“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.

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“The Lonely City” by Olivia Laing (2016)

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“Imagine standing by a window at night, on the sixth or seventeenth or forty-third floor of a building.”

Like many readers, I am in many ways an introvert, happy to spend a fair amount of time by myself indulging in particularly solitary activities – reading, writing, watching series on Netflix that no one else wants to. However, while hell may be other people, sometimes they’re necessary and there’s no denying I’m no stranger to loneliness. I often seem to find myself draw to books on the topic, which is often accidental. It also crops up as a central theme in my upcoming novel, The Third Wheel. A friend of mine recommended this book to me, though, suggesting it might help me understand things a little better and see that I’m not the only one suffering.

Olivia Laing moved to New York City in her mid-thirties and quickly found that loneliness had taken her over in a city that was too big and where she knew no one. Rather than wallowing, she decided to use the time to explore this emotion through art, taking a look at some of the artists who have struggled with loneliness in one way or another. Through Laing, we meet – among others – Edward Hopper, whose paintings such as Nighthawks show a raw form of loneliness; Andy Warhol, who seemed married to his tape recorder and struggled in social situations; David Wojnarowicz, who survived an intensely abusive childhood to create some remarkable pieces of work; and Henry Darger, who locked himself away and only after his death was it revealed what a prolific artist he had been.

Each story is laced with pathos and true emotion, and there are powerful lines on every page that finally describe ways you’ve been feeling without being able to put words to them. When talking about how impossible it is to explain how loneliness feels to someone who has never experienced it, Laing says:

Loneliness, in its quintessential form, is of a nature that is incommunicable by the one who suffers it. Nor, unlike other non-communicable emotional experiences, can it be shared via empathy. It may well be that the second person’s empathic abilities are obstructed by the anxiety-arousing quality of the mere emanations of the first person’s loneliness.

She’s also honest about people choosing to ignore rather than help, after speaking to a homeless man on the street:

What is it about the pain of others? Easier to pretend hat it doesn’t exist. Easier to refuse to make the effort of empathy, to believe instead that the stranger’s body on the sidewalk is simply a render ghost, an accumulation of coloured pixels, which winks out of existence when we turn our head, changing the channel of our gaze.

There are discussions here not only on loneliness, but also loss, pain, acceptance, privacy, technology, the AIDS crisis and, of course, art. I’m not someone who is particularly interested in art or knows much about it, but it was interesting to learn a little more about some of these painters and their work. I knew some of Hopper and Warhol’s work, of course, but I don’t think I knew anything about them personally. Warhol to me was just a tin of Campbell’s soup and a bad wig – I didn’t know he’d been shot and spent most of his life wearing medical corsets to stop his organs, basically, falling out. The other artists mentioned I’d never heard of at all, but they’re all fascinating beings, their work often bizarre but somehow compelling.

It’s a brave book, and an important one. Loneliness is often seen as shameful, and it’s refreshing to see someone hold it up to the light and examine it for once, rather than skirt around the edges. A vital read for anyone who wants to know more about humanity.

I leave off here with another line from Laing herself:

We are in this together, this accumulation of scars, this world of objects, this physical and temporary heaven that so often takes on the countenance of hell. What matters is kindness; what matters is solidarity. What matters is staying alert, staying open, because if we know anything from what has gone before us, it is that the time for feeling will not last.

 

“All Our Wrong Todays” by Elan Mastai (2016)

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“So, the thing is, I come from the world we were supposed to have.”

I like the themes of alternate histories. Everything that has happened, had it happened another way, would probably have set the world off along a path unlike the one we currently have. Some of those would turn out better for us, some not. Interestingly though, we focus a lot on the what ifs of the past, not really considering that every single thing we do in the present is changing the future. This is all the past to someone, after all. But before we get too bogged down in the philosophical aspects of this, on with the review!

Tom Barren lives in 2016, but not the one we are familiar with. In his timeline, on July 11th 1965, the physicist Lionel Goettreider unveiled a machine that produced unlimited energy. Over the next fifty years, humanity had developed the future that our ancestors dreamt off, complete with moon bases, flying cars, food pills, teleportation, eternal peace and universal comfort. Tom’s father, the remote and rude Victor Barren, is now proposing the first experiment with time travel, sending a team back to the very moment that the Goettreider Engine was turned on, the most important moment of human history. But when Tom sleeps with the lead chrononaut, Penelope Weschler, the night before the mission and she is discovered to be pregnant, the plans are ruined and Penelope kills herself. Faced with heartbreak and access to a time machine, Tom does what anyone would do – something very stupid.

