May 13, 2022
The performance poet narrates their first nonfiction work, mixing memoir with musings on how creativity brings people together
A meditation on art and creativity, On Connection is the musician, playwright, novelist and performance poet Kae Tempest’s first work of nonfiction. Written early in the pandemic, this extended essay mixes memoir and philosophical musings as it examines the need “to play, to create, to reflect and release” and the ways these impulses connect us.
Tempest – who uses they/them pronouns – narrates with a rhythmic urgency and fierce humanity that will be familiar to anyone who has seen them perform live. In the opening chapter, Sound Check, they talk of a numbness that can occur as a “logical response” to the sensory overload of everyday life, and the power of poetry to overcome it. Twenty years on the spoken word scene has shown Tempest how “naked language has a humanising effect; listening to someone tell their story, people noticeably [open] up, become more vulnerable, and let their defences down”. Continue reading...
May 06, 2022
The actor brings the dark humour of Mason’s novel to life as she narrates the story of how mental illness changed the course of woman’s life
A pithy examination of marriage and mental illness shortlisted for this year’s Women’s prize for fiction, Sorrow and Bliss begins as its protagonist Martha splits up with her forbearing husband, Patrick, and moves back into her parents’ house. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn that Martha has a mental health condition. When she was 17, on the morning of her French A-level exam, “a little bomb” went off in her brain, prompting her to go home and crawl under her father’s desk. Over the next 20 years, in order to deal with the chaos in her head, she continues to seek out confined, dark spaces where she lies “like a small animal that instinctively knows it’s dying”.
The actor Emilia Fox reads Mason’s darkly funny novel, capturing Martha’s fury and confusion as well as her acerbic wit (the comparisons to Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag are not wide of the mark). Woven into her story is her maladjusted family, who include her father, Fergus, a poet whose career stalled shortly after he was designated “a male Sylvia Plath”; her mother, Celia, an alcoholic sculptor who is charismatic yet cruel; and sister Ingrid, who is both protective of and exasperated by Martha. And, of course, there’s Patrick, a sweet-natured doctor whom Martha has known since her cousin brought him home from boarding school one Christmas after his father forgot to send him a plane ticket home. Martha, who has precious little love for herself, knows that Patrick is too good for her. But the question remains: will he give her a second chance?
• Sorrow and Bliss is available from Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 10hr 44min.
May 04, 2022
How the Aberfan disaster prompted one psychiatrist to launch a nationwide search for ‘seers’ who could predict the future
On 20 October, 1966, 10-year-old Eryl Mai Jones, from Aberfan in south Wales, told her mother about a dream she’d had the night before. “I dreamt I went to school and there was no school there,” she said. “Something black had come down all over it.” The next day, at 9.14am, a colliery waste tip came crashing down the hillside, smothering the village school and the surrounding houses. Eryl Mai was among the 144 dead.
Visiting Aberfan in the days after the tragedy was John Barker, a 42-year-old psychiatrist and superintendent of a large mental hospital in Shropshire who had an interest in “psychiatric orchids”, or unusual mental conditions. Barker had conducted studies on Munchausen syndrome, sufferers of which are known to feign illness, and was in the midst of researching Scared to Death, a book about people who accurately foretold their own deaths. Continue reading...
Apr 29, 2022
With a calmly astonished tone, the author narrates the shocking story of how the Sackler family made its money out of the lethal painkiller OxyContin
A remarkable piece of narrative reporting and a sweeping family saga, New Yorker writer Patrick Radden Keefe’s award-winning book about the Sackler family and its role in America’s opioid crisis begins with the seemingly heart-warming tale of three Brooklyn brothers realising the dreams of their immigrant parents by becoming doctors. The Sacklers went on to become one of the richest families in the US – they have an estimated fortune of $14bn – known for their philanthropy and feted for their donations to art galleries, universities and medical institutes.
