Best Foot Forward by Adam Hills — New Review

It used to be my Saturday morning ritual to watch the previous night’s episode of The Last Leg, so when I saw Best Foot Forward by Adam Hills at a work book sale, I didn’t hesitate to pick it up. The back cover promised that the book would show me that ‘being proudly different can see you find your feet’, which is a message I’m on board with.

I also decided that I would always try to uplift people, make them feel good, and remind them that life is good at every opportunity.

Best Foot Forward, Adam Hills

A lot of what I love about The Last Leg carries over into Best Foot Forward; Adam Hills is earnest, and his focus on positive comedy is uplifting. The stories he tells about the people are joyous and moving. I particularly loved the whole chapter on his appearance with Kermit the Frog. Best Foot Forward, like The Little Book of Otter Philosophy and What Katy Did made me want to be a better person. (It also made me jealous that I don’t have ‘a passion’, but that’s not the fault of the book.)

You know the beginning of Moby Dick, when the narrator says that when he finds himself growing grim about the mouth and wants to knock people’s hats off, he takes to the sea? Well, I feel like knocking people’s hats off.

Rory Gilmore, Blame Booze and Melville (Amy Sherman Palladino, Daniel Palladino)

Best Foot Forward’s ability to make me look ‘on the bright side of life’ is even more impressive in the context of the week I was having. I hadn’t seen anyone in person in over a month, I was wrapping my head around a new work system and trying to do two weeks’ work in 4 days. To put it simply: life didn’t seem all that good. And yet, I still bought in to the premise of Best Foot Forward. I never resented it for its positivity.

If I knew anyone else who liked The Last Leg as much as I do, I’d consider sending them this book to read. But then I’d think again, because I want to keep it on my shelf to read again. So instead I’ll just recommended that any such people buy their own copy.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The Little Book of Otter Philosophy by Jennifer McCartney — New Review

I’ve always loved otters, ever since I first saw them at London Zoo when I was 8 or 9. They’re just so playful and engaging to watch, especially in big groups. The Little Book of Otter Philosophy was a birthday gift from work, which has been sitting on my shelf waiting for me to get around to it for far too long. Though I sometimes struggle with non-fiction, I had a feeling this would be quick and easy to read. What I couldn’t have predicted was how very, very appropriate it would be.

So if you’re the one that’s let someone down, don’t be too hard on yourself — or on them, if it’s the other way around. Apologise or forgive (or don’t and move on to a hopefully healthier situation), but take heart that even the best, most adorable things in nature are also complete assholes sometimes.

The Little Book of Otter Philosophy, Jennifer McCartney

The week I started reading about how to ‘live life like you otter’, I was working into the small hours most nights, trying to get my magazines schedules for 2022 sorted while also facing narrowed print deadlines. Never have I more needed the advice to play more, work less. If only it were that easy!

That’s what the otter philosophy is all about, vocalising pleasure with all your might. Shouting joy out into the universe. Putting that happiness out there for all to see and for everyone to share.

The Little Book of Otter Philosophy, Jennifer McCartney

I particularly appreciated that Jennifer McCartney got right into ‘a practical guide’ — I so often find self-help books or articles to be so vague that I just get frustrated because I have no idea how to implement that advice. As a long-term choir member, I found the section on singing and music to be particularly affirming. As a long-term scheduler, however, being told to organise and prepare less was not quite so welcome, though I can see it has merit.

Overall, I just really enjoyed reading The Little Book of Otter Philosophy. It was nothing ground-breaking, and I certainly didn’t manage to implement the guidance to cut down on the amount of work hours I was putting in, but I think parts of it will stick with me, nonetheless. I’d like to reread when my work life isn’t quite so hectic, so that I actually stand some chance of putting it into practice.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Just as Well I’m Leaving by Michael Booth — New Review

My ‘reread reviews’ have finally caught up with my ‘new reviews’, which means I’m allowed to pick new books to read, that aren’t dictated by my book club! (I realise that permission to break this self-imposed rule is unnecessary and a little ridiculous: that’s just the way my brain works.) I was excited to pick Michal Booth because, as well as being a present from another Michael, I absolutely loved his book Sushi and Beyond. I’ve read a number of his books since, trying to find that same level of delight in his writings about other places, cultures and foods. I’ve mostly been unsuccessful, which does make me wonder whether perhaps that one book was exactly that, a one-off. I was especially doubtful at the beginning of Just As Well I’m Leaving, because Michael Booth seemed pretty dour about not only his location, but the main topic of the book: Hans Christian Andersen.

I was on my own, with only my unflinching resolve to fall back on.
I gave up.

