Welcome to part 2 of this exposé on my lockdown reading habits and here as promised is a guide to the non-fiction books I’ve been reading this year to feed my life-long hunger for knowledge, skills and culture. I was surprised at the number of books which qualified and so my comments about each of them will have to be brief. The list has also been divided into three distinct groups as suggested by the image above so first of all lets take a look at the upstanding group in the middle.
1. Various Topics.
This first group vary in subject matter although I did consider a further sub-division for the ancient history books but the links were more fuzzy than that. First we have the unexpected best seller from last Christmas, Charlie Mackesy‘s runaway The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse. This beautiful volume of gentle cartoon images and their attendant words could easily have fitted in the fiction list but I found the pages to be thoughtful, inspirational but never preaching. This is surely a self help-book of the most gentle kind.
Next is Mary Beard‘s SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. A comprehensive, but far from being a dry academic telling of the history of the first millennium of ancient Rome. It takes us from the mythical Romulus and Remus in the 8th Century BCE to 212 CE when Roman citizenship was given to every free inhabitant of the empire by Caracalla. SPQR stands for the phrase “Senatus Populusque Romanus”, meaning “The Senate and People of Rome.
Professor Beard was the reason that I chose the next book, on a chance visit to the London Review Bookshop just across the road from the British Museum. Four in a Bed is a small slim volume containing writings on the subject of sex from the pages of The London Review of Books. Eleven authors deal with this diverse subject matter, but for me the most heroic is the recollection by Mary Beard from her graduate student days, of her own rape. The article morphs into an analysis of rape which in Mary’s unique style does not tip-toe through the matter!
Swinging back to ancient Rome, I wanted a guide book in advance of a plan to be in Rome for the Ides of March this year. Covid put paid to that trip, but the book proved to be an excellent reminder of sites visited many years ago. I heartily recommend Strolling Through Rome by Mario Erasmo for anyone in need of a handy guide to the eternal city. Before parting from the topic of Ancient Rome lets take a look at the much vilified classical text The Twelve Caesars by Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, better known simply as Suetonius, or perhaps unsurprisingly by classicists, even more simply as Suet! I had always been led to believe that this set of biographies was so much ‘fake news’. For a fuller account of how I came to change that view and see it as a peek under the petticoats of a great dynasty, take a peek at the blog post I wrote back in August .
This year my garden has been my therapist and I have read many articles on the benefits of gardening and the great outdoors for both mental and physical well-being. For me, the outstanding piece of writing on the subject this year has been Rootbound: Rewilding a Life by Alice Vincent. This book is a touching memoir, botanical history and biography, which examines how bringing a little bit of the outside in can help us find our feet in a world spinning far too fast. It is a joy to read. Staying for a moment with the theme of self preservation, another form of therapy for me has always been cooking and in particular baking. Aside from the ubiquitous banana loaf, one of the cool bakes this year has been the sourdough loaf. For some, the kitchen is a place of mystery, but few things are more likely to reduce a baker to hushed tones that the mystery that is sourdough. In this wonderful little book (with a big title) How to Raise a Loaf and Fall in Love with Sourdough, baker Roly Allen beautifully explores the myth and magic from that alien living creature known as the starter, to the final glorious loaf.
Okay we’re down to the last two books in this group. First is Dr. Michael Mosley‘s Fast Asleep:How to Get a Really Good Night’s Rest. Another subject on which so much has been written lately. If you want a readable account of the science and a host of helpful tips on this topical subject, this is a good place to start. Finally another unexpectedly good read. All That Remains: A Life in Death, by leading professor of anatomy and forensic anthropology, Dame Sue Black. Death and dead bodies are a part of everyday life for this amazing woman. One of my Happiest memories from that magical part of this year pre Covid, was a late-night trip to BBC Broadcasting House where I was a regular attendee at the live broadcasts of Mary Beard’s Cultural chat show Front Row Late. This was the last night of the series and one of the guests was Sue Black. After the show I found myself glass in hand, sitting between the two Dames, Mary and Sue. This highly intelligent and articulate Scottish scientist turned out to also be utterly charming and friendly and I left the gathering determined that I should read her book. I am genuinely glad that I did and I urge anyone with interests in death, forensics, detective/murder stories, professional glass ceilings or even Sottish academia to do the same.
