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‘How Not to be a Boy’ by Robert Webb ****

‘”RULES FOR BEING A MAN: Don’t Cry; Love Sport; Play Rough; Drink Beer; Don’t Talk About Feelings”

But Robert Webb has been wondering for some time now: are those rules actually any use? To anyone? Looking back over his life, from schoolboy crushes (on girls and boys) to discovering the power of making people laugh (in the Cambridge Footlights with David Mitchell), and from losing his beloved mother to becoming a husband and father, Robert Webb considers the absurd expectations boys and men have thrust upon them at every stage of life. Hilarious and heartbreaking, How Not To Be a Boy explores the relationships that made Robert who he is as a man, the lessons we learn as sons and daughters, and the understanding that sometimes you aren’t the Luke Skywalker of your life – you’re actually Darth Vader.’

9781786890085Robert Webb’s How Not to be a Boy was one of my most highly anticipated releases of 2017. Stephen Fry writes in his review ‘I enjoyed every page’, and without sounding like a suck-up, I very much did too. Webb is one of my favourite comedians, and I still return to binging on the Peep Show box set every year with my boyfriend.

How Not to be a Boy is unlike a conventional memoir, in that Webb has placed his own experiences and memories within the broader framework of what it means to be a boy and a man in our society. He tackles widespread beliefs in a series of different chapters, and shows that ultimately, men can be sensitive too, and should be able to express themselves as they wish, rather than conform to the pressures of societal expectations. Of course – and this sounds incredibly obvious, but does not seem to be much acknowledged – it’s not just women who are affected by these. Men are expected to be macho and in control, things which Webb, throughout his life, is honest about having not been.

Webb is candid with his revelations, and one warms to his narrative voice immediately. It is distinctive; he writes with much the same wit, verve, and humour displayed in his work with the equally great David Mitchell. The imagined conversations which take place between Webb’s present self, and the figure of him as a child or young man are an interesting, and quite funny, touch.

Webb, throughout, is shrewd and wise. He writes: ‘But more often, when we tell a boy to “act like a man”, we’re effectively saying, “Stop expressing those feelings.” And if the boy hears that often enough, it actually starts to sound uncannily like, “Stop feeling those feelings.”‘ The preconceptions which Webb writes so eloquently about, and explores so well, form the backbone of How Not to be a Boy. His memoir has been almost perfectly balanced with its sadness and humour, and its execution feels very natural.

I shall end this review with rather a profound observation of Webb’s: ‘I want the same thing for boys, men, girls, women and anyone who grew up feeling that none of these worlds held any meaning for them. I want them all to have the freedom to express their individual and contradictory selves with confidence and humility.’

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A Month of Favourites: ‘The Sculptor’s Daughter’ by Tove Jansson

“Tove Jansson’s first book for adults drew on her childhood memories to capture afresh the enchantments and fears of growing up in Helsinki in the nineteen tens and twenties. Described as both a memoir and ‘a book of superb stories’ by Ali Smith, her startlingly evocative prose offers a glimpse of the mysteries of winter ice, the bonhomie of balalaika parties, and the vastness of Christmas viewed from beneath the tree.”

I have wanted to read Sculptor’s Daughter ever since I first learnt of its existence around eight years ago.  Despite fruitless Internet searches, I could never locate a copy of the book which fell beneath £300.  When I found out that the marvellous people at Sort Of Books, who are responsible for publishing a lot of Jansson’s fiction, were reissuing it in a gorgeous hardback edition, I was incredibly excited.  I never preorder books, but this was the one exception to my rule.

Jansson, as many of the readers of this blog probably already know, is one of the authors whom I adore the most.  Her fiction never fails to astonish me with both its beauty and clarity, and it goes without saying that I absolutely love the creation which she is most famous for – the Moomins.

Author Ali Smith’s introduction to Sculptor’s Daughter is wonderful.  It is clear that she very much admires Jansson’s work.  Sculptor’s Daughter is essentially a childhood memoir of sorts, told through a series of short stories.  When opening the book, a lot of the titles seemed familiar to me, and that is because thirteen of the nineteen tales published within its pages can be found within Jansson’s A Winter Book.  If I had known this beforehand, I still would have preordered the volume, as it does contain six stories which were new to me.  Each of these is exquisite, like a tiny treasure in itself.

Sculptor’s Daughter has been beautifully produced, and the photographs throughout are lovely.  My only qualm is that a couple of these were printed more than once, which was a little bit of a shame.  It will come as no surprise, however, to say that I absolutely loved this book, and will be reading it many more times in years to come.

