“Bleaker House” by Nell Stevens (2017)

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“This is a landscape an art-therapy patient might paint to represent depression: grey sky and a sweep of featureless peat rising out of the sea.”

I seem to have an unfortunate attraction to books about loneliness. They have in the past caused my own feelings to become exacerbated, but occasionally they do the opposite and make me feel less alone. Bleaker House is definitely one that falls into the latter category.

This book – which I first picked up thinking it was fiction – follows Nell Stevens to the Falkland Islands in her quest to become a writer. Convinced that if she spends six weeks on the remote Bleaker Island (human population: two), she will have enough time and freedom from distractions to pen the novel she’s been meaning to write forever and finally become a writer. The twenty-something sets off, packing up rations for the duration and is convinced that this is the answer to her problems.

However, once there, she realises just how remote the islands are. With nothing but some penguins, sea lions and a potato for company, she begins writing. But more than that. She begins to learn who she is when no one is around. She analyses her past and explores her mistakes. And, most importantly, she learns that plans don’t always work out the way you expect them to.

The narrative is haphazard, but in the way that one’s thoughts do skitter about with snooker balls in a hurricane when you’ve no distractions or company, and it adds to the mania that pervades the premise of Nell’s situation. Chapters alternate between talking about her experiences on the Falkland Islands (particularly Bleaker, but also visiting briefly the capital Stanley), her times back in London and Boston, and her own fiction, either excerpts from the novel-in-progress or previous short stories. I saw one reviewer complain that the book seemed only to serve as a vehicle for Nell to publish stories that had otherwise been rejected, but I disagree. The stories are great, and a vital part of the narrative. After all, it would be almost cheating to send a writer all the way out to the edge of civilisation and then not see their work.

Nell is a comforting, compelling narrator who has by all accounts lived an interesting life. Before her journey, she travelled and tried to be a good person, taking up positions teaching in war-torn nations or helping – as best she was able – a boyfriend with depression. She does, however, have a knack of always being right in the middle of some of the most dramatic moments in the last ten years, including the Boston Marathon bombing, the London riots of 2011, and the shelling of Beirut by Israeli forces. It’s frankly a wonder she’s as balanced as she seems – and for a writer that’s not bad going, as none of us are that balanced – or perhaps it was all the horror she got caught up in that caused her to vanish to the remote wilderness.

As I said at the top, some books about loneliness make me feel lonely. This one did not. It was curiously comforting, honest and beautiful. Frank Turner sings in his song “Be More Kind”, “When you go out searching don’t decide what you will find” and that feels apt here. No matter how excellent your plans seem, there is never a guarantee that they’ll come to fruition. Or, at least, maybe not in the way you expect.

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“Grinding It Out” by Ray Kroc (1977)

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“I have always believed that each man makes his own happiness and is responsible for his own problems.”

Ray Kroc’s name is perhaps not one that comes immediately to mind when you’re thinking about the most influential people in history, but there’s no denying he belongs in the list. He may not have discovered gravity, or come up with the theory of evolution, or invented the aeroplane, but he changed the face of the planet in such a way that there is no doubt at all that you’ve come up against his business at some point in your life. That’s because Ray Kroc is the man who made McDonalds.

Born in 1902, it wasn’t until Kroc was in his fifties that he moved into the fast food industry. Having heard rumours of a Californian restaurant run by two brothers, Mac and Dick McDonald, he jetted out to visit them and was so impressed by what he saw, he convinced them to let him begin opening franchises across the country, with the first one opening in Illinois in 1954. It was, almost immediately, a success. This book, written in 1977 and thus only really detailing the first twenty-five years of the business, is Kroc’s own story of how it happened.

Penned as something of a cross between an autobiography and a business manual, Grinding It Out explores the tenacity of Ray Kroc and his insistence on doing things right, not skimping on quality, and the sheer enthusiasm and passion he shows for whatever he may be working on. He was at times a pianist, a door-to-door salesman and even joined up to help in World War One, finding himself in the same company as a quiet cartoonist called Walt Disney, no less. He eventually began selling paper cups, and later milkshake machines, and it turned out he had a natural flair for salesmanship and business. Seeing McDonalds as something that could become enormous, he made a deal with the brothers and set about turning it into the behemoth that we know (and many of us love) today.

