It's a tricky time for everyone at the moment - and as a book fan it's hard to ignore quite how much Covid-19 has thrown the publishing world into disarray - publishing dates are being postponed, many independent bookshops have closed completely during this time, and a lot of people, myself included, struggled to concentrate on reading in this time of immense change and uncertainty. But, things are going to continue as they are for quite some time, and now my mental state has just about adjusted to our "new normal", I wanted to take a look at a book that came out on the 19th of March - so pretty much as all of this kicked off. It's a brilliant read that deserves to be shared - so let me tell you a little bit about it.
Celebrity, with its neon glow and selfie pout, appears hypermodern. But the famous and infamous have been thrilling, titillating, and outraging us for much longer than we might realise. Whether it was the scandalous Lord Byron, whose poetry sent female fans into an erotic frenzy, or the cheetah-owning, coffin-sleeping, one-legged French actress Sarah Bernhardt, who launched a violent feud with her former best friend - the list of stars whose careers burned bright, long before the Age of Television, is extensive and thrillingly varied.
Greg Jenner is a historian, broadcaster, author, and an Honorary Research Associate at Royal Holloway, University of London, where he does occasional teaching. I've been listening to Greg Jenner for a while now, as his BBC Comedy podcast "You're Dead to Me" has proved hugely eye-opening and exciting both for history buffs like me, and for friends who perhaps haven't been so keen on history in the past. The podcast allows anyone to discover fascinating facts about historical figures - but the way it's set up means that those who maybe got put off history after a bored teacher repeated dates to them ad infinitum, will hopefully have a new interest sparked by the compelling way in which the tales are told.
Telling people's stories in a compelling fashion is clearly something that Jenner excels at - and in Dead Famous he's able to combine an overarcing study of the way celebrity has grown and changed over the centuries, with intimate glimpses into the lives of those who have been raised up and celebrated for a huge variety of reasons - both good and bad.
Jenner is the historical consultant to the brilliant Horrible Histories tv show, and it's clear that he has a telent for comedy as well as history, with witty asides peppered throughout the book. It works well - this is clearly a hugely well researched piece of work, but the warmth and humour ensures that it doesn't read like a dry textbook - it has a clear focus, and the compellingly human lives that Jenner resurrects on these pages ensure that it's a page turner - he skillfully weaves fascinating facts throughout every single page, leaving me with a long sheet of people I'm keen to do more research on.
Books that combine history with humour can, in my experience, occasionally err on the side of cruelty - poking fun at the figures they reference in order to entertain readers. That certainly isn't the case here - Jenner allows fact to speak for itself with little room for harsh judgements - and that ensures that Dead Famous is a compelling piece of social history that educates just as much as it entertains - it's one of the best history books I've read in some time.
If it sounds like your cup of tea, - grab a copy where you can, and check out "You're Dead to Me" whereever you get your podcasts. The author has also just started a history podcast called Homeschool History that aims to get children interested in history during this rather difficult time - if you're in the UK it should be available on the BBC Sounds App.
Tim Waterstone is one of Britain's most successful businessmen, having built the Waterstone's empire that started with one small bookshop in 1982. In this memoir he recalls the childhood experiences that led him to become an entrepreneur and outlines the business philosophy that allowed Waterstone's to dominate the bookselling business throughout the country. Tim explores his formative years in a small town in rural England at the end of the Second World War, and the troubled relationship he had with his father, before moving on to the epiphany he had while studying at Cambridge, which set him on the road to Waterstone's and gave birth to the creative strategy that made him a high street name, and Waterstone's the largest booksellers in Europe.
I've never been a big fan of the business memoir - I've never found "rags to riches" tales particularly exciting and as someone who has always been far more interested in the creative side of life as opposed to the business side, it's not a genre I've dipped my toe in very often.
However, as a huge lover of books, a regular shopper in Waterstones (there are 3 within a ten minute walk of my office, which, for someone with a love of books and no impulse control, is dangerous!), and as a former bookseller in a Waterstones, I was intrigued to read the tale of how Tim Waterstone (Sir Tim Waterstone now) turned a single bookshop into an empire -and I was pleased to find that "The Face Pressed Against the Window" is half personal memoir, half account of years spent running and growing his bookshops. Tim Waterstone has, unsurprisingly, rather a unique voice -and the account of his life is well told, with spirit, warm humour and a careful balance of tone that conveys both the nostalgia and the harsh realities of life in post-WWII Britain
From childhood, through University, and then a brief spell in India, Tim Waterstone comes onto his time running bookstores -but what's important is that he doesn't allow himself to wallow in his own success, but instead celebrates his staff - of the culture and creativity that his bookstores have inspired, and of the mere fact that, in this "Digital" age his idea has endured and, in recent years, thrived. A testament to the power of learning and reading - "The Face Pressed Against a Window" is a surprising, moving and heartwarming read from an industry leader.