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A Wishlist from The Strand

The Strand Bookstore in New York City is my favourite bookshop in the world.  I have only visited once, but I am hoping to be able to go again in no more than a few years time.  I am very lucky to be heading off to the States next month, but will be visiting Florida, so no trips up to Manhattan for me.  I’m just hoping that there’s a similar treasure trove somewhere in Miami!  Regardless, The Strand has a wonderful website, from which I have compiled a wishlist of wonderful looking books.

Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating by Charles Spence 9780241270080
‘Why do we consume 35% more food when eating with one more person, and 75% more when with three? Why are 27% of drinks bought on aeroplanes tomato juice? How are chefs and companies planning to transform our dining experiences, and what can we learn from their cutting-edge insights to make memorable meals at home? These are just some of the ingredients of Gastrophysics, in which the pioneering Oxford professor Charles Spence shows how our senses link up in the most extraordinary ways, and reveals the importance of all the “off-the-plate” elements of a meal: the weight of cutlery, the colour of the plate (his lab showed that red is associated with sweetness – we perceive salty popcorn as tasting sweet when served in a red bowl), the background music and much more. Whether dining alone or at a dinner party, on a plane or in front of the TV, he reveals how to understand what we’re tasting and influence what others experience. Meal-times will genuinely never be the same again.’

 

9780141981772Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
‘Claudia Rankine’s bold new book recounts mounting racial aggressions in ongoing encounters in twenty-first-century daily life and in the media. Some of these encounters are slights, seeming slips of the tongue, and some are intentional offensives in the classroom, at the supermarket, at home, on the tennis court with Serena Williams and the soccer field with Zinedine Zidane, online, on TV—everywhere, all the time. The accumulative stresses come to bear on a person’s ability to speak, perform, and stay alive. Our addressability is tied to the state of our belonging, Rankine argues, as are our assumptions and expectations of citizenship. In essay, image, and poetry, Citizen is a powerful testament to the individual and collective effects of racism in our contemporary, often named “post-race” society.’

 

Darkness Sticks to Everything: Collected and New Poems by Tom Hennen 9781556594045-1-zoom
‘In his introduction, Jim Harrison tellingly likens Hennen’s work to that of former poet laureate Ted Kooser. Hennen writes simply and affectingly of rural life in the heartlands, where “Night doesn’t fall/ It rises out of low spots.” He’s been publishing since 1974 but is receiving national distribution only now; many readers will appreciate this evocation of a life not as commonly portrayed in contemporary verse.’

 

0142004952-1-zoomHow I Became Stupid by Martin Page
‘Antoine is too smart for his own good-or so he thinks. He spends his days considering life rather than actually living it. He sees other people who seem perfectly happy in their ignorance, and he wants to be one of them. To achieve this end, Antoine decides that he needs to become stupid and tries various methods without success. Then his doctor prescribes Happyzac, which changes Antoine’s life. He really does “get stupid,” accidentally earns millions, indulges himself, and generally enjoys being one of the masses. Then, with his company’s collapse, the bubble bursts. Antoine returns to an intelligent life when he meets a like-minded girl in the park. Page’s first novel deftly combines biting satire and hilarious slapstick. His characters are highly introspective misfits, and the story makes for insightful commentary on life in the “developed” world.’

 

The Long Goodbye: A Memoir by Meghan O’Rourke 1594485666-1-zoom
‘Much like Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) and Sarah Manguso’s The Two Kinds of Decay (2008), O’Rourke makes fine use of a strong voice and hyperawareness to recount a terribly painful tale. The author spares the reader no detail, revealing the deconstruction of a human being in the simplest terms imaginable. “I was stunned by the way my mother’s body was being taken to pieces,” she writes, “how each new week brought a new failure, how surreal the disintegration of a body was.” While there is no dearth of grief memoirs, O’Rourke’s candor allows her work to far transcend the imitators. She is fully conscious of the trappings of her genre, often admitting, “I know this may sound melodramatic,” and remaining wholly dedicated to combating the convenience of cliche, even acknowledging when she uses it. While the death of O’Rourke’s mother takes place midway through the book, her presence lingers. The author provides many seemingly insignificant details that provide a much-needed humanizing effect, sparing the victim from functioning as little more than a stand-in for her illness. Equally successful is O’Rourke’s ability to navigate beyond the realm of sentimentality, much preferring to render the drama with firm-lipped frankness.’

 

0822963310-1-zoomCatalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay
Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude is a sustained meditation on that which goes away—loved ones, the seasons, the earth as we know it—that tries to find solace in the processes of the garden and the orchard. That is, this is a book that studies the wisdom of the garden and orchard, those places where all—death, sorrow, loss—is converted into what might, with patience, nourish us.’