Drawing on newly available court documents and more than 200 interviews, Empire of Pain reveals how the family made its money from the suffering of Americans through the aggressive sales techniques of Purdue, the Connecticut-based pharmaceutical company that became the biggest producer of OxyContin. The slow-release painkiller is twice as powerful as morphine and significantly more addictive. Approved by an official at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) who, a year later, took a high-paying job at Purdue, the drug contributed to the deaths of nearly 500,000 people over 20 years and wrecked the lives of millions more. Continue reading...
Keefe, who narrates his book, is no stranger to audio: many listeners will know his voice from the hit podcast Wind of Change, which investigated the rumour that the titular power ballad by German rockers Scorpions was written by the CIA. If the vibe there was one of amusement, here he adopts a calmly astonished tone as he tells a shocking story of callousness, cover-ups and monumental greed.
• Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty is available via Picador, 18hr 6min
Apr 08, 2022
Samuel L Jackson’s narration does full justice to this grimly comic novel from the mid-century master of New York crime
Originally published under the title For Love of Imabelle, this 1957 novel from Chester Himes opens with Jackson, a gullible undertaker’s assistant, sinking his life savings into a transparently dodgy scam that claims to convert $10 bills into hundreds. After he is left broke, he decides to “borrow” some money from his boss in an attempt to claw back his losses at the craps table, and loses that too.
Samuel L Jackson delivers a rip-roaring narration of Himes’s grimly comic, fast-paced and intermittently blood-spattered novel set in Harlem, described as “a city of black people who are convulsed in a desperate living, like the voracious churning of millions of hungry cannibal fish. Blind mouths eating their own guts. Stick in a hand and draw back a nub.” The actor breathes vivid life into the book’s lineup of crooks, con artists, pimps and ne’er-do-wells. There’s Goldy, the protagonist’s twin, who masquerades as the saintly Sister Gabriel and lives off the charitable donations dispensed by church-goers, while his girlfriend, Imabelle, may or may not be up to no good. Meanwhile, the nicknames of no-nonsense detectives “Coffin” Ed Johnson and “Grave Digger” Jones give a sense of their style of law enforcement. Continue reading...
Apr 06, 2022
Life, relationships and art are filtered through sound in 16 essays by brilliant women
Music writing has come a long way since the days of the inkies – the papers that would leave marks on their readers’ fingers – when a handful of male gatekeepers dictated the tastes of Britain’s music-loving teens. While female writers were occasionally admitted to this hallowed club, they were the exception rather than the rule. Since then, the music press has been at once democratised and straitened by the advent of free content. Previously marginalised voices are now being heard, even if the rates of pay are largely paltry.
This Woman’s Work, an anthology of 16 essays by female writers compiled and edited by Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon and the critic Sinéad Gleeson, is a piquant reminder of the talent, musical and literary, that has always been under editors’ noses, if only they cared to look. Billed as a “challenge [to] the historic narrative of music and music writing being written by men, for men”, the contributions cross genres, decades and continents, and are less about casting judgment on artists and their work than the process of discovery and the ways music can influence and enrich lives. Continue reading...
Apr 01, 2022
Luke Thompson plays the minister who has an affair with a parliamentary aide, in a tale told from contrasting viewpoints
When a high-ranking government minister, James Whitehouse, tells his wife, Sophie, he has been having an affair with a parliamentary aide, and that a newspaper is about to run an exposé, she opts to stand by her man for the sake of the family. But then James receives a visit from police officers who wish to question him about an incident in the House of Commons’ lift. James’s aide, 28-year-old Olivia, has accused him of rape.
Sarah Vaughan’s smart psychological thriller – a TV adaptation of which begins on Netflix this month – grapples with complex issues of power, sex and consent as it plots the ensuing investigation and court case. The story is told from contrasting viewpoints: there is steely barrister Kate, crisply narrated by Julie Teal, who has built her reputation prosecuting sexual abusers in cases that aren’t clear cut. “Juries are keen to convict the predatory rapist, the archetypal bogeyman down a dark alley,” she observes, “yet when it comes to relationship rape, they’d really rather not know.” Continue reading...
