Meanwhile in week 2, we turn our attention to Short Non-Fiction, a better term than novella for NF. Once more, here is a section of posts from my archives of books that fit the bill…
Play All by Clive James
Whatever is happening outside, a Clive James book is always a comfort to read. I grew up reading his TV reviews in the Observer every weekend – looking forward to the ways he was able to dissect both high and low culture with perspicacity and wit. He returned to TV for this book (2016) – but the special kind of TV that is the ‘box set’.
Binge-watching box sets with his daughters, James has four favourites which he bases the book around – those on the cover, namely: Game of Thrones, Band of Brothers, The West Wing and The Sopranos. He begins with the latter, describing James Gandolfini as a ‘magnetic mountain’, and eulogises Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, waxing lyrical about Allison Janney as Press Secretary CJ Cregg…
In The West Wing, Allison Janney got hours on end to prove that she could talk like Rosalind Russell, Irene Dunne, Jean Arthur and Katharine Hepburn all sharing the one table at the Brown Derby.
This book was wonderful. That golden period of American TV series pre-streaming was magic and James is always entertaining and eloquentas well as thought-provoking in his inimitable way. I wonder what he’d have made of Squid Game?
Shockaholic by Carrie Fisher
Rather than write a full memoir, the much-missed Carrie wrote several volumes recounting assorted episodes from her life. Shockaholic (2011) followed Wishful Drinking (which was derived from her stageshow). It begins with her account of undergoing ECT (Electro Convulsive Therapy) for her bipolar disorder, which while much less invasive being carried out under mild anaesthesia is still a treatment of last resort. It blows away many of the effects of depression and mania, but at the cost of memory – mostly recent memory and an inability to form new memories for a short period.
However, once that episode is out of the way, she waxes lyrical about dating a senator, the ‘otherly’ Michael Jackson, having Liz Taylor as a stepmum, and her father, particularly as he neared the end of his life. Shockaholic is still just as wise-cracking but, tempered by the loss of her father, comes across as more thoughtful in tone.
Where Shall We Run To? by Alan Garner
Living legend, Alan Garner’s brief childhood memoir published in 2018 is a delight. Technically, it’s just over 200 pages – but there are plenty of blank pages and the well-spaced text brings it into the short NF range. This memoir is set in Cheshire where Garner grew-up during WWII, and has rarely left since. There is a cast of recurring characters including the local bobby and assorted teachers, plus evacuees and the Yanks! Garner was both cheeky and a self-proclaimed bit of a ‘mardy-arse’, a whinger, and had several spells in hospital as a child – where he read and read.
This is a delightful memoir, told with much humour, of episodes from a bygone age when children could roam free to play once outside the school gates. Three additional chapters at the end append stories from 1955, 1974 and 2001 that echo back to three of the previous chapters and ultimately show how the beginnings of Garner’s fascination with Alderley Edge would later take full-flight after this time of innocence.
And you can see some of the resonances from his childhood memoir in his new novella Treacle Walker (which I’ll be reviewing soon).
William Blake Now: Why He Matters More Than Ever by John Higgs
William Blake seems to exert a hold on people in a way that our greatest authors can’t hope for? He was multi-talented, being a poet, an artist and printmaker too. Regarded as a forerunner of the Romantic movement, his visionary and philosophical words and art, deeply Christian yet infused with mysticism, were largely unregarded during his life. He died in 1827, during the reign of William IV, (so he wasn’t Victorian).
But once Blake was rediscovered by the Pre-Raphaelites amongst others, he never went away! Today, there are references to him everywhere, in computer games, in countless books, in the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony, children still read The Tyger at school, we all sing Jerusalem, Tate Britain has a dedicated Blake room. He is ubiquitous.
John Higgs, writer and cultural historian, sets out to analyse why it is that he is so popular, so revered now in the 21st century. This 79 page paperback is an appetiser for Higgs’ in depth work on Blake that was published earlier this year William Blake vs the World, which I’m still reading and digesting. Wonderful.
The Sixties by Jenny Diski
for Diski, the sixties began a little later than Larkin’s 1963, and continued until about 1974. I won’t quibble with her personal interpretation, she was there in the middle of it. I do remember being shown the pink and yellow paving slabs of Carnaby Street though in the mid-sixties and being given a flower and a little bell on a string by hippie types while in London that day with my parents; doubtless, my mum would have been wearing a mini(ish) dress. That was my first experience of Diski’s ‘Sixties’; my last came with my only visit to the Big Biba shop in Kensington, shortly before it closed in 1975 with school friends – I bought a nail varnish. But enough about me…
Diski has divided her experience into six roughly chronological essays, each with a different emphasis – covering essentially clothes, drugs, sex, politics, education and therapy. First, she introduces her concept of the sixties and the themes she will explore, acknowledging that it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, but ‘the music, however, was undeniably as great as we thought it was.’ Everyone tends to see the 60s as only being exciting in London – Diski makes it clear that there were moments, but her view is far from rose-tinted. Just don’t forget, the music was great though!
Amateur by Thomas Page McBee
McBee, a trans man, takes on the challenge of learning to box to appear in a charity match at Madison Square Gardens. Boxing, until recent years has been seen as a most masculine sport, and as he trains, McBee examines what makes a man and the interrelations between masculinity and violence. McBee would go on to become the first trans man to fight in the MSG ring, but as he begins his training, he keeps his trans-ness under wraps, not wanting to test the atmosphere and attitudes to it at the gym.
McBee wrote about his transition in a previous memoir, Man Alive. It was after a street confrontation with another man in 2015 that he decided to take up boxing and later to write about it.
Why do men fight? I began to see the question as a proxy, a starting point, for what I initially thought of as a very personal experiment: If I shone a light on the shadowy truths about how I’d come by my own notions of what makes a man, could I change the story of what being a man means?
It’s not just about boxing though. McBee describes how people started listening to him at work when his voice dropped. He finds himself talking over female colleagues more often than male ones, and taking other men more seriously. He writes with great empathy and clarity in this always thought-provoking memoir, as he edges towards greater understanding of his own masculinity. However it is perhaps in the gym that he sees another kind of maleness, still competitive, but also supportive, less toxic than at the office or out and about. McBee’s rookie experience is nothing special in boxing terms, his relationships with his two coaches and his growing confidence in the changing room provide some moving moments. Add McBee’s wider questions about gender, and the ever-supportive advice and sounding-board of his girlfriend Jess, and this becomes a fine book indeed.
All these short non-fiction books are super reads, and not being lengthy are superb introductions to their authors’ works: thought-provoking, nostalgic, comforting, funny, truthful – all great qualities for non-fiction reading.