Category Archives: Books

Review, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (not!)

In this tale, which seems like the female and slightly less funny but more sinister version of The Rosie Project, Eleanor Oliphant is ‘weird’ and fine with being alone and with her routine until she decides she’s in love and is going to do something about it.

The narrative proceeds then to follow someone pursuing this path that would be ‘normal’ for most of the population but through the eyes of someone who doesn’t fit into the social spectrum deemed normal by the media and most institutions in society.

It’s a typical ploy used to exploit ‘other’ points of view so that we can have a laugh at them. She complains about the lack of other people’s manners while behaving in a way that the reader would immediately know is not socially polite. We are invited to look down and laugh at her through her very own narrative, in a sense.

By the end of chapter two I already disliked the book. Half-way through story I could no longer stand the exploitation and mockery of someone who the author was quite clearly suggesting had been abused and traumatised. There are horrible and sickening allusions and I couldn’t take it.

I read a review of the book on Shona Craven’s site and I agree with the following:

The biggest problem with the book as a work of literature is that there is barely a scene in it that rings true. As a character, Eleanor is utterly implausible, a crude caricature. Does she have autistic spectrum disorder? Post-traumatic stress disorder? Some kind of dissociative disorder? It’s barely worth speculating, as she is nothing but a figment of the author’s imagination. No-one like her exists in the real world. And as such, the book has nothing whatsoever of value to say.

But the reason it matters is that this is a book about a character who is part of one of the most marginalised and misunderstood populations in society – care-experienced young people. She is a young woman who has experienced childhood trauma, and moved around foster placements, and struggled to form relationships.

The average person doesn’t know a great deal about the care system. Neither, is seems, does Gail Honeyman, who has nonetheless written a novel about a care-experienced character who at the outset has no friends, no social skills and a ludicrously limited understanding of the world she has inhabited for 30 years. The novel is set in contemporary Glasgow, yet the author seems to have no interest in getting very basic facts right. She perpetuates a number of harmful myths about social services, including that workers conceal vital information from foster carers, that young people are not included in decision-making about their lives, and that trauma-experienced social work clients (whether adults or children) receive no meaningful support whatsoever.

This is an irresponsible book that ‘others’ certain behaviours for effect. It does feel harmful and it’s a sad state of affairs that people think they can understand others’ trauma by reading through the lens of mockery.

 

Review, The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

The writing is consistently tremendous. The content? … well, I don’t know. It belies a young person writing literature after having learned of the world mainly from headlines. The characters are the biggest problem and Benjamin’s bizarre immaturity the other.

The story idea is great even if the setting is rather Hollywood and shallow. Four children of various ages — the oldest 13 — are told the date of their deaths. What happens next? Each character gets their own section and their own years.

With four characters it’s hard enough to love all of them but I loved only one – Klara and by extension her daughter and Raj. The rest were, to use a word that reviewers have used a lot with this book, underwhelming. Pathetic even, really.

Varya, I couldn’t stand even though I felt sorry for her being introduced as a sexualised girl at 13 and maybe that was meant to mirror her sexless life later — she was ultimately stunted at the original visit — but I can’t help but think that Benjamin herself probably thinks more like a man in order to see this girl with her ‘palm-sized breasts’ at this age. It’s a horrendous description to add to such a young person because you are left with the image of someone’s hands on this little girl. It was an exploitative beginning, manipulative even. I can’t tell if it was deliberate, though.

There’s no life-changing hero’s narrative in this story except for those who get their life lessons from Hollywood and scripted TV.

There’s also an odd sense of balancing events in the background occasionally. We hear about the British Mandate being lifted off of Israel, which is a  recurring motif about having somewhere to call ‘home’ but we never hear about the Palestinians, the many UN resolutions against Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine and of the daily torture and killings of the Palestinian people. Their home is destroyed so someone else gets to have one. The only criticism of Israel that is presented in the book is the support of Iraq and that it’s now a satellite of the US and incredibly powerful. The latter can be dismissed, the former was never brought up and could not be dismissed.

This idea could have been amazing. What a shame.

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin was published January 9, 2018 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons

 

Betting the House, Review

By Tim Ross and  Tom McTague .

