Say hello to a non-fiction pick that is both a hardback and a book that I got for Christmas – and so hasn’t lingered on the pile at all. Now that may be because it was a book that I specifically asked for, or it may just be a fluke but, hey lets celebrate small wins when we get them.
You’ll know Anderson Cooper as a news anchor on CNN, but he’s also part of the Vanderbilt family and this book, written with Katherine Howe, as the subtitle suggests is a look at the rise and fall of the dynasty. It is not a complete and comprehensive examination of every member of the family, but more a look at the key figures and key moments in the family’s fortunes from making their money, through breaking into New York society, to the various court battles and all the way to Cooper’s own childhood as the son of Gloria Vanderbilt. It takes you from seventeenth century New Amsterdam through to the present day, but with its main focus from the mid-ninteenth century onwards.
I knew bits and bobs about some of the Vanderbilts, but not a whole lot so this was really interesting to me – even before the personal aspect that Cooper’s own connection to the story adds. I’ve read a lot of books at various points about the British nobility in the nineteenth century, and portions of this story are the American equivalent to that – and they interface at some points too, for example when Consuelo Vanderbilt is married off to the Duke of Marlborough. If you’ve got an interest in this sort of history, it’s definitely worth a look – even if it’s not the most comprehensive account and may well leave you wanting to read more about some of the characters you meet. But that’s never a bad thing really is it? We’ve all already got to-read piles bigger than we should have, so what difference do a couple more books make…
My copy of Vanderbilt was a Christmas gift from my parents (thanks mum and dad!) but you can get it now in hardback, Kindle and Kobo. It’s also on audiobook read by Anderson Cooper himself, which sounds delightful from the sample. I still haven’t been into a bookshop this year, but I suspect it’ll be a case of ordering it in – I’ve put a Waterstones link as I know that’s where mum got it from so I know it will actually work.
After a string of Christmas-themedrecommendations for BotW, I’m starting the new year with a non-fiction pick, and it’s a title that you may be rather familiar with as it’s been on the ongoing list for quite some time – but don’t hold that against it. Why then has it taken me so long to read? Well firstly because it is long (500+ pages!) and secondly because non-fiction requires proper concentration and for me to be in the right mindset – which has been difficult recently but in 2021 in general – as previously discussed.
Anyway, Paula Byrne’s latest book is a biography of the author Barbara Pym. Pym wrote a series of novels about everyday women in the middle of the twentieth century, was briefly acclaimed, then forgotten and then rediscovered in the years immediately before her death in 1980. If you haven’t read any of them, then you really should – she’s been compared to Jane Austen. She was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1977 for Quartet in Autumn, but I’ve mostly read her earlier books – my favourite of hers Excellent Women, which I have in a rather delightful Virago Designer Hardback edition.
After growing up in Shropshire, Barbara Pym went up to Oxford in the early 1930s. There she threw herself into student life – and into love. She travelled to Germany in the 1930s, was a Wren during the war and then worked for years as an assistant editor for a journal of anthropology. Her novels often feature anthropologists, as well as vicars – whether she’s writing about London’s bedsit land or English country life. In later life, she was friends with Philip Larkin – which in part led to her rediscovery in the late 1970s
Using Pym’s own diaries and papers, Byrne has written a comprehensive re-examination of Pym’s life piecing together her relationships, friendships and love affairs as well as her career in publishing. It’s a fascinating insight into the life behind the writer – and how her personal life bled into her novels. Considering that she never married and that her books focus on unmarried or in some way frustrated women, you may be surprised by what you discover about her. Two of Byrnes other books – Kick (about Kathleen Kennedy) and Mad World (about Evelyn Waugh) are on my keeper shelf of history books already and this would join them, if it wasn’t an ebook! And if I haven’t already won you over with my thoughts, it was on the Times’ list of best books of 2021 too.
As an added bonus for me, given my current Wimsey phase, Pym was an undergraduate at St Hilda’s just a couple of years before Gaudy Night is set. Through her experiences you can get a glimpse of what the students of Shrewsbury College might have been getting up to out of sight of the dons.