Mar 30, 2022
From Covid to chemical spillages, fires to floods, an expert on emergency planning looks back on a lifetime of dealing with disaster
After Lucy Easthope lost her first baby to a miscarriage, she kept everything, from the pregnancy test and her first scan to the hospital appointment slips, in a brightly coloured shoebox. As a disaster expert whose responsibilities include making the loss of loved ones as bearable as possible for those left behind, she had plenty of experience working on memory boxes, right down to the package design (“too ‘gifty’ and it looked all wrong”). These boxes might contain anything from a charred passport or a wedding band to the wrapper from a packet of mints. Easthope understood the importance of preserving these items for grieving relatives, and now she was doing it for herself. Her shoebox of memories of her baby was, for her, “proof that she had been. That she had existed.”
Easthope is one of the UK’s leading authorities on emergency planning. She is the person who assesses the scale of a disaster and what is needed to ensure smooth operations in the aftermath. Over the course of her career, she has advised on chemical spillages, volcanoes, fires, floods and terrorist attacks. She lent her expertise to operations around the 2004 tsunami, the 7/7 bombings, the Grenfell fire and, most recently, the British response to Covid-19: “We are all disaster survivors now,” she writes. Her work has an even more immediate resonance in the light of the invasion of Ukraine, with images of shattered apartment buildings and lines of refugees suddenly ubiquitous. As well as dealing with immediate practicalities, high up on her agenda are the needs of those left behind: the displaced, the traumatised, the bereaved. Continue reading...
Mar 23, 2022
The Scottish author’s follow-up to her Wainwright prize-winning The Outrun is more contemplative, with flashes of grit and humour
When Amy Liptrot moved to Berlin, she didn’t expect to spend so much time birdwatching. “I came for people, not birds,” she writes in her new memoir. But she buys a pair of secondhand binoculars and goes out in search of hooded crows, known as “hoodies” back in Scotland, and goshawks, numbers of which have recently increased across the city. For Liptrot, birdwatching is the ultimate antidote to scrolling on her phone, forcing her eyes to refocus and look into the distance.
The Instant is the author’s follow-up to her Wainwright prize-winning debut The Outrun (now being made into a feature film with Saoirse Ronan), and ostensibly tells of a year spent living in Germany, though this isn’t a straightforward travelogue. It is a slim, impressionistic, often melancholy work that, along with following her adventures in a new place, grapples with ideas of solitude, romance and a life lived simultaneously online and off. This book is not as substantial as its predecessor, though that is not a criticism. Where The Outrun chronicled her battles with addiction and her recovery on the islands of Orkney where she grew up, this feels like a more experimental project, a document of a liminal year in which her interior and exterior lives are keenly felt and recorded. Continue reading...
Mar 18, 2022
Sparks fly between rancher brothers in this audiobook version of the 1967 novel, read by Chad Michael Collins
A powerful and quietly subversive study of masculinity set in rural Montana, Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel is enjoying a moment in the spotlight thanks to Jane Campion’s film adaptation, which has been nominated for 12 Oscars. The book opens with a vivid description of a rancher castrating a young bull and tossing its testicles on the fire next to the branding irons, the symbolism of which is hard to miss.
Actor Chad Michael Collins is the narrator, giving distinctive voice to the sibling protagonists: the domineering and loudly homophobic Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch in the film) and his quieter, meeker brother, George. The pair, who are “more than partners, more than brothers”, oversee the running of a vast cattle farm inherited from their retired parents, and still sleep in the bedroom they shared as children. Continue reading...
Mar 11, 2022
The desperate tale of the Joad family during the Great Depression is expertly narrated by actor Richard Armitage
A mass movement of people driven from their homes by environmental catastrophe and hoping for a fresh start in a new land: there’s a sad familiarity to the events depicted in John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel from 1939 in which the Joad family, tenant farmers from Oklahoma, are forced to leave their farm due to drought and financial hardship. They set off for California where they have heard there are jobs aplenty, but when they arrive they find thousands of fellow migrants living in desperate poverty. The newcomers are exploited by the rich, abandoned by the authorities, and treated with suspicion and hostility by locals. “Okie use’ ta mean you was from Oklahoma,” laments one Dust Bowl migrant. “Now it means you’re a dirty son-of-a-bitch. Okie means you’re scum. Don’t mean nothing itself, it’s the way they say it.”
