The Tent, the Bucket and Me, Emma Kennedy

I’ve never been a camper. My husband and I don’t believe in it. We tried glamping once and it wasn’t a good move. Despite having a blow-up bed, a proper duvet and an Aztec throw, we were absolutely freezing and I clung to his back like a koala all night, trying to keep warm and failing. I also thought, as a glamping/camping virgin, I’d sweetly lay my pyjamas out on my glampy pillow, before we went off festival-ing (80’s bands. Can I just put it here that Go West are still AMAZING?), only to return at 3am to find them, to my virgin horror, damp through and hideous. It was my second camping experience. The first was Guide camp, which also left me pretty unimpressed and with a lasting fear of chemical toilets… 

Anyway, Emma Kennedy and her mum and dad used to go camping a lot, in the 1970s. Every camping holiday they took ended in complete disaster, and this book tells all the sorry tales of their adventures.

It is HILARIOUS. I read some of it while watching 90 Day Fiancé with my husband (how addictive is that programme, by the way? Well, not so addictive that you can’t read at the same time as watching it, but you know what I mean…) and kept bursting out laughing, which really annoyed him, but not enough for him to ask me what I was reading as that would be, like, indulging me. Some of these camping stories are unbelievable, and often quite revolting (they make the time I fell over and got covered head to foot in mud at Brands Hatch seem incredibly tame), but the way Emma writes about them is very, very funny indeed. If you need cheering up, or want to read something funny before bed, or have disastrous camping stories of your own that haunt you and you want to read about someone far, far worse off, then this is the book for you.

I loved the 70s nostalgia (I actually gasped when I saw the mention of the book Fattypuffs and Thinipers) I enjoyed the writing and I found the relationships between only child Emma and her parents, Tony and Brenda, really quite endearing. A great read!

*Next memoir: On Chapel Sands, by Laura Cumming

Educated, Tara Westover

I’d seen this memoir around a lot; it’s one of those books that, wherever you look at the moment, it seems to be there, but, although I’d seen it everywhere, I knew nothing whatsoever about it, apart from it was about a girl who grew up with no formal education. I was intrigued enough to download it, but when I started reading it, I wondered if I’d made a mistake. I wasn’t sure if I was going to enjoy it at all. I’ve never been a fan of the ‘misery memoir’ and have tended to steer clear of them (do you remember when Sue Townsend satirised them in the Adrian Mole books? If I recall correctly, his mum, Pauline Mole, was writing one entitled A Girl Called “Shit”? That used to make me howl with laughter…). I don’t want to be miserable; I don’t want to read about real-life misery, particularly if it’s relentless. So, I have avoided the genre. But, I’m supposed to be reading memoirs of all sorts and detailing all sorts of lives, and this book intrigued me enough to read on … even once I knew exactly how miserable the set up of Tara’s life was.

Tara Westover was raised in a Mormon family in Idaho – a family of, quite frankly, crazy survivalists, who were off grid, anti-government, anti-medical intervention (which considering how many accidents they had was particularly crazy) and (again, quite frankly) abusive (that brother…. bloody hell!) Tara is not allowed to go to school. She has no birth certificate. She is forced to work in the family’s highly dangerous junk yard. Her life is grim, dangerous, grubby, scary, bigoted, and devoid of any chance to thrive. Yet somehow, against the odds, Tara does just that (although the path to a meaningful life, free of her family, is very difficult indeed) and ends up with the very best education of all, studying at Cambridge University. The story of how she gets there is truly amazing.

This book made me angry and sad. I was appalled at times, flinching at others – sometimes I wanted to put the book down and flounce off, to go and eat cake, have a hot chocolate and read a rom com; to immerse myself in loveliness and walk away from Educated‘s gritty reality and unpleasantness. I wanted to wash my hands of it, like Tara did of the grime after another day in the junkyard. But still I read on. Partly, because this book is beautifully written… if Tara Westover writes any fiction, I’ll be first in line to read it. But mostly because of the hope threaded throughout this narrative, even though it is a hope that is dangled, at times, then whipped away again; a hope Tara often extinguishes herself by her sometimes exasperating drive to keep going back home even though it’s the worst possible place for her: that house, that family, that mountain…

This is a compelling story of triumph against adversity. The triumph and the hope in this book are hard won and eloquently detailed and they come at a price, for both the writer and the reader: Tara continues to be estranged from several members of her family; I’ll be haunted in a tender but bleak way by this book for quite a long time – it has given me the most complicated book hangover. But I loved it. It’s magnificent. Everyone should read it.

Right, I’m going to read something light now. I’m going to read The Tent, The Bucket and Me by Emma Kennedy, about hilarious camping holidays in the 1970s. This may be accompanied by cake and hot chocolate…

Bedsit Disco Queen: How I grew up and tried to be a pop star, Tracey Thorn

My brother was really into Everything but the Girl, and everything he was into, I was also subjected to, mostly – in our teenage years – because he had a record player in his bedroom which was somehow wired into my bedroom, so every time he put a record on, I’d have to listen to it, too. I suffered through every musical phase he ever went through: from electro pop to Ska to heavy metal to punk to soul to Gothic rock, and back again. And the thing was, I gradually came to love all his records. He had pretty good taste. We do a lot of reminiscing these days about music.