My copy of The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym came via NetGalley, but you should be able to get hold of the hardback fairly easily – Foyles have it available as click and collect at a lot of their stores and will even knock a couple of quid off the cover price if you order it via their website. If the hardback price is a bit rich for you, then I’m so behind hand with my NetGalley list that it’s actually out in paperback in April, so you could hang fire for that. Or of course it’s available in Kindle and Kobo and as an audiobook.
Well. I’m going to preface this with a Not For Everyone warning, and I’m going to depart from my recent well trodden path of crime and romance recommendations and go with a nonfiction memoir. And I’m only about four years behind, which is fairly par for the course for me to be honest as you all well know.
Educated is Tara Westover’s memoir about growing up in a doomsday prepping, fanatically religious household in Idaho and about how she struggled free. Her father is convinced that the end of days is coming, and that the government is plotting against him. This means that Tara is home schooled, but home school actually often involves working in the family junkyard. Her father also doesn’t believe in doctors or the medical profession in general and so injuries and illnesses go untreated. Eventually Tara manages to escape to university and finds herself in a world that she is ill equipped to deal with and lacking basic knowledge that others take for granted. But conflict with her family remains and she has to find a way to navigate that.
This needs all the warnings. I don’t think it’s giving too much to say that there is an incredible amount of violence in this – and whatever injuries you’re imaging went untreated, you are not imagining anything bad enough. I had been warned by my sister and I still wasn’t prepared. So go into this expecting: child abuse, child neglect, sibling violence, bullying and pretty much any behaviour that triggers a mandatory child protection referral if a teacher were to suspect it was going on. But of course Tara wasn’t in school so, yeah. It just goes on.
But if you want to know more about survivalists and some of the extremes of some of the offshoots of Mormonism then this will give you that. And some. Tara Westover has built a fresh life for herself and, spoiler alert, has managed to build healthy relationships – some of which are with some of her family. Unsurprisingly perhaps, her parents disagree with her descriptions of her childhood – and her mother has in fact written her own book in response to this, which she has self-published and in doing so has given all the real names of the people who Tara had given pseudonyms to. If you fancy an interesting half hour, after you have finished Educated, you can go and read the reviews of that on goodreads. I’m not sure you need to do any more than that because I think you’ll be able to draw your own conclusions from that.
Now I’m fairly sure my copy of Educated came from NetGalley, but so long ago now that it’s not even funny. You can get Educated everywhere. It has been on all the lists, been recommended by everyone who you could want to recommend it. I’ve seen it in pretty much every bookshop and some supermarkets too. And of course it’s on Kindle and Kobo.
So as you can see from yesterday’s post, I read a lot of stuff while we were on holiday, so I had plenty of choice, and a lot of the stuff from that list will pop up somewhere else on the blog. But for today’s pick I’m going with Traitor King – which I spotted in Waterstones in hardback the other week and really wanted, but couldn’t justify buying two hardbacks – as I was also buying a signed hardback of the new Judith Mackerell. But when I spotted the airport version (that’s the giant sized paperback, but it’s still a paperback and not a hardback so easier to read) in the WH Smiths at Luton, I was delighted to pick myself up a copy as my holiday book.
Andrew Lownie’s Traitor King examines the life of the former Edward VIII did in the years following his abdication. As the title suggests (I mean it doesn’t have a question mark after Traitor King, so I think it’s fair to say that) what Lownie says he did was a lot of scheming and intrigue against the interests of his former Kingdom in the interests of himself and his wife both in terms of their position and their financial gain.
A lot has been written about the events leading up to the abdication, but not so much about what happened after – or at least not in as much detail as this. Lownie starts with the day of the abdication and moves on from there – assuming that the reader will know what has happened, which obviously I did because I’ve read a lot of stuff – fiction and non-fiction about this whole sitauation. Most of what I have read has suggested that the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (as they became) were as the blurb says “naïve dupes” of the Germans in the run up to and the early stages of the Second World War, but Lownie’s thesis is that they knew what they were doing and were active participants themselves. He draws together threads of stories that I’ve come across before – the closeness of Wallis to von Ribbentrop, the rather dubious Charlie Bedaux and the trip to visit Hitler among other things – and comes to the conclusion that this was part of a concerted effort by the couple to conspire against British interests to try and benefit themselves. Unfortunately for Edward – and fortunately for the UK – Edward was not that bright and his plans were spotted by the various arms of the British establishment that were keeping an eye on him (which range from his friends, to his secret service detail, to the embassy staff and more) and documented. This is the documentation that Lownie uses to make his case – and he’s got the footnotes to prove it! The book also touches on the more usual aspects of the Windsor’s married life – ie were they actually in love, was it worth it and did Wallis learn sex tricks in when posted with her first husband in China – and draws some conclusions about them that I won’t spoil here, but the main focus is on the macchinations.
