Posted in Issues, Reader Resolutions, Trends

It’s not hard to find a poet on Instagram, but where are the poetry readers?

It is a truth universally recognised that poetry is a hateful art form and that no one reads it. Ben Lerner, one of America’s most-accoladed contemporary poets, wrote a whole book called The Hatred of Poetry. Poetry is something we read huge amounts of as children (or, have read to us/we are made to recite/we are pushed to imitate) and none of as adults – it is at once both childish and pretentious. That being said, I’ve been trying to read more poetry lately. 

#instapoetry

Poetry has been long looked down upon as too easy, undefinable, not serious art but a purging of feelings.  (Not unlike the hatred of ‘modern art’ – “My kid could make that!”) Audre Lorde writes in ‘Poetry is Not a Luxury’ about poetry as a feminine art, based in feeling, and that ‘the poet’ is ‘the Black mother within each of us’, the antithesis of the ‘rational’ white man. The hatred of poetry by the gatekeepers of other art forms is based in sexism, racism, and classism, according to Lorde. This class aspect is explored in her essay ‘Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference’. Poetry is seen as ‘a less ‘rigorous’ or ‘serious’ art form’ because,

‘[o]f all the art forms, poetry is the most economical. It is the one which is most secret, which requires the least physical labour, the least material, and one which can be done between shifts, in the hospital pantry, on the subway, and on scraps of surplus paper… A room of one’s own may be a necessity for writing prose, but so are reams of paper, a typewriter, and plenty of time.’

We are wholly familiar with the hatred of other kinds of women’s things, especially girls’ things, anything which sees an audience in teenage girls is likely to be written off as unserious, not proper writing. We see it with YA fiction, Fanfiction – which several famous YA authors, such as Rainbow Rowell, have been writers of – and with the Romance genre. 

It would seem, perhaps, that these discriminations (against poetry/against the teenage girl) team up in the hatred of Instapoetry – Rupi Kaur, the most famous of all instapoets, certainly fits the bill as a young woman of colour for someone whom the ‘serious’ white male artists would deride. Critique has certainly turned to hatred in some critics’ mouths. I do however remember reading Milk and Honey shortly after it was published and being glad I’d borrowed it from the library and not bought it. As a poor eighteen-year-old student with a lot of required reading for university, every penny and every reading second was precious. So I put the book down without finishing it and returned it to the library. 

I find it hard to believe that reading sub-par writing is actively dangerous, my partner is more likely than me to get angry over the popularity of David Walliams’s kids books and instapoet Atticus’s poetry collections. (Though his accusing them of sexism and other bigotry is fair and deserved.) I always want to encourage reading in any form, especially for the very young and the very old. When my late Nan seemed to be losing some of her mental faculties, my parents encouraged her to read by buying her copies of Yours, a magazine aimed at old women about fairly ‘shallow’ or mundane subjects, because it was the only thing she’d happily read. According to the charity Age UK, ‘engaging in reading can reduce symptoms of memory decline, helping you to retain your short-term memory for longer.’ The mental benefits of reading are numerous, and just like physical exercise’s effects on the body, pushing your mental capacity can make your brain stronger, more elastic, and lengthen its life. 

Many seem to forget that Kaur’s writing, to date, is really just the YA version of poetry, and there’s more and better YA poetry out there. Poetry aimed a children isn’t looked down upon in this way, and nor should poetry aimed at teenagers. The reason Sarah Crossan and Dean Atta don’t really get the same negativity for writing verse aimed at teenagers, though, seems to be because Instapoets have come up through social media, not the traditional paths. They’re coming up under the scrutiny of the media – they’re new, rare and strange.  

But coming up through Instagram does have some bearing on the quality of instapoets’ writing. Instapoetry is a populist art form: whatever gets the most likes is what gets published and makes money. And as anyone who’s tried to gain popularity on a social media platform knows, relatability is king. That’s why the tags #poem, #poetry and #instapoetry are filled mostly with dull, single-sentence platitudes about unrequited love. It’s all very ‘deep’ and all very for fourteen-year-olds. I can’t say I wasn’t sharing something similar on Tumblr at the same age. But if you want to be a popular instapoet who gets a publishing deal – your writing needs to be relatable and shareable. It needs to be universal and exceptionally ‘easy to understand’.

Kaur has admitted that: “I’ve always loved English class and I love reading books, but, the truth is I never even understood the poetry we were given at school.” A big part of her craft, therefore, is making her poetry as easy to understand as possible: “I don’t want someone to read my poetry and think: what does that mean? So every time I’m writing, I’m thinking: OK, what word can I take out? How do I make this more direct? What’s too technical?” This is a frankly worrying position to take on writing. By no means does poetry need to be impenetrable to be worthwhile, and, yes, Orwell gives advice very similar to ‘what word can I take out?’ in his rules for writing. (‘If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.’) But there is a difference between making your writing finely crafted, without excess and pompousness, and making sure it’s an easily digestible slurry. One of the most wonderful things about reading, especially reading poetry, is freedom of interpretation. That you could read the same poem or novel or short story a hundred times and still get something new out of it on the one-hundred-and-first read. The message I would give to young readers, if I had Kaur’s platform and reach, would be: ‘Don’t worry if you don’t understand! Let the words wash over you! Underline the parts you like and keep moving! You can come back to the words that seem difficult, look them up if you like or don’t – there is no ‘right’ way to read! Enjoy yourself and follow your nose!’

