Category Archives: non fiction

The Psychopath Test – how would you fare?

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A good friend gave me a copy of The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson for my birthday. I hope he wasn’t trying to tell me anything! The book is the story of journalist Ronson’s foray into the world of psychopaths, as categorised by psychologist Bob Hare’s psychopath checklist.

 

Psychopaths will have a high number of the following personality traits:

Glibness/superficial charm

Grandiose sense of self-worth

Pathological lying

Cunning/manipulative

Lack of remorse or guilt

Shallow affect (genuine emotion is short-lived and egocentric)

Callousness; lack of empathy

Failure to accept responsibility for own actions

Need for stimulation/proneness to boredom

Parasitic lifestyle

Poor behavioural control

Lack of realistic long-term goals

Impulsivity

Irresponsibility

Juvenile delinquency

Early behaviour problems

Promiscuous sexual behaviour

Many short-term (marital) relationships

Criminal versatility

 

Ronson sets out to interview people classed as psychopaths (both criminals and high achieving businessmen – seemingly most psychopaths fall into one or other category – make of that what you will). He explores some fascinating and tragic cases and asks some very, very awkward questions.

 

On the one hand, I found Ronson slightly annoying – on the other hand I was impressed by his unflinching truthfulness. He is not afraid of looking like an idiot either in front of his interviewees or in front of his readers. He admits to getting a bit carried away with his own amateur psychopath spotting and he happily rubs eminent psychologists and unnerving psychopaths up the wrong way. He certainly earns a lot of glares throughout the course of this book.

 

Then again, I suppose this is how we should want our journalists to be. Ronson is fearless (telling a clearly unhinged cross-dressing former spy to ‘fuck off’), relentless, shameless (or unabashed about being wrong – as opposed to just being an unconscionable creep) and ultimately fascinated by people.

 

The best thing about The Psychopath Test is that it takes a fairly clinical checklist and considers the human implications of it. Ronson delves into the desperately sad and unjust tale of the wrongly accused Colin Stagg (who was thought to have killed Rachel Nickell on Wimbledon Common), follows is-he-isn’t-he-a-psychopath corporate hardass Al Dunlap around and meets the charming death squad leader Emmanuel Constant. Over the course of the book, he gives as much consideration to the problem of over-diagnosing as he does to the havoc psychopaths wreak in the world, which, really, seems only fair.

 

If you’re interested in psychopathy, the prison system, psychology or just human nature and its extremes this is a fascinating, thought-provoking and gripping read.

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Frank Skinner – drinking piss and near-misses with bricks

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Mr Literary Kitty bought me Frank Skinner’s autobiography for my birthday. He said it was the only book he’d ever bought off the back of reading the first line in a bookshop and laughing at it. I had high hopes as I’d always loved Skinner’s comedy and I fancied him quite inexplicably for a year or so at school, even though my friends shrieked with laughter. “He looks like a diseased lightbulb head!”

Anyway. It must be hard for a comedian to write an autobiography due to the pressure to make it relentlessly funny. Comedians are also famed for being people who make jokes to avoid talking seriously about themselves and their lives, and I wonder whether it made Frank Skinner uncomfortable to write about his life as a whole, rather than just the funny bits.

The Scotsman’s assertation on the book’s jacket is that: ‘Skinner has a pathological need to tell the truth’. He does share the rather humiliating experience of losing his virginity to a ropey old prostitute called Corky, but then embarrassments like that are Skinner’s bread and butter. It’s a hilarious, if stomach-churning story, but I can’t help thinking that he’d have left it out if it hadn’t been funny, however much it might have interested his readers.

For most of the book, Skinner skims as quickly as possible over the bits of his life where real emotion is involved. However, I’m not knocking him for not wanting to do a Cheryl Cole style soul-baring weepy, and admittedly there is more than one kind of honesty. Maybe Frank would argue that he had been more honest than Cheryl. He’s certainly funnier. If Cheryl has a Corky-style story she’s keeping it well and truly under wraps. Anyway, this flippancy seems to change as the book goes along and there are actually a few quite touching moments, especially when Skinner talks about his dad’s death.

The ideal reader of this book would probably be male, fond of football and partial to knob-jokes. However, I’m none of those things and I still enjoyed it. The book has a chaotic timeline which wasn’t really my cup of tea but I understand Skinner’s desire to avoid that ‘long boring stretch of time before the person gets famous’. There are some fantastic anecdotes, including one about him accidentally making a stranger drink his piss in a crowded bar, and one about the time he (as a child) nearly killed his neighbour’s daughter with a brick. There are many more but I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment of the book, especially with poor delivery.

Overall, Frank Skinner feels a lot like sitting in a pub with Frank Skinner and having him give you a rambling oral account of his life, complete with a lot of jokes, the odd tear and quite a lot of filth. Fans will love it, the very squeamish will hate it and most readers will appreciate the honesty and unflinching openness with which he tells his story to date.