In 2010—long before the release of Lemonade—Professor Kevin Allred created the university course “Politicizing Beyoncé” to both wide acclaim and controversy. He outlines his pedagogical philosophy in Ain’t I a Diva?, exploring the process of teaching Beyoncé and what it means to use a superstar to blow up the canon. Allred brings his syllabus to life by pairing music videos and songs with historical and academic texts, and combines analysis with classroom anecdotes. Topics range from a capitalist critique of “Run the World (Girls)” to the politics of self-care found in “Flawless”; Beyoncé’s art is read alongside Black feminist thinkers including Kimberlé Crenshaw, Octavia Butler, and Sojourner Truth.
Interrogating the entertainer’s career through a media studies lens, Allred attests that pop culture is so much more than a guilty pleasure—it’s an access point for education, entertainment, critical inquiry, and politics.
Singer, songwriter, actress, mother, wife, there's no doubting that Beyoncé is a modern day icon - a clear star since her Destiny's Child days who has only grown in terms of influence and power. As one of the most famous women on the planet, Beyoncé could have gone down a standard, crowd pleasing route -but in recent years has taken career choices that surprised and excited many, stepping away from the pure pop pleasure of her earlier work and stunning the world with the surprise drop of "Lemonade" in 2016. A visual album that combined a range of musical genres with a furious anger that allowed Beyoncé to explore black history, feminism, indifelity, sexuality, and even Yoruba culture, "Lemonade" showed the world that Beyoncé is a far deeper artist than many expected - and it's these deeper levels that author and Professor Kevin Allred has been exploring since 2010 with his course "Politizing Beyoncé" -a syllabus that analyses the work of Beyoncé alongside black feminist texts to use intersectionality as as an analytic tool through which to view both pop culture and the rest of the world. Here Allred takes his course and transforms it into a fascinating, highly readable book that explores both the political and cultural background behind the work of Ms. Knowles, explored through black feminist thinkers and ending in a fascinating read.
I've always rather taken Beyonce at face value - I've been a fan since the Destiny's Child days, and particularly enjoyed her explosion onto the music scene as a solo performer with Dangerously in Love - but I never gave her work a huge amount of thought, even in recent years when her politics have become more overt in her music. I fully appreciate that's likely due to my privilege as a Cis White Man, and as such I found "Ain't I A Diva" an eye-opening read, and Allred is careful to ensure that he doesn't wallow in dry academia, but instead fills his work with references that are relevant to both the subject and the reader. If the book is this good, I can only imagine how engagingly excellent Allred's lectures are - with the book going far deeper than I perhaps imagined, and as such is a valuable and enlightening read for anyone with an interest in popular culture.
Katharine Smyth was a student at Oxford when she first read Virginia Woolf's modernist masterpiece "To the Lighthouse" in the comfort of an English sitting room, and in the companionable silence she shared with her father. After his death -a calamity that claimed her favourite person - she returned to that beloved novel as a way of wrestling with his memory and understanding her own grief.
Smyth's story moved between the New England of her childhood and Woolf's Cornish shores and Bloomsbury squares, exploring universal questions about family, loss and homecoming. Through her inventive, highly personal reading of "To the Lighthouse" and her artful adaptation of its ground-breaking structure, Smyth guides us towards a new vision of Woolf's most demanding and rewarding novel - and crafts an elegant reminder of literature's ability to clarify and console. Braiding memoir, literary criticism and biography, All the Lives we Ever Lived is a wholly original debut: A love letter from a daughter to her father, and from a reader to her most cherished author.
ClearVirginia Woolf that evokes a range of feelings in people - some love her for her remarkably ahead of time writings, and her outspoken drive for women to be offered equality in a time when it was denied them. Some only know her for her suicide - walking into the water to end a life of mental illness and and the fears caused by World War II. For me she's an incredible writer and a powerful woman -her writings still fresh and contemporary a century after they were written. Author Katharine Smyth understands that -and her love and respect for Virginia Woolf allows her to weave a cleverly considered criticism of Woolf's work with a personal narrative of grief and loss. Clear, considered prose tells a tale of family, love and loss and commands emotion almost as powerfully as Woolf does - waves of grief and raw emotion conveyed with startling clarity.