Marking 120 years since Steinbeck’s birth, this new recording is narrated by the actor Richard Armitage, whose tone is sturdy but solemn, and who expertly navigates the midwest dialect and the book’s multiple voices. Chief among the protagonists is Tom Joad, the second of the six Joad children, who is newly paroled from prison after a four-year stretch for manslaughter, and shocked to find his family packing up to leave. There is also Ma Joad, determined, dignified and resilient in the face of turmoil; Pa Joad, big-hearted but broken by all that has befallen the family; and Jim Casy, a former preacher and the beating heart of Steinbeck’s book, who challenges injustice at devastating personal cost. Continue reading...
Feb 18, 2022
The Sherlock actor breathes life into the intertwined narratives of a group of thirtysomething professionals, spiked with flashes of caustic wit
Following his remarkable performance in the TV adaptation of Edward St Aubyn’s autobiographical series Patrick Melrose, it feels fitting that Benedict Cumberbatch should provide the narration for the author’s 10th novel. Double Blind follows a group of thirtysomething professionals, all dedicated in different ways to the advancement of ideas; among them is Francis, a botanist overseeing the rewilding of a country estate in Sussex, and his new girlfriend, Olivia, a biologist with a keen interest in epigenetics. There’s also Olivia’s best friend, Lucy, whom we meet boarding a plane from America to run a new venture capital firm, and who has just rejected a marriage proposal from her mega-rich boyfriend; and Lucy’s new employer, Hunter, a tech entrepreneur and hedge fund billionaire who owns a ranch called Apocalypse Now. Meanwhile, Olivia’s psychotherapist father, Martin, is treating a man with schizophrenia who has a secret connection to the family.
Cumberbatch glides smoothly between these intertwined narratives, breathing life into the characters and revelling in the flashes of caustic wit. He also makes impressively light work of the protagonists’ rambling interior monologues on such subjects as immunology, ecology, bioethics and neuroscience; these passages can be stodgy on the page but are more digestible in audio. Deploying various accents and voices, the actor also has fun with St Aubyn’s peripheral figures, from the comically sinister Vatican priest trying to pull off an outlandish business deal to Hunter’s cocaine-addled sidekick Saul who “had always spoken rapidly but on that [day] he was sprinting to the next full stop like an athlete trying to break a record”. Continue reading...
• Double Blind is available from Penguin Audio, 7hr 46min.
Feb 18, 2022
Narrator Sura Siu brings a childike innocence to Ishiguro’s exploration of what it means to be human
In this Booker-nominated fable, a robot stands in a shop window waiting for a human family to claim her. Klara is an Artificial Friend, or AF, who runs on solar power and has been created as a companion for lonely children – her role is part sibling, part childminder. Klara has a rare aptitude among AFs for observing human emotions, and learns to read sadness, anger and joy in the faces of the people she sees in the street. Watching what appears to be a reunion of two friends, she remarks to the shop manager: “They seem so happy … But it’s strange because they also seem upset.” Continue reading...
Feb 11, 2022
Slavery and the Black experience are at the heart of these essays, poems and fictional works, read by the authors, from Yaa Gyasi to Wesley Morris
What began as Pulitzer prize-winning journalism in the New York Times in 2019, and was later expanded into a book and a podcast, has made its final transformation into an audiobook. A collection of essays, poems and fictional works by more than 50 writers, The 1619 Project is a remarkable reframing of American history in which slavery and the Black experience are at the heart of the narrative. It traces the birth of a nation not to 1776 and the American revolution but to August 1619, when a ship arrived at Point Comfort in Virginia carrying a cargo of between 20 and 30 African captives, beginning a system of chattel slavery that would continue for 250 years.