Being an autobiography, Kroc surely skips over some of his less pleasant traits, although it’s clear even from his own narration that he’s rather arrogant, pig-headed, and while he’s not always against admitting he’s made a mistake, he would rather everyone just did as he told them. He was married three times, but with the first two he ensures his ex-wife is left with a large alimony that can keep her comfortable for the rest of her life. Towards the end of the book, the company begins doing a lot for charity, in particular setting up Ronald McDonald House, and he’s not backwards in coming forwards and telling you about what a gracious, generous soul he is. Nonetheless, for all the faults he seems to have and hide, he’s a thoroughly engaging narrator. It is said that “even his enemies agree there are three things Ray Kroc does damned well: sell hamburgers, make money, and tell stories.” It’s true in spades. He’s in turn funny, charming and while you know he’d probably be a nightmare to meet, he certainly knows how to keep your attention.

Given that the book was written in 1977 and Kroc died of heart failure in 1984 (although it is said he worked right up until the end), this is only the beginning of the McDonalds story, and therefore the last forty years are entirely absent. This means that while we learn about how the kitchens were set up and see the introduction of the Big Mac and Ronald McDonald, there are no mentions of McNuggets, Happy Meals, or salads. Nonetheless, we do get to learn about how exactly the Filet-O-Fish came into being, why the Hulaburger failed, and where the Shamrock Shake had its genesis.

Love McDonalds and Kroc’s work or hate it, you cannot deny that he was certainly influential, and it’s fascinating to learn more about the man behind the company.

Pass the McNuggets.

“How Not To Be A Boy” by Robert Webb (2017)

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“If I get this right, Tess Rampling will definitely want to have sex with me.”

Over the last few years I’ve read a number of books with a “how to” premise. In theory, I now know how to find love in a bookshop, how to talk to girls at parties, and how to stop time. Before beginning this blog I even read a book called How To Bag a Jabberwock, just in case one ever reared its head across the hills of southern England. But now it’s time to turn the concept on it’s head. It’s time to learn how not to be a boy.

Robert Webb is, in my humble opinion, one of the funniest men working in television today. Peep Show is incredible, and whenever he pops up on a panel show – which is much less often than his comedy sidekick David Mitchell – it’s always a delight. His life, however, was not always so cheerful. Webb struggled from a young age with society’s expectations. Boys weren’t supposed to cry, or talk about their emotions. Men were meant to like football and beer, and not take themselves too seriously. Therapy was for girls, boys were meant to be brave, and it certainly wasn’t OK to fall in love with other boys. Before he was even eighteen, he had to deal with an abusive father, the death of his mother, and people who expected him to be something he didn’t want to be.

In his memoirs, he explores his life through the lens of gender stereotypes and explains how toxic the culture of masculinity is. There’s a reason that so many men kill themselves, and maybe having hundreds of relationship books published that treat men and women as two different species hasn’t really helped humanity. As Webb grows and explores both his internal and external worlds, he discovers love, hope, tragedy, comedy, loss, battles he never asked to be involved in, and William Wordsworth. Determined and precocious from a young age, he decides that if he has any hope of being happy, he needs to be famous and that involves getting into the Cambridge Footlights.

The topics of gender, sexuality and the stereotypes surrounding each seem to be on the mind of the zeitgeist quite a lot. I think part of this has come from the fact that mental health has also become a huge topic, and it has revealed the startling statistics behind suicide, depression and anxiety. Men are told, generally, from an early age that it’s “unmanly” to express their feelings, and so they get bottled up and often converted into anger. Webb frequently points out throughout the book that the emotions that he – or any of the men he knows – display are quickly transmuted into anger and, sometimes, violence. Indeed, the phrase “man up” is surely soon to be retired. The book is a refreshing breath of air in its openness of the topic.

