Need a book that comes in bitesized chunks? Try Reel History: The World According to the Movie by Alex von Tunzelmann, which is based on her long-running Reel History column in the Guardian. The basic idea is to compare the movie versions of history with the actual historical fact and the results are frequently hilarious. Movies are graded on entertainment and on history, because it’s perfectly possible for a film to be both entertaining and historically accurate, although it’s rare. That’s not to say that she expects films to be slaves to historical accuracy because she’s well aware that what is good history doesn’t always make good watching, but it’s a lovely way of finding out where the truth is behind the films and makes a great jumping off point if you want to disappear down an internet (or library) rabbit hole or two when you find out the truth.
Von Tunzelmann has a wicked sense of humour on her, without resorting to cheap shots very often. In fact there’s so much good stuff to giggle about in this that what started out as me reading bits out loud to Him Indoors turned into me reading the whole book out loud to him! This meant that the book took a lot longer to read than if I’d just been reading it myself, but made for a lovely shared experience as we chuckled together as the movies moved in time from prehistory until the nearly present. He’d seen a lot more of the movies mentioned than I have, but I still enjoyed the book even the films that I haven’t watched.
I don’t think we can expect many/any more columns – as von Tunzelmann has turned her hand to script writing (she wrote the recent film Churchill) and, as she told Dan Snow’s History Hit podcast, she doesn’t think it’s quite cricket to be on writing films and criticising them. I’m sad that there won’t be a sequel to this, because I enjoyed it a lot, but I’m off to enjoy the back catalogue on the Guardian website. I’m also off to take a look at her book Indian Summer, which is about the liberation of India in 1947, which is a subject I know woefully little about and would like to remedy with the 70th anniversary coming upon us next month.
Reel History is available in paperback from all the usual sources and was a bargain £3.49 on Kindle at time of writing and is also available on Kobo.
So, you may have noticed from yesterday’s WiB that I didn’t finish that many books last week. But that was not a problem when it came to picking a BotW, because one of the books that I did finish was Norman Ohler’s Blitzed.
Ohler’s thesis is that large amounts of drugs were consumed by Nazi troops as they steamrollered through Europe, that drugs were equally consumed by people on the homair front and that during the latter stages of the war (from around 1941 onwards) Hitler himself was dependent on hard drugs. Ohler backs up his assertions with primary source research using documents held in archives in Germany and in America and makes a persuasive case.
Now before I go any further, I need to say that although I have a history degree, I have, in the main, avoided study of Nazi Germany because I find it too unbearably terrible. Luckily my school stopped studying WW2 Germany at A-Level the year before I started sixth form* and at university I managed to avoid Twentieth Century history for all but one term** so I am no expert.
I found Ohler’s book incredibly readable and very well researched. It’s an appealing idea. The Nazis were off their heads on drugs. That’s why they did it. It’s comforting and reassuring – it was the drugs which made them do it – and means that you don’t have to worry about what you would have done in their place. I don’t think this is what Ohler is trying to say. In the case of Hitler he’s very specific that it doesn’t explain all of Hitler’s actions – just enabled him to maintain and continue his rule. As for the man on the street, or the soldier in a panzer regiment, the drugs enabled them to keep going for longer than otherwise. So I suppose what I’m saying is that this book shouldn’t be seen in isolation or viewed as the whole story. That would be far too simplistic. But it has new ideas and research I haven’t heard about before and is worth reading, if only so that you know what the historians are arguing about. Because they are going to argue about this.
Now 2017 is well underway, and I’ve told you about my obsessions, the state of the (enormous) pile, and my #ReadHarder ambitions, it seemed like a good time to finally work out what my favourite books published last year were. I know. Everyone else did this weeks ago, but I didn’t want anything really excellent that I might have read at the end of the year to get missed out. And yes, fractured elbow. It’s my excuse for everything.
Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld
“Fred!” the nurse said, though they had never met. “How are we today?” Reading the nurse’s name tag, Mr. Bennet replied with fake enthusiasm, “Bernard! We’re mourning the death of manners and the rise of overly familiar discourse. How are you?”
Considering how much I loved this book, I have said remarkably little about it on here. I recommended it in the Christmas gift post and back in the Summer Reads post, but it wasn’t a Book of the Week – because I was expecting to be reviewing it elsewhere. And I don’t think that adequately conveys how much I adored it. But Sittenfeld’s modern reworking of Pride and Prejudice is my favourite book of last year.