Just as Well I’m Leaving, Michael Booth

Things did pick up once Booth started reading some of Andersen’s stories, realising that there was more to be enjoyed in the originals than in whatever English translations he’d previously come across. Which did, of course, make me want to seek out a decent translation myself. As with Charlotte Street, the slightly whiny beginning gave way to a better middle and end, even if Just as Well I’m Leaving doesn’t reach the height of Sushi and Beyond (which I need to reread, now, in case it’s not the book but my memory that’s responsible).

Without a companion to whinge at and bore with his various ailments and fears, he seems to have just got on with things and coped so much better; by looking outward at the world, he found a brief inner peace.

Just as Well I’m Leaving, Michael Booth

Having read a number of Michael Booth’s books now, I’d say Just as Well I’m Leaving falls solidly in the middle of the pack. It’s better than Eat, Pray, Eat and The Almost Nearly Perfect People, not as good as Sushi and Beyond, at about the same level as Doing Without Delia, albeit on rather a different subject matter. There’s not much food in Just as Well I’m Leaving, which is perhaps the problem for me, as what I enjoyed most about Sushi and Beyond was the descriptions of Japanese chefs and restaurants. But I do like fairy tales, so Just as Well I’m Leaving managed to hold my interest, and I learned a great deal about Hans Christian Andersen that I wouldn’t otherwise have known. It also got me thinking about travel, which I haven’t done much of lately, so I can give it an extra half star for that.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf — New Review

Judging purely by title, I thought A Room of One’s Own might be a good complement to The Little Book of Hygge — another book about making your own space in the world that would go well with my ongoing project to improve my rented accommodation as much as my lease allows. Actually, Virginia Woolf doesn’t really go into the why of a writer having her own room, because it’s really more metaphorical than literal. Her thesis could be summed up that a writer needs to be themselves without fear of judgement, something that is only possible behind the privacy of a locked door.

Reading A Room of One’s Own was still an interesting experience, if not quite the one I thought I was getting. The problem I’ve had with Virginia Woolf’s fiction is that I’m perfectly capable of reading every word of her stream-of-conciousness sentences without actually retaining any of the sense. This was most problematic in The Waves, where reading criticism after I’d finished the book unearthed many plot events that I’d had absolutely no idea were happening. And A Room of One’s Own was a little like that. There were paragraphs that I read without really stopping to understand them.

One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well. The lamp in the spine does not light on beef and prunes.

A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf

But, in contrast to my reading ten years ago, there were also sentences and paragraphs — even very figurative, very stream-of-consciouss-y ones — that I did understand! I think I’m a lot more interested in how other people think now, and much more aware that the actual process of thinking is different for different people, and not just the end result. So, the beginning of A Room of One’s Own held a lot of interest on that score. Virginia Woolf doesn’t think the way I do, but I was able to follow the way she does think. (Except when I wasn’t.)

It almost made me want to give Virginia Woolf’s fiction another chance. But then I read much of the end of the book without really taking it in, so maybe I’m not ready just yet!

The fascination of the London street is that no two people are ever alike; each seems bound on some private affair of his own.

A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

The Little Book of Hygge by Meik Wiking — Reread Review

I’ve been working from home for over a year now and, since January, one of my goals has been to make my flat a place I actually want to live. To that end, I’ve done big ikea order of drawers and doors and shelves for my square units, invested in small kitchen things I really should have had before, and have even begun a spring deep clean. Last week, I turned the books at the end of my TBR shelf horizontally so that they’d stop falling over all the time and this felt like a major achievement.

So, when it came to picking my next book to read, I thought something about improving my living space would be appropriate. ‘Hygge’ is a very Hufflepuff/hobbit concept, and that plays perfectly into my aims for my flat.

My favourite spot in my apartment in Copenhagen is the windowsill in the kitchen-dining area. It is wide enough to sit comfortably in and I’ve added pillows and blankets to make it a real hyggekrog. The radiator underneath the windowsill makes it the perfect place to enjoy a cup of tea on a cold winter night. But what I like about it most is the warm, amber glow issuing from every apartment across the courtyard. It’s a constantly changing mosaic of radiance as people leave and come home.

The Little Book of Hygge, Meik Wiking

I remembered enjoying reading The Little Book of Hygge the first time, even if there was nothing particularly ground-breaking in the way of decorating or life advice. This time around, when I haven’t actually seen any of my friends in person since November, the context was a little different. Some of the suggestions about parties and the right number of people to have maximum hygge were definitely not really relevant.

That is why home-made jams are more hyggelige than bought ones. Every bite will take you back to that summer day when you picked the fruit and the entire house smelled of strawberries.

The Little Book of Hygge, Meik Wiking

Fortunately, the effect wasn’t to make me feel as though I was missing out. Instead, Meik Wiking’s emphasis on preserving happiness felt like good advice for the future, as well as for the present.

