Book of the Week, new releases, non-fiction

Book of the Week: Bring Your Baggage and Don’t Pack Light

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!

Copy of Bring Your Baggage and Don't Pack Light on a bookshelf

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.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, non-fiction

Book of the Week: Empire of Pain

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.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, LGTBQIA+, non-fiction

Book of the Week: Fabulosa!

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.

Happy reading!

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.

Book of the Week, non-fiction

Book of the Week: Billion Dollar Loser

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.

Cover of Billion Dollar Loser

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!

Happy reading!

American imports, Book of the Week, non-fiction

Book of the Week: Bag Man

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.

Cover of Bag Man

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. 

Happy Reading

Book of the Week, new releases, non-fiction

Book of the Week: The Haunting of Alma Fielding

Lots of non-fiction reading last week. You’ll hear more about the Kate Andersen Brower anon (or you can find my previous writing about her here), but in the meantime, this week’s BotW is new release (well on October 1) non-fiction that feels really appropriate for the run up to Halloween!

Cover of the Haunting of Alma Fielding

Nandor Fodor is a Jewish-Hungarian refugee in 1930s London. He’s also a ghost hunter and he starts to investigate the case of Alma Fielding, a surburban housewife who says she’s being plagued by a poltergeist. As he starts to investigate as part of his work for the International Institute of Physical Research, the phenomena intensify and he discovers Alma’s complicated and traumatic past. And all this is happening against the backdrop of the rise of Fascim in Europe as well as the obsession/renaissance in spiritualism that happened in the post Great War period.

Now although reads like the plot of a novel, this is actually non-fiction. It’s sometimes hard to believe this while you read it though as Alma continues to manifest material affects after she’s been strip searched and put into a special costume provided by the Institute. But it is and its fascinating. Fodor is rational although he wants to believe, but as he develops doubts about Alma, he handles it in a much more sensitive way than I was expecting. I’ve almost said to much here, but it’s really hard to talk about non-fiction like it’s a novel, when so much of whether it works is about the research and the story and whether it feels satisfying. On that front, I wanted a little bit more closure about Alma and her haunting, but I appreciate that in a work of non-ficiton, you can only work with what the sources tell you.

The juxtaposition of Alma’s story and the wider context of the late 1930s also works really well. If you’ve read Dorothy L Sayers’ Strong Poison* you’ll have encountered the wave of spiritualists of the era – and seen some of their trickery exposed (to the reader at least) by Miss Climpson, but this really sets what Fodor was doing and the organisations that he worked for into the wider context. I was fascinated. If you’re looking for something to read for Halloween, and don’t want fiction, this is really worth a look.

Unlike most of the rest of the world (it seems) I haven’t read the Suspicions of Mr Whicher, but reading this has definitely made me more likely to. My copy of The Haunting of Alma Fielding came from NetGalley in return for an honest review, but it is out now in hardback and should be easily available in bookstores as well as on Kindle and Kobo.

Happy Reading!

*I love it when I get to mention Lord Peter Wimsey, and Strong Poison is one of my favourites, if I haven’t worn you down yet, go and read it.

Book of the Week, new releases, non-fiction

Book of the Week: Money

A lot of non-fiction reading last week all in all, so it’s probably not a surprise that this week’s pick is from the nonfiction list. Just a reminder that the mini-reviews are coming tomorrow – where among the picks is another non-fiction book from last week.

Cover of Money by Jacob Goldstein

So Jacob Goldstein’s Money is exactly what the subtitle says it is – The True Story of a Made-up Thing. It’s a an engaging and easy to understand history of money that goes right from when people stopped bartering and started developing money through to the present day with all the complications that the internet and computers have brought.

Goldstein is one of the hosts of NPR’s Planet Money podcast and has a really conversational style as well as having a knack for explaining complicated ideas in easy to understand language. In this he’s done possibly the best job I’ve found so far of explaining things like bitcoin, blockchain and what exactly happened with the 2008 crash. I mean I came away feeling like I finally understood them at any rate. Be warned though, if you’re anything like me, you’ll find the idea that there will be another big crash or breakdown in the way that we use money just a little bit terrifying and may lead to some googling to work out how safe the money in your bank is. It definitely made me think a lot about electronic banking and the cashless economy. Anyway, If you’re not a person who thinks of themselves as business or money minded, this would be a great primer/introduction for you, or if you’re starting to think about your Christmas present list, this would make a good choice for someone who likes authors like Mary Roach or Bill Bryson.

My copy of Money came from NetGalley, but it’s out now (came out in the UK last week in fact) on Kindle and Kobo and as a hardback. As usual I have no idea whether it’ll be in bookshops, but they should be able to order it for you if they don’t have it in stock. Give them a call/drop in in a safe and responsible way.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, memoirs, non-fiction

Book of the Week: Here for It

As I mentioned yesterday, last week I mostly binged on George Bellairs and I’ve talked about him relatively recently. But luckily I also read R Eric Thomas’s book of essays, so I get to tell you about that today!

Cover of Here for It

I think I first came across him as a podcast guest, but in case you haven’t come across him before, R Eric Thomas writes the “Eric Reads the News” column for Elle.com and is Very Funny. This an essay collection but as a whole it also forms a memoir about growing up different and how he found his way and place in life. He was one of the few black pupils at his high school and his Ivy League college. He was brought up attending a conservative black church but he is gay. And it took him a while to figure out what he wanted to do with his life, a period which included going viral on the early internet and not in a good way.