If the quote at the top makes you laugh or smile (even if it’s only inside because you’re too cool) then you need to read this book. I’ve read a lot of Austen retellings, reworkings, sequels and the like and this manages to strike a perfect (for me) balance of retelling the story but modernising it so that it feels relevant to today. Lizzie (nearly 40 rather than 20) and her sisters are trust fund babies in Cincinatti, but the money is running out, their father has medical problems and their mother has a shopping problem. Darcy is a surgeon, Bingley a reality TV star (don’t let that put you off) and Lydia and Kitty are obsessed with Crossfit. I want to read it again – but my copy is still out on loan. The paperback isn’t out until June, but you could pre-order from Amazon or Waterstones and have a lovely treat in the summer, the Kindle and Kobo versions are £5.99 at time of writing or you could go nuts and buy the hardback from Amazon, Foyles or Waterstones – Waterstones was cheapest when I was writing – doing it on click and collect for £7.50 which is a total bargain for a hardback. I don’t think you’ll regret it.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
As I said in my BotW post last month, this book is going to win all the prizes and will be on English Literature sylabuses in years to come. Cora’s story is incredibly tough to read – and it’s partly the contrast between the realism of the terrible things that are happening and the magical realism of making the Underground Railroad a real, actual railway with stations, and trains that makes this such an incredible read. And the writing is beautiful. As you all know, I don’t read a lot of “literary fiction” – and I don’t have a lot of success with books that have been nominated for awards, but I’m so glad I read it – and I’ve been singing its praises to my literary fiction-reading friends. Still only in hardback I’m afraid, but bizarrely the paperback comes out the same day as Eligible – even though this was released six months later than the Sittenfeld. Odd. Anyway. In hardback from Amazon, Foyles, Waterstones, on Kindle and Kobo or pre-order the paperback on Amazon or Waterstones.
The Barista’s Guide to Espionage by Dave Sinclair
Yes I know. You’re sick of my Fahrenheit obsession. Well tough. Their books made up nearly 20 percent of my 5 star books last year, so they were bound to figure here. Sorry, not sorry. Anyway, this story about Eva Destruction – James Bond and Stephanie Plum’s lovechild – was another BotW and I defy anyone not to enjoy Eva’s battle to try to stop her evil supervillain ex-boyfriend from taking over the world. It’s an action thriller film in book form but with a smart woman doing the saving not a suave bloke in a suit (he tries, but she’s better than him). Get it on Kindle or in paperback.
Death of a Nobody by Derek Farrell
From Eva Destruction to Poirot on Poppers, the second Danny Bird book is the second Fahrenheit book on this list. The first book (Death of a Diva) is funny, but this book feels like a series hitting its stride. It’s got a great, off-beat cast, zingy one-liners, lashings of sarcasm and an up-and-coming gastro pub with a rising body count and a gangster breathing down Danny’s neck. I’m recommending this to my friends who read cozy crime who want something that’s not cupcakes, bakeries or crafting. I can’t wait for book three. Get it on Kindle or in paperback. You can thank me later.
Grunt by Mary Roach
And this is why I’m glad I wrote this post so very late. This was the last book I finished in 2016 and it was one of the very best – definitely the best non-fiction book I read last year. It was BotW last week – so there’s no need for me to say anymore about it really because it’s less than a week since I raved about it at you. I think it’s going to be this year’s go-to pick for a non fiction book to give as a gift. Buy it (paperback!) from Amazon, Foyles and Waterstones or on Kindle.
Welcome to the first BotW post of the New Year, which is also the last Book of the Week from 2016. You know what I mean – I read it last week before the end of the old year, but the post gets to you in the New Year. Talking about last week and the old year, I hope you enjoyed my festive frenzy of posts. December stats is coming tomorrow (I thought better one post 3 days late, than three posts one day late each) now you’ve all had time to appreciate my New Years Reading Resolutions, and see my early failures in yesterday’s Week in Reading where I confess to a bit of a free book spree. Any how, back to the point.
This weeks BotW is Mary Roach’s Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, which is not about guns and weapons, but about the scientific and technological developments which have come about because of war and conflict. Topics include clothing regulations and design, shark repellent, submarine escapes and genital reconstruction. It’s absolutely fascinating. This is non-fiction writing at its best – informative and well researched, it wears it lightly and is incredibly readable. You learn a lot without realising it as Mary wends her way through military installations and research centres asking the questions that you wouldn’t dare to.
I’m not a science reader – if you’ve been here a while now, you’ll know that my non-fiction reading tends to be history, biography or a bit feministy. But I’ve been hearing about Mary Roach’s books for a while now – as they’ve been recommended on Book Riot’s Get Booked podcast as well as this getting a review on their All the Books podcast too – and I thought it might be a good way to widen my reading horizons slightly. Popular opinion seems to have Stiff as her best book – but I’m not big on death and so was wary of a book about dead bodies – so Grunt seemed like a better place for me to start. And if this is not Mary Roach’s best book, I can hardly imagine how good the others must be. I might even have to get over my squeamishness about cadavers and read Stiff.
Him Indoors got really fed up of me pausing the TV to read bits out loud to him and I’ve already got a queue forming for my copy. I bought my copy on my post-Christmas jolly to Foyles, but it’s also available on Kindle or from Amazon and Waterstones. You’re probably going to need a bookshop with a relatively large non-fiction selection (ie probably not a train station bookshop or a small WH Smiths) but it seems to be fairly orderable. It’s not terribly cheap anywhere I’m afraid, but it’s worth it.