Instapoetry can certainly be thanked for a rise in sales of poetry. Kaur alone was responsible for the huge rise in poetry sales in the UK in 2016/17. Huge bestsellers like Milk and Honey are often great at reminding people who wouldn’t normally read to, well, read! Which can certainly spiral into a general love of reading – I returned to reading because of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight, the attacked teenage-girl book of my generation. The more I read back then, especially when I started to read more feminist writing, the more I would eventually distance myself from vampire books and YA. Some would see this as progress, but there’s no ‘wrong’ genres, and my period of snobbery is thankfully over. I’ve come back to YA in recent years and found a lot of wonderful prose and poetry. Some of the most experimental and forward-thinking writing is being done in YA right now.

#whereareallthepoetryreadersthen?

I’ve been running a #bookstagram for a year and a half, albeit not especially successfully. I’ve shared a lot of pictures of book covers and spent a good amount of time surfing the #bookstagram family of tags. I’ve tried to make pictures of books look pretty with little to no decent backdrops – my home is a small, dirty hole carved into Norwich – and I’ve tried to get a following that might want to read my blogs about reading and my book reviews. I’ve made experiments into cosy content and found it all a bit gross. A bit sell-your-soul to create very pretty but very shallow content. My cosy writing somehow still came out political (thank god) and all my pictures look a bit naff. But I really enjoy sharing what I read with the world, and the bookish internet, with Goodreads and Instagram dominating, is really the only way to do that, however awful both sites are. 

I’ve made a conscious decision to read more poetry this year; I’ve dipped into Carol Ann Duffy, Charlyne Yi, Wendy Cope, Mary Jean Chan, Langston Hughes, Morgan Parker, and Grace Nichols. I’ve had a good time with poetry! But because I’ve been sharing what I read on Instagram, I’ve been  forced to inspect Instagram’s poetry world. If you don’t know how Instagram works and why I’m getting so worked up about ‘tags’, hashtags are key to making sure you don’t just send a pretty picture into Instagram’s void, unseen. Tags help other people find the posts they’re after. I’ve been trying to find the right tags so people with similar tastes might find me. But the poetry tags contain nothing but people sharing their own poetry or inspirational “quotes”. 

Because of #instapoetry, unlike what would be its sister tags #fiction, #nonfiction and #YA, the tags for #poetry are not filled with people sharing what they’re reading, but what they’re writing. You just can’t force Instagram to show you a cute picture of Sylvia Plath’s Ariel sitting on the immaculate bedside table of a rich teenager. 

If you’re looking for fellow horror book fans on Instagram, you need to search #horrorbooks and not #horror, similarly with #scifibooks, because horror and sci-fi are being posted about in the context of films and art, video games and photography, too. You can make Instagram show you stacks of Stephen King, with #horrorbooks but you can’t make it show you a book of poetry with #poetrybooks – not even a Rupi Kaur collection! I came up with what I thought would be the killer tag, #poetrycollection, because #poetrybook and #bookofpoetry were duds, and it still didn’t work! Admittedly there were maybe five pictures of physical poetry collections in this tag, but it was nothing compared to just #horror without the added ‘books’!

So – no one is reading poetry on Instagram?

I mean, certainly not no one at all. Certainly. In fact the case may be that any books of poetry being shared as #currentlyreading are probably being drowned out by platitudes and inspirational quotes. But in comparison with the amount that’s being written and shared on there? No one is reading published poetry on Instagram. And no that’s not going to kill off poetry, and no it’s not destroying children’s brains, and no I’m not asking anyone to stop writing. But where is this new market for poetry? Outside of people buying the handful of instapoet books in enormous numbers? I understand the charge of snobbery against a lot of people who critique the poets who came up through social media, I do, but I see poems being posted by people who simply do not read poetry. A writer that does not read their own form is not worth a lot.

It reminds me of Stephen King’s advice to new and aspiring writers – to read. ‘The real importance of reading’, says King in On Writing, ‘is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing… It also offers you a constantly growing knowledge of what has been done and what hasn’t, what is trite and what is fresh, what works and what just lies there dying (or dead) on the page.’ Anyone who’s read the writing of someone who doesn’t read will know what he’s talking about here . You can see words dead on the page (see: iPhone screen) across Instagram #poetry.

It’s true and it’s not snobbishness to suggest that you should at least be familiar with the genre, the form you’re trying to publish and make money in. Why on earth should anyone read your poetry if you don’t read anyone else’s? Should we all be writers who simply spray our thoughts onto digital squares and then run away? 

The desire to be seen as a writer or poet can be powerful. In The Hatred of Poetry, Lerner talks about editing a poetry magazine and reading work from people ‘who had clearly never read our publication but whose cover letters expressed a remarkable desperation to have their poems printed anywhere.’ Their desperation is so strong that ‘it is as though the actual poem and publication do not matter’, only the title of ‘published poet’, so powerful that ‘poetry makes you famous without an audience.’ Even through the traditional routes to get published, for some the label ‘poet’ is more important than anything else – a desire I see an enormous yearning for by some poets on Instagram.

Lerner is talking about people finding a way to call themselves a ‘poet’, with no regard as to whether anyone will actually read it, knowing in fact that poetry journals and magazines often have very few readers. But the inverse is largely what’s happening on Instagram, people are using ‘poetry’ as a means by which to obtain a following. The most common form of this ‘poetry’ is immensely popular and a great way to get likes and clicks. People love these one to two sentence platitudes about ‘finding strength’ – they’re so shareable and so relatable. Instagram users might find that their inspirational quote posts get a lot more than, say, the recipe posts they came to Instagram to share. Hastily put together poems might get more likes than their selfies. Many of these ‘poets’ are trying to ride a popular market towards clicks and likes. The algorithm might encourage them to do so! 

