Award nominated, Book of the Week, non-fiction

Book of the Week: Furious Hours

Starting off the New Year with a book from that NetGalley backlog I said that I was trying to deal with.  I try to only have one non-fiction book on the go at once, and this one is one I kept meaning to get around to – and in fact even started a while back and then got distracted by the arrival of a bunch of non-fiction library book holds and I forgot about it.  But it made the final of the non-fiction category of the Goodreads awards* which jogged my memory and gave me the push I needed to come back to it.

Cover of Furious Hours

So Furious Hours is Casey Cep’s first book and it tells the story of an Alabama serial killer whose trial caught the eye of Harper Lee.  The first part of the book tells you about the frankly astounding story of Reverend Willie Maxwell, who was suspected of killing members of his family – and who was then killed at the funeral of one of his alleged victims.  And just to add to what is already an eye-popping story, the killer was defended at the murder trial by the same lawyer who had previously defended Reverend Maxwell when he was accused of murder.  The second part of the book is about Harper Lee – the author of To Kill a Mockingbird – who took attended the trial with a view to writing her own true crime book about it, in the same way that her friend Truman Capote wrote the story of the Clutter family murders in In Cold Blood.  Now as you probably know, until the (somewhat controversial) publication of Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee famously had only one published book – so you know a bit about how that went for her, but that’s only really part of the story, and Cep takes you through Lee’s life that lead her to that point and beyond.

Both of the stories told here are absolutely fascinating, and if I have a complaint about the book it’s that they feel like two separate stories for a long time.  When I first picked up the book I had picked up on the Harper Lee element of the story and was surprised when the start of the book didn’t mention her at all.  But having now read the whole thing, I understand why it was structured like that and that you need to know one story fully to understand the other and I’m not sure I could have come up with a way of integrating the two that wouldn’t have been just far too confusing.  So it requires you to read the blurb properly (bad Verity) to understand what you’re about to read – and then to go with it because it will all make sense in the end.

As well as the Goodreads awards, this was a nominee for the Baillie Gifford prize (which was won by another former BotW The Five) and made a lot of end of year lists – including Barack Obama’s – so it’s well worth a look if you like true crime or books about authors and that sort of thing.  As previously mentioned, my copy came from NetGalley, but Furious Hours is out in hardback at the moment – with the paperback due in April in the UK.  You should be able to get hold of a copy from any bookshop with a reasonable non-fiction section.  It’s also available on Kindle and Kobo and as an audiobook from Kobo and Audible.

Happy Reading!

*Alongside previous BotW Catch and Kill – in fact there were a lot of books on that shortlist that I fancy reading – but they were all beaten by Girl, Stop Apologizing by Rachel Hollis, which given my experience with Girl, Wash Your Face I don’t think I’ll be reading!

book round-ups, non-fiction

New Year, New You

A Friday bonus post for you.  Back in the autumn I started thinking about what I might write for New Year this year and realised that I hate New Year’s Resolutions posts because they never feel natural and they add an extra level of guilt and obligation to my reading that I just don’t need. So instead of a resolutions post, but still in the spirit of new beginnings, I thought I’d write about some self-help/self-improvement books that I have read.  Which meant I had to read some. And so I embarked on some reading.

This is not a genre that I read a lot – I have a low tolerance for inspirational stuff, but I try and keep an open mind. And trying to grow and improve yourself is good, and so in the interests of you, dear Reader, I did it.  Here is what I discovered: I am really not a good candidate for self help books.  They make me really quite angry quite easily.  And it seems that as a person in a relationship but without children, a lot of them really don’t apply to me.  But here were are, I’ve done the reading so you don’t have to. Lets start with the bad…

Most Unintentionally Depressing: Fair Play by Eve Rodsky

Cover of Fair Play

My main takeaway from this was that finding a decent man in America must be a garbage fire. This book claims to be “a revolutionary, real-world solution to the problem of unpaid, invisible work that women have shouldered for too long.” What it actually is is a way to gamify domestic labour that you trick your other half into playing with you. I had high hopes for this because it was a Reese Witherspoon book club pick and her fiction picks have always been interesting, but hooo boy.  It’s definitely true that women have greater expectations placed on them by external and internal forces when it comes to running a household, but this feels like the marriage equivalent of a dating manual that advises you to trick your potential spouse.  And despite what the blurb would have you think, it also only really applies to hetero-normative relationships with kids.  And only then if you’re prepared to treat your partner like a child – which to be honest isn’t the relationship that I aspire to.  I prefer to share my life with someone I can talk to like an adult about problems and, if you believe the author, it seems most men in the US can’t have a sensible conversation about shared workload and need to be tricked and gamed into doing their share.