2.Reading and Writing.
The second pile covers two of my favourite subjects. The first and arguably best known of these is On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. Few books have sat in my To-Be-Read pile as long as this has. The book describes King’s experiences as a writer and delivers his advice for aspiring writers. I loved reading about his experience, but reading his advice reminded me that many writers believe that their way is the right way and possibly the only way. Similarly On Writers and Writing comes from Margaret Attwood, an author who needs little introduction. Edited from a series of lectures, the author examines the role of the writer? Prophet? High Priest of Art? Court Jester? Or witness to the real world? Looking back on her own childhood and the development of her writing career, Attwood examines the metaphors which writers of fiction and poetry have used to explain, or excuse, their activities. It is an easy but very insightful read.
The next three books take an altogether more analytical look at the process of writing. In The Science of Story Telling, Will Storr reminds us how much storytelling is an essential part of what makes us human. In this thought-provoking book, Storr demonstrates how master storytellers manipulate and compel us, leading us on a journey from the Hebrew scriptures to Mr Men, from Booker Prize-winning literature to box set TV. The author applies dazzling psychological research and cutting-edge neuroscience to the foundations of our myths and archetypes, he shows how we can use these tools to tell better stories and make sense of our chaotic modern world. I found it a really fascinating read. Next is Writing a Novel by Richard Skinner. This author believes it is the duty of a novelist to bring our whole selves to the page; to write from the gut, not the head, to find your story, not force it; to meet your reader in a spirit of openness. In this very readable book, Skinner offers up frameworks, strategies and stimuli to help you meet that duty, drawing on his deep experience as one of the UK’s leading creative writing teachers. He covers the essentials – narrators, characters and settings with charm and rigour. This book is definitely not a set of instructions: it is a way of thinking, a conversation, a relationship in itself and I highly recommend it. The last of the three ‘how to’ books is First You Write a Sentence, by Joe Moran. To quote from the blurb, “Using minimal technical terms, First You Write a Sentence is his unpedantic but authoritative explanation of how the most ordinary words can be turned into verbal constellations of extraordinary grace. Using sources ranging from the Bible and Shakespeare to George Orwell and Maggie Nelson, and scientific studies of what can best fire the reader’s mind, he shows how we can all write in a way that is clear, compelling and alive.” I loved it and if any writer (or reader) wants one book to help them in their craft let it be this one. The final entry in this category is Power of Reading: From Socrates to Twitter by Frank Furedi. This author is a cultural and social historian who delivers an eclectic and entirely original history of reading. The very act of reading and the choice of reading material endow individuals with an identity that possesses great symbolic significance. This book explores the changing meanings attributed to the act of reading. Although it has an historical perspective, the book`s focus is very much on the culture of reading that prevails in the 21st Century. Furedi argues vigorously for the restoration of the art of reading, declaring it every bit as important as the art of writing. I could never disagree with that.
3. Queer Studies.
The final pile are the books I read in order to immerse myself in the culture of which I am very much a part. I may have lived through and experienced the coming of age of the LGBTQ+ movement but I still like to read other accounts and study other points of view relating to those times. The Velvet Rage: Growing up Gay in a Straight Man’s World by Alan Downs PhD argues that today’s gay man enjoys unprecedented, hard-won social acceptance but serious problems still exist. Substance abuse, depression, suicide, and sex addiction among gay men are at an all-time high, causing many to ask, “Are we really better off?” The book draws on contemporary research and the authors personal story to passionately describe the stages of a gay man’s journey out of shame and offers practical and inspired strategies to stop the cycle of avoidance and self-defeating behaviour. Updated to reflect the effects of the many recent social, cultural, and political changes, The Velvet Rage is an empowering book that has already changed the public discourse on gay culture and helped shape the identity of an entire generation of gay men. In a similar vein comes Matthew Todd‘s, Straight Jacket: Overcoming Society’s Legacy of Gay Shame. This is part memoir and part ground-breaking polemic, Straight Jacket looks beneath the shiny façade of contemporary gay culture and asks if gay people are as happy as they could be – and if not, why not? Even Sir Elton John declared that it should be read by every gay man on the planet!