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Status Anxiety – interesting and accessible (ignore the culture snobs)

I love Alain de Botton. I have done ever since I was at home sick and I watched a whole series of him presenting a user-friendly philosophy programme (Philosophy: a Guide to Happiness, 4od), exploring concepts such as anger and love. Still, people are always complaining about him, like the Guardian, which says, in its critique of Status Anxiety:

“Alain de Botton is the kind of public intellectual our debased culture deserves. This prince of précis, this queen of quotation, pastes together entire books by citing and then restating in inferior prose the ideas of great writers from centuries gone by. Aping the forms of philosophical thought in tones of complacent condescension, he provides for his readers the comforting sensation of reading something profound at little cost of mental effort.”

OK, so allow me to clamber up on my soapbox for a moment. Not everyone wants to read the complete works of Plato in the original Greek as the Guardian probably wants to pretend it has. Some people will be quite grateful to Botton for doing his research and distilling it into an accessible, reader-friendly format in which he poses some thought-provoking questions and suggests a few interesting conclusions.

Far from having a tone of ‘complacent condescension’ I find Botton quite humble and thoughtful. He doesn’t hector his readers into agreeing with things and he doesn’t imply that they’re stupid, as the above Guardian writer is in danger of doing. As for ‘our debased culture’, I prefer to sidestep the notion that the good old days when church services were all in Latin were better. How would we even know?!

So Alain de Botton apparently ‘provides for his readers the comforting sensation of reading something profound at little cost of mental effort’. Stepping out of the way of the condescension that drips from those hypocritical words I say: well, what’s wrong with that? If Botton can get people thinking about themselves and their interior lives without them feeling that they’d need to be a professor to understand what the hell he’s going on about then I’d say that’s a great skill, rather than something to be sneered at by people who like their culture complicated.

Status Anxiety takes the reader through a potted history of status in human society, including its changing nature over the years and how it affects us individually. Botton’s theory is that the causes of status anxiety lie in: lovelessness (or the fear of it), expectation, meritocracy, snobbery and dependence. He treats these causes separately (one per chapter) and has a number of interesting observations to make about them. The solutions, he opines, are: philosophy, art, politics, religion and bohemianism – and he gives the layman plenty to chew over in terms of their impact on the human soul.

The only aspect of the book about which I agree with the Guardian is its illustrations: “banal ideas are illustrated by pseudo-logical flowcharts, graphs and diagrams.” That we could, admittedly, have done without. But the rest of the Guardian’s comments say more about its own sense of status anxiety than they do about Alain de Botton and his readers. The review complains that “the real value of this volume – beautifully designed and manufactured by Hamish Hamilton – is not as a work of thought but as an object, a status symbol. If you read it on the train or in a coffee shop, you are declaring that not only are you the kind of sensitive, thoughtful person who reads improving literature, you are the kind of successful person who can afford to buy it in hardback.”

Or maybe we just thought we would learn something from it?

Grumpy windbag cynics can scoff all they like but Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety is an interesting, accessible and measured introduction to the problems of the individual in society. Reading it might get you sneered at by Guardian readers who label you a vacuous ponce but by the end of the book you’ll have a new understanding of the importance of not caring what they think. That in itself makes Alain de Botton both relevant and useful – and I’ll fight with a stick anyone who tries to claim differently.*

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*Just kidding. I don’t have a stick. But don’t be mean about Alain de Botton.

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Dedicated To…. – from forgotten friends to lost loves

I love second-hand books and second-hand bookshops, and I love that moment when you find an inscription written inside a pre-owned book – so I was intrigued when I came across Dedicated To….. The book describes itself as an ode to ‘the forgotten friendships, hidden stories and lost loves found in second-hand books’. Some are poignant, some are funny, and one particularly memorable inscription serves as a very stern poke in the eye.

This is a beautiful little book, illustrated with some fabulous book covers – and each of the inscriptions appears in the original handwriting alongside a printed transcription. As the editor W.B. Gooderham states in his introduction: “The right book, given to the right person at the right time, can work wonders…A book can say I miss you, I love you, I forgive you; I never want to see you again.” How true that is. I know I love giving books as presents and I never miss the opportunity to write in them either. A four-line rhyme written in the first book I ever gave my now-husband (a Penguin Classics King Lear) gained me a look I have never forgotten, and I love picking up an old book from my shelves and seeing a note from Lovely Mum (who always writes in my books), perhaps from Christmas 1998. It’s like a little slice of the past.

So we’ve established that I’m sentimental about my books. I have to think something is truly worthless to give it away once I’ve read it. I generally like to keep a complete record on my shelves. I’d be especially unlikely to give away a dedicated book, so before I give you my favourite inscriptions from Dedicated To…, I’d like to say how sad I found it that all the books featured therein had been given away. Advice spurned? No longer needed? Altogether forgotten? We can only speculate on that, and on the journeys these books have taken. Gooderham considers the matter too, and also notes the “added poignancy” given to the books as a result of their having been passed on.

 

Anyway, here are some of my favourite inscriptions:

 

Bawdy Ballads, Xmas 1989

“Mum says it is disgusting: I say it may encourage you to learn the piano.”