The more sinister version of this method of account growth is re-sharing anything blandly relatable, including #instapoetry content, building an enormous following and then selling the account. Or then finding advertisers who want to tap into your following. YouTube commentators have covered this type of content on Instagram, especially ‘relatable memes’, many times over. But the point is that blandness sells, populism sells, and that a social media website might be a rather unhelpful way to develop your craft as a writer.

But clearly my real problem with #instapoetry is… where are all my poetry readers? And what are you reading? Can I get a recommendation? I need you!

Posted in Issues, Reader Resolutions, Tips and Advice

A six-year journey towards reading diversely

#ReadWomen2014 

I’ve mentioned it here on the blog before that 2012 was the year I first made a list of all the books I read in a year. But it was 2014 that I actually analysed the data I’d been keeping. 2014 was the year of #ReadWomen2014, a campaign I heard about through the Guardian, which encouraged readers to, well, read more women. I was eighteen and hadn’t really thought about who I was reading – I was just trying to read a lot, catch up on classics, and be prepared for an English Literature degree. 

But I analysed my data, inspired by the Read Women campaign, and I found that in 2012, just over 75% of the books I read were written by men. For 2013, 80% of the books I read were written by men. I was definitely shocked to find out that, like the article and the campaign suggested, I was barely reading women. I was largely reading books by white men who were now dead. 

So in 2014 I made my first foray into reading diversely, even though I wasn’t yet thinking of it that way, and tried to read more women. I achieved a near 50-50 split, reading 14 books by women, and 16 by men. This conscious decision, motivated by a national campaign, would make a very big difference to my reading life.

Pushing the goal

It’s hard to say whether I would have naturally gravitated towards more women authors without the campaign. Though I read very few women in 2013, nearly all those books by women were about feminism. I went to university in 2014 and surrounded myself with the Pride Society as a queer person, and engaged with the Feminist Society, too, and went on my first ever march. Perhaps I would have started to bring this political consciousness to my reading life anyway? Maybe, but being aware of the campaign seemed to kick-start an important line of thinking for me.

In 2015 I made the personal goal to read more authors who weren’t white. And by ‘more’, I mean any at all. Across 2012 and 2013 I had read one author who wasn’t a white English or American person. The Colombian-American author, R.J. Palacio. 

In 2014, though, in my goal to read more women, I’d read books I’d always meant to read and that other people were furiously recommending. Classics like The Color Purple and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, as well as big buzzy books like Malala Yousafzai’s I am Malala, which had only just been published at the time. Because I had read a handful of black and brown women in 2014, when I compared this year with the data I had for 2012 and 2013, I noticed the glaringly obvious: I was reading a lot of white people. 

The numbers for 2015 show the impact of having the ‘reader resolution’ to pick up more books written by BAME authors. I read 35% BAME authors in 2015, compared with the 23% of 2014, and the 0% of 2013. Waking up to my lack of diversity in one area (gender) was creating a domino effect.

No one told me books could reflect my life…

So, I’d woken up, and realised that diversifying my reading life needed to be a conscious decision. Publishing, online lists of ‘classics’, the canon, bookshops, word of mouth – they were pushing me ever in the direction of these dead white men. 

But it was not just an obligation of ‘I ought to be reading more diversely’ that motivated me, it was the fact that when I read different kinds of authors… I was having a better time. I related to the experiences in books by women, books by other queer people, and to some of the experiences the authors of colour wrote about. I was also learning so much more, not just about Victorian London, but about 1930s Arkansas, 1990s New York City, modern day Pakistan. But I could actually see myself in books – the experience of having a disabled family member, of being attacked by other kids, of feeling stuck between two binaries in most spaces. The parts I didn’t relate to at all in these books, like experiencing racism, were infinitely more interesting than most parts of the books I read by dead white guys. 

Then came along a book that I related to more than pretty much anything I’d ever read before, Pig by Andrew Cowan. The main character was a working-class British teenager. The voices Cowan put in the mouths of his main character and their family… that’s how my family sounds. I’d never seen those voices written down before. I cried. No one told me books could reflect my life.

This book was a set text for my degree, and I came into the seminar for Pig ready to go, ready to discuss, excited. Everyone in my group, except me, hated the book, and the reason was blatant classism. They couldn’t relate to anyone in the book, and that’s all they could say. I had a moment of dissociation that would recur time and time again in my university career, the realisation that I was the only person in the room who was not at the very least part of the lower middle class. 

The inverse of this Pig seminar would happen with the seminar for Swimming Home by Deborah Levy. A novel mostly about, if memory serves, a middle class family on holiday abroad. Everyone loved it and I hated it. Not only was it not interesting or familiar to me, I came to realise that this was most of the British canon: a middle class family, doing almost nothing, and there’s tension. Wealthy white English people, silent apart from terse ‘polite’ conversation, and all the action is internal tension. That is a good chunk of the canon in this country. About three years later I would vow to never read a book with this plot again. 

