“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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“Remarkable Creatures” by Tracy Chevalier (2009)

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“Lightning struck me all my life.”

History, as we all know, has given women a rough ride of it. One could read through numerous history books and believe that, aside from the occasional queen or witch, women hadn’t appeared until the 1920s. This inequality is the reason that Watson and Crick are considered the discoverers of DNA leaving out Rosalind Franklin who did most of the preliminary research, or why Charles Babbage is hailed as the first computer scientist, leaving Ada Lovelace often ignored. Fortunately, we are now righting these wrongs, and one of the women who, after her death, achieved great notoriety is the fossil hunter Mary Anning, whose discoveries shook the scientific community to its core. Tracy Chevalier explores her life in this novel.

Anning shares the duty of narration with Elizabeth Philpot, another fossil hunter who specialises in fossil fish (and was also a real person, but whose story has been eclipsed by that of Anning). When Elizabeth’s brother marries, she and her sisters Louise and Margaret are sent to live in Lyme Regis, a quiet coastal town, because that’s what happened in the early 1800s. There, Elizabeth discovers she has a love for finding fossils on the beach, but her skills are nothing compared to that of young Mary Anning who, despite the age gap of twenty years, she strikes up a curious friendship with.

As the two women grow, they make more discoveries and when Mary’s brother encounters a fossil of a creature unlike anything anyone has ever seen, it becomes the talk of the world and centuries of religious doctrine begin to look a little shaky. Is it possible that animals can go extinct? Did God make some creatures only to kill them off? Is it possible that God made a mistake? The ideas are sacrilege to many, but Elizabeth and Mary are determined that the world should see their fossils and hear the theories. Unfortunately, they’re women, but their passion and loyalty to the fossils ensure that the truth will out.

As they grow, they find much more than just fossils, learning about their places in the world, the meaning of heartbreak and how friendships can be as brittle as any of their findings.

I knew a little of Mary Anning before beginning the book – her face and her fossils are all over the Natural History Museum – but Elizabeth Philpot unfortunately was new to me, although no less interesting. Neither she or Mary ever married, and instead dedicated their lives to their fossil hunting even though, because of their sex, they would never be welcomed into the Royal Society or be allowed to write scientific papers. Philpot, in fact, discovered fossilised ink sacs inside belemnite fossils and even worked out how to revive the ink for use. Anning had the harder life, arguably, being from a very poor background and losing her father at a young age. She however became the first person to find skeletons of both ichthyosaur and plesiosaur skeletons, and the first pterosaur skeleton in Britain. Her legacy is one that should be heralded for what it did to science and the advancement of knowledge.

The story itself adds much colour to both ladies, as well as the scientific men around them, and Chevalier freely admits that she has embellished much of what happened in their private lives, but that’s not a fault, as it just gives the women more depth. Parts of the story do drag a little, I can’t deny that, but in general it’s an interesting read featuring two remarkable women. Chevalier has a good eye for metaphor and the two narrators are wonderfully distinct in their styles.

A fascinating and thoughtful look at some figures many may not have heard of, but should have.

“The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood (1986)

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“We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.”

Three dystopian books in a row are enough for anyone, it seems, especially when I was meant to be cutting back on the genre. Nonetheless, some books just have to be read. This one has been bouncing around my consciousness for the best part of a decade, dating back to when I was working at a bookshop and my colleague was a huge fan of it. Somehow in the interim I only managed to read one other Margaret Atwood book – Oryx & Crake – but have long had an affection for her and her ability. Anyway, I got here in the end.

In a not-too-distant future a deeply religious sect took over the running of the American government and thus was born the country of Gilead. Following on from a declining birthrate, and massive environmental damage, the population is in crisis and so people turn to religion to find the right way to repopulate. Fertile women are sent to live with married couples who cannot have their own children and must live a life of servitude with no freedoms or rights. Their only purpose is to have a baby.

Offred is one of these Handmaids, retrained and condemned to a life of purely functional sex with a man she hardly knows, her only chance at any sort of better life would be to get pregnant and help continue humanity. But Offred has not fully adjusted to this new world and still has hopes and dreams of an earlier time. No matter what the governments of the world do, you cannot suppress desire, and Offred soon finds her whole future resting in the hands of two men who could destroy her in a heartbeat, or provide some kind of salvation.

