Book Review: My Shitty Twenties

My Shitty Twenties, by Emily Morris, is a memoir focusing on the author’s pregnancy and early years of motherhood. At twenty-two years of age, having just completed her second year of a three year degree course at Manchester University, the author was horrified to discover that she was pregnant. Nevertheless she decided to keep the baby. The father had no interest in either her or his child.

The book recounts how this party loving, messy living student had to defer the university life she loved and work full time whilst continuing to live in shared digs with students. Her mother offered her a room in her childhood home but Emily was reluctant to leave Manchester. Friends and family were supportive but she felt guilty at the prospect of single motherhood instead of a degree.

The account is searingly honest. There is none of the rose tinted, sugar coated wonder prevalent in typical tales of growing a child. This is the reality of a cessation of activities most regard as fun. Emily gave up cigarettes and alcohol. She discovered the long list of banned foods for mothers-to-be, and strangers all too eager to share with her their toxic views on a young, single woman bringing a child into the world alone. Whilst her friends continued to party, Emily grew fat and joined the on line forums frequented by opinionated women, where she learned the passive aggressive language of well-meaning advice.

When the baby was due Emily realised that she would have to move in with her mother. After the euphoria of escape to university this was difficult for all concerned. She would not bow to the popular notion that women should give birth as naturally as possible. She stayed in hospital for as long as they would keep her, eager for the medical professionals’ support.

Once home with her baby Emily endured the loneliness of early motherhood, the difficulties in simply leaving the house with a young child. Health Visitors pressured her into joining mother and baby groups; her experiences of these are painfully recounted. She now had little in common with many of her old friends.

Reluctant to conform to the widely derided stereotype of single mother on benefits, Emily was determined to find a job and fund her own place to live. She learned that employers regard mothers of young children as unreliable, especially when they have no partner to share the burden of the inevitable childhood sicknesses.

When her baby became a toddler Emily decided to use a small inheritance to prove to herself she could still enjoy life despite having a child. She started to find ways to take pride in what she could achieve.

This is not a book about a baby but rather a young woman becoming a mother, who would have preferred not to be single but just about coped anyway. The open and honest style of writing is refreshing and a welcome addition to the often infuriatingly upbeat accounts of parenting, a task that may be rewarding but is rarely easy. Emily’s treatment by the smug mums, signaling their virtues in the guise of advice or minor complaints, reminded me of my own experiences. Guilt and pressure to conform are ever present demons.

Around half of the book recounts the author’s pregnancy with the remainder focusing on the eighteen months after. Although I just occasionally lost engagement, and felt minor irritation when a recollection did not follow the mainly linear construction, this remained an empathetic read that many will relate to.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.

Book Review: Limestone Country

“which came first, geography or history? And where does one end and the other begin?”

Limestone Country, by Fiona Sampson, is the ninth book in Little Toller’s monograph series (you may read my review of Snow, by Marcus Sedgwick, here). These are beautifully written and presented meditations on subjects that impact personally on each of the authors. They are varied in scope but focus on human interactions with the environment and forces of nature. In this work what is offered is a portrait of life in four particular limestone landscapes:

  • Chambon, a farming hamlet in Périgord, southern France;
  • Škocjan in the Karst region of Slovenia;
  • Coleshill, a rural parish in England;
  • Jerusalem, Israel.

 The author has lived in or travelled around these locations and opens each of the four sections of the book with a short personal anecdote from her experiences. They set the scene for a lyrical and sympathetic study of the very different lifestyles of the locals, how these have been established over time, and the natural, cultural and political forces that subject them to change.

“the liveliness of tradition doesn’t come from where and how it originated, but from its use today.”

Locations are steeped in a constantly evolving history. Residents must adapt as generational exposures change. Modern incomers trying to capture whatever drew them to the place with their tidy, sterile renovations may be welcomed but rarely blend in.

As people have fought wars and moved borders there has been a shift in tolerance to certain visitors. This is particularly striking in the Karst region which the author travels with a friend from Macedonia, also a region of the former Yugoslavia, who is made to feel unwelcome by some who would previously have been his countrymen. Yet the land remains largely the same – the woodlands where walkers are warned of bears, the caves which draw tourists and provide income.

“Geological time is incomprehensibly grander than human history.”

There is the seemingly ubiquitous addition of holiday homes for the wealthy offering heritage chic. Visitors are drawn to admire centuries old churches that have survived through iterations of belief, places of cultic pilgrimage containing:

“graves of important figures […] who, like the rich everywhere, seem to have planned on the front row in paradise.”

In Coleshill the author observes how the working English villages have become satellite residences for wealthy metropolitans. Old traditions have been monetised if not valued by landowners such as the National Trust.