Betting the House never once veers from its purpose – to explain what happened during the 2017 general election, including the campaign and the night itself. The authors are political journalists who produced this work within six months; an incredible accomplishment, no doubt in part to their partners who held down the fort, and a bunch of editors.

There is little heart in this book; little acknowledgment of the deaths and the pain and the destruction that a Conservative government has brought upon the country and its people. There is no acknowledgment of the unnecessary austerity measures brought into force by the Conservatives, supported by their coalition partners the Liberal Democrats and often unchallenged and supported by the Labour ‘moderates’*; no acknowledgment that austerity brought on suffering to such an extent that the British voters chose to leave the European Union in a shocking referendum. The referendum is mentioned often but the policies that led to it not at all.

In this respect, the authors ignore the vile nature of the political part of the election results.

The right-leaning bias of the book is no surprise, Ross previously wrote about the 2015 election, Why the Tories won https://www.waterstones.com/book/why-the-tories-won/tim-ross/9781849549479

The ways in which the bias permeates the book is a curious one. The images of May and the Tories are consistently positive. She is strong and steady and just wants to get on with her job. She avoided the cameras and interviews because all she wants to do is her job and she wants to do it right. She is strong throughout Lent and even though she is diabetic and can only have crisps as a snack, she resisted even in critical moments.

Corbyn on the other hand, is not given such positive treatment. The epithet ‘socialist’ is nearly always applied to him even though ‘free-market loony’ is never once applied to May. The concept of the free market is used un-ironically when a Conservative MP disagrees with the idea of providing specific help with struggling regions because it’s meant to be the free market that decides these things.

I can’t tell if Betting the House is the voice of the right-wing, devoid of any interest in anyone but themselves — or simply a very efficient way of telling the story of the election. It is a book that leans heavily right in an almost immoral sense but it also reads well.

I feel I learnt a lot about elections and what I mostly gleaned is that those who spend the most money win the elections; something Trump and social research have always known too. Lynton Crosby’s campaign for Theresa May was not the winning one he’d hoped but the PR magnate and his company made £4m for two months of work. The Australian PR man was the one who won it for David Cameron in the previous election.

Some of the insights are maybe unintentionally fascinating such as when Jeremy Heywood, Britain’s most senior civil servant, and the Queen’s private secretary, Sir Christopher Geidt, get together to decide who would form a government because “the country needed a government, and it must not be left to the Queen to decide”.

It’s these fascinating little tidbits that make me wish the authors were on the better side of the political spectrum.

Betting the House by Tim Ross and Tom McTague is out now.

Review, Fragile Lives by Stephen Westaby

You can see Stephen Westaby in action here in this clip from Your Life in Their Hands.

This book is a bit like Grey’s Anatomy with each chapter and case study emotionally gripping and heart wrenching (pun not intended). Heart surgeon Stephen Westaby is humble in his arrogance and self-effacing in his success. He knows exactly what he is all about and how to get the story out without getting lost in the details. This last part is hugely important because he also doesn’t scrimp on the technical language and bits and pieces of the body that gets sawed through and dropped and battered while being fixed and occasionally failed.

He has an incredible way of placing things in their context while never knowingly telling a straightforward story. I never knew which of the patients was going to die and the point he was making was that heart surgeons don’t always know either.

This gripping account of heart surgery kept me up for three nights in a row and I got through a lot of tissues. His stories make for an amazing read and I hope that now he has retired (a bit) he will find time to write more. Well, to write more for the general public. He is already well-published having written the chapter on Ballistic Injuries of the Chest for the British military’s textbook of emergency medicine.

He asks the political questions too and we alongside him watch young healthy people die because of the underfunding of the NHS and political decisions made away from the doctors. He asks “Should a First World health-care system use modern technology to prolong life? Or should it let young heart failure patients die miserably like in the Third World?’ He has travelled and operated and revolutionised heart surgery and brought in artificial hearts all around the world. He knows the effects.

A lot of the work he writes about was funded through charity and this is a reflection on neoliberalism and not just the latest Conservative (plus one) government.

No surprise that for a man this accomplished he has done an excellent work in conveying it in a gripping and emotional way, even though he points out that it’s important for surgeons not to stress and not to get too involved with their patients. His humanity shines through despite that.