Comparisons to Helen McDonald's "H is for Hawk" are inevitable and apt -both works of loss and grief that centre around a love for a long-dead author, but the transatlantic setting of "All the Lives We Ever Lived" gives it a very different feel that seems to fit Woolf to a tee -waves both literal and emotional crashing against the pages with palpable power. Moving, powerful and destined to stick in the mind long after the book has closed, "All the Lives We Ever Lived" is a tribute to a father, an author, and a powerful work in its own right.
The Kenneth Williams companion is the first, and only, definitive book on the career of Kenneth Williams. Written by Adam Endacott - a London based communications Director and editor of the Architectural Technology Journal, who has spent his life documenting and collecting everything to do with Kenneth Williams. Here he brings that lifetime of research and dedication into this detailed and encyclopedic guide to the career of a brilliant man.
Kenneth Williams was born in Central London in 1926 - beginning his acting career in 1948. A stint in repertory theatre led to his comedy career beginning in earnest with "Hancock's Half Hour", "Round the Horne" regular appearances on Radio 4's "Just a Minute", and, perhaps most famously, the "Carry On" films, appearing in 26 of the 31 films. His personal life was filled with close friendships - with people including playwright Joe Orton, and actresses Maggie Smith, Sheila Hancock, and Carry on co-star Barbara Windsor. However, whilst private about his home life, Williams admitted to a deep sense of loneliness - and as his health declined in his later years, depression took a stronger hold on him. He died in 1988 from an overdose of barbiturates - whether it was suicide or accidental is still unknown. However, with his many appearances in what was regarded as a Golden Age for British comedy, Williams legacy is a beloved figure whose legacy will, no doubt, be hugely long lasting.
30 years after the death of Williams, author Adam Endacott has written this definitive and remarkably well researched guide into the many appearances of Kenneth, and it's a hugely impressive achievement. Filled with detailed information on the TV shows, Radio broadcasts and films that Williams appeared in, its a reference guide that has clearly had huge amount of work put into it - but unlike many reference books of its type, it isn't a dry read. Endacott takes care to scatter fascinating facts and personal detail throughout the book which ensures that, whilst this certainly isn't a biography, the reader gets a strong sense of Williams' character nonetheless. In addition, the sheer passion that Endacott has for Williams shines through and engages the reader - it's a great book to pick up from time to time in order to immerse yourself into the life and work of a comedy genius.
This is not a sex book but a book about sex. Isabel Losada brings her unique blend of humour, curiosity and honesty to the still-taboo subject of sexuality and pleasure. This is a brave, funny and often vulnerable quest to find out how we can make our sex lives better. On behalf of all women, a slightly terrified Isabel begins with a women's workshop where she has to get naked; she journeys through the first international conference on clitoral stroking; is informed of eleven different forms of orgasm (ten of which she hasn't had); and endures Kegel exercises and mystical sensations with tantric masters.
So, a book about sex. That, I can manage. But a book about female sexuality? Terrifying. Apart from a very brief encounter as a teenager, my experiences of sexual intimacy with a woman have been non-existent, and as a fully fledged homosexual it's really not something I know all that much about. Mercifully, I couldn't have asked for a better guide than Isabel Losada - and "Sensation" follows Losada on a journey of discovery through varied experiences - some bizarre, some eye opening, but all told with warm humour and a complete lack of judgement - the author is keen to learn and to impart her findings to the reader with an openness and honesty that shatters any potential awkwardness that the reader (well, me) may have initially felt when picking up such a book.
Isabel's journey takes in Tantric Sex, Clitoris Stroking, Yoni Healing, Tantric Massage, Light Beams, Kegels, and Pelvic Floors amongst others, exploring pleasure and the female sex in intimate and intricate detail. Losada's skill as a writer ensures that the reader feels like they're on a journey of discovery right there with her - and her combination of openness and warm wit makes one feel comfortable no matter the situation they're encountering. If you are at all tempted to discover the complicated beast that is female sexual pleasure then this is a great way to dive in - and Losada a marvellous guide. On the other hand, if you have no great interest in female sexual pleasure, but are nonetheless keen to read an involving, warm and hugely funny tale of different people, different cultures and deals with intimacy not only in terms of sex but also in relationships and humans in general. Why are we so afraid to talk about sex? I don't know - but I'm bloody glad that Isabel Losada has and I hope many, many people follow her lead.