One of the things we reminisce about is a family holiday we spent in Brittany and how Everything but the Girl was the soundtrack to that holiday: the windy sun-scorched beaches, the barbecues behind our picturesque gite and the long, TV-free evenings where a tragic, sixteen-year-old me pined in a really satisfactory way for an unsuitable boy I’d met in the Smash Hits ‘pen pal’ section. Everything but the Girl, which my brother played endlessly, was a perfect accompaniment to my teen dreaming – the melancholic, lilting and wistful nature of their songs providing the perfect foil to my own delicious malcontent.

My brother’s been talking about lead singer Tracey Thorn’s autobiography Bedsit Disco Queen for ages. ‘You’ve got to read it,’ he said. ‘It’s great,’ and, following him, just as I did back then (he has good taste, after all), I finally read this book.

This is a really fascinating read. Tracey talks about how she first got in a band at sixteen, as a guitar player, then became part of an all-girl band, The Marine Girls, a year later (my brother was also into The Marine Girls, of course) – gradually realising she could sing (and what a voice!) and sharing the vocals with one of the other girls . How she met the other half of the band, Ben Watt, at Hull university and pretty much moved straight in with him. How they became Everything but the Girl and enjoyed success while she was still doing her degree. How she slotted into the 80s music scene but never really felt part of it. How the journey of a band is not linear, but a winding road with ups and downs, full of stops and starts and, often, surprises (for example, the success of the single, ‘Missing’.).

Tracey has a very dry sense of humour which I adore, and drolly gives a wry punchline to many a funny story. (Look out for the George Michael anecdote which I loved!) As a feminist woman in a male-dominated music industry she has a brilliant slant on things, to how her first band The Marine Girls were treated, to hair and clothes and awkwardness and how to carry herself, as a pop star, to motherhood and love and writing and performing and how everything in her life informed her art and vice versa.

I read this so quickly and was really engrossed. I loved the writing style and wanted more. Luckily, Tracey has written two other books: Naked at the Albert Hall and Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia that I will also be reading… before my brother has a chance to.

*Next memoir: Educated, Tara Westover. *

Everything I Know About Love, by Dolly Alderton

A friend of mine recommended this book to me – she said it reminded her of our time at university and would make me laugh, so I’d had my eye on it for a while.

When I started reading it, I thought, ‘Hmm, is this for me? This woman is young, I’ve got two decades on her…will I be able to relate to her?’ She was talking about MSN messaging boys in her mid-teenage years. My own were spent pre pre pre internet, sulking in the corner of school discos in a black & white mini skirt and a new romantic blouse as everyone else slow danced to Hazel O’Connor. If I was to get communication from boys after school, it would be via the pistachio green phone in the hall, with the curly cord that stretched as far as the dining room, where I could shut the door…

Did I want to read on?

Reader, I read on. And I’m so glad I did.

I loved this book. It was hilarious and sad and brilliant and insightful, and I could relate to all of it.  

It certainly did remind me of my university years…some of Dolly’s drunken madcap adventures were howlingly similar to my own (although we didn’t have texting in those days, so I was spared from contacting a boy in Leamington Spa and getting a taxi there at 4 in the morning, via the MI. Actually, I lived in Leamington Spa…). I pretty much was Dolly, in those days. The buying of a bottle of wine each, to drink from a plastic cup, really resonates with me. And I must remind my old uni friends about the time the students union held a Blind Date night and …(well, we’ll leave that there!!!!).

As the book continued, it just got better and better: the house shares, the life in London, the soul-searching, the drinking, the endless questing of twenty-somethings who are still trying to figure it all out (that never goes away, by the way). My husband and kids kept asking me what I was laughing at. ‘Just this book,’ I told them. ‘It’s really funny.’ (Side note – my twelve-year-old son announced this week that books were ‘pointless’. Once I’m over the shock, I’m going to enroll him in some kind of boot camp where he has to sit in his bedroom and inhale the classics of great of literature until he gets it…)

It doesn’t matter that I am Generation X and Dolly is Generation Y, that she had texting and the internet when I had, ‘I hope he turns up, otherwise I’ll just have to go home again’… Her experiences in her twenties, though wilder and way more hilarious and laugh-out-loud, astonishingly crazy than most, are pretty universal; these are the years, if you’re going to have them, of hedonism and unbridled freedom; of yearning for love and romance and a boy who’ll see you for who you are, though you don’t even know yourself yet; dread as thirty finally, and inevitably, looms on the horizon and you still don’t feel remotely like a grown up, or ready for dinner parties, or sophisticated couples mini-breaks to stately homes…  

And, there is friendship. This book is about wonderful, illuminating, lifetime-lasting friendship. Dolly, twenty years ahead of you, I still have my treasured university friends and I have that love you talk about so wittily and wonderfully. Lucky me. It is enduring. It is everything.