Fragiles Lives is now available. See Goodreads reviews.

 

Review, Before this is Over by Amanda Hickie

A disappointing book in many ways. An epidemic takes over the world and this story focuses on what one family does to get through it. The kind of interesting part is that the mother, who is the main character, had cancer eight years previously and is now paranoid about any kind of risk to her family. When news of an epidemic starts, she begins to panic and seems paranoid to everyone until what she fears comes to pass.

Now that could potentially be an interesting story but there is no plot and the main character herself is not likeable at all. I finished the book because I was reviewing it but I disliked the mother and would rather have been anywhere else but in that house.

By the end, maybe there was some attempt to show that she had learnt to let go of her paranoia a bit but it didn’t really come through. I mean, if you’re going to be paranoid, at least do it well. Stock up properly and get provisions that will last. Be like Branch in Trolls. Now there’s a character who gets my respect.

I spent most of the book hoping she would get the disease and from many of the comments on Goodreads, so did most people. I imagine the book was signed up because Hickie was a debut author and so could get a cheap deal, and the topic was easy to market. It would be easy to turn into a movie too.

Skip this one.

Before this is Over available now.

Book Review, Of Women

Book cover of Of Women“It is autumn again. That shouldn’t matter and yet somehow it does”, starts Of Women and instantly I love this notion that we are involved in our world and its cycles far more than we imagine or than is mentioned. The weather and its personal associations becomes more relevant as Chakrabarti later on writes of how bailiffs are not meant to kick people out of their homes when it’s raining.

I thought of this as I listened to a council meeting on our upcoming budget where our Finances Director Denise Murray and Deputy Mayor Asher Craig talked about bringing bailiff services in-house in a way of providing a more ethical service for families. They were shunning the inclusion of private companies who were just in it for the money. There was also an ever-increasing need for bailiffs.

Our council is battling the effects of austerity and the 90% reduction of our central government fund that helps us pay for local services such as roads and schools and charities and children in care and children in nurseries and community police officers and a myriad other functions. Bristol has to find a way to make up for £108 million of further cuts over the next five years and this is a direct result of government policies.

Yet, Of Women doesn’t deal with that. The inequalities, subjugations and suffering of women are presented as some kind of inevitable vague structural outcome that is as amorphous as it is unnamed. Sales tax on tampons is criticised and yet the process and policy of its imposition — it is in fact the lowest possible taxation the governments in power could impose after EU regulations on tax had been settled — are not mentioned.

I am surprised at how disappointed and impressed I am by Of Women at the same time. It’s a tough task to cover every theme that affects women and Chakrabarti does a pretty good job of identifying those at least. Each topic could be a book all of its own and the issues are in danger of being oversimplified when managed within only a few pages.

She also includes some personal observations and also statistics from international bodies in order to encompass the whole world. This isn’t easy and either the ignorant or hypocritical nature of the assessments come shining through when she can state that the failure of Clinton (H) to come to power was the result of sexism and that much of the developing world’s problems come from poverty and inequality, without equating US imperialist tactics with the cause and effect of these situations.

In the metaphorical activist’s handbook, the weakest call to arms is that of ‘someone should do something‘ and unfortunately, Chakrabarti’s inability to delineate the forces that have led to women’s inequality, and more importantly to class inequality, leads us directly to this statement.

Someone; somewhere.

The great invisible forces that she does not name are neoliberalism, the patriarchy, and US imperialism.

Chakrabarti laments the housing sector, the lack of mental health support, the elimination of free school meals and the school and social situations for many girls and women but does not state that neoliberal policies are specifically designed to strip money away from public services in order to benefit corporations and the 1%.

We have to rely on Oxfam,  among others, for a better attack on neoliberalism,.

Those who advocate for the strictest neoliberal policies are the Conservative government and before them the coalition government (and ‘New Labour’). The austerity program that slashes spending on public services, directly contributes to women’s inequality and yet Chakrabarti’s only mention of the Conservatives is to point out what a great friend Baroness Warsi is and how she has written about Islamic feminism. Nevermind that Warsi voted for tuition fees and for raising the amount to be paid. Nevermind that tuition fees disadvantage the caring professions and the women who are more likely to study locally rather than be able to travel.