However, upon arriving in 1965, his visit does not go unnoticed by the universe, and he boomerangs back to 2016 to find that everything is changed. His father is much friendlier, he has a sister he never knew, and he’s now apparently a notable architect instead of a walking disappointment. Gone are the technological advancements – he’s landed in the universe we would recognise as our very own. He seeks out Penelope and finds her, although it’s not the same her, and now he has to make a difficult choice. Should Tom stay in this imperfect world where he can experience love and be a success, or go back to the perfect utopia where the world was at peace, but he was miserable?

Uniquely among time travel fiction, to my knowledge at least, Elan Mastai deals with the real issue of the science. Travelling in time also requires travelling in space, as not only is the world rotating on an axis and orbiting the sun, it’s also tearing through the vast expanses of the universe so if you travel back to the same spot, the planet will be miles away. Hell, misjudging your landing by a few inches can render you embedded in a sofa or solid ground. Mastai could easily handwave this, but he has a solid bash at explaining the science on how to solve these issues. How accurate they are or how likely it is that they’d work, however, I don’t know for sure – I’m an arts student – but the science feels solid enough that I’m happy to accept it. The whole thing becomes a lot more believable, even more so because explanations are given in too much detail to make you lose interest. As Tom says, he doesn’t understand the mechanics behind the time machine or the Goettreider Engine anymore than most of us would be able to build a microwave or television from scratch.

Like pretty much all of my favourite writers, Mastai’s real skill lies in his ability to build a world. The alternate utopian 2016 is explored in vivid detail, with Tom explaining how he takes for granted that absolutely everything is recycled, there’s no need for war or even, really, to break any laws, and he’s never eaten an unripe avocado. When he arrives in our timeline, there are a few scenes of him struggling with the mundane, such as actually having to open doors with a handle, or having to remember how to write by hand. Mastai could easily have spent far too long exploring the specifics of our world and explaining why they’re shit, but we already know about our world, so he skips playfully over it and lets us imagine Tom’s views over the rest. Towards the end of the novel, we also see a third timeline and while it only appears for a brief chapter, it too is incredibly evocative.

While it’s fun to read about time travel and alternate dimensions, it is nice to come up against something that asks, “No, seriously, how would this work?” Despite being on the hard end of the science fiction scale, it still retains a sense of whimsy and it’s good for a chuckle, despite some of the events being really rather harrowing. It’s nice to have my faith in the genre bolstered every once in a while, and this has certainly done that.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“Of Men And Monsters” by William Tenn (1968)

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“Mankind consisted of 128 people.”

Earth has been invaded by aliens so many times in fiction. On most of those occasions, whether first contact is friendly or not, we are equals of a sort, in size, shape and intelligence at least. But what if aliens were to come to Earth that were so enormous, they didn’t even notice humans were here, and just dominated the planet thanks to sheer size alone. What would happen to humanity then? Of Men and Monsters explores this idea.

Eric the Only is a boy in his society of Mankind, but today is the day of his Theft, and if he’s successful, he will come back to be declared Eric the Eye, meaning he’s a full man and able to mate. Under the guidance of his uncle, Thomas the Trap-Smasher, he pledges to steal not food or an item usable by Mankind, but a Monster souvenir. He flees the burrows for the first time ever and makes his way across the treacherous landscape inhabited by the giant Monsters to complete his task.

But when he gets back home to safety, he finds that a rebellion occurred, led by his uncle, as those who want to use Alien-Science tried to rise up against the traditional methods of Ancestor-Science. Now an outlaw, Eric the Eye goes on the run, stumbling across another tribe in another burrow. He joins their number and soon he begins to learn the truth about who he is, where he lives, and what the Monsters are.

You can’t help but think about The Borrowers with this novel. The difference is, of course, that humans haven’t actually changed their size, it’s just that the aliens that invaded were so huge that, to them, humans are merely vermin, living in the walls of their houses like cockroaches or mice, stealing food and potentially spreading disease. The use of scale is impressive, but it’s difficult to imagine something like this. I kept imagining the Monsters to be our size and the humans to be small, but then you get a reminder that if the humans were to go outside, rain or trees would also look tiny compared to the invaders.