This book was amazing, and everyone should read it, immediately if not before. I adored it. The writing was amazing – so clever and hilarious and imaginative and quirky. I loved the spoofy baby shower and wedding invites peppered about the book. I loved how Dolly’s words transverse all the generations, X, Y, Z, whatever.

Dolly Alderton really knows a lot about love.

*The next autobiography on my list is Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew Up and Tried to Be a Pop Star, by Tracey Thorn.*

Becoming, Michelle Obama

I’m just an oik from Essex, England, UK, and this admission may expose me as a complete oiky idiot, but here’s what I knew about Michelle Obama before reading Becoming:

  1. She was the first black First Lady. (…no prizes here, bozo…)
  2. She is very intelligent and a great feminist (I was sketchy on the actual details…).
  3. She likes clothes from a quite expensive shop called J Crew….and once wore a really nice black cardigan (from another shop) to meet the Queen.  
  4. She has great arms and once did some press ups on the Ellen show.
  5. She is admired by lots of people and many wanted her to run for president herself at the end of her husband’s time in office.  

That was it. A pitiful, rather embarrassing list. I should be ashamed, really. Thoroughly ashamed. But now I have rectified it. Now I have read Becoming, I know a lot more about Michelle Obama…

I know about her childhood growing up on the Southside of Chicago with two calm and stoic loving parents, who sacrificed much of their own lives to make sure Michelle and her older brother, Craig, would have great futures. I know about the wider and sometimes eccentric cast of characters in her family she spoke about with such respect and wit and love. I know about her education, how when she was struggling in an unruly second-grade class her mother had words and got her switched to a ‘bright an orderly’ third-grade class – ‘a small but life-changing move’. How she studied like crazy – but with an endearing neatness and methodical colour-coding – to get to Princeton. How she ended up working in a prestigious law firm but swerved to take roles in some amazing community-minded jobs, really making a difference. How she fell in love with ambling, slightly messy Barack Hussein Obama, setting her off on a wild ride that would lead her all the way to the door of the White House, and inside, where she would spend eight years also making a difference.

I was worried this book might be a ‘heavy’ read, that I would get bored by the politics, that – but for my attempting to read 50 women’s autobiographies in one year and giving myself a window of no more than 1.04 weeks to read it – I might pick it up and put it down a lot, dreaming of Bridget Jones or some other familiar rom com I’d rather be reading…

Not so! I was immediately engrossed in this book. I raced through it like a cat across a windy garden. I savoured every word and turn of events. I feel this is a book it would be easy to absolutely gush over, in fact, but that’s not my style. It’s not Michelle Obama’s either. Her writing is plain-speaking, honest and to the point. She is not over-inflated, grandiose or over-circumspect. She is not flowery or sentimental.

She is wonderful!!!!!!!

These are the things I took away from this book and will stay with me forever:

  • The vegetable garden in the White House Michelle planted with the help of local children.
  • Michelle’s love for Barack, her children and her parents. Her pride in all of them. Yes, I cried a couple of times.
  • Her extremely articulate examination of the age-old conflict of mother/working mother. How she wanted to do both effectively and with conviction.

 “I wanted to live with the hat-tossing, independent-career-woman zest of Mary Tyler Moore, and at the same time I gravitated toward the stabilizing, self-sacrificing, seemingly bland normalcy of being a wife and mother. I wanted to have a work life and a home life, but with some promise that one would never fully squelch the other. I hoped to be exactly like my own mother and at the same time nothing like her at all. It was an odd and confounding thing to ponder. Could I have everything? Would I have everything? I had no idea.”

  • Her soul-searching when Obama told her he wanted to run for president. What it would mean for her. Her own life. Her daughters.

“My job would be not just to give tacit support to the campaign but to participate in it. I’d be expected to make myself and our children available for viewing, to smile approvingly and shake a lot of hands. Everything would be about him now, I realized, in support of this larger cause.”

  • The day-to-do challenge of trying to instill a degree of normalcy into living in the White House:

How to navigate play dates when one of the participant’s dads is president of the United States and has about five secret service agents following her everywhere.

The respect and camaraderie with which the Obamas treated the staff.

How Michelle’s lovely mum didn’t change one bit after living in an upstairs suite in the White House for eight years (I love Michelle’s mum!)

I have taken a lot away from this book. I will carry the things I have read and the things I have learnt in a little pocket within myself to bring out now and again and consider. I will always be glad I read this book. ‘Inspirational’ is a term that is bandied around like watermelon-flavoured steam from a vape these days but yes, Michelle is hugely inspirational, but also very human and likeable and she has a great way with words in telling her exceptional story. I’m sure she’ll be thrilled to know she has a new fan joining the millions of people who already knew all the good and really important stuff about her. 😉

*Next memoir: Everything I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton.*