Not only is it one of the Very Important Books for today’s society (see also, Animal by Sara Pascoe and Reasons To Stay Alive by Matt Haig) it’s also very moving and very funny. Webb has overcome things I can only imagine to become who he is. He is frank and honest about his life and the decisions he’s made within it. He is incredibly candid regarding his relationships, sexuality and failings, and it makes him all the more likeable.

As someone who, like Webb, struggled with the concept of masculinity, this book is a tonic and vital. I was a kid who cried a lot. I cry less now, but for years I didn’t cry at all. I’ve always been more comfortable with girls and women as my friends, have no interest in football, have always loved books, and was never particularly bothered about what other boys thought of me at school. It’s important, I feel, for people to know that the gender stereotypes are rubbish. Women are strong, men like pink, and both can be utterly useless at expressing their feelings. This is important not only for the next generation coming up and their descendants, but also for those who have been struggling with unfounded expectations for so long. A really wonderful book.

“Furiously Happy” by Jenny Lawson (2015)

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“No, no. I insist you stop right now.”

I’m not going to pretend I’m qualified to talk on the subject of mental health. I’ve never had therapy or been diagnosed with anything, although if I was going to be I’m pretty sure anxiety tops the list, followed by narcissism, although I’m not sure if that’s actually a mental illness or just me failing to yet realise that I’m not the centre of the universe. Many people I know and love, however, make it through their days dealing with all manner of things that I couldn’t even begin to imagine.

I read Jenny Lawson’s first book, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened ages ago – so long in fact that I thought it was even prior to the existence of this blog, but no, actually, it’s there in the first year. Five years later, here’s the sequel. I was introduced to her work by my sister, and I bought her this second collection for her birthday last year. In it, Lawson continues her exploration of her struggles with her mental health. She has anxiety, depression, insomnia, agoraphobia, and a whole bunch more, but she seems to be someone who, for the most part, truly enjoys life.

The book’s title comes from her decision to be “done with sadness” and instead be so vehemently happy that it freaked out the people who didn’t think she should be. It became a movement on Twitter and her blog. The book itself is then a collection of essays, stories and recorded conversations that detail both her, quite frankly, insane life, and her deepest struggles with her own mind. Among other things, she goes to Australia to meet koalas while dressed as one, gets anonymously sent a box of cat skins, undergoes marriage therapy with her eternally-patient husband Victor, loses all feeling in both her arms, recalls her father’s lessons in catching catfish, tries to achieve a “better face”, has gallbladder surgery, and shares her thoughts on how air travel can be vastly improved with the use of occasional blunt weaponry.

But in among the madness, there are some deeply moving and honest chapters. She describes how it feels to have depression, how anxiety can overcome her in hotel rooms while she’s travelling, promoting her first book. She talks honestly and brutally about how she feels like a failure and a fraud, how, despite her apparent attitude for lust for life, she’s often struggling to stay afloat. It’s a remarkable piece of work, as hilarious as it is heartwarming. You can’t help but love her, nor indeed her husband who, despite being her regular sparring partner, loves her wholeheartedly and would do anything for her, except leave his office door unlocked when he’s in a conference call.

The style is breezy, and Lawson has a habit of wandering off on bizarre tangents, misunderstanding situations, getting herself into those odd situations in the first place, and trying to cope with the long silences her therapist leaves. You’ll also learn perhaps a little more about both taxidermy and possums than you ever thought you wanted, but you won’t care. It’s a journey and while it might not have any seat belts and be entirely off road, you’re going to have the ride of your life.

It’s a wonderful book, and a call to arms in some ways. We should all try to be furiously happy – go big, or go home.

“Spectacles” by Sue Perkins (2015)

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“My first memory of Dad was him approaching my cot.”