It’s clever in it’s use of detail, or rather lack of it. Because the humans can only see on a different scale, they cannot adequately describe the Monsters – we know they are grey, with six legs, tentacles around their necks and small heads – and their technology seems bizarre. Human technology is now quite primitive, with people using spears, but there is evidence of higher technology. For example, when Eric’s name “the Eye” is chosen, it is done so via a mystical Record Machine, which seems to be a television displaying old infomercials.

The human societies that have built up are the most interesting aspect of the novel, even if the individual characters are quite flat. Eric’s tribe, Mankind, call themselves that because they believe they are the most superior of all the tribes. The men are all warriors and thieves, the women have knowledge of healing and history. Days and nights are measured simply by when the tribe’s chief goes to sleep and wakes up, and there is a strict hierarchy. We meet other societies living in the same wall (that’s how huge these buildings are) who have different ways of doing things, and at one point we see humans who have come from the building next door, and they may as well be a whole new species.

It feels like it should be a quick read, but I got bogged down in it trying to work out what some of the technology was, before realising that the Alien-Science is a lot like Gary Larson’s “Cow Tools” – there is no human equivalent. Or maybe there is but it’s being described in such an unusual way that we don’t notice? There’s a satisfying ending, at least, with the realisation that of all the species of vermin on our planet, humans may just be the most successful of them all…

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet an entirely different race of aliens as Dexter, who sees himself has the last single person on Earth, flees his home, along with his friends, to escape the invasion. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“Superfreakonomics” by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner (2009)

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superfreak“Many of life’s decisions are hard.”

There are many questions in this life that still need an answer. We can turn to all manner of scientists and assorted experts to give us some of the answers, but sometimes the right answers are much harder to find than we may first think. It may be that we’re looking in all the wrong places, and applying the wrong rules. In some of those cases, it might be time to bring in the economists.

Superfreakonomics is the sequel to the popular Freakonomics, written by journalist Stephen Dubner and rogue economist Steven Levitt. Instead of looking at money and banking, the area you’d expect economists to deal primarily in, these guys tackle apply the rules of economics to everything else and see what they can come up with. The argument is, of course, that we might be getting the wrong answers because we’ve been asking the wrong questions.

This book covers such diverse topics as prostitution, global warming, altruism and whaling, exploring each with a strange, sideways glance and seeing what we can learn from one industry about another. Dubner and Levitt explain why a prostitute is like a shopping mall Santa, whether drunk driving is safer than drunk walking, how to track down suicide bombers using their bank accounts, how we can engineer the oceans to stop hurricanes, what Al Gore and volcanoes have in common, and whether people are willing to give up money they haven’t worked for to a total stranger.

Perhaps the most controversial chapter is about global warming. While studying different ways that it could be halted, the pair find out that, in truth, we might not even need to halt it. It might be completely normal. It might not even be happening at all, and our efforts to cool the planet down are actually doing the opposite. The book is actually packed with controversy, as they point out that children’s car seats might not actually be that effective, that the supposed witnesses of Kitty Genovese’s murder weren’t as useless as psychology textbooks like to make out, and that a sex change can affect your standing among your peers.

It’s a quick read, easy to digest and utterly fascinating throughout, packed with the sort of trivia it’s nice to have on hand to trot out at cocktail parties, even if most of it is about car crash victims and hand washing in hospitals. If you’re the sort of person who likes spotting the links between entirely unrelated things, then this is for you. If not, then come along anyway. You won’t be disappointed.

“Progress” by Johan Norberg (2016)

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progress“Terrorism. ISIS. War in Syria and Ukraine. Crime, murder, mass shootings.”

I’ve said enough along these lines on this blog already, but 2016 was a big pile of crap. All around us the news is full of doom and gloom, always telling us that humanity is going down the drain, becoming more intolerant, stupid and lazy. The rich get richer, the fat get fatter, the poor get poorer. It’s the same old story. But what if I was to tell you that, actually, it’s not all bad? Would you believe me? Try this book.