Suzanne Spaak was born into an affluent Belgian Catholic family and married into the country's leading political dynasty. Her brother-in-law was the prime minister and her husband Claude was a playwright and patron of the painter Rene Magritte. In occupied Paris she mingled with the cultural elite including Colette and Jean Cocteau. But Suzanne was living a double life. Her friendship with a Polish Jewish refugee led her to her life's purpose. When France fell and the Nazis occupied Paris, she joined the Resistance. She used her fortune and social status to enlist allies among wealthy Parisians and Church groups. Under the eyes of the Gestapo, Suzanne and women from the Jewish and Christian resistance groups 'kidnapped' hundreds of Jewish children to save them from the gas chambers.
I love to hear tales about the French Resistance - I find them endlessly fascinating. Whilst here in Britain we were determinedly fighting a war against the Germans, they never landed on our shores in any number - whereas just a few miles away across the channel, parts of France were under occupation from the Nazi soldiers. The fact that a resistance existed shows the sheer bravery of the French people - teaming together to save innocents who the Nazi party had deemed suitable for the death camps. They risked their lives, yes - but also those of their families, friends and societies around them in order to help people and bring an end to the oppression that the war brought.
Suzanne Spaak was part of that Resistance, but she's a woman who's name has, until now, mainly been lost to the depths of history. She's a fascinating subject for a biography - going from a life of glamour and luxury through to entering a life of danger, not only joining a resistance organisation, but personally harboring children in her own home. It's a story that takes a turn to dark routes full of betrayal and danger - and Suzanne is a strong and vital voice at the centre of her own narrative. Anne Nelson bring Suzanne's life and the lives around her to life with a breathtaking vividness - she's clearly done huge amounts of research in order to bring this tale to the page, and it serves as an incredible tribute to the life of a woman who was complicated, intriguing, and utterly inspirational - an it's wonderful to see her life recreated in such a readable and interesting manner as has been done in "Codename Suzette". Many thanks to the publishers for the copy.
Author Jim Harrison was a beloved writer, a muscular, brilliantly economic stylist with a salty wisdom. He also wrote some of the best essays on food around, earning praise as “the poet laureate of appetite” (Dallas Morning News). A Really Big Lunch, published on the one-year anniversary of Harrison’s death, collects many of his food pieces for the first time—and taps into his larger-than-life appetite with wit and verve.
Jim Harrison’s legendary gourmandise is on full display in A Really Big Lunch. From the titular New Yorker piece about a French lunch that went to thirty-seven courses, to pieces from Brick, Playboy, Kermit Lynch Newsletter, and more on the relationship between hunter and prey, or the obscure language of wine reviews.
Jim Harrison is probably best known for his 1979 novella Legends of the Fall. You may not have read it, but you'll probably have seen it - a handsome young Brad Pitt wandering the plains of Montana sticks in the mind somewhat. Aside from this book though, Harrison wrote a range of fiction books, and huge amounts of poetry - but "A Really Big Lunch" focuses on his love for food and his adventures as a roving gourmand. Harrison died in 2016, but this book is a wonderful tribute to the man - it's full of life, humour and an easy intimacy that draws the reader in and thrills them with descriptions of wonderful food and wine, as well as beautifully chosen prose.
I don't think there could be any better epitaph than "He live life to the full" - and it's clear that this was the case with Harrison. "A Really Big Lunch" is full of essays that convey an infectious and almost inspiration desire for fun, food and fine wine through prose that's unbelievably enjoyable - salty and rude and like hearing fantastic tales from a naughty but beloved Uncle. The lunch of the title is the feature of a fantastic essay about a 37 course lunch Harrison once partook in - 11 hours of grazing on dishes that varied from a simple soup through to a a hare cooked in port wine inside a calf's bladder - all accompanied by 19 different types of wine. It rather sets the tone for the rest of the essays - they're packed full of excess and some foods that even a voracious eater like myself wouldn't dream of eating - but Harrison's lust for life and living makes them all wildly exciting and interesting - his wit pushing the reader through even the most horrific of meals.