Chakrabarti even mentions with no apparent sense of contradiction that in the movie I, Daniel Blake, with which Ken Loach quite explicitly calls out the ‘conscious cruelty‘ [YouTube] of the Conservative Government policies, a woman has to decide between food for her children and sanitary products for herself.

The call for better public services is made through Of Women over and over again: “Worldwide, women have even greater need of safe streets, public transport, adequate social and affordable housing, policing and access to real justice”; “Work in the caring professions should be better valued and remunerated and we should aspire to greater gender balance therein”; “we need to the see children, the elderly and the disabled as our shared societal responsibility”; “Police and law enforcement authorities around the globe should be better resourced”; “the struggle for gender justice asks for a social engagement of a completely different order. It is not a ‘single issue’. It cannot be separate from politics and economics in the deepest and broadest sense.”

Chakrabarti says “Gender injustice is structural, social and economic” but does not refer to what those policies are and how to overcome them.

We come away thinking ‘something needs to be done by someone‘ but she provides no roadmap for how things got to this state and, therefore, there is no implication for further action. This is really a work of pointing out inequalities and then stepping aside and saying ‘nothing to do with me’.

The most damning part of the book, for me, was the lack of discussion on Hilary Clinton’s role while in power. When a woman can attract “upwards of $225,000 for a speech to Goldman Sachs” then she is not just an ordinary woman who is the victim of sexism.

Journalist John Pilger writes on the fake feminism of Hillary Clinton, and this is ever more relevant in Of Women, because it has a worldwide approach. Chakrabarti tries to cover all women.

In The New York Times, there was a striking photograph of a female reporter consoling Clinton, having just interviewed her. The lost leader was, above all, “absolutely a feminist”. The thousands of women’s lives this “feminist” destroyed while in government – Libya, Syria, Honduras – were of no interest.

Chakrabarti writes about Isis and the oppression of women and yet as we read from Pilger:

The leaked emails of Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta, revealed a direct connection between Clinton and the foundation and funding of organised jihadism in the Middle East and Islamic State (IS). The ultimate source of most Islamic terrorism, Saudi Arabia, was central to her career.

[emphasis mine]

The article by Pilger is worth reading in full, as are his other works. The role of a woman who had a hand in destabilising the Middle East and causing untold suffering for millions of refugees is left out of Of Women. Instead, we hear just of the refugees who face sexual abuse and danger in their passage out of their torn countries. The author talks of mothers putting young children in boats to get them out of the country, without knowing if they’ll ever see them again, but not once does she talk about the causes that led to these refugees. This is an appalling and offensive omission.

Chakrabarti talks about poverty in Colombia without mention of US imperialism’s hand in wreaking havoc in that country. There is no sense that female inequality has a structural basis from her writing, and this lack of engagement with context limits what we think we can do. If inequality just happens, rather than is a byproduct of policies worldwide that seek to destroy public services and infrastructure in pursuit of profit for the 1% then there is nothing we can do. We can wait for the affirmative action lists and hope that men stop hitting women after being educated for a few years.

Of Women fails women in a way that the world has failed us since politics/Politics began. Our private struggles are not linked to politics at the structural or public level. Conservative and neoliberal policies and US / UK imperialism harm women all around the world. We need better ways of saying this and better methods to combat it.

My solutions are simple; information and engagement with political processes starting at the lowest levels. Then vote the Tories out and — after the Labour Party are in power — get the Greens in. [I’d say vote Green right from the start but people don’t have enough faith yet.] Then we can have equality. The Labour Party’s support for neoliberalism gave us the Tories’ version of austerity although now apparently Corbyn will change that. We’ll see.

All I know is that the policies that put people on the street are those same policies that put refugees on the boats and let them drown as they crossed. Oxfam and much of the world has a name for it but Of Women does not.

 

 

 

 

Of Women was provided by NetGalley for review. Published 26 October 2017.

TBR pile opportunity 2018

New books are so much shinier and nice and I know this to be true because I’ve just bought about 20 over Christmas. I took advantage of many £1 ebook deals and filled up my Kindle. Thinking back, it could be 30-40 or more. I also have the ereader books on the library app too. I have plenty to read but some old books have been sitting around for a very long time and I love them too (it’s a different love).