And it’s a very enjoyable and interesting read. As regular readers of this blog will know, I am very interested in the history of the first half of the Twentieth Century and the abdication crisis is one of the key events of it for Britain, outside the two World Wars. I’ve read a lot on the subject and this added some new perspectives and interpretations of events that I have read a fair bit about before. It’s got an extensive set of references – whether it’s the author’s own research or references to other authors working in the field – and it’s also got a really good further reading list at the back, which has a fiction list featuring my beloved Gone with the Windsors, as well as the nonfiction stuff. Speaking of Laurie Graham’s novel, I don’t think you can read that and come away with it with a particularly high opinion of the couple, but it would seem from this that Graham understated the case when it came to their meanness and the way they treated their friends and their staff. Despite the couple’s efforts to establish their relationship as the romance of the century, public opinion at the time was mostly against them and reading about it in the history books it is hard to draw a lot of favourable conclusions about them – even before you come to the Nazi connection.
I’m very pleased with my decision to buy this, it’s about to be sent out on loan to my mum and when it returns, it will undoubtedly find it’s way on to the Keeper Shelf. If you’ve got an interest in the period, or in the history of the British Monarchy, or even on stories about awful people, this is probably one you’ll be interested in. You’ll probably do best with it if you have a working knowledge of the abdication crisis to start you off with, but it does give you the basics so it’s not essential. I’m off to try and get hold of some of the other books Lownie mentions at the end, as well as his previous book about the Mountbattens.
As mentioned at the top, this is a hardback if you’re not going to an airport anytime soon, but it’s in the bookshops (the Waterstones I found it in isn’t a massive one in the grand scheme of things, especially as they have their top floor shut at the moment for Covid safety reasons) and Foyles have lots of options for click and collect. And of course it’s on Kindle and Kobo as well – but because it’s a hardback, the ebook versions are fairly expensive at the moment – more than £7 as I write this.
Have I already written about one book about We Work? Yes. Is it going to stop me from writing another one? Nope. You’re welcome and also welcome to my reading life!
Eliot Brown and Maureen Farrell’s The Cult of We is, as the subtitle suggests an examination of start up culture viewed through the prism of the rise (and fall) of We Work. In case you’ve missed my previous post or in fact the whole We Work saga, We Work was set up by Adam Neumann as reimagining the work space. It was subletting office space to smaller companies – like other companies had done before – but managing to make it sound like something new and revolutionary and get it classed alongside tech startups with much lower price overheads. The company started to implode when it tried to launch its IPO – which it needed to raise more money to keep the lights on – but Neumann walked away with much of his fortune intact.
I’ve already written about Reeves Wiedeman’s Billion Dollar Loser, which also covers Neumann and We Work and yet I still got new perspectives from this. This answers some of the questions Wiedeman didn’t – partly because it had more time to see what happened, but also takes a bigger look (I think) at how the financing of these sorts of companies is done and how made investors went for unicorn start ups that weren’t making profits. It could be recency bias, but my inclination is to say that this is the better choice if you’re only going to read one – you get all the mind boggling stories about the antics of Neumann (extra cleaning on private planes because of the cannabis-fueled partying on board) and his wife Rebekah (including the recipe for Cheezy sprinkle – hint, there is no cheese but there is nutritional yeast) but you also get more detail on the high finance side of things and who was investing in all of this.
Which ever book you read though, the story of We Work probably won’t make you as angry as Bad Blood or Empire of Pain – but that may be because office rental is not as easy to get worked up about as revolutionary blood testing or the opioid epidemic. Or maybe the story of Theranos really is that bonkers. But it’s still definitely worth a read if you like a Big Business explosion story and also if you don’t want to get so angry about the contents you want to throw the book/e-reader across the room!