Discussing the origins of the project, journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones recalls her realisation that the history taught to her at school had “rendered Black Americans, Black people on all the earth, inconsequential at best, invisible at worst. We appeared only where unavoidable.” Elsewhere, Yaa Gyasi, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, Terry McMillan, Wesley Morris and Barry Jenkins are among those considering themes of democracy, capitalism, music, religion and justice, each piece given renewed power through the voice of its author. Among the many highlights is a section, written and read by Robert Jones Jr, about an offer of freedom to enslaved men in 1775 by Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia, in return for joining the British Army, in which the narrator wonders whether Dunmore is a man of his word. “Never safe to trust toubab,” he says, with profound melancholy. “If you remember the ship, if it didn’t take your mind from you, then you understand.” Continue reading...
Feb 03, 2022
From Cicero to El Greco, Marx to Mahler, a study of solace through the ages offers lessons from the broken
When the world is in crisis, where should we look for comfort? Given humanity’s dwindling religious beliefs, we are less likely than previous generations to see our lives as part of a grand cosmic plan, or believe that paradise awaits in the great beyond. All of which can make consolation – the idea that there is a point to existence, and therefore to our tragedy and suffering – that much harder to find.
In his new book of essays, the Booker prize-winning novelist, academic and erstwhile politician Michael Ignatieff examines the concept of solace over the centuries and how we might find it in our more secular age. “The challenge of consolation in our times,” he explains, “is to endure tragedy, even when we cannot hope to find a meaning for it, and to continue living in hope.” This is not a tract on how to improve your mental health or a guide to self-care. Rather, it’s a meditation on the nature of comfort, explored via a series of portraits of artists, writers and thinkers who have stood on the precipice of despair and sought consolation in difficult times. Continue reading...
Jan 28, 2022
A deft version of the Costa prize winner about rural, middle-aged twins whose sheltered lives are shattered by their mother’s death
Claire Fuller’s Costa prize-winning novel begins with 70-year-old Dot getting up in the night in her farm cottage and collapsing from a stroke by the kitchen hearth. Her body is found in the morning by her two adult children who face an uncertain future in the wake of her death.
Twins Jeanie and Julius are 51 years old and have led desperately sheltered lives, never venturing far from home, living off the land and eschewing modern necessities such as bank accounts, television and the internet. Unsettled Ground provides a richly detailed portrait of two outsiders out of step with the world and forced to confront the lies their late mother told to keep them at home. As well as showing the siblings’ emotional implosion, Fuller depicts the harsh realities of life in a remote rural community where work is scarce and many live in dire poverty. Continue reading...
Jan 07, 2022
Ariel Blake narrates the US author’s novel, a candid exploration of race, class and power in the city
We first meet sardonic New Yorker Edie sitting in the office talking dirty on a dating app with a man who says he is in an open marriage. For Edie, who is 23, the product of a difficult childhood and one of only two Black editors at her publishing firm, casual sex is a way to distract herself from her myriad disappointments. And so she begins an affair with the white fortysomething archivist Eric, which is complicated when his wife, Rebecca, decides to get to know her too. When Edie is fired and can no longer afford the rent on her cockroach-infested apartment, Rebecca invites her into the couple’s smart suburban home where they live with their adopted daughter, Akila. This, it appears, is done partly in the hope that Edie will provide guidance for Akila, who is on the brink of adolescence and is the only Black child in their white neighbourhood.
American writer Raven Leilani’s debut novel is a dazzling and often uncomfortable exploration of race, class, power and the thankless grind that is being young and broke in the city. Ariel Blake narrates, expertly inhabiting Edie’s knowing and analytical tone, and revelling in the writer’s winding sentences and caustic one-liners. Edie describes Rebecca as “sexy in the way a triangle can be sexy”. At finding herself alone for the first time with Akila, she observes: “There are times when I interact with kids and recall my abortion fondly.” It’s a classic Leilanian line, blending trauma, humour and unblinking candour. Continue reading...
Dec 31, 2021
This book was brilliant in written form and it’s even better in audio, with a cast of famous voices elevating hilarious, horrifying and moving historical epistles
The popular compendium of correspondence from history is brilliant in book form, but it takes on a whole new dimension in audio. An eclectic treasure trove of letters written by musicians, actors, poets, writers, explorers, dictators and more, this year’s updated edition is read by a host of actors including Noma Dumezweni, Toby Jones, Juliet Stevenson, Gillian Anderson, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Colin Salmon and Stephen Fry.
