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Posts Tagged ‘non-fiction’

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Mike Gayle is known for his fiction writing, but he takes a foray into non-fiction here, and from my personal point of view, it’s a great success. Having finally decided it’s time to become a fully fledged grown-up, Gayle makes a to-do list which ends up with 1277 items (!) and gives himself a year to complete it. Some of the items are the kind of thing we will all be familiar with (such as sort out the drawer which is full of takeaway menus), and then there are a few more unusual items, one of which involves him flying to New York to buy a mug!

The book gives an insight into Gayle’s personal life, and his marriage to his lovely wife Claire. He comes across as likeable, genuine, and the sort of person who you would want to be friends with. I also felt a ripple of pleasure as Gayle lives in Birmingham, which is local to me, and there are several mentions of Wolverhampton, which is my home town.

If you are a fan of Mike Gayle’s fiction – or if you just like an amusing and daft story – then I highly recommend that you give this a go. Lots of laughs, and plenty of relatable moments make this a hugely enjoyable read.

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The word ‘legend’ is bandied about too frequently these days – I’ve seen it used to describe reality tv stars, YouTube ‘stars’ and all manner of others which in truth it should not be used for – but sometimes the word is entirely fitting and Bruce Springsteen is one of those people truly deserving of the title. Whether you like his music or not, his songs are familiar to all, for their stories of blue-collar working class families and their struggles, from the anti-Vietnam protest song Born in the USA, to the Oscar winning Streets of Philadelphia from the groundbreaking 1993 Tom Hanks film about AIDS.

Bruce’s autobiography is a joy to read – not only does he discuss his own working class, blue collar background, and his rise to success, he is also amazingly candid about his struggles with depression and anxiety. He talks with obvious love and gratitude about his wife Patti Scialfa and their three children, and with open-ness about his troubled relationship with his father, who nonetheless he loved and loves very deeply.

His passion for his craft comes through on every page (no surprise to anyone who has listened to his music), as well as his enduring friendships with the many people who he has played with and alongside. I loved that he was starstruck, even at the height of his own success, when meeting the Rolling Stones!

Again – this will be no surprise for anyone who listens to Bruce’s lyrics – but he is a very talented author, likeable and amusing, and unapologetic…not that he has anything to be apologetic about. I always felt that Bruce was one of the good guys, and this book reinforces that view.

If you are a fan of Bruce Springsteen, or if you just really like reading autobiographies, I highly recommend this one.

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In this enjoyable memoir, journalist Phil Hewitt tells how he took on the challenge of running a marathon for charity, and ended up falling in love with marathon running – at the time of writing the book in 2012, he had run 25 marathons, and this book charts his progress (or lack of) in some of his more memorable ones.

Each chapter concentrates mainly on one marathon, and just as in actual life, some days are better than others. Phil Hewitt has run marathons in some amazing cities – London (several times, including his first ever marathon), Dublin, Berlin, Paris, New York, Amsterdam and Rome, to name just a few. In an engaging and chatty style, he discusses the highs and lows of each of these, and also talks about friendships he crafted along the way, as well as lessons he learned about himself and life in general.

As a runner myself, I found his obsession with finishing times entirely understandable – I also totally identified with the way he used little mind games to get himself round the course when the going got tough. I laughed along with him, and felt his pain, and also completely understood why someone would want to put themselves through such a gruelling challenge when, lets face it, there is absolutely no real reason to do so!

I definitely recommend this book, but especially to running enthusiasts.

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Based on the book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterley, which tells the true story of three black female mathematicians who worked at NASA during the Space Race. Katherine Johnson is played by Taraji P Henson, Dorothy Vaughan is played by Octavia Spencer and Mary Jackson is play ed by Janelle Monae. The supporting cast includes Jim Parsons and Kevin Costner.

The film shows a still segregated community where these three inspirational ladies have to withstand sexism and racism in what was very much a white man’s environment. The story of the space race itself is prominent obviously, but more interesting for me at least were the individual stories of these three remarkable women. Lots of moments of humour, and plenty of pathos. I really enjoyed this and highly recommend it.

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Year of release: 2016

Director: Theodore Melfi

Writers: Margot Lee Shetterly (book), Alison Schroeder (screenplay)< Theodore Melfi (screenplay)

Main cast: Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons, Kirsten Dunst

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In this book, author Suzanne Morrison tells the story of how, aged 25, she went to Bali for two months for a yoga retreat – hoping to find the answers to life’s philosophical questions, such as is there a god? and also hoping to find her direction in life. She is preparing to move from her native Seattle to New York with her boyfriend, but there is another man who she just can’t stop thinking about, she is concerned about how much she will miss her family, and hopes that the retreat will provide the answers. (Almost) inevitably things do not turn out how she expects – the yoga instructor who she idolises turns out to have feet of clay and an ego, Suzanne struggles with having to give up alcohol, cigarettes and sugar, and is horrified to discover that her yoga friends all drink their own pee and insist she should do the same. And then there’s the whole issue of household items becoming possessed and needing exorcisms…