I don’t read a huge amount of non-fiction, but I found The Little Book of Hygge very easy and quick to read. I think it helped that there were plenty of personal examples. The prose is functional but not dry, and Meik Wiking really gives the impression that all of this is close to his heart.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Yes Man by Danny Wallace — Reread Review

It’s been a long time since I last read Yes Man, but it’s had a lasting impression. In the intervening years, I’ve picked up every Danny Wallace book that happens to have come across my path. (At a quick count, that’s at least three other titles which I’ll get around to reviewing one of these days.) I’ve liked them all, but none of them have made me laugh like Yes Man did. Now that I’m so much older, I did worry that it wouldn’t have the same effect, but I’m glad to report that it did.

Let’s face it – there was no way in the world that Lizzie could think I was serious. I was a drunk man, suggesting she take a train – a train! – from Australia, on the basis that Edinburgh was ‘good’ because it was ‘big and funny and loadsa people’.

Yes Man, Danny Wallace

Yes Man made me laugh out loud several times, but the book isn’t just a comedic autobiography, though that was certainly what I remembered about it. It surprised me, this time, by also being a genuinely touching love story, and a satisfyingly tricky whodunnit. (I was convinced I was right about that, and when I turned out not to be, the clue was right there all the time!)

“Why are Germans phoning you up under the impression that you’re a three-man teenage boyband? Because I’ve known you for a while, now, and you are nothing like a three-man teenage boyband —”

Yes Man, Danny Wallace

And Danny Wallace’s quest to say ‘yes’ to absolutely everything also made me think about the ‘yes’es in my own life. There haven’t been too many of those this year, what with working from home and social distancing rules preventing me from traveling to see my friends, none of whom live close enough for me to walk to. Still, I was able to find some, which added a nice uplift to my mood.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Moab is My Washpot by Stephen Fry — Reread Review

Moab is My Washpot is one of those books I read once, as a teenager or young adult, found one quotation that really mattered to me and so decided that I must love. (I suspect Brideshead Revisited, which I will revisit, is another.) Rereading it, not only did I not remember vast swathes of the book, I also found myself not really enjoying much of it.

I am not actually sure that I am capable of thoughts, let alone feelings, except through language.

Moab is My Washpot, Stephen Fry

Perhaps this is jus because I don’t really get on with autobiography, but I just didn’t find it that interesting. Stephen Fry’s description of himself as a child is quite different to what I might have imagined, but his life is still fairly normal. There are a few funny incidents – though on this reread, I found the story of the mole rather too infused with artificial significance.

Stephen Fry’s tone seemed patronising to me, in a way it didn’t when I read Mythos and, presumably, in a way it didn’t when I was a young adult because more of the material was actually new to me then than it is now. There were passages and offhand references which seemed quite dismissive of certain groups of people – namely his fans and anyone who enjoys revising media multiple times.

And then I saw him and nothing was ever the same again.
The sky was never the same colour, the moon never the same shape: the air never smelt the same, food never tasted the same. Every word I knew changed its meaning, everything that once was stable and firm became as insubstantial as a puff of wind, and every puff of wind became a solid thing I could feel and touch.

Moab is My Washpot, Stephen Fry

In short, it was fine, particularly if you go in with measured expectations. It didn’t hold up to the memory I had of it as being in some way supremely insightful. Even the one quotation that I liked had no resonance for me now.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

The Sex Lives of Cannibals by J Maarten Troost — Reread Review

I dimly recall finding The Sex Lives of Cannibals funny the first time I read it. This time, I was mostly annoyed by J Maarten Troost’s self-declared lack of work ethic. Over two years leaving on an equatorial atoll, he claims he wanted to write a novel, and yet no novel was written. Perhaps I was primed for annoyance, having already wanted to tick off Osborne in Wives and Daughters for finding a life of work so completely impossible.

On the positive side, I still found The Sex Lives of Cannibals interesting. Most types of travel writing, I assume, make readers want to actually visit the places described. Certainly, that’s been my experience with Bill Bryson and Michael Boothe. But J Maarten Troost makes it abundantly clear that living in Kiribati is awful. The food situation is dire, the heat is unbearable and even the occasionally mentioned moments of vivid colour do not make it seem like a holiday to Kiribati would be fun.

Evening light descended, and as we walked through the village the air itself began to assume pink and blue hues. The dinner hour approached and fires were lit and the smoke settled over the village as a fine mist, capturing the soft light of sunset.

The Sex Lives of Cannibals, J Maarten Troost

And yet, despite all this, The Sex Lives of Cannibals is light, easy reading. While I probably won’t seek out more books by J Maarten Troost, if I were given one (as I was given this one, actually), I wouldn’t throw it away unread!