My copy of The Cult of We came from NetGalley, but it’s out now and should be available via all the usual sources as well as in Kindle and Kobo. It’s also available in audiobook and I would expect the hardback to be in stock in the larger bookstores – Foyles have click and collect as an option for several stores, in London and outside, which is usually a good sign.
The reading list yesterday was a little shorter than usual, and with some relistens and old favourites on it but the pick for today was actually easy because as I mentioned the new Helen Ellis essay collection arrived last week – and of course I read it!
Bring Your Baggage and Don’t Pack Light is a series of essays examining friendship between adult women and what it’s like to be a woman pushing 50. There’s stories of Middle Aged sex, a trip to a psychic and what happens when one of your friends has a bad mammogram. And there are so many characters: bridge ladies, cat lady plastic surgeons and platinum frequent fliers. It’s the first book in a while I’ve found myself reading bits of out loud to Him Indoors – and the first time in even longer that he didn’t tell me to shut up! Sample response: “is this real? Do her friends know she’s writing this?” (Answer: yes, and yes). It’s witty and wise and I want Helen Ellis to be my friend too.
I first discovered Helen Ellis through a proof copy on the Magic Bookshelf at work. The Magic Bookshelf is now a thing of the past, but when it existed it was a library trolley full of books that lived near the entertainment and arts teams. It had a label on it telling you that you could take them – as opposed to all the other bookshelves up there which has labels telling you absolutely not to take the books. It’s where I was introduced to Curtis Sittenfeld (via Eligible), Brit Bennet(The Mothers) and Lissa Evans (Crooked Heart) – all of whom are now on my preorder list because of the books I read from the shelf. I miss the shelf – because I wonder what I’m missing out on because I don’t stumble across new (to me) books there any more. But still, I already have more books waiting to be read than some people own to start with so I really can’t complain. Anyway, every now and again I recommend an essay collection. Yes, it’s often one from Helen Ellis, but if you like Nora Ephron, or fiction like Katherine Heiny, this is the essay equivalent. You’re welcome.
Here is a confession: I preordered this from Amazon, in hardback and it’s the American edition. That’s how much I love Helen Ellis. I regret nothing because it is wonderful. But that does mean it’s a little expensive and might be harder to get hold of over here for now at least. It’s available in Kindle and Kobo – at the pricier end of the e-book scale, and Foyles say they can get hold of it in a week, but I wouldn’t expect to find it in a store – not yet anyway.
As I suspected yesterday, I finished Empire of Pain last night and it seems the obvious pick to write about even with that slightly cheaty caveat and joins the list of really very good narrative non-fiction books I’ve written about here – but rather than dealing with a tech startup squandering millions of dollars on something that doesn’t work (Bad Blood) or a business model they can’t get a profit from (Billion Dollar Loser), or the investigation into Harvey Weinstein (Catch and Kill) this is the story of the Sackler dynasty – the family behind Perdue Pharma.
If you’ve heard of Purdue Pharma, it’s probably as part of coverage into the opioid epidemic in the United States, as the company is behind the painkiller OxyContin. But until the last few years, you probably didn’t know that the Sacklers were the owners of the company. If you’d heard of them at all it was probably because of the galleries or museums or university departments named after them all around the world. But then a series of court cases accused Perdue and the family behind it of being the root cause of the opioid epidemic in the US. Patrick Radden Keefe started writing about the family in an article for the New Yorker, which has expanded into this look at the three generations of the family, how they made their money originally and their role in the modern world of pharmaceutical advertising that you see in the US today.
I first heard the Sackler name in connection with the opioid crisis when I was in Washington in the autumn of 2018 when the court cases and bankruptcy hearings are getting underway, and there have been plenty of articles and books since then about the crisis itself and its effect on communities across the country. But what Radden Keefe is doing here is looking at the family themselves and setting out the longer term picture – the way the Sackler family built their fortune and helped set up the conditions for the sale and marketing of OxyContin whilst keeping their name separate from the business but well known for philanthropy.