I’ve carried Chomsky’s Necessary Illusions to different cities and houses with me since 1998 when I first graduated university. It’s on my bedside table and thinking about it made me want to take part in Roof Beam Reader’s TBR challenge. The word ‘challenge’ makes me think of getting through something with grit and determination and I don’t want to just read them to get through them. I’m calling mine the TBR pile opportunity.

Some essential rules are as follows:

Specifics:

1. Each of these 12 books must have been on your bookshelf or “To Be Read” list for AT LEAST one full year. This means the book cannot have a publication date of 1/1/2017 or later (any book published in the year 2016 or earlier qualifies, as long as it has been on your TBR pile). Caveat: Two (2) alternates are allowed, just in case one or two of the books end up in the “can’t get through” pile.

2. To be eligible, you must sign-up with the Mr. Linky below. Link to your list (so create it ahead of time!) and add updated links to each book’s review. Books must be read and must be reviewed (doesn’t have to be too fancy) in order to count as completed.

Check back to Adam’s post, though, for all the details if you want to join in.

My TBR list

  1. Chomsky, N.  Necessary Illusions (I bought this after my law degree. I was inspired to change the world but have been waiting to finish the book first. Maybe this year.)
  2. Boleano, R. 2666 (I started reading 2666 around the time I had my first daughter and then quickly fell into ‘motherhood’ stuff so didn’t finish. It’s intense.)
  3. Monbiot, G. The Age of Consent. (Bought years and years ago in Colchester. It’s travelled to Bristol with me but still hasn’t been read.)
  4. Extence, G. The Universe versus Alex Wood. (There was a read-a-long at our library and this was given out free. I didn’t get a chance to read it at the time. The librarian I spoke to really raved about it.)
  5. Strathern, P. Dr Strangelove’s Game. (The title is a reference to Dr Strangelove: How I learnt to stop worrying and started to love the bomb. Much of Stanley Kubrick’s movie was based on the reality of the game theory machinations behind the cold war. Game theory is still one of my favourite subjects.)
  6. Fisk, R. The Great War of Civilization (a bit of a heavy tome I am determined to get through.)
  7. Palast, G. The best democracy money can buy. (As Palast said about the UK voting for Blair: at least the US voters didn’t vote for Bush.) 
  8. Wacquant, L. Body and Soul. (I saw Wacquant, an eminent ethnographer, talk at the University of Bristol, years back about being a skinny little white guy learning to box in the south side of Chicago. Body and Soul is an ethnography of his time there.)
  9. Satrapi, M. Persepolis. (I love this book so much that I didn’t want to finish it but that means it’s been left unread. Well not for much longer!)
  10. Pynchon, T. The Crying of Lot 49. (It’s Pynchon.)
  11. Foster Wallace, D. Infinite Jest. (DFW is fantastic and I worry about finishing his works and there being none left to read. This worry has stopped me finishing any of them, which seems counterproductive, so this year I’ll finish this.)
  12. Moskos, P. Cop in the hood. (An ethnography of a year in the Baltimore police district. The authentic version of the David Simon’s Homicide that led to the Wire).

Alternatives

  1. Mulvey-Roberts, M. Literary Bristol: writers and the city.
  2. Backwith, D., Ball, R., Hunt, SE., Richardson, M. Strikers, Hobblers, Conchies & Reds: A radical history of Bristol 1880–1939.

 

To join in with the TBR Pile Challenge / Opportunity, see the original post by Roof Beam Reader.

Review, The truth and lies of Ella Black

YA is not necessarily my favourite genre so maybe I’m missing a nuance or too but I just can’t help feeling that this book is so full of teen cliches that it’s hard to wade in further to find the author’s actual meaning.

The story is about the ‘dark side’ of a teenager who finds her life boring and wants to escape while not letting that dark side out.

I’m a bit spoilt having read Patrick Ness who manages to find the human condition beyond ‘teenage-ness’ but still speaks true to the younger experience of looking for purpose and meaning.

The character thinks in an immature tone even for someone meant to be young and immature.