“It’s as if the techniques of land work, whether dry-stone walling or game-keeping, don’t count as knowledge if someone has practised them all his life, but only when they’re acquired by someone young and middle-class. The public schoolboy who grows his hair and chooses a holistic lifestyle as a craft worker, and the graduate of land management courses who plans to spend his life in an estate office, are alike in being valued as ‘experts’. Whereas Walter from number 17, now in his 70’s and bow-legged by arthritis after a lifetime of outdoor work, is regarded as merely old-fashioned; a burden to be laid off.”

Kept awake by the B52s taking off and landing from the neighbouring airfield at Fairford the author mulls the payload of death and destruction they carry to regions currently undergoing catastrophic change. From her rural idyll she notes that the cities of which visitors are most in awe

“have been destroyed almost as often as they’ve been rebuilt.”

Jerusalem is one such place. Each of her fellow visitors is there to come away with a personal experience based on their own ideas of what the place has been, the dreams and nightmares that whole societies entertain.

“Those fantasies devour the places they fix on through colonial exploitation, through war and plunder, even through mass tourism. Every city is as much unreal as real.”

Landscapes are formed over millennia and shape the lives of its settlers. These personal adaptations are passed down, altered by events and evolving attitudes but still umbilically tied to home regions. We are each a constituent of where we live, and it of us:

“We make places our own in part by the stories we dream up about them”

This book is a perceptive, thought-provoking observation of nature with man passing through. The exquisite yet substantive prose is a pleasure to read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Little Toller Books.

Book Review: Letters From The Suitcase

Letters From The Suitcase, edited by Rosheen and Cal Finnigan, is exactly what it says on the cover. It chronicles the wartime love story of Rosheen Finnigan’s parents, David and Mary, in epistolary format. The correspondence started in 1938 soon after the couple first met in London. It continues until 1943 when David died of smallpox in India.

The letters are grouped to cover significant changes in the couple’s circumstances over the years. Each chapter is prefaced with a short introduction by Rosheen putting the letters that follow into context. Although the world was changing around them due to the Second World War, many of the letters contain details of the minutiae of their day to day lives alongside ceaseless outpourings of their love for each other.

At the beginning of the book Rosheen explains how she was first given the letters just prior to her mother’s death. She had not previously understood the intensity of her parents’ relationship which flourished despite the fact they spent much of their married life apart. An epilogue explains how reading the letters enabled Rosheen to understand how important she had been to both David and Mary. This was a moving denouement to what is a lengthy work.

Mary was a feisty young woman determined to live her own life even after marriage and motherhood. She suffered depressive periods and would call David out if she did not feel supported. David seemed more typical of the period with his concerns that she retain her slim figure, although his love for her and desire for her wider well-being are clear. They both reference a mutually satisfying sex life and there is jealousy if any unfaithfulness is suspected.

The letters are deeply personal and provide a picture of day to day life during a war. As well as the loneliness of separation there are financial hardships. These do not prevent them from enjoying a lively social life both when together and with their many friends. They reference books read, films watched and the politics of the day. Privations are mentioned although the letters are written with largely good humour.

Despite some interest in the wartime detail this was not a book for me. I found the letters repetitive and the book overly long. I had hoped for something along the lines of Chris Cleeve’s Everyone Brave Is Forgiven. I can understand their value to Rosheen, but these letters did not provide enough to keep me interested for close to five hundred pages.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Tinder Press.

Book Review: Signal Failure

Signal Failure, by Tom Jeffreys, is a considered and often wry discourse on the impact of environmental change written after the author walked from London to Birmingham along the proposed route of the HS2 railway line. He writes of the aesthetics of the places he passes through and summarises discussions he had with a variety of individuals he met along the way. There are both financial and emotional aspects to their opinions about HS2. Some see potential benefits. Many object and struggle with the impotence they feel.

The narrative is not presented as an expert assessment but rather as the musings of an interested observer. As the author walks he has time to mull many aspects of the changes huge infrastructure projects can herald and the human reaction when a way of living comes under threat.

“Some of this walk will be about clinging on to the past; some about navigating the future.”

Jefferys set out on this walk with an idea but an apparent lack of experience of such an undertaking. He suffered from an over heavy rucksack and irrational fears when alone at night in his tent. He claims not to be a nature writer due to his lack of detailed knowledge but this means his thought processes are accessable. His reflections are interesting for their cogitation but also their ordinariness.

“For this walk I was keen to retain that sense of adventure, of an openess to the unknown”

Many of the arguments against HS2 are based on nostalgia, a desire to retain a vista or the bonds of community in which residents have invested. To be heard by those in authority these must be presented in quantifiable terms.