 

The Penguin Book of Infidelities ed. by Stephen Brook

“For Rebecca, in case you have any ideas!”

 

A Book of Surrealist Games ed. by Mel Gooding

“For Ted – my period is 3 days late. x.o.d.”

 

Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie, 21st December 2008

“To my darling husband – we have now been married for 6 very special months. Enjoy memories of our wonderful honeymoon as you read this. Anita xxx”

 

Jungle Lore by Jim Corbett, May 1958

“To John Hughes. Go shoot yourself. Henry”

 

Words by Jean Paul Sartre, September 1973

“For Mummy – may you read it all – clearly and without prejudice – right to the end! Lots of love, Hetty x x x

(The cover of the book is printed with the quote ‘I loathe my childhood and all that remains of it…’)

 

Mister Johnson by Joyce Cary, May 1991

“Dear John, When I was twelve or thirteen years old Grandma became increasingly alarmed at my philistine preoccupation with science and agriculture. I remember being whisked off to the bookshop in Bury, where on my behalf she selected “Mister Johnson”, my first adult book. It was an inspired choice – it amused me, introduced me to the joys of literature and also to the notion of an overseas colonial service. The book thus had a profound influence on my life; without it I may never have gone to Africa, and you may not have been born thirty years ago. To it you probably owe your existence and it is high time you were introduced. I pass it to you in turn with much love. Dad”

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The Human Mind – a lesson in good science

I started reading The Human Mind by Professor Robert Winston because Mr Literary Kitty was jumping up and down about it. (That’s a lie, I don’t know when I last saw him jump, but he did read lots of interesting facts out to me as he went, and he loved it so I thought I’d give it a go.) It was a bit sciencey for the first few pages and I’ve never really been interested in the label-heavy naming of the parts but after that it was a great read. Winston is a likeable chap, the sort of person you’d be grateful to be sat next to at a nerve-wracking dinner party. He has a great range of anecdotes to illustrate all sorts of scientific issues and he knows how to bring potentially opaque subject matter to life.

He delves into how we learn, what we decide to pay attention to and how we define and refine our character. He covers the science of physical attraction and love (apparently there is a certain science to it!). He explores how the brain works and how it connects with the body. I learned that a woman’s sense of smell is a thousand times better than a man’s, that there’s a reason why women are stereotyped as better communicators – he covers so many things you might have wondered about and indeed many things you’ve probably never considered. He covers doppelgängers, introverts, the science of the senses, the ways drugs of all kinds affect the mind, the differences between theleft and right brain, the science of habit –and yet he’s comprehensive without being exhausting.

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Robert Winston is definitely the science teacher I wish I’d had, the kind you wouldn’t mind asking a stupid question. He interacts with the reader, you never feel like you’re being lectured. His writing style seems totally effortless – and this is one of the greatest compliments in my eyes when it comes to writing. I firmly believe that the ultimate eloquence is being able to make the seemingly baffling clear. Some people claim that some things are too complicated to ever be simply received but I just don’t agree.

Of course, readers are not going to become brain experts from reading this book but a denser, more technical book wouldn’t make us experts either. Pound for pound, the average reader will learn more here, I think. Robert Winston is engaging, funny, humble and very, very readable. If you want to become more generally informed about what the human mind is made of, this is a very good place to start.

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Fast Food Nation – the chips are down

So my friend The RZA lent me this book – he’s not actually in the Wu Tang Clan unfortunately but he’s a very nice man nonetheless. I wasn’t convinced I’d enjoy Fast Food Nation as I’m very partial to a cheese quarter pounder and I have no time for weak-stomached hippies who squeal: ‘but you’re eating eyelids!’ As far as I’m concerned, if it tastes good and I don’t feel like I’m eating eyelids as I swallow I’m golden. But Eric Schlosser was about to dig a bit deeper than eyelid scare-stories – and some of the things I learned in his book surprised me.

In 1998 more fast food workers were killed on the job than police officers – and the majority of those murders were committed by former (or even current) workers robbing the restaurant. The combination of low pay, poor conditions that breed little company loyalty, and deprived backgrounds means that the grisly outcome is not all that surprising.

Sad stories abound in Fast Food Nation – people who’ve given their lives and their health to their fast food industry employers (particularly in dangerous slaughterhouses) find themselves repeatedly injured, pressured to take the riskiest jobs in the workplace and finally thrown on the scrapheap, having been bullied and tricked out of their compensation. Imagine being injured at your job and then, because you no longer have the use of your arms, being pressured to sign a waiver with the pen in your mouth. Enough said.

As well as the abuse of injured and sick workers, I was shocked to hear about the lengths McDonalds have gone to in order to stop their workers unionising – to the extent of employing spies and shutting down restaurants where workers have begun to organise, only to reopen them weeks later, hiring only non-union employees.

