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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