Humour isn’t the only thing I look for in a book, but everyone would rather laugh and cry, I’m sure. As such, I am automatically attracted to books about funny people. Sue Perkins is one of those. I’ve always been vaguely aware of her and her comedy life partner Mel Giedroyc, but they didn’t properly cement themselves as favourites until The Great British Bake Off, by which time everyone else had taken them into their hearts as well. I’ve always enjoyed their friendship from afar, and their easy banter, and so since one of them has a book out now, I decided to take a dip.

Spectacles is like many other autobiographies. Let’s be honest, they’re all, broadly speaking, of a type. We learn about the writer as a child, relive their school days, see them fail and deal with setbacks in their career, before being granted National Treasure status. In those respects, Perkins tells a story we all know. However, there’s something else going on here that puts it on a pedestal above others I’ve read.

There are laughs from the very beginning, where she openly admits that she’s changed a few details to “protect the innocent” and “make you like me”. Then we see the moment she tells her family she’s writing the book, and how they all worry about their appearance. Her father wants it to be known he’s tall (he isn’t), and her sister would rather not be mentioned at all. This version of events lasts three pages, before the far more interesting and messy reality sets in. I laughed out loud on almost every page. Perkins has a sublime way with words that I envy, and even when you think you can see a punchline coming, she’ll sidestep you and reveal something even funnier.

Her relationship with Mel is painted in wonderful colours, showing its natural progression. They are clearly very much in love in the way that few best friends can ever claim to be, but she still manages to find the time to explain, almost every time Mel’s name comes up, that Sue is the younger of the pair (by two years). From performing shows at Edinburgh with one person in the audience, to chasing one another around a white marquee in an attempt to lick out the bowls, they are silly, lovely and sweet. Have they ever had a cross word with one another? You wouldn’t think so reading this, and I’d be prepared to accept that it’s the truth.

She is modest, too. Almost nothing is made of her time as President of Cambridge Footlights, a topic that I’m sure would be hugely interesting. She’ll focus on how she has nearly cocked up her career several times by turning down big shows and instead hosting dross – even she can’t really bring herself to remind everyone about Don’t Scare the Hare. She gives us a tantalising glimpse into the worlds of Supersizers and Bake Off, providing a light sprinkling of celebrity anecdotes that leave us hungry for more. But, as ever, I understand that the book is about her, and frankly she’s plenty interesting enough.

Despite the comedy, she’s also very open about the struggles she’s dealt with. Her father’s ordeal with cancer, the decline and death of her beloved beagle Pickle, the breakdown of her relationships and the discovery that she had a brain tumour that had left her infertile. You don’t laugh at these pages, and they provide the balance that show life isn’t all joy. She is brutally honest about the pain these moments caused, and I just wanted to give her a hug.

Charming, honest, hilarious, brave and moving. You cannot get a better combination.

“Timequake” by Kurt Vonnegut (1997)

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“Call me Junior.”

Perhaps because the present is so appalling at the moment, I’ve been thinking a lot about the past, which is always a dangerous thing to do. It’s often a stark reminder of how quickly times have changed and how things have moved on. Ten years ago, in 2007, there was no Twitter and no iPads. Facebook was still new, Obama hadn’t been President yet, the Harry Potter book series would conclude in the summer, and The Simpsons Movie, Hot Fuzz and Juno were all in cinemas. I was still in university. I think we all wonder, sometimes, whether we’d want to turn back the clock and experience things again, or make a few changes. We can’t, of course but in Timequake, the population does go round a second time – the universe shrinks suddenly in 2001, taking everyone back to 1991, but they have no ability to change anything, and instead must live through their last decade again, doing exactly the same as they did the first time round.

I was intrigued by this as a concept, but the book is far more than that. Like everything Kurt Vonnegut did, this is damned weird. When you think about it, it would be hard to write a book retreading old time, especially when free will had been removed so no one could discuss what had happened; everyone just has a sense that time is repeating. Instead, Vonnegut tells the story of how the wrote the book, and details his relationship with Kilgore Trout, a science fiction writer who is categorically fictional. Vonnegut blends his autobiographical memories about the career and his family with fictional events. He talks of writing Timequake One, but also seems to have experienced it himself.