It’s not just about the eyelids and trotters they put into the meat (although there are some quite grisly stories about animals being fed shit (as in a diet of actual faeces) and being made to cannibalise the remains of their own species). The interesting thing about Fast Food Nation is that it gives a three-dimensional image of the fast food industry. It’s not just the filth the food is made in, it’s how many workers’ arms get ripped off in machines on production lines moving way too fast, it’s how many towns have been wrecked by McDonalds pushing small independent businesses out and chaining the town’s teenagers to a life of minimum-wage, minimum-skill drudgery, it’s how dangerous it is for us to let any one corporation become too dominant. After all, how can we expect a profit-driven corporation to do anything other than seek increased profits for itself? Isn’t it madness to expect them to prioritise product quality, customer satisfaction, care for their employees? You might hope not, but that seems to be the way of it, and Schlosser argues that it is the government and, above all, the consumer, who must learn to prioritise these things.

I watched Morgan Spurlock’s 2004 film Super Size Me with interest but god dammit I was hungry at the end of it! And I’m not going to lie, the crispy golden fries on the front of this book had much the same effect – but so far I’ve resisted going back to McDonalds since reading the book. (OK, I did get Mr Literary Kitty to make me a faux-all-in-one breakfast wrap at the weekend – but he didn’t abuse any workers in the process.) This is largely because of my admiration for the defendants of the McLibel case – one of the most moving stories in the whole book.

The McLibel case was an English lawsuit filed by McDonald’s against five environmental activists Their organisation, the tiny ‘London Greenpeace’ (separate from Greenpeace itself) distributed pamphlets that were critical of McDonald’s. McDonald’s then took umbrage and sued them. Whilst three of the five parties sued quickly capitulated to the burger giant, former postman David Morris and gardener Helen Steel decided to take the corporation on. They were denied legal aid and represented themselves in court, against an army of McDonald’s litigators, and the case continued for twenty years. Twenty YEARS.

I won’t go into the details too deeply here as it’s a complex case, though I highly recommend reading up on it, but the upshot is that Morris and Steel fought and fought through every setback – every time the court award McDonald’s damages the pair appealed. As the case was dragged through the courts the cockiness of McDonald’s was exposed and a very bright light was shone on its practices – a PR disaster for the company, undeniably.

The British press unsurprisingly took a keen interest in this ‘David and Goliath’ case. In 2005, the European Court of Human Rights finally ruled that the original case had breached Article 6 (right to a fair trial) and Article 10 (right to freedom of expression) and ordered that the UK government pay Steel and Morris £57,000 in compensation – an incredible result given the challenges the pair faced (such as McDonalds using spies to infiltrate their organisation – to the extent of giving Morris a gift of baby clothes for his new child in order to obtain his address for surveillance!).

It made me think: if people so under-resourced are prepared to go to such lengths to fight against greedy, sinister corporate culture – can’t I abstain from eating the odd burger and chips? The example of Morris and Steel is genuinely inspiring – a beacon of hope in the bleak, homogenised and desperate future painted by Schlosser.

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Lucky Man – the sting in the tale

 

I ended up reading Lucky Man, Michael J. Fox’s memoir, because my boyfriend (an early 80s baby and mega-fan of Back to the Future and Teen Wolf) kept telling me it was good. I was sceptical and when I read the first portion of the book I remained unconvinced. To me, Michael J. Fox was pretty much just the short guy from Spin City and I found it hard to dredge up much enthusiasm for stories of how he grew up (in a big military family with a supposedly psychic aunt who predicted his adult success) and where (in Canada).

I found it hard to warm to the man whose story seemed to be that everything, and I mean everything, came easy to him. He was cute, charming, smart, musical and everyone who ever met him seemed to think he was just wonderful. It all seemed pretty two-dimensional….until his whole world came crashing down when he, at the peak of his teen-idol success, was diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s disease.

It is Fox’s own view that his disease was the making of him as a man (hence the seemingly incongruous title of his book) and it’s certainly the making of his memoir. I’m sure relatively few people can relate to his story of coming to America and finding almost immediate acting success, just as very few will be able to relate (on an experiential level) with his battle with Parkinson’s disease at the age of 30 – but where the first is a story of given talent, carelessly spent, the second is the story of what is written in the human soul when all pretence has been stripped away.

At that point I realised why Fox didn’t bother with any false modesty in the part of the book that dealt with his rise to fame – he wanted the reader to truly understand how difficult it was to come to terms with a diagnosis like Parkinson’s when it was more or less the first thing in his life not togo his way. A fascinating account of how a person who is not equipped to cope with disaster learned to face real hardship, Lucky Man is by no means a depressing read. In fact, it’s quite inspiring.

In the closing pages of the book, Fox says, “I couldn’t be this still until I could no longer keep still”, and it is this concept that made the memoir so fascinating to me. What is the point of a man having everything if he doesn’t know how to appreciate it? And what does it matter what a man lacks if he’s content with what he has?

I’m not suggesting that Fox enjoys the increasingly crippling physical limitations of Parkinson’s (which the book does not shy away from describing in sometimes quite excruciating terms) but I believe him when he says his illness has helped him on a road to inner peace that he never would have otherwise walked. I suppose that’s why he says on the back of the Lucky Man jacket that if you offered him a a world “in which the ten years since my diagnosis could be magically taken away, traded in for ten more years as the person I was before, I would, without a moment’s hesitation, tell you to take a hike.” However good our luck is and however much we are blessed with, our lives still only reflect our state of mind – that’s a great leveller, when you think about it.

