky children is also to be praised. Phew. 😉