 

Letters, Summer 1926 by Boris PasternakMarina Tsvetaeva and Rainer Maria Rilke 9780940322714
‘The summer of 1926 was a time of trouble and uncertainty for each of the poets whose letters appear here. Boris Pasternak was in Moscow, trying to come to terms with the new Bolshevik regime. Marina Tsvetayeva, exiled from the Soviet Union to France with her husband and two children, was struggling desperately to get by. Rainer Maria Rilke, in Switzerland, was dying. Chance put them in touch with one another, and before long they found themselves engaged in a complicated correspondence in which questions of art and love were ever more deeply implicated, and where every aspect of life and work was discussed with passionate intensity.’

Have you read any of these?  Have any piqued your interest?  Which is your favourite worldwide bookshop?

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‘Where Am I Now?: True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame’ by Mara Wilson *****

‘Mara Wilson has always felt a little young and a little out of place: as the only child on a film set full of adults, the first daughter in a house full of boys, the sole clinically depressed member of the cheerleading squad, a valley girl in New York and a neurotic in California, and one of the few former child actors who has never been in jail or rehab. Tackling everything from how she first learned about sex on the set ofMelrose Place, to losing her mother at a young age, to getting her first kiss (or was it kisses?) on a celebrity canoe trip, to not being “cute” enough to make it in Hollywood, these essays tell the story of one young woman’s journey from accidental fame to relative (but happy) obscurity. But they also illuminate a universal struggle: learning to accept yourself, and figuring out who you are and where you belong.’

9780143128229Mara Wilson’s Where Am I Now? was one of my most anticipated Christmas reads.  Wilson is just wonderful; I found myself wanting to be best friends with her when I saw her in both Matilda and Miracle on 34th Street as a small child, and was a little sad when I noticed years later that she seemed to have faded from the limelight.

Wilson is a witty and original writer, and comes across just as I thought it would.  Her narrative voice is engaging, and this renders the book rather difficult to put down from the very beginning.  Wilson is candid about her childhood struggles with continued acting and her mother’s death from cancer; she is intelligent, warm, and eye-opening in many respects.  Her letter to Matilda is insightful and almost tear-inducing.  Where Am I Now? is a poignant and meaningful memoir, and I for one cannot wait to see what she turns her hand to next.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Bucket: Memories of an Inattentive Childhood’ by Allan Ahlberg ****

From ‘The Bucket’

I couldn’t wait to read The Bucket: Memories of an Inattentive Childhood after I spotted three copies in Waterstone’s Piccadilly.  I was fully set to purchase one until I noticed that they were so grubby and bent that I didn’t in the end.  Instead, I checked a copy out of the Cambridge Central Library on a trip there in April.

As I am sure they did with many children, Allan and Janet Ahlberg formed a large part of my early bookishness.  When I saw that Allan had written an autobiography of sorts therefore, I was so very excited.  He is the author of such treasures as Each Peach Pear Plum, Peepo! and Burglar Bill, as well as Please Mrs Butler! and the stunningly adorable The Jolly Postman and The Jolly Christmas Postman, all of which I adore.  The work also begins with a quote from William Maxwell, another author whom I love. 

The Bucket is Ahlberg’s recollection of his childhood, a memoir told in both prose and verse.  It details his ‘early enchanted childhod [which was] lived out in a Black Country town in the 1940s’.  His little introduction to the volume is darling.

Each memory which he presents is vivid; he writes of such things as sheltering beneath the kitchen table during bomb raids, of the butcher who dealt ‘in meat and menace’, searching for worms to sell on to fisherman in compost heaps, playing games beneath the clothes horse, his Christmas presents being presented to him in a pillowcase, reminiscences of going to the barber’s, and childhood pageants which he attended.  Each memory is presented as a random fragment, and each little essay is interspersed with a poem.  Ahlberg writes so earnestly.  His prose is lovely, and it continually feels as though he is personally telling each of his readers each story.  The retrospective wisdom which he has made use of works wonderfully.

The book, as one might expect, is filled with the most wonderful illustrations by Janet and Allan Ahlberg and their daughter Jessica, and it also features photographs, photocopies of school reports and documents.  The Bucket is absolutely lovely, and it has made me want to go and revisit all of the Ahlbergs’ work once more.  (Incidentally, I met up with one of my University friends in early April and we read Each Peach Pear Plum together in Waterstone’s, which was great fun!).  Any fan of Allan Ahlberg’s should rush out and purchase (or borrow!) this book, curl up in a comfortable place and enjoy its charm.