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Shantaram – worth its considerable weight in gold

Shantaram is an autobiographical account of author Gregory David Roberts’ experiences as a fugitive in Bombay, after his escape from a brutal Australian prison where he was serving a long sentence for the armed robberies he carried out whilst in the grip of a heroin addiction. The book is both awe-inspiring and long. Very long. In fact, the only other book I’ve ever read on the same epic scale was War and Peace.

You might think that there’s not much comparison, except in length, and on subject matter I’d agree: the events leading up to the French invasion of Russia seen through the eyes of five aristocratic families versus the events following the escape of a bank robber to India. But bear with me…. these books share more than length, perhaps because of their length. Like War and Peace, Shantaram weaves together the stories of so many different lives that intersect and transform over time, buffeted as they are by fate and circumstance. True, War and Peace spans a far longer period, but like Shantaram it is a detailed snapshot of place – Roberts’ Bombay is as lovingly drawn as Tolstoy’s Russia – and the journeys of the individuals in each book are hazardous and full of drama.

Roberts’ life has been, in many respects, stranger than fiction. In fact, if I’d read this as a novel I would probably have scoffed a lot more. For a start, Roberts comes across as pretty much the hardest man in the world. I lost count of the number of brutal fights he became involved in, and though he came off badly sometimes he never came off the worst. Perhaps I only say this because I am a little girl with soft, unblemished skin, who has led a charmed life but I can’t imagine running headlong into fights the way the author does – he makes Bruce Willis look like a pussy.
But Roberts is not just a hard man. He’s also a deeply sensitive soul who sets up a free medical clinic in a Bombay slum, rescues damsels in distress (even when said damsels are deeply unsavoury characters), smuggles dancing bears across borders when it’s required….the list of his heroic deeds is endless. If you had a friend like Gregory David Roberts (and I doubt many people do) you would know exactly who to call first in any crisis.

Now you might think that this superman sounds dubious, boastful or even full of shit – but you wouldn’t feel like that if you’d read Shantaram. I have. I’ve been living with this book for months. I was reading it when I was on a plane in heavy turbulence and I thought to myself, come on Literary Kitty, get a grip, your chances of dying in the next hour are miniscule compared to his, and he’s keeping cool – no one’s even trying to gun you down.

But I digress – what I was trying to say was that, despite him being as hard as nails, Roberts’ prose is as beautiful as poetry and full of the wisdom of experience. So many times when I was reading this book I wished I had had a pen so I could underline a phrase here or there and remember it. Had I done so there would have been hundreds of quotes. As it is, there is just one, marked with a star drawn in liquid eyeliner (messy – I don’t recommend it) where he says “We can deny the past, but we can’t escape its torment because the past is a speaking shadow that keeps pace with the truth of what we are, step for step, until we die”. Haunting words from a man with quite a past.

Looking back on Shantaram, now I’ve finally returned my dog-eared, tea-stained, water-rippled copy to the shelf, I feel the book had everything – action, wisdom, beauty, laughs, sadness…I could go on. Just like with War and Peace (yeah, that again), you find yourself becoming attached to certain characters – you’ve been reading about them for long enough – and suddenly their lives take an unexpected turn and you’re shocked, horrified – just as you would have been if you’d known them. Roberts is very skilled at drawing his friends and acquaintances – he’s clearly someone who loves people and is fascinated by them and, as such, he takes everything in.

I don’t want to go into too much detail about what happens in the book because I do think that a lot of the excitement hinges on the twists and turns of fate in it. I will say that I loved Prabaker, the cheeky, earnest guide who becomes Roberts’ closest ally, and I never warmed to Karla, his complicated, mysterious love interest. As for Roberts himself, in his various incarnations as Linbaba, Shantaram and Gilbert Parker, I admired him from afar – never entirely feeling that I understood him (I’ll never be a knife-wielding, down-for-anything outlaw with a heart of gold) but always finding truth in his words.

For me, the key feature of this book was how often a phrase or paragraph made me pause, look up and think “that’s so true, even though I’ve never thought to or known how to articulate it”. Would I have wanted to live his life? No. Picking lice from my skin in filthy prisons, being beaten, stabbed, betrayed, seeing my friends die in violent and tragic ways, becoming a fugitive and leaving my entire life, including my child, behind, trading black market medicine with disease-ravaged lepers, starving in a freezing cave in Afghanistan, living in a Bombay slum during a cholera epidemic – none of those appeal to me. I don’t even like to watch wounds being stitched up on TV, never mind having to stitch them up myself on a mountainside with bullets flying all around.

But did I read this account of Roberts’ life – hell, not even that, just a short portion of his life – and think: god, I’m boring? Undoubtedly. If ever there was a man whose life deserved to be published in memoir form, Gregory David Roberts is that man.

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Mad Women – Peggy Olson eat your heart out!

