Tag Archives: Non-fiction

New Words for Old by Caroline Taggart

newThis book is a celebration of the versatility of language: the neologisms and portmanteaus that have slipped into modern parlance. From the origins of the emoticon (in 1912, would you believe) to a glorious section on the symbolism of colours, it’s a lovely book to keep and dip into.

Did you know that ‘rock and roll’ is named after the motion of a ship? You roll one way and rock the other, which a chap thought would alliterate nicely in a song for a ship-based musical he was working on.

I had no idea that ‘zoom’ was an adjective, describing a humming noise, before becoming a verb in the late nineteenth century when cars and such came in and a word was needed to describe the way they flew by.

Nor did I know that ‘focus’ is Latin for ‘hearth’ or ‘fireplace’, which was the centre, the focus, of the household.

As you can see, I found this just the most interesting, absorbing thing. The joy of etymology is the mutability of language, and Caroline Taggart communicates this perfectly.

Are you a massive word nerd like me? Your best etymological discoveries in the comments please!

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Everyday Sexism by Laura Bates

Everyday Sexism is the most important book of the year. I’m not the only person that who thinks so. It’s on the Waterstones Book of the Year shortlist and has received a wealth of critical praise. More importantly, it has inspired conversations about present day sexism and is part of a positive movement for change.

every_day_sexism

The Everyday Sexism Project started as a way for women to share their experiences: The Everyday Sexism Project exists to catalogue instances of sexism experienced by women on a day to day basis. They might be serious or minor, outrageously offensive or so niggling and normalised that you don’t even feel able to protest. Say as much or as little as you like, use your real name or a pseudonym – it’s up to you. By sharing your story you’re showing the world that sexism does exist, it is faced by women everyday and it is a valid problem to discuss.

Laura Bates started the project as she began speaking to her friends about things that had happened to her and asking if they’d experienced anything similar. She thought they might have a smattering of examples, but each began with ‘This week..’ or ‘On the way here…’

The book is arranged thematically, with an informative introduction to each section establishing how things are for women at this moment. Anecdotes are closely linked to the topic and intelligently illustrative. Overall the book is brilliantly written: clear, accessible and honest.

Inclusivity is an important part of the ethos, and the chapter for men and about men is particularly welcome and well written. Consider this from a male contributor:

Unfollowed @EverydaySexism, weary of the constant barrage of horror. Then it clicked. That’s what it must be like being a woman #refollowed

This book should be required reading for all.

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Failure and The American Writer: A Literary History by Gavin Jones

Failure and The American WriterI was so deeply engrossed in this book that I read it in an evening and then dreamt of living in the woods with Henry David Thoreau and Edith Wharton. Gavin Jones, Stanford professor and expert on American literature, explores the theme of failure in nineteenth century writing. In opposition to the ‘American Dream’ narrative, failure as a theme has compelling realism, and great potential for social critique, the author argues.

He explores the theme of failure in the works, for example, the decline of Lily Bart in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. But beyond plot, he considers narrative and stylistic failure, botched manuscripts and critical flops. Henry James: marvellous author, terrible playwright. Edgar Allan Poe: wrote bad poetry as purposeful subversion.

What I particularly enjoyed, as an editor, was reading about how novels were reworked, with varying degrees of effectiveness. Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson started out as a novel about conjoined twins. Late on in the drafting, he decided they should be separate twins, though didn’t tidy the manuscript very thoroughly: some scenes make far more sense in the former scenario. His drastic change of plot also meant that he had characters who no longer seemed directly relevant. He toyed with the idea of drowning one in a well to remove the plotting problem she posed.

This book raises fascinating questions about whether authors should write simply for popular success or to challenge readers, risking commercial failure. Melville, for example, wrote two books, ‘for money – being forced to do it as other men are to sawing wood…my only desire for ‘success’ (as it is called) springs from my pocket and not from my heart…independent of my pocket, it is my earnest desire to write those sorts of books which are said to ‘fail’.’

The best lesson for writers to be found in this book comes from Herman Melville: ‘It is better to fail in originality, than to succeed in imitation…Failure is the true test of greatness.’