This is another of those novels that I thought I knew all about because of cultural osmosis. As it turned out, all that had really penetrated was the the vague setting, the repression and the outfits. I knew absolutely nothing of the plot and it was nothing quite like I had expected, although that’s not a complaint. I think the biggest shock was how far into this new world the novel was set. I had assumed that this was deep into a dystopia and focused on its dismantling when actually it turns out this new world order has only been in place for a matter of years, maybe seven at most, it’s not quite clear. This makes the whole thing much, much more terrifying, as the Handmaids – and indeed everyone else – all remember what life was like before and what freedoms they had. Freedom plays a huge part of the story’s themes, as any story about slavery does. The women, it is said, used to have “freedom to” and now they have “freedom from”. It’s such a small change, but an incredibly notable one. Consider the difference between women being free to date openly and with whomever they choose and being free from having to go on dates with unpleasant men and risk abuse or assault.

Many people may read the book and have thoughts along the lines of “Well, this couldn’t happen here”, yet the core of the book is based on the true events that befell Iran in the 1970s. Until then, it had been quite a modern, Westernised country, but then a very religious party got into power and women lost many of their rights and were told how to behave, right down to what clothes they should wear. I can’t profess to know very much about Iran, so I assume that Atwood is dialling everything up to extreme levels to make a point.

While the world and the unseen governmental body are scary, the real fear comes from those characters who have totally bought into the new setting. Like Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter series, true terror comes from those who are doing their job without questioning whether it is right or wrong to do it. Here, many of the women seem to have settled into the new regime and appear happy. I can’t understand these women, just as I can’t understand women who claim not to be feminists. Or any person of colour or homosexual that votes Conservative. There’s an irony present when Atwood discusses radical feminism and the women in her timeline who previously wanted a world for women – be careful what you wish for, indeed.

Surprisingly, the book also features a fascinating epilogue that takes the form of a lecture at some future point of the timeline in which Offred’s account has been discovered and studied as a historical text, which adds a whole new layer to the story and, in fact, can change how you view a few of the events. This is an excellent and unique take, but I won’t say anything else about its contents so as not to ruin some of the things it reveals.

Overall, I think the story is summed up by the line that Offred uses occasionally while narrating: “I don’t want to be telling this story”. In the current climate of #metoo and Weinstein culture, there are many stories that people don’t want to tell, and yet there are many that need to be told. There’s a firm difference between a want and a need, but one trumps the other – sometimes we need to do things we don’t want to do. It’s important to share our experiences and help other people going through the same things. This story is one that needed to be told, and as Atwood herself says, perhaps a world that can be described thoroughly like this can never come to fruition. I, like her, trust that it will not.

It’s a chilling but fascinating look at a world gone mad, showing that humans will always be our own worst enemy, and that it’s far easier to launch a despotic regime than it is to maintain it.

“Animal” by Sara Pascoe (2016)

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animal“Writing a book is an arrogant thing to do.”

I really like Sara Pascoe. She’s a newer face on the panel shows and comedy programmes of our televisions, and I fell a little bit in love with her when she first appeared on QI and knew lots of stuff about London and pandas. She’s the kind of woman I’d love to tell, “Hey, I really like you. You’re so beautiful…” but before I could finish, she’d throw her drink in my face and yell, “What about my brain??” I’d splutter through the G&T or whatever she drinks before saying, “I haven’t finished! You’re beautiful, intelligent, funny and generally awesome.” And then I’d still feel guilty as I do right now about the fact I started with “beautiful”, and feel that maybe I worded the compliment badly. But it was a compliment – I’ve always been very attracted to women’s brains. A smart woman is a sexy woman, although I’m obviously aware that a woman is not an object to be looked at, and I don’t expect anything to come from the compliment, I’m just trying to be nice, I … I’m digging myself into a hole here, aren’t I? Look, I just like paying people compliments, I’m just a bit cack-handed at it.

(Sara, should you read this and I did it wrong, I sincerely apologise. Can we forget this ever happened and move on?)

A couple of my female friends have been reading Animal and they went on to me about how amazing it was. Finding myself with that free trial of Audible that everyone who listens to podcasts gets bombarded with a few times a week, and going on the suggestion of a friend that it’s even better when read aloud, I downloaded the book and it has become the first audiobook I’ve ever listened to. Sara has a wonderful voice, full of real warmth, like she’s talking to you down the pub. You and her, the writer and the reader, are mates, and she’s going to tell you what she’s learnt about the female mind and body.

Split into three sections – Love, Body and Consent – the book is part-memoir, interspersed with stories from her own life (some hilarious, some tragic) and part science book, talking about what it is to be a woman both now and throughout history. She covers every possible aspect of this, including but certainly not limited to whether humans are naturally monogamous or not, how menstruation is viewed and treated around the world, what the “right” age is for consent, how we define rape, why men feel sleepy after sex and women don’t, female genital mutilation, the politics of abortion, why women evolved breasts, the female orgasm, and why humans are one of only three species on the planet (aside from killer whales and pilot whales) to undergo a menopause.