Next is a classic book from 1996 which I chose to revisit after replacing my long lost copy. PWA: Looking AIDS in the Face, by Oscar Moore is actually a compilation of the author’s column in the Guardian newspaper which gave us moving and informative insights into what it’s like to live with the physical deterioration that AIDS inevitably brings. Humane and witty and written with a tough-minded, dry humour, PWA (Person With AIDS) proved to be a comfort to people, whether touched by illness or not. Parts of this book and the memories it awoke reduced me to tears again.
Straight Expectations by Julie Bindel follows on in some ways from the first two books but it asks what it means to be gay in the era of same-sex marriage and equal rights? More than four decades after the start of the gay liberation movement, lesbians and gay men can legally marry, adopt children, and enjoy the same rights and respect as heterosexuals, or can they? Another great, thought provoking read. Continuing with the idea that the fight is not over, United Queerdom by Dan Glass tells us that injustice is rife and LGBT+ inequality remains. Complete LGBT+ liberation means housing rights, universal healthcare, economic freedom and so much more. Although many people believe queers are now free and should behave, assimilate and become palatable, this activist, author shows that the fight is far from over. My last look at this history came in the form of a great little book which I found when the author appeared at last year’s Hay Literary Festival while I was there. From Prejudice to Pride: A History of the LGBTQ+ Movement by Amy Lamé is a visual feast, filled with photographs documenting LGBTQ+ life from the past and present, and from around the world. Lamé looks at the rise and achievements of the LGBTQ+ movement and the different communities, pioneers and stories of heartbreak and courage that have marched alongside it.
Chance discoveries are matched only by books given as gifts by dear friends. One such was Queer Magic by Tomás Prower. Just as the cover tells us this is a tour of LGBTQ+ spirituality and culture from around the world. Not a book I might have picked up myself but I am so grateful that I was given it because it is a truly fascinating book which delivers great insights into queer relationships and spiritual practices from different historical eras and regions of the world.
The last two books in this pile and in this blog are related to one of my areas of experience, interest and research. First is The Leathermans Protocol Handbook by John D. Weal. Much has been talked about and even fantasised about over many years regarding the protocols and the ‘Old Guard’ but it has rarely been written about. Part of the reason for this is that when Larry Townsend wrote The Leatherman’s Handbook in 1972 most people read it and thought “job done”. However good the handbook was, everyone (including Larry) knew that there were other points of view. This book was published in 2010 and here again the author tells us that it is not the bible of protocols but rather it is a document of his personal journey as a ‘collared’ boy through the latter days of the Old Guard. Much of this history has sadly been lost during the era of HIV, HEP C and Crystal Meth. This book is a fascinating and valuable part of our history recording times which have started to fade. Just a year earlier another book added to the record of those times and experiences. Ask The Man Who Owns Him: The Real Lives of Gay Masters and slaves by david stein and David Schachter (the use of upper case or not is intentional here for a reason) This book does exactly what it says and records, as interviews, the real lives of sixteen Master and slave couples from America and Canada. For those who are used to the BDSM relationships found in erotic fiction this will be a complete surprise since there are no stereotypes here! This again is not the whole story but is a damned big part of it and the book should be read by anyone seeking either the lifestyle or the truth about it.
Wow! That’s over 2.5k words I hadn’t expected to write but I am glad I did.
Next, in Part 3 I will cover the stack of general fiction read this year.