Most Irritating: Girl Wash Your Face by Rachel Hollis

Cover of Girl, Wash Your Face

I’m going to chalk this up to a lack of research on my part.  My library suggested this to me (I can’t remember why) and knowing I was going to write this post I read the blurb and thought it sounded worth a try and got myself on the hold list.  It came in just in time to read for this post more is the pity. Per the Goodreads entry “With wry wit and hard-earned wisdom, popular online personality and founder of TheChicSite.com founder Rachel Hollis helps readers break free from the lies keeping them from the joy-filled and exuberant life they are meant to have.” So far so good – but the bit I didn’t clock properly was at the end: “With unflinching faith and tenacity, Hollis spurs other women to live with passion and hustle and to awaken their slumbering goals.”  The key word there being faith.  There’s a lot of God and knowing that God has plans for your life and your journey in this, and that was not what I was looking for.  There’s also a lot of American therapy speak that always makes my skin itch and big sections of the book are about juggling a job and kids. To be fair though, her relationship does sound a bit better balanced than the ones in Fair Play – so maybe not all American men are awful.

And now for the good…

Most Reassuring: The Likeability Trap by Alicia Menendez

Cover of The Likeability Trap

Journalist Alicia Menendez examines the concept of likeability and why women either are perceived as cold but strong or warm but weak and why this is outdated and how to fight against it. I wasn’t sure what I was going to make of this, but it turned out to be useful, reassuring and quite practical. I’m not sure how many things I’ll be able to implement in my life, but it definitely felt like someone with similar experiences and feelings to me was giving me advice.  And as we go into a US Presidential election year, it’s really interesting to take a deep dive into the notion of female likeability so you know what you’re looking for in the commentary on the women in the running for the nomination and the presidency.

Most practical: The Making of a Manager by Julie Zhuo

Cover of Making of a Manager

Julie Zhuo was an early hire at Facebook and at 25 found herself managing a team of designers.  As the company grew, so did the number of people she was managing.  In The Making of a Manager she discusses the perils and pitfalls of becoming a manager and offers helpful advice for how to avoid them.  I actually found this the most useful of the lot.  Not everything she talks about applies to the job that I do, but enough did that I started making notes.  And although she works in tech and draws her examples from her own experience, it doesn’t feel like you’re being lectured by a Facebook zealot and it felt like she’d worked hard to make her advice applicable to most sorts of teams and workplaces and so I think almost anyone who manages people  could get something out of this.

So there you have it.  I think on balance I got enough from the good books to make up for the bad bits, but next time I do this (if there is a next time!) I’m going to pay better attention to the blurbs and try and decode things a bit better. Also maybe stop reading the stuff I don’t like before it makes me ragey.  Three of these came from the library (hello again themes of my 2019 obsessions) but The Making of a Manager came from NetGalley.

Until Monday – Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, memoirs, reviews

Book of the Week: Year of the Fat Knight

My final BotW of 2020 continues the Year of Non-fiction, except this is one from the to read bookshelf and not from the library. If you’ve missed my look back at my reading obsessions over the year, you can find them here, and also my best books of the year. Coming up tomorrow, instead of the stats, is my look ahead to some new books coming in 2020. The stats will follow later in the week. Because I’m that good to you. Anyway, to the review.

Year of the Fat Knight on a bookshelf

Ever wondered what it takes to be an actor? Or more particularly if you’ve got what it takes to be an actor? You sort of half think it might be an easy life right? Wrong. Over the course of this book you watch (in your mind’s eye at least) Antony Sher agonise over taking a part, preparing for the part and playing the part. And as you read, you realise all the hidden hard work that goes into crafting a performance, an interpretation of words on paper.