This exceptional work on failure is a success.

Thanks to Cambridge University Press for the review copy.

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Comets! Visitors From Deep Space by David J. Eicher

Comets!

I have been so excited about reading this. The exclamation mark in the title aptly expresses the enthusiasm with which the book was written and, in my case, read. David Eicher, who has a planet named after him, has written a pacey and  delightful survey of the history and science of comets. It was so deeply fascinating, Comets! is the first book I’ve read in a long time that gave me an irresistible urge to take notes.

With occasional touches of humour, this is an extremely accessible book with a thorough glossary of terms, ideal for a keen beginner. Comets and their key appearances in history are explained in terms of the progress of scientific understanding: from superstition and astrology to accurate astronomical observations. It also clearly establishes where research is now and what is still not known about comets. The magnificent pictures are a real treat. The final section of the book clearly describes how to become a comet hunter, observer and photographer. 

If you have any curiosity about space, read this.

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What Will It Take to Make A Woman President? by Marianne Schnall

What Will It Take to Make a Woman President?Hillary Clinton getting the votes in 2016 was a popular answer from Schnall’s interesting range of contributors. Senators, celebrities, writers and campaigners are interviewed in this engaging exploration of women and leadership. The idea came from Schnall’s daughter asking, on the election of Barack Obama, why there hadn’t ever been a female president. The book encourages open contributions – a text of this title could have had a singular argument, or a more essay-style structure. It is creditable that it feels like an ongoing conversation. Responses vary – Republican senators give personal anecdotes of achievement in adversity, while academics talk more broadly of cultural shifts. 

I was most delighted by the general advice of wise feminists. Maya Angelou, for example, said the following: ‘I would encourage us to try our best to develop courage. It’s the most important of all the virtues, because without courage, you can’t practice any other virtue consistently. You can be anything erratically – kind, fair, true, generous, all that. But to be that thing time after time, you need courage.’

Recurring themes and questions could make this feel a little repetitive if read all at once, but ultimately, this makes it feel more like an authentic discussion, with people sharing and rethinking each other’s ideas. This book is a worthwhile part of a vital conversation about women in politics. 

Have a look at some excerpts here.

Thanks to Perseus Books Group, Seal Press and NetGalley for the review copy. 

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Top Ten Tuesday: Books I was ‘Forced’ to Read

The Broke and the Bookish have come up with another thrilling topic for us book bloggers to conjure with. So the verb is a little strong (‘made’ would suffice), but you get the gist: this is a list of books that I had little option but to read, most of which I’m glad I did. Click on any picture to open the gallery.

What were you made to read?

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Is It Just Me? by Miranda Hart

Warning: The following review lovingly parodies the style of Miranda (I suggest you do a quick YouTube if that means nothing toIs-it-just-me-hardback-jacket1 you, or just continue with the prior knowledge that you are about to be discombobulated). Please note I don’t usually speak/write like this (well not very much like this).

Well a hello to you, my dear reader chum. Are we all sitting comfortably, ready for une petite book review-let? Previously in my life I did some amusingly kooky things and then read a book by a comedian called Miranda Hart. She has a sitcom that I watched all at once when I was poorly one day. I rather like it. ‘Is It Just Me?’ runs through a plethora (good word, plethora) of lifestyle issues and potential embarrassing scenarios. Much of the book is written as a conversation between Miranda and her eighteen year old self, so, given the parallel style that I’m going for, I’m going to tell my eighteen year old self about this book. 

Hello little Eve, what a delight to see you in all your preppy blondeness, how’s things? 

Oh. My. God. You’re me from the future! What are you here to tell me? Am I in grave danger? Do I have to kill and/or save Sarah Connor? 

Erm, no I’m just here to tell you about a book you’re going to read in the future. It’s quite funny, a really good bit of light reading. The chapters are really quick to dip into and they’re themed around the hazards and awkwardness of adult life, like hobbies, beauty, dating, exercise…

You’re from the future, and you’re going to tell me about some TV tie-in stocking filler? How did you get here anyway? Did you pimp a Delorean? Have you got a TARDIS?

