Non-Fiction Challenge – The Hell Of It All – Charlie Brooker

2016 Nonfiction Challenge

Genre: Cultural Comment, Journalism, Humour

Narrative Style: First person opinion pieces

Rating: 5/5

Format: Kindle51i2ihfnmml-_sx315_bo1204203200_

Published: 2009

Synopsis: A collection of Brooker’s columns for The Guardian. Subject matter ranges from Celebrity Big Brother to The State of Gordon Brown to Holidays to The Apprentice. Filled with Brooker’s trademark snarky ire. 

Reading Challenges: Non-fiction Challenge

I probably ought to admit that I bought this book because it was cheap for Kindle and I didn’t investigate any further than that. I’m rather fond of Brooker’s grumpy brand of pessimism so I was quite excited by its cheap price. However, it transpires that it was from 2008-9 so it was a little weird to be reading about things from that long ago. Still, it didn’t stop it from being enjoyable although I did sometimes wonder if I’d been asleep throughout that time as I couldn’t remember everything that he was talking about.

It also felt a little surreal. There are columns here on the vacuity of celebrity culture, on the horribleness of politicians, on the racism of the BNP, the global financial meltdown, and the way people over-react to everything. Reading it from the vantage point of 2016, it felt like these were our halcyon days. If Brooker was this angry then, his head must explode every time he switches on the news these days.

There are many laugh out loud moments such as when he suggests that breathing is the only hobby he is likely to be able to cope with or when he describes the woeful attempts of crisp manufacturers to delight us with new flavours or his opinion on nightclubs (he doesn’t like them much, in case you wondered).Or when he describes his lazy attitude to household tasks which leads him to have to live by the light of his fridge when he fails to buy lightbulbs. As my husband and I are currently down to two out of four lights in the kitchen and are involved in a protracted game of lightbulb chicken, this definitely resonated.

Like reading Owen Jones’ Chavs, it is always good to remember that there are journalists who I can agree with and who give voice to the things that trouble me. Especially at times like these.

 

Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Classes by Owen Jones

2016eclecticreader_bookdout2016 Nonfiction Challenge

Genre: Journalism, politics

Narrative Style: Academic

Rating: 5/5unknown-1

Format:paperback

Published: 2011

Synopsis: Jones investigates where our current image of the working classes as layabout, trouble making chavs has come from. He analyses political decisions made by Thatcher, New Labour and the current Tories as well as analysing newspaper headlines and shows such as Little Britain.

Reading Challenges: Non-Fiction Challenge, Eclectic Reader Challenge – Genre Investigative Journalism

When it comes up in conversation, I tend to say that I come from a working class background rather than I am working class. There are two reasons for this. First of all, I now have a lot of the trappings of a middle class life. I’m a teacher, I live in suburbia, I read the Guardian and have a veg box delivered and people are keen to point that out. I don’t really believe that class is something that you shrug off the minute that you start to earn more money. Just like if you are upper class and you lose all your money, you are still upper class, you just have no money. It makes more sense when you think about it that way round but it is just as true of working class people who have climbed up the ladder a little bit.

The other reason is less pleasant. I want to disassociate myself from the popular image of the working class chav. I want to say I’m working class like it was perceived 30 years ago when I was growing up rather than working class as it is perceived now. Having read Owen Jones’ book, I feel more than a little ashamed of myself.

It’s not that the things that Jones discusses were news  to me and it’s not like I’m supportive of measures to cut benefits but it is easy to forget that there are genuine reasons and real people behind the stereotypes.

Jones outlines the systematic destruction of working class culture by first, Thatcherism, then New Labour and finally, the Tories again. It is easy to see how this program of cultural demolition has pushed many of the working classes into the open arms of the far right. The role that Labour used to play in many working class communities has left the ideal space for the BNP and UKIP. Cleverly, the BNP have started to play a community role in some of these areas, organising events and dealing with problems.

As Jones points out, the demonisation of the working classes has allowed this Government the most almighty get out clause. It has allowed them to avoid dealing with tax evasion, instead focusing the public’s eye on the much smaller problem of benefit fraud. It paints working class people as lazy and shiftless rather than deal with the fact that there aren’t enough jobs and a lot of the jobs there are are insecure. Focusing working class minds on the problem of immigration has allowed them to avoid putting in place legislation which would stop businesses being able to pay lower wages to immigrants. The list goes on, each item more deplorable than the last.