The Fat Knight of the title is Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s iconic creations. But not, as Sher muses, one that The Big Names often play. He muses that there are traditionally two tracks for Shakespearean actors – one leads to King Lear, via Macbeth and Hamlet, and the other to Falstaff (via parts like Bottom) and that never the twain shall meet. But here is Sher – who famously played Richard III as a young man (which Sher also wrote a book about) and who I saw play Macbeth just after the turn of the century* – considering an offer, from his partner no less, to play Falstaff. Illustrated with Sher’s own drawings, it’s fascinating and eye opening and incredibly readable. Sher’s partner is Gregory Doran, a director who at the start of the book is just taking over the helm at the RSC so as well as the musings on Falstaff, you get a peek behind the curtain at the RSC and in the world of theatre generally. The two are named as a power couple in the media in a couple of lists during the book, which perplexes Sher but reminds the reader that there are fairly large stakes here professionally. The production – and Sher’s performance – were a success but that never feels anywhere near certain as you read it.

I raced through this and although I didn’t see the productions of Henry IV Sher is writing about, I have seen a couple of the others that are mentioned in it and have seen some of the other actors in other things which made for an added bonus as a theatre nerd.  I don’t know that you need to be a theatre nerd to enjoy this though – I think you just need to be someone who is interested in process and creation.  If you’ve ever wondered how a production of Shakespeare is put together, whether the actors really understand what they’re saying and how they create a character, this would certainly interest to you.  But if you’re a creator of something else, I think this would be worth a look as well – and you can compare your process in your field to this.  I’m sure you’d get something out of it.

I had this on the shelf – I think it came from a work book sale a year or so ago (it came out in , but you should be able to get hold of a copy fairly easily from a bookshop with a theatre section.  Mine is a hardback, but there is also a paperback edition now. If you want to buy online, may I suggest you go direct to Nick Hern Books, the publisher, where the price is within pennies of that of Amazon as I write this and will undoubtedly benefit them more direct.  They’ve got 20% off everything at the moment – so in one of life’s more predictable moments, I ordered myself Sher’s other two books on acting – the aforementioned Year of the King and his latest, Year of the Mad King about King Lear – when I went to check this out.

Happy Reading and Happy New Year!

*Gosh that makes me feel old saying that, but although the turn of the century automatically makes me think of the start of the 20th century, we’re far enough into the 21st now that I probably should get used to it.  I saw Macbeth with Sher and Harriet Walter at the Swan in Stratford sometime around 2000 – I still have the poster somewhere, but I’m not getting it out to check!

Book of the Week, non-fiction, Uncategorized

Book of the Week: Catch and Kill

It may have been a shorter than some reading list again last week, but nevertheless I am back to normal service with the BotW posts today and I’ve got a cracker for this week’s pick. And yes it’s had a lot of hype but it’s really worth it.

Cover of Catch and Kill

I think you’d have to have been under a rock to have missed the Harvey Weinstein story breaking last year. The former movie mogul – the producer behind many Oscar-winning movies – was accused sexual harassment and paying settlements to women in a New York Times article by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey and then five days later by multiple women of a pattern of predatory behaviour of sexual assaults (including rape) in a New Yorker article written by Ronan Farrow. Weinstein has always denied wrong doing, saying that via his lawyers that any allegations of non-consensual sex are unequivocally denied and there are cases still making their way through the courts in the US. But Farrow’s investigation of Weinstein originally started as part of his work for NBC News. This is the story behind that original New Yorker article – of how Farrow assembled the witnesses and evidence to stand the story up and of the efforts that he says were being taken to stop the story getting on air.

Two years after those first articles (which saw Kantor, Twohey, Farrow, the NYT and New Yorker share a Pulitzer Prize) we already know most of the allegations about Weinstein and this book has mostly made headlines because of the allegations made about the attempts to suppress the story. But it’s also a pacey and incredibly readable piece of narrative nonfiction. It’s very easy to read, and Farrow is realistic about his role and position in the world – in case you’ve missed it, he’s the son of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen and was a child genius who went to college in his teens and who is estranged from his father. Farrow has a way with words – this reads almost like a thriller novel, and not just because of the presence of secretive Israeli spies. It’s also wryly funny in places – mostly when Farrow’s partner, podcaster and former Obama speechwriter Jon Lovett, appears, something that Lovett has Thoughts About when it comes to the audiobook:

This is one of the best nonfiction books I’ve read this year and would make a great Christmas book gift – even though the subject matter doesn’t sound like it would. I borrowed my copy from the library, but you should be able to get a copy of Catch and Kill from all good bookshops (I’m thinking it’ll be on a table/new books display), as well as on Kindle, Kobo and Audible, although I understand that there have been some problems in some territories with legal threats.  Is it any wonder that I’ve read and rewritten this post several times?!