“Flying to Brazil, for the three of us, can’t be cheap. Is it from my parents’ savings? Is it embezzled? Stolen? Laundered? I can’t imagine any of those things. It can only be money they had in the bank.”

The constant references to her parents as ‘boring’ and ‘annoying’ aren’t particularly endearing even as they play to type. Adults do think that teenagers consider them boring but the boring part is the lack of interest in the other person’s priorities. It’s the lack of understanding that is the main issue and that holds true across all ages. The thought of ‘boring’, however limits any interest. It’s a cliche.

The storyline is limited. There is a traumatic event that is discovered. I think that’s about it. The dramatic event in the past and the uncontrollable rage of the teenager lead to a dramatic change in a way of life. It could have been interesting if Ella wasn’t written as ‘teenage-y’ and ‘angsty’ as she was.

This was not a book I enjoyed and it might be because it was just too caught up in all the drama of every single thing that happened even when what happened was trivial. It’s a simple story that becomes overdramatic but not interesting.

Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks

It’s a shame really that Tom Hanks is so rich that he immediately garners huge publicity for his book without it needing to be any good. These stories could have been good. There’s a lovely touch of humanity to all of them and a great way of noticing the little details that make up characters.

The ‘atta boy’ from the first story, the effort to not slip in the snow in the second story because Virgil has a prosthetic leg, the light touch of the social influencers in an actor’s interview schedule. The little bits and pieces are there but the narrative arcs fall clumsily right around the middle of each piece.

You can’t fill a story with funny and touching details and assume it will make up for having no purpose. Short stories are tough work and they may take a lot less to construct than a novel but that makes them even more important.

I imagine that fans will love this collection as there are traces of Hanks throughout. He uses the details well and it’s an opportunity to catch a glimpse of his life that isn’t hidden too much. The wealthy man who has nothing to do but is happy with his life, for example, but blended with characters from Saving Private Ryan and every interview schedule in “A Junket in the City of Light”.

They are nice enough stories. They could have been better.

Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks is out now.

Review, Lobbying for Change by Alberto Alemanno

Alberto Alemanno is an academic and an advocate for citizen lobbying and this book fits in well with both of those narratives. The content is well-researched and comprehensive without losing focus on the main purpose: how to lobby as a citizen.

I admit I was a bit impatient about getting to the lobbying part, which doesn’t get addressed until the 30% mark of the book. The theory is important, however, and since I quickly waned in my interest after finding out what lobbying is and how to do it — with some specific and concise examples and a handy instruction section — I can appreciate the effort that went into the first part of the book.

The instructions on how to lobby are clear and accessible and dispel the notion that only a few well-placed people or corporations in society can take part in this type of activity.

One of the latest lobbying actions Alemanno took part in was trying to get glyphosates banned through the EU. The chemical that has been linked to health concerns was renewed for five years through parliament but it could have been renewed for fifteen years. Citizen lobbying has helped in limiting the renewal to a much smaller space of time.

After years of campaigning by NGOs and citizens about its alleged harmful health effects, demonstrated by the four million signatures collected by the European Citizen Initiative (ECI) ‘Stop Glyphosate’ supported by WeMove and Avaaz, no decision-maker could turn a blind eye to such concerns.

Alemanno writes about lobbying the EU but there are legitimate avenues for citizens to have their voices heard in local arenas too and instructions can be found for those as well. When efforts are harnessed in the right way we can all make change happen to a certain extent.  Lobbying for Change: Find Your Voice to Create a Better Society reveals various routes  other than through the traditional forms such as voting. This is called citizen-lobbying and through these years of austerity it’s a nice start to be given directions about how to help.

One example in the UK is the Petitions Committee that provides a mechanism for people’s opinions to be heard. If a petition receives 10,000 signatures, Government will provide a response; if it reaches 100,000 signatures, it will be debated in parliament. So far there have been 44 responses and two debates in parliament.

This book feels like a positive addition to our times, which aims to empower when all around feels like a disempowering exercise to benefit corporations and those already in power. A small read for a greater purpose.

[Also see this book review on the LSE blogs]

Lobbying for Change by Alberto Alemanno available through The Hive (which benefits local bookshops)