My friend gave me this book for Christmas with the statement, “You worry about this stuff more than us”. Given I’ve been in rather a black mood for the last few weeks, I decided that 2017 wasn’t going to push me around and I’d begin the year by looking at things a bit more positively. In this book, Swedish academic Johan Norberg takes a look at ten aspects of the modern world and shows that we’re actually improving on pretty much all fronts. He looks at food, sanitation, life expectancy, poverty, violence, the environment, literacy, freedom, equality and the next generation and concludes, with the help of graphs and endless statistics, that things are improving left, right and centre.

Despite what we see on the news – and Norberg argues well that the main reason we think everything is so awful is because of news media – violence and poverty are down, and literacy and life expectancy are up. It may look awful when you see that there are still millions of people living in poverty, but when you consider how many more of us there are now, the proportions show that we’re actually doing fine. Of course, not everyone is rich or free or safe from disease yet, but the trends are looking good, as long as we take the current issues as a blip and focus on keeping everything moving forward. Humanity has advanced further in the last 100 years than it did in the first 100,000.

Norberg is blisteringly positive. He does concede, as I said, that only if we continue to fight the bad things will we continue to see progress, but this is a man who manages to even put a positive spin on the increase in the number of robberies in developing nations (they are proof that now even the poor have something worth stealing) and cancer (people never used to live long enough to develop it, which is why we’re now seeing an increase). He’s not saying that cancer itself is a good thing, it obviously isn’t, but it’s an interesting way of looking at things.

So while it may not be the lightest book to delve into first thing in the year, it’s definitely worthwhile and positive. Norberg is a skilled writer and weaves statistics and anecdotes together to create a readable book that might just remind us that things aren’t as bad as all that. Onwards and upwards, everybody.

“The Knowledge” by Lewis Dartnell (2015)

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knowledge“The world as we know it has ended.”

Twenty sixteen. The year that keeps on giving. The Mayans said the world was going to end in 2012, and maybe it was meant to and we’ve been on borrowed time since. After all, it’s not like things have gone smoothly since 2013 started. In fact, one of the few constants has been this blog, and I doubt that’s holding together the fabric of the universe in the way David Bowie was. The planet seems to rarely have been in such turmoil, and so my eyes found themselves drawn to this book that has sat on my shelf for a few months. It is, after all, best to be prepared.

The premise of the book focuses around the idea of the end of the world, which is common enough in fiction but I’ve seen explored little in non-fiction. Lewis Dartnell has written this book for the pockets of survivors who have clung on through whatever destroyed civilisation, realising that most of us, indeed none of us, will be able to build society back up again. Humans have invented such complicated devices and evolved such deep theories and practices that we don’t know the basics that have got us to this point. Never mind being unable to use your iPhone, how does one go about building one? Would you know how to mine the metal for it? I very much doubt you would.

Taking humanity back to basics, Dartnell teaches us how to get farming and make fertiliser to reboot agriculture, develop basic medicines, extract metals from rocks, produce paper and ink, get electricity, tell the time and make clothing all using the first processes that led to the world we have today. While he says that at first we’ll be able to make use of what has been left behind, it won’t be long before we can no longer rely on the stocks of food and materials that humanity left behind.

While, I won’t lie, parts of the book are rather dry, especially those going into intricate chemical processes which make me realise just how long ago it was that I did my Chemistry GCSE, but it is absolutely full of amazing nuggets of information that I’ve been throwing at people all week while reading this. My three favourites are probably:

  1. Humans inherited the common cold from horses.
  2. Popcorn was invented by a South American culture 6000 years ago.
  3. A woman didn’t survive a C-section until the 1790s, despite the practice being as old as the Romans.

While it would naturally take more information than can be held in this book to restart civilisation properly, it’s a great thought experiment and full of some genuinely useful and interesting science. We have become so detached from the processes that govern our daily lives that it’s almost humbling to get a refresher course like this. Dartnell also stresses that just because society did it one way last time, there’s no reason that the world will come back the same way. Maybe, if we go so basic that we lose everything, we’ll develop different measurements, never invent telescopes to discover the planets, or invent buttons. But if we know a little, we may be able to leapfrog the dead ends that science had to struggle through last time. It’ll also naturally have to be an entirely different reboot, as this time we don’t have massive coal, oil and gas reserves to allow an Industrial Revolution like last time – the next civilisation will undoubtedly be a lot greener.

A fascinating, exciting look at the world we take for granted that, with things as they are right now, is never leaving my side again.

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