The canon not being representative is of personal interest to me. The publishing world in England, where I have always lived, is dominated by the white middle and upper class. Mostly by Oxbridge graduates. Like all areas of British society, these elite institutions have a stranglehold on the country. As someone who’s never been on a foreign holiday like the one at the centre of Swimming Home, as a first generation student, as someone who would always see themselves in the maids in books like Jane Eyre and To the Lighthouse – I wanted to throw the whole damn canon away. 

I was initially idealistic about academia, literature and publishing. I thought I’d be welcomed in along with anyone else who loved books. The realisation that the canon and publishing were working against me changed all that. I could easily see, with my idealism shattered, that this was the same for other groups. That the canon, and publishing, were racist, too. It was systemic, and the classism I was interested in intersected with racism and couldn’t be untangled.

Setting goals, getting recommendations, moving ever forward

Yearly goals have been a big part of my reading life since 2012, when I first put a numerical goal on the books I read. Since 2014, I’ve been putting goals on the kinds of authors I read. And in recent years I’ve also been interested in pushing myself to read different genres and forms. It may sound chaotic, but it’s worked for me.

I set a hard numerical goal, and then set a few soft goals relating to author demographics, subject of texts, and genres/forms. This is because, personally, I want to read widely, in a way read ‘everything’, because it’s the advice that comes up again and again for new and aspiring writers. To read as much as possible and read everything. Also, because like that realisation I had six years ago, I enjoy it a lot more than trying to catch up on ‘classics’.

Some past goals have included: read more trans authors, read books by African authors, read a play this year, read more poetry, try a romance novel. Hard goals will work for some people, soft goals will work for others, joining a book club to be held accountable to your reading aims might be your thing.

The most important thing I’ve learnt, though, is that being conscious of a lack of diversity in one area can create a domino effect. If you’re a cinephile you might realise you hardly know any woman directors, if you’re massively into YouTube, why do you only watch white guys in their 20s? Being conscious of the huge swathes of the world you’re cutting off when you only consume media from one demographic will make you hungry for more and more perspectives. There’s endless groups, countries, perspectives you’ve probably never considered. 

Suggestions

For a hard goal, where you’ll feel held accountable, I recommend the Book Riot Read Harder challenge.

For lists of recommendations, I suggest simply googling phrases like ‘Best LGBT novels’ or ‘Black sci-fi books’. Book Riot creates good lists like these, but you can find them all over the internet.

The Reading Glasses podcast is a nice weekly podcast for all kinds of readers, and their suggestions, recommendations, and interviewees are continually committed to being anti-racist and diverse.

Posted in Reccomendations, Tips and Advice, Uncategorized

Embracing mundanity: James Kochalka, my lockdown saviour

Besides hanging out with the Duolingo Owl en Español, insisting on cooking all of my boyfriend and I’s meals for ‘something to do’, and rewatching season seven of RuPaul’s Drag Race (go Katya!), I’ve read four collections of James Kochalka’s American Elf comics in as many days. 

These addictive, roughly 365 page comics each represent a year of Kochalka’s life, one comic strip per day. Kochalka draws himself as a little elf, hence the title. They start with 1999 and end with 2012, encompassing life events from quitting his job at a restaurant and becoming a full-time artist, to having his first child (his wife Amy is pregnant in the year I’m up to, 2002), and beyond! (I still have ten left to go, give me a break! Actually, give me ten days…)

Amelf1999_03

The bulk of these comics are pure mundanity – they’re a diary after all, and a diary of a man who mostly works from home, hangs out with his cat and his wife, and goes to the occasional social gathering. Some days he really doens’t want to write in (see: draw and ink) his fucking diary! Some days he’s drunk when he draws it, sometimes he writes it by the light of his watch while away from home, and some strips merely portray the third, fourth, fifth time he’s asked his wife if he’s allowed to give up this challenge he’s set himself. Sore throats, homemade haircuts, discovering his cat Spandy likes having her face scritched with his drawing pencil… it’s lockdown candy for me.  

 

I’m reading James Kochalka’s American Elf right on the tail of Rae Earl’s My Madder Fatter Diary (the second installment of the real diaries of a fat teenager with undiagnosed OCD that inspired E4’s My Mad Fat Diary). I enjoyed Earl’s diary a lot, too, it’s similarly mundane and shot through with humour. Earl is a teenager in these diaries, so be warned: it’s more of a nostalgia trip, one a little too close to home for fat gals like me who also thought they needed to lose buckets of weight so their unrequited love would just notice them (shudder) – but its all worth it to find out what Rae Earl’s mum gets tattooed on her bum….

 

I simply must implore you all to start reading real people’s diaries. (Published diaries, that is, now is not the time to start feuds with the people you live with.) I’m heartbroken that I left my copy of Orwell’s diaries at my parents house. I got bored and stopped reading them when I hit his rather dry domestic/garden diary – what I wouldn’t give for updates on his green beans now! And how much he and his wife spent on butter and meat that week – lord grant me such a gift! 
Jokes aside, fantastic writers can make the mundane sparkle. James Kochalka has really hit the spot for me with American Elf. Drawing simple, arguably boring, moments in his life allows them to ascend in importance. He doesn’t try to give them any extra meaning or importance, but little moments feel more significant when drawn out into a comic strip. (‘I don’t call them “comic strips” anymore. I call them my little strippers.’) It’s the nice, slow perspective I need on life right now. It encourages a similar approach, finding one little moment in the day to put in your diary – (in mine, yesterday, ‘saw three women walk past together drinking rosé out of a bottle and eating fistfuls of raspberries straight from the shop – enjoy the virus you fucking idiots!’) – or just enjoying the little things a little bit more than usual.