I wondered, as a man, how relevant the book would be to me, but it turns out your gender doesn’t matter in the slightest. It is eye-opening, incredibly interesting, sharply funny, and while perhaps in another person’s hands the ideas could come across as lecturing or dull, Sara weaves genius throughout it. She’s naturally funny, and very frank and open about her own problems, concerns and issues.

It’s also given me a really interesting new discussion topic for others around me. Not strangers on the bus; I’m not confident enough to strike up loud “Did you know?” conversations about tampons with them (yet) but with friends and colleagues. Most of my friends are female, as indeed are most of the people I work with, and this book has granted me access to things I, shamefacedly, even as a sexually active man in his late twenties, still didn’t really understand. One of the most curious facts I found out was about how long a menstrual cycle could last. I’d always been under the assumption it was 28 days – about a month – and had never really considered that it varied that much between women. I don’t know why. I don’t think about it much, I guess. After finding out the truth, I asked the girls at work if they knew. They all said 28 days. I revealed that, actually, it could be anywhere between 20 and 60 days. None of them knew this, and one of these girls is at university studying to be a surgeon. Even if this fact had somehow slipped through the net of secondary school sex ed, then that’s one thing, but is medical school not even drawing attention to this?

And, yeah, while we’re at it, why are the boys sent out of the room when girls learn about menstruation at school? If you take the argument that it might be uncomfortable or embarrassing for pre-teen girls to ask questions in a room full of boys, then that’s fine and I totally understand it, but the boys should be taught this stuff too, separately. We might not have the equipment, but we should know how it works. It might remove some of society’s stigma about the whole thing. Boys should probably also get a brush up on consent, as barely a week goes by without some boy somewhere dodging a jail sentence because he’s convinced a jury that consent was granted. We need to update both our sex education and our rape laws. But Sara will explain all this much more eloquently than I ever could.

I believe firmly that everyone, regardless of whether you’re male, female or somewhere in between, should read this book. It’s fascinating, funny and might even save your life.

“News From The Squares” by Robert Llewellyn (2013)

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news squares“What do you think you’re doing you silly little man?”

It seems fitting to this week read a book like this. Set in a future where women are in dominant gender, this sequel to News From Gardenia (be aware, spoilers ahead) feels more possible than ever now that Britain has a female Prime Minister again, Scotland and Germany are both run by very strong women, and it looks like the USA is about to have their first female President. So let’s dive in, and I’ll try and share my thoughts afterwards.

Gavin has crashed his plane and thinks he’s in a different part of Gardenia, the future England that he’s just left. He is picked up by several women and taken to what seems to be a hospital, but it’s like nothing he’s ever seen. Sure at first that this is part of Gardenia that he never witnessed before, it soon turns out that he’s wrong. This is still 2211, but this is an alternate future. Here, women are the dominant gender and outnumber men five to one.

While not officially held prisoner, he finds himself a resident of the Institute of Mental Health, where female doctors and psychologists want to study him. He manages to convince them that he’s really from the past, and the world falls in love with him. Well, most of it anyway. See, in this world the stories go that the men from the dark times were all evil and so the appearance of one who appears to be half-decent is a shock to the system. And his timing couldn’t be more appropriate. There’s about to be a vote to see whether men should be left to die out, leaving a fully female human race, and the man-hating Weaver women are not too pleased that there’s a man here now screwing up their propaganda.

With no means of getting home, and with his plane now in a history museum, Gavin is left to explore this world with his great-great-great-great-great-nephew Ralph, and the beautiful Dr Nkoyo Oshineye. He is also equipped with his kidonge, a small device that imbeds itself in your body and allows you to know anything just by thinking about it, and hold all your money on you at all times, making payments via handshakes. The kidonge, it turns out, also records your every move, so no one is ever where they shouldn’t be, and anyone can be found at any time…

Is this a utopian paradise, or is it an Orwellian nightmare?

I have so many feelings about this book that are almost impossible to put into words. I have no issue with a world where women are in charge – they’d probably make a far better job of it – but the way it came about seems  a bit flimsy. It appears that men simply “gave up” and women had no choice but to take over. I don’t think this holds up as a reason. I also found myself irritated at the notion that because men were responsible for all the nasty things in the world, now women rule there is apparently no violent crime, rape, child abuse or war anymore. It seems to imply that no woman would be capable of such things, although just flick through the news and I’m sure you’ll find a story or two. I get that this is meant to be propaganda from within the novel, but it still stings. I dislike being categorised with men who treat women poorly. Maybe I’m just taking it too personally, and I’m certainly not going to stand here and say that men don’t cause a lot of issues, but it just jarred with me.