He mixes together true tales, some funny, some tragic, about his life with fiction in such a way that sometimes it’s difficult to work out where the lines are. The text is somewhat jumbled throughout, leaping through time without much warning, occasionally segueing into idle thoughts that otherwise have no place in the text. He repeats himself, brings back unfinished stories to touch them up later on, and speaks with love about his family: his sister who died in her forties, his scientist brother who invented a way to force clouds to snow, and various aunts and uncles with whom he had a whole manner of relationships. It’s a metafictional minefield though, as at any moment we could be treated to what Kilgore Trout was doing during the rerun, or why the death toll was so high when the universe finally sorted itself out again.

Oddly enough, 2007 was also the year Kurt Vonnegut died. So it goes.

“Agatha” by Anne Martinetti (2016)

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agatha-comic“These novelists will stoop to anything for some attention!”

Of all the authors I’ve discussed on this blog over the years, there’s none I’ve talked about quite so much as Agatha Christie. As the bestselling novelist of all time, Christie is someone who, even if you’ve never read one of her books, you will be able to name at least one of them. Her life was much more than just writing murder mysteries, though. In fact, her feat of writing over eighty novels and countless plays and short stories is just about the least remarkable thing about her.

My love for Christie is unashamed and unlimited and, as you have probably noticed, today is Valentine’s Day. I’m told you’re meant to spend the day with someone you love, so I did the best I could and ventured to the small village of Cholsey in Oxfordshire to visit the grave of this incredible woman. It only seemed fitting, then, to read about her while I was there. Although I do have her autobiography on my shelf awaiting reading once I’m finished with her fiction – plus it’s a hefty tome and I need to work on my upper body strength first – I picked up this book, Agatha, last year and decided to read that for now. It’s a graphic novel that tells the story of her life; a story just as interesting and complicated as her finest novel.

The story opens with her fabled disappearance in 1926, before leaping back to explore her early life. Once caught up to her vanishing act again, it progresses forward. The story deals with all the important moments in her life, such as the death of her beloved father when she was just a child, her first husband’s affair, her time as a nurse during the First World War, her sister’s challenge to her to write a novel, her travels around dig sites in the Middle East, to the success of The Mousetrap and later receiving her DBE. It also explores things about her that are perhaps less well-known, such as the fact she was one of the first British people to surf standing up, having learnt while in Hawaii, and that she was once offered propaganda work by Graham Greene during the Second World War.

christie-graveThroughout the narrative, she is visited by her characters, Miss Marple, Ariadne Oliver, Tommy & Tuppence, and most of all, Hercule Poirot, a man she swiftly grew to hate and promised to kill off. Sometimes these characters serve to give her advice, but sometimes she longs for them to go. Her relationship with Poirot is particularly interesting, as she realises that while she doesn’t like him, he can’t exist without her and she has no fortune without him.

The book dwells a while on her disappearance, although because she never spoke about what happened, what is displayed in the book is pretty much all drawn from the imagination. One incident that really occurred around this time involved another great mystery writer – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He took one of Christie’s gloves to a medium to get to the bottom of whether she was still alive or had died rather than just gone missing. Rather pompously, but very sweetly, he comments here, “the father of Sherlock Holmes could hardly abandon the mother of Hercule Poirot!”

Above all, while reading this, not only do you get a sense of what an interesting and bright woman she was, she can also be considered very modern. While there’s no getting away from the fact that some of her books, particularly the earlier ones, contain views that are very much of their time, she was a pioneer in many other respects. In 1911 she flew in one of the first aeroplanes, and later she spent so much time on archaeological digs with her second husband Max Mallowan that she became the most knowledgeable woman in Britain on the subject.

Agatha Christie was a phenomenal woman, modest and humble right up to the end. She knew her own mind and lived an extraordinary life, but I sense that she didn’t always see that. I am honoured to have her in my life in such a big way, and if there was a better way to spend Valentine’s Day this year, I don’t want to know about it. Thank you, Agatha, for everything.

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