92920359_1001964846889813_3874072282087292928_n

Happy lockdown reading, stay safe!

Posted in Issues, Reccomendations, Tips and Advice

Unsettling Reads for Unprecedented Times: Lockdown Reads #1

As measures to control the spread of coronavirus were starting to ramp up in the UK, I managed to get my hands on twenty-three library books and six new books in anticipation that I might be stuck inside the house for some time. And I’m really glad I did! While I certainly haven’t been reading as quickly as usual – something about this new pace of life, mixed with anxiety, has made us all a little lethargic and slow – reading has taken on an even greater significance in my day. I don’t have a job that I can work from home, and so reading is the main thing I have to do right now, other than cooking and peering out the front window. I think people are feeling the need for escapism in books more than usual. 

 

I’ve found that this doesn’t necessarily mean cheery reads, funny reads or fantastical reads – those we often think of as ‘escapism’ from the daily grind. Any kind of book works – anything that takes you out of the present and out of worry.

 

So far, I’ve been reading unsettling novels. Novels about big, government-mandated and scary changes. Something about Agustina Bazterrica’s Tender is the Flesh and Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police called out to me on my two final trips to the bookshop I work at. And god knows why – they seem like they would be the worst possible choices. But these literary dystopias were incredible.

 

Tender is the Flesh, Agustina Bazterrica trans. Sarah Moses

tender is the flesh

In this short Argentine novel, a ‘virus’ infects all the animals on the planet apart from humans (or so the government says) and cannibalism is legalised. Our protagonist refers to the period this change was made as the ‘Transition’, which he and his contemporaries remember well, but younger people do not – ‘special meat’ is a natural part of their lives. This bizzare, gruesome novel will certainly grab the attention of anyone struggling to focus on anything but the news and give you something entirely different to worry about. This story can also be read as an allegory for the current meat and dairy industry – any vegans or vegetarians who enjoy a dystopia are sure to love this one.

 

The Memory Police, Yoko Ogawa trans. Stephen Snyder

yoko ogawa
This Japanese novel is set on an island where things periodically ‘disappear’ – the inhabitants of the island wake up and something has gone. Take ribbon, for example. When it disappears, everyone burns all the ribbon they have, and they forget what ribbon even is. But some people remember, their memories untainted by the disappearances, and these are the people hunted down by the Memory Police. This novel is truly unsettling and strange, not gripping in the conventional sense like Tender is the Flesh’s scenes of horror, but atmospheric and dreamlike. People go into hiding and the situations become more and more extreme – a novel about deprivation, culture, and control. Truly brilliant.

 

Stay safe, stay home, and happy reading!

Posted in Reccomendations, reviews

Non-Traditional Books for Grief

Welcome back to Bread and Butter Books. My first post of 2020 has been a long time coming, and I never managed to give the final update on our 2019 reading challenge – but long story short: I won by quite a decent margin. We all learnt a lot from keeping books and reading at the forefront of our minds in 2019, and it helped motivate a lot of good reads.

 

Part of the delay in posting this year has been due to a death in my family, off a bold, brilliant and much-loved woman. I thought the best way to acknowledge my break in posting would be to talk about the books that have helped me deal with worry and grief in the last few months. That have made me see death in a brand new light.

 

These are not traditional grief self-help books, though I am sure they are marvelously helpful for many. I’m not a self-help book kind of person, I’ve read a couple here and there and frankly, I just don’t like being told what to do. I also didn’t set out to look for books to help me because I was struggling – I wasn’t struggling anymore than I felt was natural and right. I picked up this first book about death just because I was curious, and through osmosis (and the Reading Glasses podcast) I had some name recognition for its author: Caitlin Doughty.

 

It was suggested at some point on Maximum Fun’s Reading Glasses podcast to read about the things you’re doing/going through. If you’re going to Spain, read some Spanish books. If you’re online dating for the first time, read some books about it. We knew this family member was nearing the end of her life, and I was drawn to this book about death. It is a surprisingly light-hearted, funny, and incredibly educational read: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

 

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is a memoir of Doughty’s time working in a crematorium at the beginning of her career in the death industry. Mortician Doughty now runs her own funeral home. All her work is concerned with her search for ‘the good death’, her writing, travels, talks, and caring for the dead and their loved ones. 

 

Doughty’s goal throughout her books (Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, From Here to Eternity, and Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?) is to break the taboos surrounding death, dead bodies, and death rituals/practices. In Smoke she reveals what goes on, the mundane day-to-day of working for a funeral home in the US – what starts as an incredibly strange experience (preparing and cremating human remains) and becomes just ‘part of the job’. Her great compassion for the loved ones of the deceased and the deceased’s body motivates her to make death and the death industry less frightening. 

 

Her writing absolutely achieves what it sets out to do, and has even had quite the effect on the death industry. Her Youtube series Ask A Mortician, and her talks across the globe, inspired her most recent book Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? In this title, Doughty answers the best questions asked of her by children – kids who have little fear in asking what we’re all really thinking, ‘Can We Give Grandma a Viking Funeral?’ In answering questions like this, and travelling across the world in search of unique death practices in From Here to Eternity, she also gives good information on the death practices of the past and of other countries/cultures. Learning about the diverse ways humans deal with death opens up new ways for us to deal with grief, to think about our own deaths, as well as demystifying cultures we might have previously been prejudiced against.