This is basically a funny and joyful journey to self-acceptance. Some of the essays really, really work. Thomas is also a playwright and coupled with his storyteller ability means that he has a knack for picking out themes that run through his life and finding just the right experience to use to tell you about it. And it means the stories build and develop and go somewhere (which is somehow rarer than you expect it to be in essay collections) and make you think.

It made me laugh and it made me think and it was a really great book to read in these strange quarantimes we are living in. I think it’s a special order in the UK – Amazon only has the hardback and no kindle edition right now – so I don’t think you’ll be able to pick it up off a shelf in the bookstore. If you want a taste of R Eric before you buy, here is one of my favourite of his recent columns but he also has a newsletter that you could sign up for and see if you’re interested.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, memoirs

Book of the Week: The Chiffon Trenches

So as I said yesterday, it was an awful week. But at least I have a good book to tell you about today. Sometimes it’s the small things isn’t it.

Cover of The Chiffon Trenches

So The Chiffon Trenches is André Leon Talley’s new memoir about his life in the fashion industry. If you’re my age, you may have first seen him  as a judge on America’s Next Top Model around the time they started trying to update the series to make it more high fashion – the era of the Vogue Italia photospread prize, before they started getting people to vote on social media – but he left after the madness that was the All Stars season. Ahem. Anyway, serious fashion fans will actually know him as a long-standing and long-serving member of the Vogue editorial team, where among his roles he was Creative Director, Fashion News Editor and an Editor-at-Large.

This is not his first memoir (although I haven’t read the previous one) but this one deals with his early life, his rise to prominence, his relationship with Anna Wintour and his role in fighting for more diversity and representation in fashion. He is a striking figure – and it’s not just because he’s a 6’7 man who wears couture kaftans – this book will take you on a hell of a journey. He was born in North Carolina in the time of Jim Crow laws. He won a scholarship to Brown University where he did a Masters in French Literature and was intending to be a French teacher. His first mentor was Diana Vreeland. He worked for Andy Warhol at the Factory and at his magazine Interview. He was Anna Wintour’s righthand person through her rise to the top job at Vogue and beyond. And this is his attempt to make sure that his achievements are seen in their own right and his work and not as part of Anna Wintour’s.

It’s fascinating. He’s got all the stories about all the people. If you’ve read about fashion – or about the Studio 54 crowd – it’s all here. Dancing with Diana Ross. Weekend’s at Karl Lagerfelds. European princesses. There’s a best dressed list (male and female) at the back. I didn’t always love his writing style – but I did love the content. It’s a mind-blowing peek at the excesses of the world of high fashion and at the world of Vogue at a time when money was rolling in and anything went. And he’s very keen to set you straight about what the Devil Wears Prada got wrong. If you’ve read Tina Brown’s Vanity Fair Diaries (which I did a couple of years back) there is some neat crossover here. If you’re a serious fashion fan, I don’t know how much it will tell you that you don’t know – except what Talley’s view on everything is and how he wants to position himself. But it’s a lot of fun finding out.

You should be able to get hold of this fairly easily at your book store of choice. It’s a hardback at the moment and it only came out a couple of months back so I would expect it to be on one of the tables or in one of the displays fairly near the front rather than in hidden away in a specialist section. And it is also an audiobook (that he reads himself!) and on Kindle and Kobo.

Happy Reading

Book of the Week, non-fiction

Book of the Week: Hello World

I read a lot of stuff last week – ticked a few more states off my 50 States Challenge and read a bunch of romances (with some favourite authors and some new ones), but I do like to mix things up a bit with my Book of the Week picks, so this week I have some popular science for you.

The cover of Hello World

Hello World is an examination of what algorithms are and how they work for (and against) us. Dr Hannah Fry is a mathmatician who specialises in looking at patterns and how they affect human behaviour. She’s also a broadcaster, podcaster and public speaker and her experience in communicating complicated theories over those mediums really shows in this. Now unless you’ve been living under a rock you’ll know that algorithms are a thing. They dictate what you see in your social media feeds, what comes up in search results but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Hello World looks at the role of algorithms in data, healthcare, crime, art and more. If you’ve ever wondered how far off a fully autonomous car is, this will tell you and explain the challenges along the way – for the car and for the drivers. Could algorithms help with solving crime or predicting where crimes might happen. Do they have a role in sentencing or bail decisions fairer? How are they making decisions – and how do they say they’re making decisions?

As usually I’m a little bit behind the times – this came out in 2018 (and was nominated for some of the nonfiction writing prizes) so somethings have moved on a little from my copy (an advance copy for the hardback release that I got given by someone) but I found this absolutely fascinating – sometimes a little scary but also actually quite reassuring as well. I read a fair bit of non fiction but mostly history with occasional bits of science and medical non fiction and I find that books in this end of the spectrum are sometimes too technical or get too bogged down in the details but this absolutely does not do that. I don’t consider myself mathematically or scientifically minded, but this was clear and concise and easy to follow. And I think it’s a great book to read at the moment – we’re all trapped at home and more dependent on technology than ever before and this will give you an insight into some of that and although it might make you rethink some things it won’t but absolutely terrify you and make you want to disconnect everything!

You can get Hello World from all the usual sources. I’ve seen it on the popular science table in the chain bookstores and on the shelves at the supermarket. And of course it’s available in Kindle and Kobo and as an audiobook from your audiobook vendor of choice. And if you’ve read this and liked this and want more popular science, can I point you in the direction of Mary Roach and her books.

Happy Reading!