When my friend at Transworld tweeted about Jane Maas’ exciting memoir about the Mad Men-esque world of advertising in the sixties, I knew it would be right up my street so she kindly sent me a review copy. It skipped my to-be-read queue and I started it pretty much straight away, hoping it would be full of salacious tales and amusing anecdotes. Was I right? Well, it was a little bit short on salacious tales – Jane Maas is still a renowned figure in the world of advertising and I guess old habits die hard – no one gets to the top in the advertising (or any other) game by tattling on the people who made them their money. As the Telegraph wryly notes: “She [Maas] must be tougher than she writes herself, but this is advertising.”

Maas even admits that her 1986 book Adventures of an Advertising Woman was largely a piece of advertising in itself and concedes that she glossed over the bad jobs, the bad clients – sometimes to the point of downright lying. So how do we know she’s not doing the same thing from a different angle this time? The answer is that we don’t – nor do we ever with memoirs – but my impression was that Jane Maas was in more of a position to be frank this time. On some topics and on some people she is refreshingly forthright. And if she’s still close-lipped about some things, who can blame her? She’s still very much a woman in a man’s world, as she says at the end of the book when she asks us how much has really changed for working women, especially those with families. Not a lot, seems to be her answer. We still have a long way to go – and I’m sure a lot of modern working women would agree with that.

Mad Men fans will no doubt be curious about the woman described on her book’s jacket as “a real life Peggy Olson” but how similar are they, really? Peggy is lot more acid than Jane, who seems diplomatic and warm throughout; and Jane is certainly more conventional (no jettisoned illegitimate babies in her closet – at least as far as we know). If nothing else, Mad Women is a portrait of a woman who is professional to her core. Without a hint of self-pity she reminds us that in those days if you cried, you did so alone in the privacy of your laundry room and never spoke of it to anyone – even those women in a similar position. Then, even more than now, it did not do for women, already considered the feebler sex, to show weakness.

Despite the praise Maas heaps on her rather lovely-sounding and modern-seeming husband, she doesn’t delve much into her personal life unless it’s necessary to illustrate something professional. So the book gives us the life of Jane Maas the ad-woman but we only ever catch a glimpse of Jane Maas the just-woman. But then Jane Maas is from another era, when there was little space in the life of that rare bird: the working woman, especially if she was also a wife and mother, for a private internal life. Maas is quite frank when talking about this – after career, husband and children (in that order) there simply wasn’t time left for much else.

It fascinated me that Maas was so matter-of-fact about admitting that she may not have been the best mother or given her children enough of her time – as much because she seemed to have no regrets about it as anything else. I’m not saying that being a disinterested mother is to be applauded but it’s telling that a man who spends his life in the office is still regarded as a hard-working provider when his wife, if her career is equivalent is still (and I’m not talking about the sixties now) considered suspect – selfish, hard, a traitor to the mothering sex. (The Daily Mail does a fine line in insipid stories with titles like ‘Beware the Pot-Noodle Mums’.)

In her understated way, Maas is brilliant at illustrating these double standards. She amusingly recalls a beaded curtain she once put up at her office door to echo the creative approaches of her male colleagues at the time… and the horror with which it was greeted by a male visitor who suggested it looked like the entrance to a brothel (Maas quickly took the offending item down).

Other amusing anecdotes (the book was right on the money in this respect) included the delightful retelling of Maas’ experience of working with Roald Dahl and his wife. The man is a literary legend (Matilda was probably the greatest book I ever read as a child – and I read a lot of books) but Maas offers a rare personal slight here: “Roald is a shit” she tells us (although not without explaining why).

Mad Women is full of interesting little snapshots of life in the sixties – Maas recalls being requested for jury service and finding out that women didn’t even have to present a case to be exempt – you could simply tick a box that said ‘because I am a woman’. To someone like me who was born in the mid-eighties it seems shocking but Maas has a much more pragmatic attitude to the whole situation. Like many other women of her generation, she often remarks with a shrug that ‘that’s just the way things were’. Indeed they were – but far be it from me to suggest that Maas and her peers simply stood by and accepted it. (We’re talking about the first woman to ever run her own advertising agency here!) They simply shared a sense that women would only be able to push themselves forward with action, not complaint.

Maas accepts a furniture-mover telling her crossly to let her boss decide where to put the desk in her new office (even though she is the new company president) without so much as batting an eyelid – because that is still the world she lives in. Of course, however right she may be (and I think she is) about women still having a huge uphill battle in the workplace as well as in the domestic arena – it is not lost on me that this is not the world I have to live in. Plenty of people still think that women are not the business equal of men, but they are no longer allowed to say it aloud without potential consequences. It may not be a giant leap, but it is certainly a step forward. And without women like Jane Maas leading the way, gritting their teeth against patronising comments and hiding their tears so as not to be classed as ‘hysterical women’ – would we be so far along today? Somehow I doubt it.

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The Glass Castle – stranger and more captivating than fiction

The Glass Castle is a memoir of journalist Jeannette Walls’ childhood. We begin with the three-year-old Jeannette boiling hot dogs on the stove in her family’s trailer and setting her tutu on fire – an incident that saw her stuck in hospital getting skin grafts until her dad decided to check her out ‘Rex Walls style’ on the grounds that hospitals were for the enfeebled and Jeannette wasn’t that.