 

I would recommend all of Doughty’s books to anyone for any stage of life, they are incredibly interesting regardless of whether you are currently grieving or having to confront your own mortality. 

 

For memoir-lovers, star with Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. For younger readers, start with Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? and lovers of travel and history should opt for From Here to Eternity first.

 

Happy reading!

Posted in Reccomendations, reviews, Uncategorized

5 Best Nonfiction Titles of 2019 (To get in paperback in 2020)

Most of the new releases I read in 2019 were non-fiction, so for my second and final round-up of the year, here’s my favourite of 2019’s non-fiction! Most, if not all, of these will be out in paperback in the new year – add them to your list and thank me later.

 

The Five by Hallie Rubenhold

History/Biography, Paperback 30/01/20

the-five-300x482

Hallie Rubhold set out to tell the stories of the five ‘canonical’ victims of Jack the Ripper in The Five, and boy was it more than I bargained for. I’ve already written a review of this one, originally posted on Waterstones.com, because I was lucky enough to receive an advanced copy at work.

Rubenhold’s prose is a joy to read, filled with righteous anger and a deep sense of purpose. I was propelled through its four hundred, revealing pages. The Five is a gripping, enclyclopedic account of what life was like for working-class, Victorian women. What misery it held and how you might end up in the position four of these victims did: homeless, sleeping on the street, suffering from addiction, and robbed of their life in the dark of night.

 

Unfollow by Megan Phelps-Roper

Memoir, (no paperback release date yet)

unfollow

For fans of Tara Westover’s Educated (2018), here’s the big ‘I escaped a fanatical, dangerous religion’ memoir of 2019. 

You recognise the surname Phelps – yes, Megan Phelps-Roper is the granddaughter of Westboro baptist church founder Fred Phelps. In her incredible memoir, she tells the story of how Westboro came to be, how those infamous picket signs (‘GOD HATES FAGS’, ‘THANK GOD FOR DEAD SOLDIERS’) were created and what they meant for the people holding them. Unfollow is this unforgettable story of belief, hate, and how to save people from cults and cult-like beliefs. Incredibly, for Phelps-Roper, this was through Twitter. Namely, through continual discussion with people who disagreed with her, the same people who became her friends and support system when she became disillusioned and left the church. 

A fuller review I wrote of this memoir-of-the-year can be found here

 

Superior by Angela Saini

Science, Paperback 30/05/20

Superior-607db85

Similar in title to her 2017 release Inferior, where Saini debunked the ‘science’ of female inferiority, Superior debunks race ‘science’ that claims race is a scientific, genetic reality and that some races are superior to others. Think eugenics, Mengele and Nazi science, but also all that predated and led up to the horrors of the Holocaust – and the rise of race ‘science’ again in the 21st Century.

Superior is wonderful, accessible science writing that leaves no stone unturned in its quest to debunk what Renni Eddo-Lodge refer’s to as ‘racism’s core lie’. Saini writes in such a way that it’s hard not start telling those around you facts from the book, or a myth Saini has just busted for you, or how tests like 23andMe really work. (Spoiler: telling you where other people you’re distantly related to, who’ve also taken the test and sold their DNA data, currently live.)

 

The Lady from the Black Lagoon by Mallory O’Meara

Biography, Paperback 05/03/20

lady from the

Mallory O’Meara is the co-host of my all-time favourite podcast Reading Glasses, which I’ve mentioned several times on this blog. I picked up the book to support O’Meara, although with trepidation, worried I wouldn’t like a book all about horror films. I was won over instantly.

The Lady from the Black Lagoon is the biography of Milicent Patrick, the woman who designed the monster for the film Creature from the Black Lagoon. Patrick was a victim of Hollywood sexism, fired out of jealousy by her male superior when she became the face of the film on publicity tours. Strikingly beautiful, Milicent Patrick and the monster costume were given a Beauty and the Beast style narrative together – ‘the beauty who created the beast’. Before O’Meara’s book, little was known about Patrick: she was part of the design team (male fans disputed this, despite hard evidence) and she was fired, falling into obscurity. Mallory uncovers Milicent’s story while telling her own – a female horror film producer on a quest to uncover a story many men didn’t want her to uncover.

Like The Five, O’Meara’s white hot passion and sense of purpose propel the book. These are two big feminist books that need to be on your list.

 

Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? By Caitlin Doughty

Science, (no paperback release date yet)

will my cat eat

Caitlin Doughty’s Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (2014) was one of the best books I read this year, and I wasn’t sure I’d get around to her brand new book, Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? before the end of the year. I bought a copy just five days before the end of the year and devoured it in just a couple of sittings. Absolutely entranced by Doughty’s writing and Dianné Ruz’s illustrations.

Will My Cat..? answers all the colourful questions ‘Tiny Mortals’ (children) have asked Doughty over the years as a mortician. She has given taboo-busting talks around the world on the death and death rituals. Doughty selected questions from children that adults might be too afraid to ask, ‘Can we give grandma a viking funeral?’ and ‘What does death smell like?’. She answers with humour, sincerity, and a radical acceptance of death. 

Doughty’s approach to everyone’s biggest fear is liberating, even life-changing. The illustrations and accessibility of this book make it appropriate for children and adults. This is essential reading for curious minds.

Posted in 100 Books Challenge, Reader Resolutions, Tips and Advice

One Hundred Books: Pie Charts, Advice and 2020 Goals

I recently hit my goal of reading 100 books in a year.

This is a feat I’ve wanted to achieve since I made my first ever reading goal in 2012 to read thirty books.