The letters are variously life-affirming, devastating, wilfully mundane, subtly acidic and sometimes downright creepy. Listeners can hear Olivia Colman reviving her cut-glass accent from The Crown as she reads the Queen’s recipe for drop scones that she sent to the US president Dwight D Eisenhower, as promised during his visit to Balmoral, and Alan Cumming hamming up Jack the Ripper’s famous “From Hell” dispatch to George Lusk, chairman of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee. The letter was sent in 1888 with a preserved human kidney. Continue reading...
Dec 17, 2021
The doctor turned comic writer’s seasonal hospital tales range from hilarious mishaps to heart-breakers
Stories from the NHS frontline don’t make for obviously festive listening, especially given the current state of Britain’s hospitals. But make an exception for Adam Kay, a former doctor of obstetrics and gynaecology, as his stories are quite the ride.
Twas the Nightshift Before Christmas is the seasonal follow-up to This Is Going to Hurt, Kay’s megaselling debut that cemented his status as a comic writer par excellence and thorn in the side of the Department of Health. Spanning 2004 to 2010, it features diarised dispatches from the sharp end of healthcare over the festive period. Continue reading...
Dec 10, 2021
Thandie Newton rises to the challenge of voicing scores of squabbling aristocrats in a new, unabridged recording
A determined reader can, it is said, power through Tolstoy’s mammoth tale of love and war in a week. But the audio version cannot be easily hurried, as narrators go at their own pace; that is, if you don’t cheat and crank up the speed. Clocking in at more than 60 hours in length, this rerecorded, unabridged version is not for the faint-hearted, but those able to put in the time will be rewarded.
War and Peace opens in St Petersburg in 1805 where there is handwringing in upper-class drawing rooms over the advance of Bonaparte. The narrator Thandiwe Newton rises to the challenge of voicing the scores of aristocrats who gossip and meddle in each other’s lives while bemoaning the state of Europe. Among the main players are Pierre Bezukhov, the illegitimate son of a count who wants a slice of his father’s riches; Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, who goes off to fight in the war; and Natasha, the beautiful daughter of a nobleman, with whom both men are enamoured. Continue reading...
Jul 23, 2021
The Whip Smart author explores consent, bodies and boundaries in a poignant and frank collection of essays that celebrates the power to say ‘no’
Several years ago, the New York writer Melissa Febos went to a cuddle party, in which people pay money to engage in non-sexual intimacy with strangers. The events are designed to meet the needs of those suffering from what psychologists call “skin hunger”, or a lack of human touch. Attendees in pyjamas sit amid pillows, duvets and blankets stroking and hugging each other or holding hands. Sessions typically begin with a short workshop about boundaries and consent. Touching around “bikini” areas is forbidden; participants must seek permission and receive a clear “yes” before any physical contact; everyone gets to practise saying “no”.
But, despite the clear messaging, Febos is uneasy. When a man asks to spoon her, she is reluctant but allows him to do it anyway. Another requests a cuddle; rather than say no, she suggests they hold hands, prompting him to look annoyed and ask if he can massage her instead. Afterwards, Febos is unnerved. It wasn’t just the air of entitlement among the men that disturbed her. “It was how powerful my instinct was to give them what they wanted, as if I didn’t have a choice.” Continue reading...
Jul 10, 2021
A not always flattering portrait of the enigmatic Velvet Underground singer’s troubled life and legacy
In 1966, the artist Andy Warhol was booked to appear at the annual banquet for the New York Society for Clinical Psychiatry. Rather than give a speech, he brought along the Velvet Underground, the house band at his Factory studio, to perform instead. The evening marked the German model Nico’s first appearance with the band, which also comprised Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Moe Tucker. As diners tucked into their main course, “the Velvets started to blast, and Nico started to wail”, recalled Warhol in his book POPism. Factory gadabouts Edie Sedgwick and Gerard Malanga climbed on to the stage and danced with bullwhips, while two film-makers rushed into the room wielding bright lights and Super 8 cameras and began loudly interrogating startled attendees about their sex lives. The next day, the event – more art prank than performance – was written up in the papers, with the headline in the New York Herald Tribune declaring: “Shock Treatment for Psychiatrists.”