This may well be a slightly shorter than usual BotW post – the dodgy elbow is making typing hurt and I’m not sure I’m at my finest. But I’m going to give it a go because this was hands down my favourite book that I finished last week and it deserves a big old mention here.
This a collection of the best bits of advice from the Dear Coquette blog which I happened upon felicitously at a time when I needed a pep talk and cheering up. It did a marvelous job of both – and there is now a waiting list to borrow my copy. I got told off by The Boy for reading too much of it out loud to him because “there’ll be nothing left for me to read myself”. A few selected quotes also went down a storm on Litsy and on Twitter.
Most of the advice in here is about relationships in their various forms – the book is split into sections – on things like love, family and dating. The Coquette is smart, witty, brutally honest and very, very frank. It’s like the advice you wish your friends would give you, but would be too afraid to hand out yourself in return. I don’t always agree with the Coquette’s world view, but it’s always well argued and thought provoking.
I’m not sure I’ll be lending my copy to my mum (not that she’s asked for it yet) but I can see myself giving this as a Christmas book to a few people who I think might appreciate The Coquette’s view of the world. My copy was a proof copy (which the Coquette said she was mortified it still existed on Twitter!), but you can get a shiny proper hardback copy now – get it from Amazon, Waterstones and Foyles or on Kindle or Kobo. The paperback is out in April.
Two non-fiction books in a row as BotWs? This is unprecedented I hear you say. Well yes, given that I read (on average) 1 non-fiction book a month, this is quite unusual. But both these books were very, very good and truly deserve their spots as my Books of the Week.
Phoebe Robinson is an actress and comedian, and one half of the Two Dope Girls podcast (the other half is former Daily Show star Jessica Williams) – which I need to add to my ever growing list of podcast subscriptions. Her book of essays, You Can’t Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain takes a look at the daily life of a young black woman in America today. As a stand-up comedian she’s used to finding the funny side of things and looking for humour in situations, and she is very, very good at that – so good in fact that at times I found myself sitting back and thinking “hang on, she’s being funny, but this is seriously bad”.
This book deals with serious and sensitive issues – stereotypes, bigotry, coded language and more – and it does it directly, apologetically but with such an engaging voice that you never feel like you’re being shouted at or lectured. Robinson writes at length about the “Angry Black Woman” trope – and the difficulties that it creates in her life, in trying to get her voice and her opinions heard and valued, but she also discusses – at some length – her ranking of U2 in the order she’d like to sleep with them and how a female president would change the world.
I’ve thought long and hard about how to describe this book and its effect on me. I finished it a week ago and I’m still digesting it. This whole book is measured, articulate, affecting and thought provoking. And on top of all that, its so, so funny. It should be compulsory reading – particularly at a time when the world seems so divided and divisive.
My copy came via NetGalley, but you can get one from Amazon, Waterstones (who have it mislabelled as by Jessica Williams who wrote the foreword) and Foyles (mislabelled again) and on Kindle and Kobo. You can even have Phoebe herself reading it on Audible. And I suspect it may even make it in to the non fiction sections at some of the bigger WH Smiths and supermarkets. It certainly deserves to.
I know, I know, I know. This is a day late. I have excuses – relating to post nightshift haze and then a few days away and only remembering I hadn’t written this post at 11pm after a couple of cocktails. And as drunk blogging doesn’t end well, I thought it could wait til the cool light of day and rational thought, especially as this week’s pick is Important to me.
So this week’s BotW is Wonder Women: 25 Innovators, Inventors and Trailblazers who changed history. Written by Sam Maggs, this is a series of potted biographies of women who you may not have heard of, but who have played an important role in various areas of Science, Technology, Engineering, Espionage and Adventure – aka areas that tend to be seen as traditionally masculine. There are 25 featured women – but at least the same again get bite-sized mentions too. I’m a history graduate (admittedly specialising in British and European history) and there were a lot of names here that I had never come across before – and many fascinating stories.
I’m definitely not the target market for this – which is written (I think) very much with tweens/early teens in mind – and some of the language started to annoy me a little, but that’s because it’s written in a vernacular that is not really mine, although I do think that the choice of language will appeal to the intended audience. It’s got lovely illustrations for the 25 women, which is a nice touch. My copy was an e-galley for my kindle e-reader so I don’t think I got the full effect, but from what I’ve seen the actual book itself looks attractive and appealing.
This would make a good book for an upper-primary school/middle school age girl and would also be a great addition to school libraries for that sort of age of child. I’ve said there that it would be a good book for a girl – because I think young girls need reminding that they can have adventures too, and be brave and daring and that careers in things like science and tech aren’t just for boys. But boys need reminding that too – and that there have been women through history doing important things, often against the odds and against societal expectations. I saw this video last week, and it may have been the nightshifts, but it got me all emotional. And it’s an important message for children to get – girls can be anything, do anything – nothing is a man’s job – or a woman’s job.
Anyway, lecture over. As I said, my copy was an e-galley via NetGalley, but this is out now and you can get it from Amazon, Waterstones and Foyles as well as on Kindle and Kobo – although I think it would look best in the hardback actual book.