I really enjoyed this book, and I think my enjoyment was enhanced by the fact that I personally love yoga, but you definitely don’t need to practice yoga to read this. It is mostly told in diary form, although at the beginning of each chapter, Morrison writes from the present day (the retreat was in 2001) and reflects upon her current life. There are some extremely funny moments – who wouldn’t share her horror at discovering that it’s not coffee that her flatmate is downing every morning?! But there are also some more serious moments, as Morrison questions her faith or lack of, her relationship with boyfriend Jonah, and her purpose in life. She is witty and engaging and I think I would probably like her very much in real life.  I also liked her yoga buddies, especially Jessica and Jason (her flatmate and neighbour). The one person who came out of the book quite badly was the yoga teacher Indra, who to my mind was everything that puts some people off trying yoga. As just one example, the guilt that she piles onto Suzanne and Jessica because they – horror! – had a coconut vanilla milkshake, was completely unreasonable. If I joined a studio that was run by people like Indra and her partner Lou, I’d probably be cancelling my membership pretty quickly!

Lots of laughs and plenty to think about here – I would definitely recommend this book, especially to people who do have their own yoga practice.

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In 2009, journalist Susan Mauhart came to the realisation that her three children – and herself – were over-consuming screen media (tv. computer games, and predominantly the internet). In fact they were positively inhaling it. Fed up of conversations with the backs of their heads, and not being able to do anything as a family because all they all wanted to do was get back to their screens, she imposed a six month moratorium on all screen related media. This book is a journal of those six months as well as studies and observations about the effect of media – particularly social networks – on individuals, and the knock-on effect on family.

The effect on the family are perhaps not unexpected. After the initial shock, the family began to spend more time together, enjoyed lingering family meals where they would talk – genuinely talk – about their day, and they took up new interests (or resurrected old ones). But despite being able to guess pretty much how the family dynamic would change, this book did make it’s point very well. And bear in mind this experiment was in 2009!! Facebook was big but only five years old – and MySpace was still hugely popular. Twitter was just three years old, and neither Instagram nor Pinterest had even been invented. So as obsessed as Susan’s three teenage children – Anni, Bill and Sussy – seemed to be, it was probably nothing compared to the kind of thing you see everywhere today – people of ALL ages walking round, head down, glued to the phone. People sitting in restaurants together, but both distracted by their own screens. Even the rate of people getting knocked over in traffic has risen year over year since 2013, because of what is known as the ‘head-down generation’ – people crossing the road while looking at their screens instead of traffic.

So this book does provide food for thought, taking into account the effect of too much screen time on babies and toddlers as well as older children and teenagers. I personally found Maushart’s writing style to be witty and engaging, and this made it an easy read. As she herself observes, when writing about social media, everything is out of date almost as soon as it’s printed, and this is writing about something that happened eight years ago, but the point it makes is still valid.

For anyone interested in the effect of social media, I would recommend this book.

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A renowned cyberpsychologist (no, I hadn’t heard of that job title either) discusses the impact of the cyberworld which we are all living in, our 24/7 connection to the internet, and the effect that it is having on a generation that are growing up with the internet as a huge part of their lives.

Admittedly, the subtitle of this book, A Pioneering Cyberpsychologist explains how human behaviour changes online – led me to expect something different. I thought it was going to be more about how perfectly decent and reasonable people often descend into bullying, unkind, trolling behaviour when hiding behind the anonymity of their keyboard. There is a chapter that deals with this, but generally speaking the book is more generalised, but still an interesting subject to discuss.

I wanted to read it because I do think this is an important and fascinating subject. Because I find it interesting and upsetting to walk into a restaurant and see a couple eating at the same table, but not really together because both of them have their eyes glued to their phones. Because it’s not unusual to see a group of young friends walking together, each looking at their own smartphone screens. Because there is now a whole wealth of knowledge at people’s fingertips, yet a lot of it is false or biased.

Unfortunately I also found this book to be incredibly biased. Yes, technology is isolating for some people, but there is so much good about it too. Dr Aiken says in the introduction that she wants to keep the book fairly science-light, which she does. This makes it easier to read in many respects, but also means that a lot of what she says comes over as purely her opinion with very little if anything to back it up. There’s a lot of “I would guess…” “It is my belief that…” “I believe…” etc. She does state a couple of times that there are a lot of positives about the internet, but doesn’t really acknowledge what they are, and focusses heavily on the negative.

Some of the subjects raised are vitally important – the aforementioned effect of bullying online, and how it is affecting mainly young people. There was one chapter about the effects of screens at close range to a child’s face and the effect it can have on that child’s vision. Cyberchondria – i.e., the obsessive checking of physical symptoms online and being convinced that you have the most serious disease imaginable. But none of these are new phenomenons. I remember the debates about whether it was right or just lazy to stick a child in front of the tv for very long. Bullying is unfortunately something that has been around as long as humans have, and hypochondria is a long recognised problem for many people – sure the internet has given people a new way to do all of these things, but it hasn’t caused the problems in the first place.

Although there is little anecdotal evidence to support what Dr Aiken says, she does occasionally come up with examples of what she is trying to say – usually tragic, anomalous stories (let’s face it, you can find one story to support almost anything you believe if you look hard enough).

I will say that Dr Aiken has an engaging and readable style and had the book been more balanced I think I would have enjoyed it a lot more. As it was, it comes across as more of a lost opportunity than anything else. An important subject, but a more open-minded discussion would have been nice.

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