You watch too much TV. I’m sorry to disappoint, but this is merely a convenient narrative device. 

Oh, lame. And I bet you watch too much TV too.

Point taken. Anyway, sit back and relax, little E, for now I shall tell you what I like and disliked about this book. 

Things I Thought Were Charming and Utterly Enjoyable, Please and Thank You Very Much, About Miranda Hart’s Gleeful Bookington

  1. The way she uses lists. There was a good amount of lists and they’re great for a quick skip through in a tea break. 
  2. The way she gives her lists over-long titles. Such fun.
  3. It ends really quite touchingly and inspiringly on a ‘follow your dreams’ sort of note.

Things I Enjoyed a Little Less Than I’d Enjoy a Jolly Ramble in the Home Counties Followed by a Pack of Jammie Dodgers and a Nice Sit Down 

  1. She abbreviates her term of endearment ‘My dear reader chum’ to MDRC, which my brain refused to read as anything other than ‘My Democratic Republic of Congo’.
  2. Eight pages are the transcript of an imagined conversation WITH HER DOG. (Caps for emphasis, classic Miranda style.)
  3. Some of the points were a bit generic and some of the anecdotes have been re-enacted in the sitcom, which I am already well acquainted with. New content much preferred, please and thank you. 

Is that it now, old Eve? Can you stop yabbering on about some book and tell me a bit about our future? What do we do? Has the five year plan been achieved with the degree and the job? 

Five year plan? My goodness, you’re like a nerdy Stalin. I think if I told you it might ruin things, butterfly effect and all, and besides, things work out. 

Well if you’re just going to be all mysterious, can you leave me alone so I can get on with my revision? 

That’s one thing, I will say – you should probably chill out – don’t work so hard! 

If I don’t work this hard, how would you be where we are today? 

What – drinking a cup of tea and amusing myself by writing fripperations on the Internet? I think we’d be all right. Do put some effort in to English though, that one will come in handy. Nice pashmina by the way. 

You too. Laters. 

drink-umbrellaThat is another thing I wasn’t entirely keen on in the book. When you bring in a character from the past, there is a huge temptation to overdo the ‘isn’t modern technology hilarious, ridiculous and miraculous when you explain it to someone from the 1980s’ jokes; in the business we call it ‘defamiliarisation’. But in general, it was a bit of a laugh. My favourite sentence in it was, ‘why does a drink need an umbrella? It’s already wet!’ 

In this book, Miranda says she never thought she’d write one, because she’s ‘not much of a ‘words’ person’, but she’s managed to assemble a fair few pretty competently. 

That is all, cheery byes, much love and enthusiastic waving. 

Have you read it? Did you think it was splendorific? Tell me in the comments! 

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An Evening with Diane Atkinson: Author of ‘The Criminal Conversation of Mrs Norton’

Happy International Women’s Day!

Any regular readers will know that I am a huge fan of women’s history (in fact I wrote a little book of it), so I was delighted to have the chance to listen to Diane Atkinson speak about her book ‘The Criminal Conversation of Mrs Norton’. Here’s the blurb:

The Criminal Conversation of Mrs Norton

Caroline Norton: beauty and wit, poet, pamphleteer and blue stocking. She was married to a boorish minor aristocrat at 19, who accused her, for his own political ends, of an affair, or a ‘Criminal Conversation’ as it was know, with Lord Melbourne (the Prime Minister) which ended in the ‘Trial of the Century’. Pilloried by society, cut off and bankrupted by her family she went on to be the most important figure in establishing women’s rights in marriage. This is the startling story of how one woman changed marriage and revolutionised women’s rights.

Atkinson relayed a brief history of Norton’s life from her marriage, and subsequent political struggles, to her death. I was most compelled by her vociferous legal battle to gain access to her children and extend this right to all separated mothers (in the past, children of divorced parents were considered the father’s alone: the mother had no legal rights to see them). The question and answer section was very interesting at Atkinson spoke more about her research; she spent two years going through over a thousand letters written my Mrs Norton. Atkinson was confident and knowledgeable – she held the room beautifully. 