It is very easy to see why immigration is seen as such a big problem in working class communities. Of course, it would be easy to dismiss this as racism but as Jones points out, this is a far more complex problem than that. Immigrants who are willing to work for a low wage – but probably higher than they were earning at home – drag the entire job market down. Similarly, immigrants are less concerned about having permanent contracts so jobs become more insecure. It is in this atmosphere that parties such as the BNP and UKIP thrive, playing ruthlessly as they do on these insecurities.

Jones describes an experience he had while knocking on doors during the run up to the 2010 election. He describes what seems like a normal working class conversation about immigration except that the woman was Asian. I had a similar experience more recently in the run up to the Brexit referendum. Pupils were very keen to share their opinions (or their parents’ opinions, I suppose.) One Asian pupil was particularly vocal about how we should leave so we could get rid of all the immigrants. There was no point in saying that at some point, somewhere in his family history, they must have emigrated to this country. At the time, I was annoyed with him, I must admit. It seemed unfair that he should wish to stop the very process that had at some stage brought his family to this country. Having read, Jones’ book, I feel like I understand a little more. It is to do with feeling threatened and insecure and that is the motivating factor for the working classes and the issue of immigration, not racism.

After reading this, it is easy to see why so many working class people voted for Brexit. At the mercy of right wing politicians who made promises they could not keep and abandoned by mainstream politics, it is little wonder so many voted to leave. It is the logical result of the systematic ruin of working class communities.

Jones is rightly angry and after reading this book, you will be too. It is frustrating to think that things are only going to get worse when we eventually leave Europe. Brexit will compound problems in working class communities without actually doing any of the things that it promised to do about immigration.

One thing is for sure, this idea that we are all middle class now or that class no longer exists is a big lie. It is unlikely to be challenged any time soon, as it is so helpful to the Government. I’m not sure what the answer to all this is. A stronger Labour party who were genuinely concerned about working class issues would be a start but until they can stop all the in-fighting, that doesn’t seem all that likely.

The Non-Fiction Challenge – The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

2016 Nonfiction Challenge

Genre: Non-Fiction, Philosophy, Science

Narrative Style: First person, scientific and philosophical discussion

Rating 4/5

Format: Paperback9781846570377

Published: 2006

Synopsis: Dawkins endeavours to explain where our need for religion comes from evolutionally and why he is so passionately against religion. He explores the morality of the bible in close detail as well as looking at the psychology of religion. 

It’s hard to know whether Richard Dawkins is better known as a biologist or as a religion hating atheist. As such, I was keen to read this work. I am familiar with Dawkins writing having read The Selfish Gene and The Greatest Show on Earth previously.

At the beginning of the book, Dawkins explained some of the reasons he is so against religion and his tone was almost preacherly as he called for atheists to band together in order to challenge religion’s privileged position in modern society. This tone, accompanied by Dawkins superior attitude towards anyone who believes, is what most people find difficult about Dawkins when he talks about religion. Indeed, I was a bit troubled by it myself. I don’t think it helps that religious people feel Dawkins looks down on them. Dawkins calls himself passionate and that is fine but it doesn’t mean that everyone has to agree with you. It seemed ironic that he should be asking atheists to band together – to form a religion as it were. There is a further reason why I think this will never happen. For me, and I am sure other atheists, part of the reason for not belonging to a religion has to do with not wanting to be a member of an organised group.

Thankfully, this polemic does not carry on throughout the whole book otherwise I think I would have stopped reading. Instead, Dawkins moved on to what he is good at – talking about science. He discusses how he feels that religion has developed in an evolutionary sense and what it might mean about humans psychologically that we seem to need a God figure. He also assesses whether we really do use the Bible as a guide to morality and finally what he feels to be the worse problems with religion. This is really interesting and as  I already consider myself an atheist so I could consider Dawkins evidence quite dispassionately.

Towards the end, Dawkins advocates stopping adults passing their religion on to their children an act he considers a form of child abuse. I have to admit that this made me a little uncomfortable. While I understand that children can suffer because of their parents’ beliefs, I feel that this would be a huge infringement of personal freedom and would probably be unenforceable anyway.