For example, in considering the impact on a well used and locally valued regional park an employee emphasises:

“the importance of usefulness […] the reduction of nature’s great complexity, its vast unknowability, to the level of a resource – to serve a single purpose or function. Nature as utility, valued only insofar as it serves a human purpose.”

This commodified idea of the English countryside does not promote untidy wildness but rather a taming of nature. Parks, farmland, managed forests and picturesque villages are all manmade.

Throughout the walk Jeffreys observes red kites, a species recently reintroduced by the RSPB.

“In a sense, their frequency detracts from what was once a splendid sight – although perhaps that reflects a misjudged appreciation of nature, whereby scarcity equates to importance, within the skewed economies of the collector.”

As miles are covered what is noticed is that working landscapes create their own aesthetics. There are fields filled with crops and livestock, pylons, roads and winding canals. He walks paths that follow abandoned railway lines. Enthusiasts have preserved some of these along with their accoutrements and appropriate steam trains.

A vast infrastructure project such as HS2 will bring massive disruption lasting many years. It will cut through what is considered beautiful countryside damaging the flora and fauna as well as established communities. That local residents resent this unwanted invasion is understandable, but the author ponders if this is reason enough not to go ahead.

Jeffreys passes by the results of other projects – landfill sites, a massive waste incinerator, electrical substations:

“the countryside, as I’ve already learnt, is not some zone of pristine purity. We have already altered it beyond belief with our agriculture, our transport, our waste.”

Over time, change is inevitable and sometimes for the better although there are will be certain losers in any transition. Jeffreys observes listed buildings and preserved parklands, neatly manicured and maintained. He mentions slum dwellings swept away and wonders where the occupants went and how they felt. In looking back, especially at the heavy industries in and around Birmingham, not all that is gone is to be mourned. He wonders which of our many pasts we wish to retain.

HS2 will have the greatest impact on those who value the tranquility of their lives along the proposed route. The line will be used by those who can afford it with any benefits accrued long term. What this book offers is not so much an opinion on this particular project as an eminently readable wider vision of how and why a variety of people value the environment in which they choose to live and play. Whether any change will ultimately be for good or ill, and whether it will then be considered worth the cultural and economic cost, is a layered and complex question. The reader is not offered answers so much as a broader understanding of the picture beyond that which invested parties wish to frame.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Influx Press.

Book Review: The Secret History of The Jungle Book

The Secret History of The Jungle Book, by Swati Singh, is a fresh if brief consideration of Rudyard Kipling and, arguably, his most famous creation. It is divided into three parts which look at: The Jungle Book’s popularity, reach and longevity; the man who wrote it; what his character, Mowgli, can teach us today. It explores the possible inspiration for the work of a hugely successful author – Kipling was the first British writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature – who carefully guarded his privacy. Kipling was decried as an imperialist, accused of being a Nazi, yet his personal story is more nuanced than these angry accusations.

Kipling was born in India and raised until he was six years old by his family’s servants. He will have been told myths and stories of the adopted land he loved in these formative years, many of which he wove into his later work. The following six years were a miserable and life altering experience. Sent to Southend to be raised and schooled as an Englishman he was fostered by a couple whose cruelties taught him the harsh realities of abandonment and survival. He returned to India as soon as he could wrest back control, to apprentice as a journalist.

Kipling’s adult life was punctuated by tragedy – two of his children pre-deceased him. His sister suffered a mental breakdown and he had a serious falling out with his brother-in-law which drove him from America. India remained his muse and his daemon, despite only living there sporadically. He described it as ‘the only real home I had yet known.’

Kiplings literary genius was often marred by prejudiced leanings regarding races and nations yet he rarely seems to have felt a part of wherever he lived. Likewise Mowgli, much moreso in his books than in the popular Disney film, struggled with a desire to belong in the jungle despite knowing he was a man, not the wolf he had been raised.

The author mulls how his story may be applied today:

“Mowgli was born in the golden dawn of the era of globalisation, when the progress of science and technology had started opening up the boundaries of the world. In the present scenario, as technology brings the communities of the world into instant contact with the click of a mouse, our world truly becomes a global village. But the flipside of this technology boom is the way in which the diversity of our world is often in an open confrontation which makes our world more of a global jungle than a global village, where the ruthless law of nature gives sustenance only to those ideas that it deems the fittest.”

Manuel Castells says in The Information Age: “Our world and our lives are being shaped by the conflicting trends of globalisation and identity.”

When we read the Law of the Jungle, we realise how the Mowgli stories were not merely an allegory for the empire for Kipling, but more the allegory of life itself.