It was heartening in my small town to see a room full to bursting of people interested in women’s history. 

Find out more about Diane Atkinson here.

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Silver Spooned by Thomas Clark

I don’t love Louise Mensch. In fact, if my life was a superhero comic, I’m pretty sure she would be my nemesis. Consequently, it silver spooneddelighted me that Clark’s first chapter derides her fallacious assertions. The book is a study in political falsehoods, focusing on the justification of current economic policy in the UK. It is an up to date, well researched account of problems with the government’s policies and proposals and the spin that supports them. Moreover, it provides a general explanation of the various forms of fallacious reasoning and deconstructs them with intelligence and skill.

Although the economic examples are UK-centric, the principles apply globally, and there is much to be learnt about British politics through reading this. It is up to the moment, analytic and angry in a way that stays just the right side of vitriolic. The logic is sound and the writing flows easily. The introduction was less smooth, but as soon as Clark was into his main content his confident style came through. Also, I learnt a great deal about the bedroom tax that enlivened dinner conversation this evening.

This book has a clear and vehement political standpoint, which brings me to my reservation about the text. I did a dissertation about the way language is employed in political spin; I am already interested and on side. There is something in the tone of this book, however, that may mean that the people who could benefit from it most would find it too abrasive. In a sense I am concerned Clark may be preaching to the choir,  though perhaps to some agnostics too. Even so, the choir will be for better informed for reading this text.

It is currently free on Smashwords and well worth having a look at.

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Why We Write edited by Meredith Maran

 The subtitle sums it up beautifully: ‘Twenty acclaimed authors on how and why they do what they do.’ The introduction wittily reframes the question of why so many people write and offers famous solutions, including George Orwell’s suggestions: 1, sheer egoism; 2, aesthetic enthusiasm; 3, historical impulse; 4, political purpose. I think Terry Tempest Williams’ answer is an excellent one too, ‘I write to make peace with the things I cannot control.’

A summary of the author’s work and a table of ‘vitals’ introduce each section; did you know that Isabel Allende’s father was the first cousin of Chilean President Salvador Allende? Or that Jodi Picoult wrote Wonder Woman for DC in 2007?  Isabel Allende is the first to share her reasons and methods. She writes lyrically about the trials and successes of her career and finishes with this: ‘Language: that’s what matters to me. Telling a story to create an emotion, a tension, a rhythm – that it what matters to me.’ I also found myself pondering one line of her advice long after reading it: ‘a story should feel like a conversation…not a lecture.’

The writing is often introspective, but intelligent and open; everyone has had different crises, panics, rewrites, rejections and doubts: though all of them have ultimately succeeded. Each section ends with words of wisdom for writers. There are so many good ideas in this: read at the level at which you want to write; bypass publishers, put it out yourself; adopt an international viewpoint; push for original ways of describing things; pick ordinary moments and magnify them.

David Baldacci’s description of the profession is delightful: ‘I’m paid to daydream.’ Basically, I could spend this entire review quoting line after line from this book because it is all crafted by such accomplished writers. Armistead Maupin warmly remembers an encouraging teacher; Susan Orleans considers the awkwardness of calling oneself an ‘artist’. Almost every word in it feels like it is in its right place. That said, I did skip the Jane Smiley chapter – I was made to write one too many essays on A Thousand Acres and I’m keeping a promise I made to my teenage self that I needn’t read her again.

Many of the pieces have strong similarities, so it is more a book to dip into than to read all at once. There is a good mix of common issues, idiosyncrasies and practical concerns. The writers answer the question of why they write with brilliant honesty (from ‘the money’ to ‘I can’t think what else I’d do’) though one idea seems to pervade for the majority: something in them knows that they must write. They simply have no choice.

So, now I’m curious: why do you write? Comments please!

It’s an interesting book for writers and others interested in the craft. It’s also a worthwhile purchase: part of the profits goes to 826 National, a youth literacy organisation. Thanks to NetGalley for the review copy.

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