Gavin by this point has also become a less sympathetic character, talking a lot about what a wonderful person he is, but displaying obvious homophobia and occasionally sexism. Granted, he seems to understand these issues about himself and isn’t necessarily happy about them, but it’s most apparent when he’s really struggling to get his head around the fact that the super fast train he’s riding could’ve been invented by a woman from Africa. Of all the people you’d want in the future, Gavin isn’t in the top thousand.

There are some cool concepts though. Religion is here regarded as a “treatable mental condition” which is an interesting take on it, and some of the technology is incredible, although how realistic any of it could be, I’m not sure. I also love the Museum of Human History, which is so enormous that its exhibits include Harrods, the Palace of Westminster and the Shard. Yep, the Shard. On the other hand, the evolution of language that we see is a bit strange and used intermittently; often simply words have been replaced by their counterparts from other languages. Syntax and grammar remain the same, though many slang terms are now absent and don’t seem to have been replaced – they’ve just vanished.

Like with the first book in the series, there is not much plot to hang your hat on, and Gavin just serves as a conduit for us to explore this new world. It’s a fascinating place to look at, but there’s something horrific about it. It feels more dystopian than News From Gardenia, which portrayed a perfect society, and maybe to the people living in this new world, this is perfect but, for me, I don’t feel welcome. The series continues (and concludes) with News From The Clouds, which I’ll get to in time. I’m still curious enough to want to know where this ends.

“Who Cooked The Last Supper?” by Rosalind Miles (1989)

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last supper book

A woman’s work is never done.

“The story of the human race begins with a female.”

Quickly, without giving it too much thought, name ten famous historical women. Got them? Right. Probably you’ve all gone for the same ones. Joan of Arc, Elizabeth I, maybe Victoria, possibly Marie Curie, Jane Austen, Florence Nightingale? Emmeline Pankhurst?

OK, now name ten more. Who’ve we got this time? Cleopatra? Boadicea? Mary Seacole, Amelia Earhart, Harriet Tubman? Not so easy that time, was it?

Now do it again. Struggling? Horrendously, so was I. And yet if I’d asked you to name fifty historical men, you might not have even had to pause for a moment, reeling off a checklist of men from Alexander the Great to Winston Churchill. Why, then, is it so hard to quickly recall even a handful of history’s greatest women? Simply, because men wrote the history books and have edited them ruthlessly.

In Rosalind Miles’ book, Who Cooked The Last Supper?, she laments this lack of women throughout history, pointing out that wherever men were, women had to be there too, usually being treated far worse and often without much public outcry. Her story begins in the caves of old, where women gathered most of the food for their tribes and leads us through history up to the last century where women fought for their rights to suffrage, contraception and independence.

Along the way, she talks about the hypocrisy of men as they struggled to keep women under their thumbs, deciding almost arbitrarily that women are weaker and more stupid, making them unable to do the jobs that men could do, despite the fact that women had been doing them for centuries before. She covers every horror that women have faced over the advancing millennia, from rape and slavery, to genital mutilation and the punishments doled out for having the audacity to menstruate. Women had originally been worshipped as goddesses, creators who gave life to everything, but as soon as men realised that they had something to do with childbirth too, then that was that. Woman’s fate was sealed and the phallus was held up as the greatest thing on the earth.

There are tales of genuine horror in here, such as the trials of female coal miners, the sex slavery that most women endured, and the horrendous, almost vomit-inducing tortures forced upon those women who dared to step outside of the norm.

Miles pulls no punches here, never for a minute accepting that men weren’t at fault here. She is out to redress history and show that women have been there all this time, even if the history books so often don’t show that. There are stories of great women in history who worked as laborers, soldiers, teachers, scientists, writers and doctors, only to have most of their achievements blasted out of history by men. But women are responsible for some of the biggest leaps forward in humanity’s history. The first novelist was a woman, and so was the inventor of calligraphy, and thus the art of handwriting. Female gynecologists ruled the wards of Ancient Greece, and there’s always been women willing to go out and teach others.

It’s an interesting book and will make you look at history in a completely different way, but I warn you now that this is at heart an academic text, and Miles is an academic, so it’s fairly dry in some places. With such a seemingly frivolous title, I expected it to be a bit lighter, but it was not to be so. Also, there are a few tales of famous women who should be remembered better, but few of them are much fleshed out, and it would have been interesting to read more of these.

In any case, it’s a stark reminder that men did not build this world alone, and that some backwards thinking people may continue with their beliefs that women are lesser than them, but they are wrong. Of course women should have equality, but it’s been a long, torturous process to get to the point we’re at now, and we’ve still got further to go.

An important read for men and women alike.