From the early days where the family travelled through desert mining towns, sleeping in cardboard boxes and doing ‘the skedaddle’ in the middle of the night due to the latest trouble her wild, charismatic father had gotten himself into, to the author’s adolescent years without indoor plumbing or heating in a ramshackle ‘house’ in dreary Welch, West Virginia, no one could say that the Walls children had a conventional childhood. But this is no misery lit memoir. In fact, there’s no sentimentality about Jeannette’s portrayal of her upbringing at all – she is strikingly matter of fact.

When the family were living in Welch, the wiring in the house was so bad that, on the rare occasions that the electricity bill had been paid, the Wells kids would get severe shocks in the kitchen that they affectionately called “the loose-juice room”. Jeannette recalls: “If we got a shock, we’d announce it to everyone else, sort of like giving a weather report. ‘Big jolt from touching the stove today,’ we’d say. ‘Wear extra rags’”. That’s about as close as the Wells kids get to complaining. I’m serious.

When Jeannette’s buck teeth make her a target for bullies and her mother dismisses the idea of braces, Jeannette makes her own braces out of a coat-hanger, rubber bands and a sanitary pad – and they seem to work. When she moves to a rough New York neighbourhood where she keeps getting mugged, she is completely unfazed, so accustomed is she to fighting, often physically, for survival. “Good job we raised you kids to be tough,” her dad might have said, as he does elsewhere in the book, and it is undeniable that it was often a useful lesson.

When I finished The Glass Castle, the first thing I did was seek out interviews with the author. In the book, she gives surprisingly little away about her feelings and I was curious. In an interview with gothamist.com she says of her first draft of the book that it “was too distanced; I was writing it as a journalist. It wasn’t emotionally raw enough”. I found this interesting because I’d hardly describe the final version as raw or emotional – and for me this was one of its strengths.

Jeannette says she “made a conscious decision not to extrapolate or comment on the events … when something is that complex, it’s reductive to sit there and try to describe it” and I couldn’t agree more. There’s so much raw material in this book that makes you gasp or tear up or smile that you really don’t need to be shunted around by the author. No one needs to try and make you feel anything or any way about the book. Jeannette says “I hope you wouldn’t be able to come away from it without feeling one thing or another, but that’s entirely up to you; it’s sort of a Rorschach test.”

Certainly you can imagine her parents polarising reader opinion. As the author herself says “Some people think my parents are absolute monsters and should’ve had their children taken away from them. Some think they were these great free-spirited creatures who had a lot of wisdom that a lot of parents today don’t.” As for me? I’m somewhere in the middle, able to appreciate the adventures the kids had but well aware that I wouldn’t have wanted them at the expense of eating meals or being able to have a wash before school.

More depressing than the tales of the family’s rootless days in the desert when the kids are young and their parents are still their heroes (even as they sling the family cat from a moving car on the grounds that he wasn’t getting into the spirit of the ‘adventure’) are the days when they return to Rex Walls’ childhood home of Welch. Here, icicles hang from the kitchen ceiling and one unwise step could see the floor fall through; here the kids root around in the rubbish for a school lunch or simply hide in the bathroom to avoid the embarrassment of being seen with no food; here there are a stream of physical and mental battles, not least with the other local kids.

Amidst the demon hunting expeditions with her father, amidst the planning for the beautiful glass castle he was to build, amidst the dancing, the singing, the bits that Jeannette refers to as a ‘magical, surreal childhood where rules don’t apply’, are moments of real desolation. Not eating for days as your mum scoffs a secret supply of chocolate, having to fend off paedophiles with an axe because your parents refuse to close the doors of the house at night (even after the paedophile invasion), having to sleep under a tarpaulin and later a rubber dinghy to stop the winter rain falling onto your bed at night – these things would be tough on any adult, let alone a child.

Then again, if you judge parenting performance by results, you’d have to admit that Rex and Rose Mary Walls must have done something right. Lori is a successful illustrator, Jeannette a journalist and author, Brian a policeman – only the youngest, Maureen, seemed to struggle with getting her life into shape. You could imagine the outcome being far, far worse.  When quizzed on her feelings about the past Jeannette says: “One of the reasons I could write [the book] now is because I am happy with where I am. Ten or fifteen years ago, I was very confused about my feelings toward my mother and my father, and myself”.

The effects, to some extent, have been hard to shake off. She recalls: “When I left home and got married to my first husband, I was overcompensating to get the absolute opposite of what my father had been. There was no way I was gonna hook up with a handsome, manipulative SOB. I got this man who was so risk averse, he never got a driver’s license.” Perhaps this safe choice contributed to the author’s healing. She eventually ended her first marriage (around a year after her father’s death) and married her now-husband, the writer John Taylor, who, she says, was the person who encouraged her to write The Glass Castle.