The author’s arguments are sympathetic to a man who has a tarnished reputation yet wrote stories that still entertain readers and provide pleasure. Having read this discourse I am left pondering: if an artist should be judged for what he is rather than that which he creates; who arbitrates what is acceptable given evolving rules of cultural acceptability; how deeply we should dissect literature rather than simply enjoying a good read.

   

 

Book Review: The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen

The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen, by Hope Nicholson, is a fun and informative history of nine decades of North American comic books, concentrating on the female characters portrayed therein and their evolution. As I have come to expect from Quirk Books this is a well presented publication. It is laced with humour and appreciation for the form, written by an author who knows her subject and engenders enthusism in her readers – even one like myself who started knowing little more about comic books than can be gleaned from the films and TV shows they have inspired over many years.

Divided into nine chapters, one for each of the decades covered, these start with a summary of key developments in comic book creation and dissemination over the time period. There follows an introduction to a number of individual female characters who first appeared in the decade, whose stories highlight the trends of their times. Illustrations are included of the subjects in action. This is not intended to be a definitive list but rather a representation of changes in the industry.

Comic books were first created for titillation and in many ways this has not changed. Apart from in the 1940s, when there was a shortage of men due to war, female writers and artists have been in the minority although they have always contributed.

The 1950s brought a new puritanism and a Comics Code of Authority was introduced. This clampdown on permissiveness led many to believe comics were only for kids. Storylines could still be suspect with romances between teachers and pupils, children and adults, going unquestioned. It was accepted that clothes would be torn off in combat and sexual attentions forced when not freely given.

Comic book stories are often improbable and somewhat silly but this need not detract from the readers enjoyment. The artwork is generally excellent even if impractical costumes and curvaceous figures feed the white, male, hetero illusion of desired femininity.

The 1970s saw a return of sexually explicit publications as an underground movement was created. By the 1980s comic books had moved off the news stands and into Comic Book Stores leading to a dwindling female readership. This situation was turned around with the growth in conventions which enabled women to connect with fellow fans away from the boys club atmosphere of the store. As webcomics have been developed female readership has once again markedly increased.

Although these changes have enabled more diversity, which doesn’t go down well in certain quarters, there is still oversexualisation of characters, gratuitous violence and comic books being created as porn. However, there have always been a wide array of genres – romance, fantasy and snarky teens as well as superheroes. I learned that Margaret Atwood has made some fairly silly comics too.

This book was an education on a type of publication I have had little exposure to, a celebration that accepts the criticisms of many of the common forms and depictions. I now have an increased affinity with certain types of comic book afficionados. Most of all though, it was an interesting read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Quirk.

Book Review: Scandal

Scandal, by David Boyle, looks back at the time when Victorian society decided that homosexual behaviour should be criminalised and investigates why.  The research was inspired by the author’s great-great-grandfather, a respected banker and Justice of the Peace living with his wife and children in Dublin, who fled beyond British jurisdiction in 1884 when several of his known associates where put on trial in what became known as the Dublin Scandals. At that time sodomy was a crime but proving such a private act had occured was difficult. The Dublin Scandals were significant because they reported the facts of homosexual behaviour in newspapers and thereby whipped up public indignation.

The time frame was also a factor. Feminists were campaigning against child abuse, citing examples of pre-teen girls being sold by their poverty stricken families to brothels. Sexual behaviour was being discussed as never before and a prurient readership was agog. The perceived decadence of the arts, personified by those who circled Oscar Wilde, engendered moral outrage in their detractors. With public feeling behind the influentials who wished to drag down a bohemian elite, the stage was set to amend the law in regard to sexual behaviour, and to make gay sex a crime.

The details of the history are fascinating. These are wrapped around the author’s analysis of the life of his great-great-grandfather, Richard Boyle. Within the Boyle family archives, Richard had been erased and the author did not know why. What emerged when he went looking were links to the Dublin gay scene and a subsequent warrant issued for Richard’s arrest.

The known facts of Richard’s life are presented with gaps filled in by suppositions based on his contemporaries and their reported behaviours. I found some of these sections a touch too whimsical. Nevertheless, what emerges is an idea of the impact the change in the law had at the time.

“Society in the 1890s was caught in the tension between the drive, not perhaps so much for purity, but for the possibility of innocence – and the drive for some kind of self-determination, self-definition. We are too: they are the two sides of any kind of gender or sexual politics – part demanding to take part, part demanding the right to refuse. These are not contradictory causes, but they tend to attract different kinds of people to the campaign.”

The desire to protect children from adult sexual proclivities was taken advantage of by those who hated homosexuals. Examples are cited of the unintended consequences, personal and political.

The writing style is patchy in places as it jumps between the investigative reporting and family history. This is still though an interesting read.