Ultimately Dawkins misunderstands the nature and strength of belief. After all, the whole point of having faith is that you have faith. All the reasoned arguments in the world are not going to change that. This would seem to be borne out by the reviews of this book on Goodreads which seem to be split along religious lines. If you believe, this book makes no difference. Personally, I don’t have an issue with religion in most of the ways I come across it. Most of the people I know who are religious are kind, loving and don’t feel the need to foist their religion on to others. Perhaps it is naive of me to separate this from the problems – war, homophobia, abortion doctor killing extremists – but that is how I feel. I don’tthink Dawkins would approve.

The Non Fiction Challenge – Just Kids – Patti Smith

2016 Nonfiction Challenge

Genre: Autobiography / Memoir

Narrative Style: First personUnknown

Rating: 4/5

Published: 2010

Format: Paperback

Reading Challenges: The Non Fiction Challenge

Synopsis: Patti tells of her relationship with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe and their time in New York in the late sixties and early seventies, just before both of them became famous. 

It is apt that I discovered Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe together and to me they have always come as a pair. In 1992, my then boyfriend bought a copy of Horses (On vinyl, of course. That’s the sort of students we were.) and we rushed home to listen to it. The music blew me away. I had never heard anything like it. But I was also really taken with the photo of Patti on the front (taken by Mapplethorpe) which seemed to encapsulate something of the music. Patti was all PattiSmithHorsesmasculine elegance, a look I was trying – with less success – to pull of myself. (This was a time when I thought I was Jim Morrison and wandered around in outsize men’s shirts and leather trousers.) I quickly discovered it was by Robert and was soon as fascinated by his photography as I was by Patti’s music.

I knew a little of their relationship already, having read a biography of Patti Smith some years ago but it was interesting to hear it from the horse’s mouth, as it were. It isn’t just the relationship between Patti and Robert that is so interesting but also her description of the times which saw them mixing with Warhol and the members of The Factory and staying at the Chelsea Hotel to name but two things.

Of course, the whole thing is tinged with sadness. At the end, Patti says that Robert asked her to write the story of them and it had taken her until then to be strong enough to do it. (He died in 1989 and this was published in 2010) Her longing for Robert to still be alive is in every word of this and it seems apparent that she misses him still. When I was approaching the end, I found myself preparing for the horror of his death. My relationship with his work has always been tinged with sadness as by the time I discovered him, he was already dead and I was sad to think there would never be any new work from this amazing artist. It was an emotional end and not at all easy to read. You get a real sense of how difficult it must have been for Patti to carry on afterwards.

 

The Non-Fiction Challenge – We of the Never Never – Jeannie Gunn

2016 Nonfiction Challenge

Genre: Autobiography / memoir

Narrative Style: First person, chronological

Rating: 3/5

Published: 1908Unknown

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Jeannie Gunn is newly married and has moved out to Elsey Station with her husband. This is an account of the first year. Although published as a novel, the work is recognised as being autobiographical. Jeannie changed the names of the principal characters to keep their identity secret.

I must admit, I thought I might enjoy this more than I did. It does give a strong impression of what life must have been like in the Never Never. The difficulties are described vividly and I know that I would not have been able to cope. Jeannie herself is a strong character who faces all challenges head on including the attitudes of the men already at the station.

The problem is there is no real tension. Events never build to a climax nor is there any sense of real danger. Jeannie is unrelentingly cheerful no matter what is thrown at her and that is a little wearing as well.

I found it hard to keep in my head who was who and I would have preferred it if the others had real names rather than the Dandy, the Quiet Stockman and so on. I found I couldn’t distinguish between them or get a handle on what they were like.

Finally, there is a liberal use of the N-word and that was a little hard to take even when I know that it wasn’t racially charged in the same way it is now. Events such as the ‘nigger-hunt’ are described as if it were merely a picnic and not a potentially lethal clash between white and black.

As a historical document, this is interesting and shows what life was like at that time. As a casual read, it wasn’t a lot of fun.

The Power of Beauty – Nancy Friday

2016eclecticreader_bookdout2016 Nonfiction Challenge

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Genre: Psychology, feminism

Narrative Style: Informal, first person

Rating: 2/5

Published: 1997

Format: Hardback

Synopsis: Friday analyses the way beauty effects female lives. She uses psychoanalysis to investigate events early in her own life that she feels have held her – and all women – back. She uses anecdote and fictional examples to support her ideas.