None of the family spoke to Radden Keefe for the book – and in his end notes he sets out the efforts that he took to try and secure an interview and the conditions they wished to impose on him in order for one to be granted. But he does set out how the book was fact checked and who he did speak to – over two hundred people on and off the record – with the on the record sources meticulously chronicles in end notes that take up nearly 20 percent of the kindle edition. He’s also made use of the mass of court papers, archival collections and Arthur Sackler’s own columns in the Medical Tribune. But he goes on to say that although there were almost too many documents for him to handle, there are still even more out there as the bankruptcy hearing could result in a repository of documents about Purdue running into tens of millions of papers. And the story isn’t over yet.
This is a long book (500+ pages on Kindle including those end notes) but if you’ve been following the opioid epidemic and the effect that it has had on the US – or even if you haven’t and have maybe only heard of OxyContin as a prescription pain pill that various celebrities have had issues with, this is worth the hours of your time.
My copy of Empire of Pain came from the library, but it’s out now in Kindle, Kobo and hardback. It should be fairly easy to find – Foyles have it on Click and Collect at six stores which is usually a good indicator. And if you’re wondering why Patrick Radden-Keefe’s name seems familiar – he’s written various books before as well as being a New Yorker writer, but he was also the host of the Winds of Change podcast that I wrote about in my Pandemic Podcast recommendation post.
A few options under serious consideration from last week, but in the end I settled on Paul Baker’s Fabulosa! because it was really, really good and I’m not sure it will have come onto people’s radar. So this week’s BotW could be seen as the latest in a line that has already included Legendary Children and Diary of a Drag Queen – and also Art of Drag – which you can actually see in the background of my photo below.
In case you don’t already know, Polari is a language that was used mostly by gay men in the first half of the twentieth century. It had a brief moment in the limelight in the mid 1960s when it featured in Julian and Sandy sketches on the radio show Round the Horne, and then dropped away again. In Fabulosa! Paul Baker examines the language’s roots – in Cant, dancers’ slang and Lingua Franca – the reasons why it was spoken and the reasons for its decline. Baker is a linguistics professor and the foundations for the book are from of his PHD research – and interviews conducted with surviving speakers of Polari.
This is part linguistic study, part social history and really very enjoyable. There are a fair few word which crossed over into common usage from Polari – as well as the origins of a few of the words you may have encountered in Drag Race. One of the main roles for Polari was a means of communicating with a level of camouflage – but it’s hard to work out at this distance how successful that was. Baker is very frank that it was hard to find people who spoke it to interview, and there is very littl documentation about it and so it’s hard to work out how Polari was actually used – and whether it ever reached the level of a language rather than a variety, and whether people who didn’t speak Polari would have recognised it as something spoken by the gay community and been able to expose this and thus defeat the object.
IF you’re interested in language or social history – or both, this is well worth a look to discover a hidden part of the recent past. I bought my copy from Foyles – where the hardback is now out of stock but they do have the paperback, but it’s also available on Kindle and Kobo. You’ll probably need a reasonably large or specialist bookshop to be able to wander in and pick up a copy.
And one last bonus – here are Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick reviving Julian and Sandy – on camera for a BBC programme in the late 1980s, shortly before Paddick’s death. Both this and the clip above are discussed in the book.
I was so spoilt for chose this week that I dithered over my choice for Book of the Week for quite some time before settling on Billion Dollar Loser. But it’s hard to resist a book about a spectacular business failure – you may remember how much I enjoyed Bad Blood last year and I was hoping this would do the same sort of thing.
Reeves Wiedeman’s book examines the rise and fall of Adam Neumann and his company WeWork. Many people probably only heard of WeWork when its first attempt to float on the stock market imploded in spectacular style. Neumann grew up in Israel and the US, completed his compulsory military service and then moved to the US for college, determined to make his fortune. After a false start with a baby clothing company, he got into the co-working business – leasing empty office space from landlord and then renting it out to freelancers, small businesses, tech startups and the like. It wasn’t a new idea, but WeWork attracted billions of dollars from investors as it grew at breakneck speed and expanded around the world with a vision of “elevating the world’s consciousness”.