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Two Books About Neurosurgery: ‘Do No Harm’ and ‘When Breath Becomes Air’

I have decided to include both of these five star reads together, as they are related in the field of neurosurgery.  Henry Marsh, now retired, was one of Britain’s most revered neurosurgeons, and he writes about his personal experiences of treating patients in Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery.  Paul Kalanithi, on the other hand, was one of the most academically gifted neurosurgeons in the United States, who tragically died of lung cancer at the age of thirty-seven.  When Breath Becomes Air is his memoir, both of his career and his own diagnosis, which was left unfinished at his death, and has been finished with an incredibly touching epilogue written by his wife, Lucy.

Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh *****
9781780225920I purchased Henry Marsh’s utterly splendid Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery from a Glasgow charity shop for the princely sum of £2.  I was immediately beset by many, many people telling me how wonderful it was; needless to say it did not remain upon my TBR pile for too long.

Filled with honesty and compassion, Do No Harm… is a fantastic book, which takes one to the next level of illness narratives; rather than reading about a patient’s experience, we are given the expertise and understanding of one of the country’s leading neurosurgeons.  He speaks about his own place within the hospital, and always shows so much empathy toward those he treats, sometimes successfully and sometimes not so.

I thought that I might be a little squeamish for the book, but because Marsh writes so well, the descriptions of surgery are seamlessly joined to the stories either side, which certainly takes emphasis away from drillbits and blood.  Do No Harm… is wonderfully structured and compelling from the outset, and I felt as though I learnt an awful lot whilst reading.  Marsh’s unshakeable enthusiasm for his craft is nothing short of remarkable, and his account of his working life is incredibly human, captivating the reader from start to finish.

 

 

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi *****
Abraham Verghese’s foreword to Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air is both admirable and fitting: ‘Be ready.  Be seated.  See what courage sounds like.  See how brave it is to reveal yourself in this way.  But above all, see what it is to still live, to profoundly influence the lives of other after you are gone, by your words’. 9781847923677

Certainly, Kalanithi was an incredibly brave, and admirable man who, after gaining degrees in English and Human Biology, and a Master’s in English Literature, decided to devote his career to neurosurgery.  His account, written toward the very end of his life and left unfinished, has been incredibly well written, and is compelling from the outset.

Despite his age of just thirty-seven when he passed away from virulent cancer, Kalanithi comes across as wise and intelligent.  When Breath Becomes Air is important and rich; throughout, he discusses so much – neurosurgery, his training, his childhood, falling in love with his wife Lucy, mortality, and ethics.  The impact of the death of a loved one upon the family left behind is an idea which Kalanithi comes back to time and time again, as is the very idea of ‘dying well’.

Kalanithi is ambitious even during his illness, and his remarkable achievements are all the more inspirational for it.  When Breath Becomes Air should be read by everyone.

 

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The Book Trail: Alice Jolly to Mary Beard

Alice Jolly’s wonderful and heartbreaking memoir, Dead Babies and Seaside Towns, is the starting point for this book trail.  As always, I will be choosing one book from the recommended tomes on the Book Depository Website on each successive page.  Without further ado, let us begin.

Dead Babies and Seaside Towns by Alice Jolly 9781783521050
‘The world of dead babies is a silent and shuttered place. You do not know it exists until you find yourself there. When Alice Jolly’s second child was stillborn and all subsequent attempts to have another baby failed, she began to consider every possible option, no matter how unorthodox. Dead Babies and Seaside Towns is a savagely personal account of the search for an alternative way to create a family. As she battles through miscarriage, IVF and failed adoption attempts, Alice’s only solace from the pain is the faded charm of Britain’s crumbling seaside towns. Finally, this search leads her and her husband to a small town in Minnesota, and two remarkable women who offer to make the impossible possible. In this beautiful book, shot through with humour and full of hope, Alice Jolly describes with a novelist’s skill events that woman live through every day – even if many feel compelled to keep them hidden. Her decision not to hide but to share them, without a trace of sentiment or self-pity, turns Dead Babies and Seaside Towns into a universal story: one that begins in tragedy but ends in joy.’

 

Which leads to…

9781250101037Lust and Wonder by Augusten Burroughs
‘In chronicling the development and demise of the different relationships he’s had while living in New York, Augusten Burroughs examines what it means to be in love, what it means to be in lust, and what it means to be figuring it all out. With Augusten’s unique and singular observations and his own unabashed way of detailing both the horrific and the humorous, Lust and Wonder is an intimate and honest memoir that his legions of fans have been waiting for.’

 

Our third book leads us into the world of fiction…

Our Souls At Night by Kent Haruf 9781447299370
‘This is a love story. A story about growing old with grace. Addie Moore and Louis Waters have been neighbours for years. Now they both live alone, their houses empty of family, their quiet nights solitary. Then one evening Addie pays Louis a visit. Their brave adventures form the beating heart of Our Souls at Night, Kent Haruf’s exquisite final novel.’