Rating: 2 out of 5.

When it comes to naming things, vanity and flattery are dull motivations best suited for deciding on a child’s middle name. Much more interesting are the descriptive names that suggest a story or happening of interest. Captain Cook was pretty good about this. From him, we have Cape Good Success, Cape Deceit, Cape Desolation, Adventure Cove, Devil’s Basin, Great Black Rock and Little Black Rock, all in Tierra Del Fuego, names that suggest that rounding Cape Horn in the late eighteenth century was probably a fairly up and down experience.

The Sex Lives of Cannibals, J Maarten Troost

Incidentally, the cannibals of the title are not humans but dogs. Even knowing this, I had to seriously consider whether ‘The Sex Lives of Cannibals‘ was a title I felt comfortable telling my new team-member Caitlin that I was reading this week!

Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig — New Review

Reasons to Stay Alive was an unexpected gift from Ally and, after slogging through my last two books, was a delightfully quick read. When I bother with twitter at all, Matt Haig is one of the people I follow, so I was vaguely aware that he’d done writing about mental health, but I hadn’t actually read any of his books until this one!

There’s a cushion. Let’s just stay here and look at it and contemplate the infinite sadness of cushions.

Reasons to Stay Alive, Matt Haig

Given the serious subject matter, it’s impressive how light the book is, without ever seeming not to take depression and suicidal impulses seriously. The descriptions are vivid and clear, and seem to give a pretty good insight into what it’s like to live with combined depression and anxiety.

The one thing depression has told you is that a day can be a long and intense stretch of time.
THEN ME: Oh God, yes.
NOW ME: Well, then don’t worry about the passing of time. There can be infinity inside a day.

Reasons to Stay Alive, Matt Haig

Although the book is called ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’, I wouldn’t really class it as self-help. There’s not advice in there, as such. As Matt Haig himself says, reading about other people who’ve experienced depression and come out the other side can be a comfort. There’s not any one way to actually get out the other side and so, although Matt Haig describes some of what works for him, it’s certainly not a step-by-step guide.

Never say ‘pull yourself together’ or ‘cheer up’ unless you’re also going to provide detailed, foolproof instructions.

Reasons to Stay Alive, Matt Haig

Perhaps because of that, I don’t think the book is only for people with experience of depression or anxiety. It’s an interesting, easy read, and although it’s not the kind of thing I’d usually pick up, I did enjoy it. The positive thinking is contagious, which is probably part of the point! I know of a few people who’ve said it was life-changing for them, but it didn’t quite get to that level for me.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Mythos by Stephen Fry — Reread Review

I don’t remember how I got interested in Greek myths. It might have been Disney’s Hercules, though I feel like I already knew a bit about them by then. Maybe it was just absorbed knowledge of satyrs and fauns and centaurs from The Chronicles of Narnia. Either way, I like Greek mythology and I like Stephen Fry, so Mythos was very much a sure bet!

Stephen Fry modernises the language of the myths, without quite going so far as to refer to Cadmus as a ‘homie’. He manages to link some sections of myth together into overarching narratives, but some pieces still feel disconnected. I don’t think that’s any fault of the writing; it’s just the way the source material is.

The name [Electra] is interesting; it is the female form of ELECTRON, the Greek word for ‘amber’. The greeks noticed that if you rub amber vigorously with a cloth it magically attracts dust and fluff. They called this strange property ‘amberiness’, from which all our words ‘electric’, ‘electricity’, ‘electron’, ‘electronic’, and so on, ultimately derive.

Mythos, Stephen Fry

There’s an emphasis on places where our modern English words and idioms come from the names of gods or heroes, or the punishments enacted by one on the other. So Stephen Fry highlights that we still use ‘Sisyphean‘ to describe a futile task. But he also relates bits of the Sisyphus myth that I wasn’t previously aware of. The reason Sisyphus needed to be punished was that he’d cheated death twice, and even managed a ‘happily ever after’ the second time around!

Hera grasped the bird by the beak so that he could hardly breathe and was about to punish him in some strange and dreadful way that would forever have altered our conception of chaffinches, when his mate fluttered about her ears and hair bravely calling out.

Mythos, Stephen Fry

My favourite myths are the ones that resemble ‘Just So’ stories – that explain how the world came to be the way it is. There are plenty of these – more than I was previously aware of – but my favourite is still Arachne, who boasted of her spinning so much that Athena came down to challenge her. Only I didn’t know that, after losing, Arachne was so distraught at the thought of never weaving again that she hung herself. And so Athena transforming her into a spider could actually be seen as a merciful act.

Mythos does a good job of making the Greek myths as narratively satisfying as possible, and even somewhat relatable.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.