So this isn’t quite Bad Blood, and WeWork isn’t quite Theranos, but Billion Dollar Loser is an incredibly readable account of the rise and fall of a tech unicorn – a business that investors poured money into through years of losses in the hope that it would eventually make money and then be the next big thing when it finally floated in the stock exchange and they could cash out. Caught up in it all are the staff – many of whom stayed in jobs that didn’t pay very well because of the stock options they were promised and because they believed in Neumann’s vision. Like Theranos’s Elizabeth Holmes, Neumann is a charismatic figure – who brought in spiritualism and created an almost cult like atmosphere inside the company. And his wife is Gwyneth Paltrow’s cousin so there’s an added Goop-y layer to all of this that Theranos didn’t have.
Wiedemann has written a fast-paced page turner, that exposes the fundamental problems with WeWork’s business plan – including (but not limited to) the costs involved in real estate and the need for actual physical infrastructure in your offices and to keep your tenants happy! Like Bad Blood, it leaves you with a fair few questions, but the story of WeWork isn’t done yet – their valuation for their stock market floatation was published at the end of March (spoiler: it’s a lot less than it was the first time around) and Neumann is also reported to be planning a new venture. A Hulu documentary about WeWork came it last week and Cosmo have just published a profile of Rebekah Paltrow Neumann so this probably isn’t the last we’ve heard of WeWork – but as a starting point this is a really good one!
My copy of Billion Dollar Loser came from the library, but it’s available now from all the usual sources – like Kindle and Kobo and should be available to order from your bookshop of choice or bookshop.org.uk . It’s been so long now since bookshops were open for in person browsing that I have no idea if you’ll be able to pick it up in store without ordering!
As I have now mentioned a few times now, I’m on an Amelia Peabody re-reading spree at the moment, but I am reading a few new things too and as last week was the Presidential Inauguration in the US, I’ve gone for a US politics book for this week’s BotW.
Rachel Maddow is an MSNBC host and journalist and Michael Yarvitz is her producer. Bag Man is the book of their Peabody-winning podcast of the same name about Spiro T Agnew. If you’ve heard of Agnew at all, it’s probably as part of a trivia question about some aspect of Gerald Ford being the only person to serve as US vice-president and President without having been elected to either office. Maybe, if you did a module on US 20th Century history like I did at GCSE, you’ll know that he was Nixon’s vice-president and half think that he resigned over something to do with Watergate. If that’s the case, you’re wrong. Agnew actually resigned as part of a corruption scandal – as prosecutors were closing in on charges of bribery, conspiracy and more, he agreed a deal with prosecutors where he would plead no contest to a tax charge in return for his resignation and not getting any jail time. All this was going on in the background of the Watergate scandal – and fears at the Department of Justice that if Nixon resigned, he would be replaced by Agnew who they had evidence had taken bribes – and was still taking bribes even as he worked in the White House.
I was absolutely engrossed in this – to the point where I’ve both read the book and listened to the podcast alongside it. The podcast has all the key points – and you get to hear actual audio from inside the White House as Nixon and his staff discussed what was going on, but the book can go into more details about everything. As an MSBC host, Maddow is towards the liberal end of the political spectrum and part of the reason for the podcast and the book are the parallels between Agnew’s style of defence and that of President Trump, as well as the fact that his case is the basis for the ruling that the President cannot be prosecuted while in office (but the vice-president can) that President Trump often cited. But even without that the story of Spiro Agnew is one that should be better known – when Agnew pled no contest in court, the prosecutors submitted a document detailing what Agnew was doing – involving actual cash in literal envelopes in return for giving state contracts. Agnew is a bombastic character who commanded enormous support from the Republican Party by being further to the right than Nixon. In the final part of the podcast, some of the guests set out the idea that the removal of Agnew may have made Nixon’s impeachment easier – because one of the things holding the Democrats back was the idea that if Nixon went, then Agnew would be president instead. 1973 was a hell of a year for American politics, while everyone was looking at Watergate, all this was going on at the same time and has mostly been forgotten.
I love a politics book and this is definitely that. But if you’re hesitating because you’re all politics-ed out at the moment, then I would say that it also fits in to the group of really good, easy to read narrative non-fiction and history books that I’ve recommended before – like Bad Blood, Catch and Kill and Furious Hours. My copy came from the library, but it’s available now on Kindle but it feels pricey at £10.99 and for a slightly better £6.39 on Kobo as well as as a hardback but if you’re interested in this one, obviously the first part of the podcast would be an easy (and cost free!) place to start.