Happy Reading!

book round-ups, non-fiction, Recommendsday

Recommendsday: Rich People Problems – Non-fiction Edition

Regular readers of the blog may be aware that I’m somewhat fascinated by the interwar period.  I love Golden Age crime novels, like my beloved Peter Wimsey, one of my all-time favourite novels is Laurie Graham’s Gone With the Windsors and I’ve read a lot about of some of the notables of the period  – some of which I’ve written about here before – like Flappers, Bright Young People and Queen Bees.  And after a recent jag of books about the era (and slightly beyond), now seemed like an ideal time for a bit of a round up of the best bits of the non-fiction.  You’ll hear more about the fiction anon…

Empty Mansions by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell JrCover of Empty Mansions

This is another one of those books that I’ve wanted to read after I saw the author interviewed about on the Daily Show before Jon Stewart left and have recently got around to reading (see also: Jim Henson) and it is really something.  Huguette Clark died in hospital in 2011 at the age of 104. The fact that she died in hospital is about the only “normal” thing about her life. She was worth $300m. She’d been in the hospital for 30 years. She hadn’t been photographed – in public at least – for nearly twice that. Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Bill Dedman and one of Huguette’s cousins, Paul Clark Newell Jr, look at her life, her family’s fortune and why she retreated to the confines of one room (and progressively smaller one at that) of a hospital for so long when she had apartments and riches that most people can only dream of.  And it’s one hell of a ride.  I read it as an ebook, which is good because it’s long and dense and has footnotes that you might want to flick back and forth to. As well as being fascinating it leaves you with lots of things to ponder – why did she retreat from public life in the 1930s? Was she exploited by the hospital or her carers? And what do people who have made huge fortunes owe to the people and the towns they made the money off? Well worth a look.

The Riviera Set by Mary S Lovell

Hardback of The Riviera Set

Want to know how the French Riviera become the playground of the rich and famous?  This book will tell you.  Lovell’s book starts by introducing you to Maxine Elliott and showing how she established herself as one of Edwardian society’s notable hostesses before building Chateau de l’Horizon, the modernist villa at the centre of the book.  Between the wars, Maxine’s house hosted all the notables of the time – the Churchills, the Windsors, Noel Coward and more – and after the war it transitioned into a party house for the Hollywood set under the ownership of Aly Khan.  I learned new things about some familiar faces from the interwar years – as well as being introduced to a 50s and 60s jet-set that I wasn’t really very knowledgable about.  This mixes royal history, political history and Hollywood history as it shows how the Riviera evolved through the years – although it stops well before the coast became the exlusive playground of oligarchs and the super rich.  Very readable and just gossipy enough. I liked it so much it’s still on my downstairs shelves, nearly two years after I first read it.

Chanel’s Riviera by Anne de Courcy

hardback copy of Chanels Riviera

Once you’ve read about Maxine, go straight on to Anne de Courcy’s new book and see what happened to the Riviera when the Second World War hit it.  The Lovell – which focuses on the villa and the rich – covers the World War Two in one chapter, mostly about how everyone got out.  Chanel’s Riviera will fill in the gaps – and make sure that you don’t go away with the idea that the Riviera wasn’t really affected by it all.  There is plenty about Chanel herself in here, mostly around her time on the Riviera and her friends there, but there’s a lot more detail about the more normal people down there – and not just the rich.  There are expats who had moved down there for their health and the people who had moved down there to work for them or with them.  This one only just came out – it’ll get a place on my shelves just as soon as I get it back from my mum…

The Unfinished Palazzo by Judith Mackrell

Cover of The Unfinished Palazzo

This is a group biography of sorts of three very unconventional for their time women who all owned the titualar Venetian Palazzo during the twentieth century. I found this while scouring my shelves looking for something similar to The Riviera Set after reading that – and it even has some crossover in the cast list (if you know what I mean!), as Doris Castlerosse is a principle figure in this after being a side character in the Lovell.  Luisa Casati was what probably what we would consider now to be a performance artist – albeit one with a pet cheetah. Doris Castlerosse was a socialite who married money and was close to Winston Churchill. And Peggy Guggenheim was an heiress who renovated the building and used it to showcase her collection of modern art (yes, one of those Guggenheims).  Although this was less satisfying than the Lovell overall,  and would serve you well as an entry point into any of their lives.  I would happily read more about any one of the women in this.