Of course, a life of excess isn't all that healthy, and Harrison's meditations on his deteriorating body certainly take on a bittersweet quality in the aftermath of his death. However, this collection of wonderful essays serves as a brilliant tribute to a great man - my face ached from grinning at the writing and my stomach hurt from pangs of envious humour. Many thanks to the publishers for the copy.
In the mid seventeenth century, England was divided by war and bloodshed. Torn apart by rival factions, father opposed son and brother met brother on the battlefield. But while civil war raged on cobbled streets and green fields, inside the home domestic life continued as it always had done. For Ann Fanshawe and her children it meant a life of insecurity and constant jeopardy as she and her husband, a Royalist diplomat, dedicated their lives to the restoration of the Stuart monarchy.
In this uncertain world, Ann's 'receipt book' was a treasured and entirely feminine response to the upheavals of war. These books were a feature of women's lives during this period, when there were few doctors to be found, and were full of life-saving medical knowledge that had been gleaned from mothers and friends. Remarkably, Ann's morocco-bound book full of scraps of ink-stained paper has survived to this day.
Lucy Moore is a historian, educated in Britain and the United States, with a degree in history from Edinburgh University. She's got a long and varied bibliography as a writer - including a rather fantastic history of the Roaring Twenties. In "Lady Fanshawe's Receipt Book" she moves onto the fascinating world of Civil War England - with Lady Fanshawe's writings providing a brilliantly insightful glimpse into one of the most turbulent times in British History.
Lady Ann Harrison was born in 1625, and was an intelligent child, loving French, needlework and riding. Born to a Royalist family, she married her second cousin, Richard Fanshawe, in 1644. They were a Royalist family - loyally supporting the King in a period where a Civil War resulted in the execution of a King and a state of Interregnum. Fanshawe is best known for writing a Memoir - full of recollections of life with her husband, and an intriguing record of what I find a particularly fascinating time in British History.
Lucy Moore has chosen not to focus solely on the memoir though, and instead has accessed Lady Fanshawe's Receipt Book for a far more intimate and immediate glimpse into the life of an intelligent, passionate and driven woman. Combining the two sources, Moore brings Fanshawe to startling life - with the personal nature of Fanshawe's writings enabling Moore to broadcast her voice loudly into the 21st Century - with the reader being allowed a glimpse into Fanshawe's friends, family, loves, and losses. I've recently become hugely interested by the English Civil War - a period of time that I often find rather overlooked, despite the way it shaped world history for ever. The fact that Lucy Moore chooses to focus on a woman in this period makes it doubly interesting - the drive of this woman to support her family and husband despite it threatening both her life and those of her children is quite remarkable, and the remarkable lengths that Lady Fanshawe went to in order to maintain a level of normality and domesticity for her family in a time that was both hugely turbulent and incredibly dangerous for the family. A remarkable woman brought to dazzling life by Lucy Moore - "Lady Fanshawe's Receipt Book" is a read that will transport the reader to a very different time indeed - but place them in the company of a woman whose strength, intelligence and drive will provide a very safe pair of hand for the reader indeed. Many thanks to the publisher for the copy.
Former soldier Rob Langdon was working as a security contractor in Afghanistan when he was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death in a case that would have been ruled a clear miscarriage of justice in the British legal system. His sentence was commuted to 20 years in jail, and he served his time in Kabul's most notorious prison, Pul-e-Charkhi, described as the world's worst place to be a westerner.
Rob was there for seven years, the longest sentence served by a westerner since the fall of the Taliban, and every one of those 2,500 days was an act of extraordinary survival in a jail filled with Afghanistan's most dangerous extremists and murderers. In 2016 Robert was pardoned and returned to Australia.
This is a remarkable read - a surprisingly compelling tale that initially grabs the reader by opening with a vivid retelling of how the author killed a man in self-defense. This leads to a tale of prison life that is far stranger than one could ever imagine in fiction - unpredictable, dangerous, wild, and seemingly unescapeable.
Langdon himself is a compelling lead - admirably strong and macho in prison, but open and honest with the reader about his state of mind and the emotions that drove him to survive. His way of writing is straightforward and blunt - no flowery language but a direct style that conveys his tale with a startling immediacy.
A heart stopping story of survival and strength - "The Seventh Circle" transports the reader to Afghanistan's most notorious prison and puts them through a grueling, strenuous ordeal - but one told with skill and humour that makes it absolutely worth the effort. Thanks to Allen & Unwin for the copy.