Challenges: Eclectic Reader Challenge and Non Fiction Challenge

This book was a slog. I very nearly didn’t finish it. (It took me a month to read it, I was that irritated with it and it has gone straight on the charity pile.) The main problem is Friday’s tone. She sounds hard done by – especially in the early chapters. She blames a lot of her issues on problems with her early childhood. Her father abandoned their family and she felt her mother loved her sister more as she was prettier. This lack of loving gaze meant that Friday was lacking in confidence about her looks. This seems disingenuous when you look at the author picture and Friday is indeed a beautiful woman. She later says that by the time her looks came in, it was too late for her to believe that she was beautiful. She uses psychoanalysis to help her understand how her formative years were so important in making her the person she is. To a certain extent this is fine. I am happy to agree that psychoanalysis is a useful therapeutic tool but Friday takes this one step further. She then extrapolates from her personal experience to all women lacking the gaze from their mothers. My own experience of childhood was completely different from Friday’s. My father was very much involved in childrearing and my mother worked because she had to. How can Friday assume that my issues will be the same as hers?

Friday does seem to see all women as being the same as her. That is white, privileged, straight and American. She sees gender as the only issue affecting women and men. (And men are masculine and women are feminine in this little world.) All of the examples she gives are from the business world or from friends who are writers and artists. Hardly representative of the whole human race. Which is also fine but if you are going to talk about all women, perhaps you should think about what that really means.

At one point, Friday talks about sexual harassment in the office. Instead of blaming men, she says, we ought to think about how women have changed the atmosphere of the office by coming in to work dressed sexually and making it hard for men to understand the new rules of the office. There may be some truth to this. Undoubtedly more women being in the office has changed the dynamic between men and women but lets not let men completely off the hook. Harassment suggested a sustained campaign. Sexy clothes are no excuse for that sort of behaviour.

Similarly, when Friday talks about the media and its affect on women’s perception of beauty, she seems to let the media off the hook as well. She says that women aren’t so easily brainwashed. Well, true, women can think for themselves but there is also no doubt that the media influences how we feel about and see beauty around us. How Friday can discuss beauty for older women and not challenge the way beauty is seen in the media as a youthful characteristic, I do not know. Again, she puts the blame squarely at the feet of other women without stopping to think about what may make women act in this way.

Rightly, Friday says that we shouldn’t blame men for all of our ills. I remember being thoroughly depressed by some of the authors she mentions – Dworkin and McKinnon, for example. But instead of suggesting that patriarchy affects all of us, she goes on instead to blame other women. This is no more helpful that saying all men are evil. It is finding just another scapegoat instead of actually challenging any of patriarchy’s expectations.

Overall, I was disappointed with how personal this book was. I enjoy reading about others’ experiences, however, this was not an autobiography, this was supposed to be about men, women and beauty. Really it is just about Nancy Friday.

 

 

Non Fiction Reading Challenge – My Own Story – Emmeline Pankhurst

2016 Nonfiction Challenge

Genre: Autobiography / memoir

Narrative Style: First person

Rating: 4/5

Published: 1914

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: A personal account of the meetings and actions of the W.S.P.U. and also an explanation for these actions. 

Reading Challenge: The Non Fiction Challenge.

When I was a student, I did some modules on the suffragettes and when the film came out last year, it re-sparked my interest in this part of history. So when this came up on Amazon, I didn’t hesitate.

It was a very good read. It showed the power and passion of Pankhurst herself as well as the rest of the W.S.P.U. quite clearly. Pankhurst seems to have been an incredibly charismatic leader as well as being clearly intelligent and determined. She must have been a force to be reckoned with.

In one sense, this is an uplifting read. I’m not sure that I could have kept going in the face of forcible feeding and the cat and mouse act but these women were not going give up, no matter what. It was inspiring to think of them fighting back especially considering they had no real political power. They had to find other means to make their voices heard.

For the most part though, it is a difficult read. Pankhurst writes of thirst and sleep strikes where she was so weak she could barely stand but still she attempted to walk the length of her cell and not rest. The politicians do not come out of this well. Lloyd-George and Asquith particularly prove themselves to be duplicitous and uncaring. They treated the women as if they were hysterical and ignored their demands whereas male rebels (such as those in Ireland who opposed home rule) were taken seriously.

Mrs Pankhurst’s style is conversational and so is easy to read. However, speeches and political discussions are often recorded in full and are sometimes a little dry. There is a lot of talk about motives for action but the actions themselves are not always described. This slows the pace a little. However, as an insight in the workings of such an important political organisation, it is definitely worth the read.