So there you have it.  Four more books to add to the list.  This has been mostly European focused – even Huguette – who was part French and spoke with a French accent!  If you’ve got any recommendations for more stuff about America or the rest of the world in this period, hit me up in the comments. Equally if you’ve got an historical rich people problems novels that you think I should read let me know – because they are also my catnip.

Happy Reading!

American imports, Book of the Week, memoirs, non-fiction, Uncategorized

Book of the Week: Southern Lady Code

I had a really lovely week of reading again last week. And there were difficult choices for book of the week this week, but actually I haven’t picked a book of essays in a while and this one was just delicious.

Cover of Southern Lady Code

I wrote about American Housewife back in 2016 and I’ve been waiting for more from her ever since.  American Housewife was a short story collection though, and this a bit different. Across more than twenty essays, Ellis examines what it means to her to be a Southern Lady – and in particular what it’s like to be a Southern Lady living in Manhattan.  Her mantra is “If you don’t have something nice to say, say something not-so-nice in a nice way” and there are a lot of laughs to be had because of this, but there are also ghosts, retro buffets, cleaning as a method of keeping the spark in a marriage and how to shop for a formal event.  It’s funny, clever and true – or at least mostly true. Probably.  But basically Helen Ellis makes me laugh.  I’m not a Southern lady, and I’m a bit younger than Ellis, but there was so much here that amused me and spoke to me.

If you like wry sideways takes on American life, this would make a great addition to your autumn reading list. It was definitely worth waiting two months in the hold queue for it.

As you might guess from that, my copy of Southern Lady Code came from the library, but I’ll be buying myself a copy when it’s out in paperback here. It’s available in hardback, kindle and kobo.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, non-fiction

Book of the Week: Jim Henson

So many good books on holiday last week. And if all goes to plan, you’re going to be hearing a about a lot of them. Just as soon as I have time to read a few more books and write the posts. But I’ve got it all planned out in my head. Trust me. Ahem.  Anyway, this week’s pick is Jim Henson: The Biography, Brian Jay Jones’s look at the life of the innovative puppeteer, animator and filmmaker.

Cover of Jim Henson: The Biography

If you don’t know who Jim Henson is, I think you must have been living under a rock, or just not paying attention. Henson was the creator of the Muppets and the puppet characters on Sesame Street. Exactly. I think everyone has grown up with Bert and Ernie, Elmo, Big Bird and of course Kermit and Miss Piggy. This is a big, in-depth look at the man behind the puppets and what drove him.

Going in to reading this, I knew about the Muppets, and I knew he died in the early 90s – there’s a dedication to him at the end of the Muppet Christmas Carol, which is of course one of the all-time great children’s Christmas films – but that was about it. It turns out that he (and his creations) were a TV sensation in his local area before he was out of his teens, he was hugely affected by the early death of his younger brother which lead to a breakneck work ethic, but who also was devoted to being a good dad to his five kids. It’s really a remarkable life.

This book came out in 2013* and Brian Jay Jones had the cooperation of the Henson family, access to all the archives and interviewed all the key players. It was the first full length biography of Henson and Frank Oz (aka Miss Piggy aka Yoda) said that it captured Henson’s genius and his flaws. And I found that very true – it’s not a hagiography. You get a real sense of the amazing mind and vision that Henson had, but also that he must have been a difficult man to live with at times – and definitely a difficult person to manage!

It’s a fascinating read not just because it’s about a great subject but because it’s really well written. Jones has since written biographies of George Lucas and Dr Seuss and even though I’m not hugely interested in either of those men, I enjoyed this so much I would probably still borrow them from the library or buy them in a kindle daily deal just because this was so well researched, thoughtful and readable.

My copy of Jim Henson came from the library but it’s available on Kindle, Kobo and Audible and in paperback and hardback – although mostly via secondhand sellers and coming in from the US.

Happy Reading!

*and I’ve had it on my to-read list since seeing Brian Jay Jones interviewed on the Daily Show soon after it came out, which tells you a lot about how long it’s taken me to get around to getting hold of a copy – thank you library!