Shortly after I’d set that goal I googled around, asking the internet ‘What’s a normal amount of books to read?’ I found out that India reads the most out of any country, the typical American reads four books a year, and I found a forum full of avid readers boasting 100+ books a year. I honestly didn’t believe it was possible. What once seemed completely mad has become my reading reality, this year.

Where did I get all those books from?

As you can see from the chart below, I borrowed the vast majority of the books I read this year from the library, a whopping 57%. I absolute practice what I preach when it comes to library use. Thirty percent I either already owned or bought. Eight percent were ARCs (Advanced Reader Copies) of books I got from my new(ish) job as a bookseller. And, 5% were borrowed from friends, and by friends I mean my boyfriend, Kieran.

Where did I get my 100 books from_

Well, what kind of books were they?

I recorded two bits of data for this question, the ‘form’ of the book (Fiction, Non-Fiction, Comics, Poetry, etc.) as well as Genre.

Form

I must say this chart surprised me, I honestly thought fiction and non-fiction would be closer in number, but it seems I read more fiction this year than I thought. We can also see that throughout the year, I’ve read seventy-four standard black-words-on-white-page books and twenty-six comic books.

Genre

Here we have the genre breakdown, which predictably shows that I mostly read sci-fi, regular ole novels, and memoirs most of all. Then there’s a billion other genres I dabble with. I like to think this chart shows a healthy reading life, it demonstrates a reader who might give anything a go (see: self help).

The diversity data

Throughout the year I collected data on gender and race of the authors I read. When it came to gender I marked women as F, men as M, multi-gendered groups as G and non-binary people as NB.

Gender of Authors_Illustrators_Contributors_Editors
I read more women than I have in any other previous year, I usually manage to hit somewhere around an equal 50:50 on gender, but this year I did find myself focussing on reading women as much as I was able to. I put down books by men in favour of books written by women.

Author of Colour_

When it came to race it was a lot harder, I simply asked myself, is this an author of colour? The answers were Y (yes), N (no), O (multiracial group of contributors/unsure/unknown). This pie chart should be taken with a pinch of salt, as there were many factors that made me unsure and use the O option. The reality is probably around 25% non-white and 75% white. Looking back, I wish I’d also noted down country of origin. I definitely did worse this year at pushing myself to read works of fiction from countries outside my own and translated fiction. Except Nigerian writing, I read loads of Nigerian writing.

How did I do it?

People are always looking for tips on how to read more, and people ask me this in real life as well as online. Here’s the very honest answer:

  1. Don’t have any other hobbies. I mean at all, do not have another single hobby, unless you’re a lightning-speed reader. I’m a fairly quick reader. You’re allowed 40 minutes of TV a day, 1 film per month, a podcast a day, and please don’t ask me about exercise: I don’t know. Reading is all that you do now. If you don’t love being short sighted and living inside a fictional world: stop now!
  2. Pursue new books constantly. When you’ve finished that one, what are you going to read next? You need to know, and you need to be excited about it, because jesus christ a book hangover will slow you down for a week. You’ll mope around the book shop, the library, your partner’s bookshelves for days, thinking ‘I’ll never love a book as much as I loved that one.’ I always need to be excited for the next thing, or heartbreak ensues. A colleague of mine was genuinely worried about me after I finished a long fantasy novel this year – after my shift ended I browsed the bookshop I work in for a full hour in absolute despair. She told me to go home, have a think about it and come back the next day.
  3. Put down shit books immediately. They’re probably not shit, they’re just not for you, right? Or they’re just not for right now. And yet you force yourself to finish it, dragging it out over weeks, months, slowly losing your love for reading anything. Making you feel like maybe you can’t actually read, you’re not doing it right, you’re stupid. Na! Drop kick the bastard back onto the shelf it came from. Who cares if you spent £8 on it? Borrow, like, all your books from the library for the next two months to make up for it. You’re fine.
  4. Upset everyone around you. Achieving something other people would ideally like to achieve pisses them off — and as such, two people were outwardly shitty to me about my reading this year. One actually upset me, and the other one made me laugh. Cos it was my Nan, and we’re very different people, and I love her a lot. But yeah, you’re also gonna piss people off because, as all the mugs and tote bags and badges you now own say, ‘I’D RATHER BE READING’, and that means being an anti-social, piece-of-shit friend, partner, and sibling. Good news for me: I was already grossly anti-social and no one was waiting for me down the pub anyway. Result!

My goals for next year:

It’s been hard thinking about what I want to do next year, whether the big one hundred is for a year or a lifetime. Reading this much has made me so much better at it, I can read for long periods of time now. I can get fully lost in fiction again. I can read much quicker than I could before. I know myself better as a reader, what I like and don’t like, how to push myself to try something new.

I also think it would be good to do less tracking next year, attempt less challenges and follow my gut. I do want to keep pushing myself, though, so here are a few goals.

  1. Keep up the pace. Maintain the habit of reading being the ‘main thing’ I do, and in turn read roughly one hundred books, somewhere between 80 and 110.
  2. Read more non-fiction about stuff I know nothing about, but am interested in. I’ve been meaning to read Simon Schama’s two volumes of The Story of the Jews for about two years or more now. More history is my main thing. I miss studying history – it might be intimidating, but lets read it!More Big Fat Books. When you’re focussed on a numerical reading goal, really long books seem like a waste of time. I own Ducks, Newburyport now, Infinite Jest lives on my boyfriend’s shelves, and we know there’s a whole host of fantasy and science fiction I’m avoiding because its a million-book series. I wanna practice some page-count stamina.
  3. More Big Fat Books. When you’re focussed on a numerical reading goal, really long books seem like a waste of time. I own Ducks, Newburyport now, Infinite Jest lives on my boyfriend’s shelves, and we know there’s a whole host of fantasy and science fiction I’m avoiding because its a million-book series. I wanna practice some page-count stamina.