 

The fourth choice is 2015’s Pulitzer Prize winner, and one which many have raved about (and which I cannot believe I’ve not yet read!)…

9780008138301All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
‘For Marie-Laure, blind since the age of six, the world is full of mazes. The miniature of a Paris neighbourhood, made by her father to teach her the way home. The microscopic layers within the invaluable diamond that her father guards in the Museum of Natural History. The walled city by the sea, where father and daughter take refuge when the Nazis invade Paris. And a future which draws her ever closer to Werner, a German orphan, destined to labour in the mines until a broken radio fills his life with possibility and brings him to the notice of the Hitler Youth. In this magnificent, deeply moving novel, the stories of Marie-Laure and Werner illuminate the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another.’

 

Our fifth book is one which I hadn’t heard of before, but which sounds appealing on differing levels…

The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham 9781846689949
‘Tilly Dunnage left her hometown of Dungatar in rural Australia under a black cloud of accusation. Years later Tilly, now a couturier for the Paris fashion houses, returns home to make amends with her mentally unstable mother. Mid-century Dungatar is a small town, and small towns have long memories. At first she wins over the suspicious locals with her extraordinary dressmaking skills. But when the eccentric townsfolk turn on Tilly for a second time, she decides to teach them a lesson and exact long-overdue revenge…’

 

The sixth choice in this book trail is a gritty short story…

9781474603041The Grownup by Gillian Flynn
‘A young woman is making a living faking it as a cut-price psychic (with some illegal soft-core sex work on the side). She makes a decent wage mostly by telling people what they want to hear. But then she meets Susan Burke. Susan moved to the city one year ago with her husband and 15-year-old stepson Miles. They live in a Victorian house called Carterhook Manor. Susan has become convinced that some malevolent spirit is inhabiting their home. The young woman doesn’t believe in exorcism or the supernatural. However when she enters the house for the first time, she begins to feel it too, as if the very house is watching her, waiting, biding its time…’

 

Our penultimate choice is a fascinating look into Russian history…

The Romanovs: 1613-1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore 9780297852667
‘The Romanovs were the most successful dynasty of modern times, ruling a sixth of the world’s surface. How did one family turn a war-ruined principality into the world’s greatest empire? And how did they lose it all? This is the intimate story of twenty tsars and tsarinas, some touched by genius, some by madness, but all inspired by holy autocracy and imperial ambition. Montefiore’s gripping chronicle reveals their secret world of unlimited power and ruthless empire-building, overshadowed by palace conspiracy, family rivalries, sexual decadence and wild extravagance, and peopled by a cast of adventurers, courtesans, revolutionaries and poets, from Ivan the Terrible to Tolstoy, from Queen Victoria to Lenin. To rule Russia was both imperial-sacred mission and poisoned chalice: six tsars were murdered and all the Romanovs lived under constant threat to their lives. Peter the Great tortured his own son to death while making Russia an empire, and dominated his court with a dining club notable for compulsory drunkenness, naked dwarfs and fancy dress. Catherine the Great overthrew her own husband – who was murdered soon afterwards – loved her young male favourites, conquered Ukraine and fascinated Europe. Paul was strangled by courtiers backed by his own son, Alexander I, who faced Napoleon’s invasion and the burning of Moscow, then went on to take Paris. Alexander II liberated the serfs, survived five assassination attempts, and wrote perhaps the most explicit love letters ever written by a ruler.’

 

Today’s final selection is a book by one of my favourite historians, which I cannot wait to pick up (especially after a recent trip to Rome!)…

9781846683817SPQR by Mary Beard
‘ Its history of empire, conquest, cruelty and excess is something against which we still judge ourselves. Its myths and stories – from Romulus and Remus to the Rape of Lucretia – still strike a chord with us. And its debates about citizenship, security and the rights of the individual still influence our own debates on civil liberty today. SPQR is a new look at Roman history from one of the world’s foremost classicists. It explores not only how Rome grew from an insignificant village in central Italy to a power that controlled territory from Spain to Syria, but also how the Romans thought about themselves and their achievements, and why they are still important to us. Covering 1,000 years of history, and casting fresh light on the basics of Roman culture from slavery to running water, as well as exploring democracy, migration, religious controversy, social mobility and exploitation in the larger context of the empire, this is a definitive history of ancient Rome. SPQR is the Romans’ own abbreviation for their state: Senatus Populusque Romanus, ‘the Senate and People of Rome’.’

 

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