Walls talks about not wanting or needing to be a victim, and you can see that in her. She has no desire for pity and holds nothing against her parents, accepting her mum as the child she always was (‘When she met my niece, her granddaughter, for the first time, she wasn’t that interested. It’s not a selfishness, it’s an egocentric-ness; there’s a difference’) and loving her father for the things he did give her. When asked in another interview: “Would your father have ever been capable of building the glass castle?” Jeannette replies “As far as I’m concerned, he did build it. It wasn’t a physical structure, but rather a dream: the hope of a better life.” I thought that was rather beautiful, and, when you look at the Walls children’s adult lives, you can see the truth of it.

Jeannette says “I think people are only capable of giving what they know” and I believe in that very much. In different times maybe we would have called Rose Mary Walls amazing – she could have been a strong pioneer woman or a formidable revolutionary. In modern times we see her as crazy – to choose to be homeless when you could live in comfort is beyond the comprehension of most. But, that is who Rose Mary Walls is. Jeannette says: ‘Somebody asked me, is she bipolar? I honestly don’t know. Maybe, it might be, sometimes these psychological disorders, they’re what make people great. You know, Peter the Great, I’m sure that he probably could’ve used medication.’ Well quite.

But returning to the subject of mums, because this book had me ruminating on the nature of motherhood… Lovely Mum bought me this book – and I wonder whether it brought my Nan to mind when she read it. Lovely Mum is very much a Jeannette – a highly efficient, no nonsense lady who appreciates her creature comforts. Jeannette’s parents, meanwhile, remind me of the two similarly wild sides of my Nan. The dad’s fantastical stories (which were probably grounded somewhere in the truth, knowing him), the mum’s whimsical moods and thirst for adventure – she was just like that. Like Jeannette’s parents she treated me like an adult even when I was quite a young child. She would offhand tell you things like “your brother is nicer than you – that’s just his nature” or “your parents are career people, they never should have had children” – but the wonderful thing that this book captures is the truth behind the bald statements.

You could look at Rose Mary’s decision not to sell the diamond ring her kids found even when they were literally starving and freezing and think she was a terrible mother (and I’m not denying that that is indeed poor mothering). You could take all the blunt things she said about her daughter, like: “no one expected you to amount to much.  Lori was the smart one, Maureen the pretty one, and Brian the brave one. You never had much going for you except that you always worked hard” and say she was an unkind mother. But this book goes deeper than that. Without passing judgement, it attempts to give you the whole person.

Jeannette’s dad is both an alcoholic nightmare and a loveable, charismatic genius. Her mother is a selfish, childish handful but also a free-spirited, loving sophisticate. My Nan was an unpredictable, sometimes spiteful creature but also one of the most interesting, wonderful women I have ever met. Ten years after her death, I still miss her all the time. Like Rose Mary, who chose to be homeless rather than do the conventional thing, my Nan only ever slept on the floor, insisting that beds were bad for your back. She gave me my first cigarette, told me all the family secrets and probably told me a lot of fibs. But, as people like Rex, Rose Mary and my Nan remind us, love isn’t a checklist of things that people must do – it doesn’t require anything. It can only be given and when it is returned it is not always in a form we like or recognise – but that’s just tough luck.

Jeannette says “Luck is the hand you’re dealt…and life is the way you play it.” I think that’s very true. She says: “in many ways I was incredibly lucky because I did feel loved and my parents both put a huge emphasis on education and self-esteem”, and you can see that all the way through the book. Because the Wells kids were never given boundaries, they were never told they couldn’t achieve certain things – and in fact they almost all ended up overachieving. So is the Walls method a good blueprint for parenting?

Would I rather have my Nan as my mum – inviting random tramps home to Christmas dinner, telling me a variety of half-true stories about my absent father and struggling to make ends meet? Or would I pick my own fiercely stable mum, organised in all aspects and always ready to be the parent? I’ll stick with my own hand, no doubt.

But I also look at the difference between my mum and me. She is one of the toughest people I know when it comes down to crunch time. When she got cancer, she squashed my blubbering that I was going to come home from university with a ‘don’t be ridiculous’. She shrugs off the memory of being the only one of her peers to grow up in a single parent household. “I just used to tell people my dad was dead.” When my dad lost his job she didn’t even seem to flinch – she just carried on – and that’s a running theme in this book. Whatever happens to Jeannette she just dusts herself off and carries on.

No doubt it was her lack of self-pity that helped her to become the successful journalist and author she is today. She says in the book that, growing up, she loved stories of people battling against the odds – survival stories. I am the same – and hers is one of the best, most riveting and most moving that I have ever read. Among the many wonderful aspects of The Glass Castle, the best is that there are no heroes and no villains among the characters – just real people all playing the hands they were given in the best way they know how, however badly that turns out.

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To read/watch the full interviews with Jeannette Walls visit:

http://conversationsfamouswriters.blogspot.com/2005/10/jeannette-walls-glass-castle.html

http://gothamist.com/2005/05/27/jeannette_walls_author_the_glass_castle_gossip_columnist_msnbccom.php

http://www.5min.com/Video/Jeannette-Walls-Talks-About-Her-Life-500521504

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