Happy reading to you all!

The gang and I will soon be back with our final ever reading club and our final count on how much we all read this year.

Posted in Reccomendations, reviews

Review: The Five, Hallie Rubenhold

Rubenhold tells the stories of Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary Jane – Jack the Rippers ‘canonical’ victims –  in this unmissable piece of history writing.

These five women whose stories have never been told, four incorrectly identified as sex workers for over a century, despite the availability of birth, death, employment and workhouse records, eyewitness statements, and friend/family/colleague testimonies. There is no excuse but misogyny and classism for these stories to be told so late.

She reveals what really unites the Ripper’s victims: being working class women. Polly, Annie, Elizabeth and Catherine were all murdered in the street because they were forced to sleep on the street. The only actual sex worker of the bunch, Mary-Jane, was murdered in her bed. They were murdered as vulnerable, intoxicated women, perpetually down on their luck and sometimes homeless. 

Rubenhold’s writing is gripping, sympathetic, non-judgmental and filled with righteous anger. She provides an encyclopedic account of working-class Victorian life, especially the difficult fate of working-class women, and demonstrates the ways the middle-class male press discriminated against these women in their writing, deeming them ‘just prostitutes’. This misinformation, which has lasted into the history classrooms of today, is incorrect in so many ways – including the fact that the lives of sex workers are not worth less than those in other professions. An idea many still struggle with. 

The true story of these women is that: ‘The cards were stacked against them: Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary Jane from the day of their births. They began their lives in deficit. Not only were most of them born into working-class families, but they were born female. …Their worth was compromised before they had even attempted to prove it.’

Posted in 100 Books Challenge, Uncategorized

100 Book Challenge: November Book Club

 

We thought Adam would be Skyping in for this month’s book club, we called him up and he asked us for another forty minutes. He hung up and we waited. Forty minutes later, there was a knock at our back door! Adam drove over to surprise us with his presence. Adam’s been insanely busy of late with his PGCE, hence the lack of finished books in this month’s list, and we all pitched in to get some flash cards cut out for his Year 7 class, and then sat down to book club.

 

We’ve discovered over the year that monitoring and comparing what we’ve been reading, in pure numbers and lists, isn’t helpful for all of us. This month’s discussion had us picking one book each to share with the group, and then going straight back to rewatching old Gavin & Stacey episodes. A lovely evening was had by all.

 

Without further ado, the books we read this month:

 

Adam:

[no books finished in November]

Total Books: 43

 

James:

  1. The House in The Dark of the Woods, Laird Hunt.
  2. Mister Finch: Living in a Fairytale World, Paul Simon Finch.
  3. Sandman Vol 11: Endless Nights, Neil Gaiman.

Total Books: 35

The House in the Dark of the Woods was a wintery witchy read perfect for November, it is a strange story worth the pursuit. I was sad to finish the last Sandman story, but glad to have read The Dream Hunters already so that I ended on this volume telling one last tale of Dream and his Endless siblings.’

 

Kieran:

  1. Coyote Doggirl, Lisa Hanawalt
  2. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
  3. If All the World and Love Were Young, Stephen Sexton

Total Books: 30

‘This month I remembered how to read words on paper. In previous months I’ve mostly been reading the words that flash compulsively across my anxiety oblong (motorola moto g6), so this was reassuring. I want to emphasise the Stephen Sexton, recommended by my friend Jess because it’s poetry involving Mario, and I’m a video game boy. It’s actually largely about tragic loss, as it turns out, pushed through a Mario pipe. It’s unusual to see video games be treated seriously in a way that is convincing, even amongst video game fans – this was refreshing, the book was beautiful’.

Grace (Me!):

  1. Them: Adventures with Extremists, Jon Ronson
  2. The Hive, Charles Burns
  3. Carry On, Rainbow Rowell
  4. Deadendia: The Water’s Test, Hamish Steele
  5. The Pisces, Melissa Broder
  6. The Secret Life of the Owl, John Lewis-Stempel
  7. Nevertell, Katherine Orton
  8. Deadendia: The Broken Halo, Hamish Steele
  9. Gun Love, Jennifer Clement
  10. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematorium, Caitlin Doughty

Total Books: 99

‘Some of my favourite books I’ve read all year were in this months read list: Gun Love and Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

Gun Love is a novel I’d recommend to anyone – set in a trailer park in Florida where protagonist Pearl lives with her mother in their car. Pearl sleeps in the front seats, her mother in the back seats. The keep their food in the boot, Pearls books on the dashboard. Exploring gun violence, homelessness, girlhood, and alternative ways of living – the novel grips from its first sentences: ‘My mother was a cup of sugar. You could borrow her anytime.’

The non-fiction title I’d make everyone read is Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, a taboo-busting, funny, tender exploration of death and the death industry by radical mortician Caitlin Doughty. This book could honestly change your life,and at the very least provide you with a healthier outlook on death. Your death and your loved one’s eventual demise. It’s a true gem, worth all the hype it’s ever gotten.’

 

Happy Reading!