It was a pivotal night for Nico, whose presence and distinctive deep alto would raise the profile of the Velvet Underground and inject their shows with an otherworldly, melancholy glamour. It also forms a significant moment in You Are Beautiful and You Are Alone, the cultural historian Jennifer Otter Bickerdike’s account of the life of Christa Päffgen (she adopted the name Nico in her late teens). Before joining the Velvet Underground, Nico had spent more than a decade working as a model and sometime actor – she appeared in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita after the director spotted her standing on the set and offered her a role on the spot. But while she enjoyed the lifestyle modelling afforded her, she objected to being intellectually patronised or regarded as a blank canvas, and was uncertain about the path her life should take. Though not all the members of the Velvet Underground were thrilled at her joining – Reed didn’t want her singing all his songs; Warhol said he wouldn’t manage them without her – she felt at home among artists and avant-garde musicians, and her year-long spell with the band launched a career that would occupy her until her death at 49 following a bicycle accident. Continue reading...
Jun 17, 2021
An exuberant memoir of a troubled childhood tells one girl’s story of danger, drag queens and a struggle to be herself
When Paris Lees was seven years old her school called her mum to complain that her child was wearing tights. Back then, Lees was called Byron and the world saw her as a boy, though she knew different. Her mum phoned her dad, Gaz, who took her to a doctor. “An’ I told ’im. I’m a girl. I sez, ‘I’ve always known’,” Lees writes. The doctor referred her to a child psychologist, but Gaz declined to follow it up. “I don’t think he din’t take me coz he din’t believe me. He din’t take me coz he did believe me, an’ he din’t wanna face the truth.”
What It Feels Like for a Girl chronicles Lees’ teenage years and her struggle to be herself. Smart and exuberant, the book is written in dialect – think Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, but set in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire, where “the streets are paved wi’ dog shit”. Her gender nonconformity is just one aspect of an adolescence that features violence, drug abuse, prostitution, robbery and a spell in a young offenders’ institute. But the most persistent problem for Lees is Gaz, a former boxer for whom humiliating her – for her sexuality, her appearance and her refusal to stand up to school thugs – is a daily sport. Continue reading...
Jun 10, 2021
From childhood beatings to a pillow fight with Prince via ripping up a picture of the pope, the singer’s story of losing her way and finding herself
As a young woman starting out in music, Sinéad O’Connor rarely did what she was told. When Nigel Grainge, an executive at her label, asked her to stop wearing her hair short and dress more like a girl, she went straight out and got her head shaved. While recording her first album, she discovered she was pregnant, prompting Grainge to phone her doctor and tell him to warn her against having a baby. The doctor duly told her that women shouldn’t take babies on tour but neither should they go on tour without them. O’Connor ignored them both and had her son anyway.
Then, in 1992, during a performance on Saturday Night Live, she ripped up a picture of Pope John Paul II, and blew up her career. She knew exactly what she was doing. “Everyone wants a pop star, see?” she writes. “But I am a protest singer. I just had stuff to get off my chest. I had no desire for fame.” Continue reading...
Jun 04, 2021
A vivid and insightful portrait of sisterhood, art and a troubled and talented life cut short
Arifa Akbar’s memoir begins with the death of her sister from a mysterious illness. Before she died in 2016, aged 45, Fauzia had already been rushed to hospital twice, the cause of her symptoms unknown. She had complained of chest pains, shortness of breath and night sweats. Her face began to swell and her lungs became inflamed, but still doctors were clueless. Later, as her speech started to slur and her behaviour became erratic, she was put in an induced coma and subsequently had a brain haemorrhage. Eventually there was a diagnosis: she had died of tuberculosis.
Akbar was left with questions, among them: why hadn’t Fauzia been diagnosed earlier? How, in 2016, does a person contract TB? Her sister’s death also prompted a broader reflection on her life and the ways she had been failed by others. Along with telling the story of a sibling, Consumed is also a candid dissection of family with its complex bonds and rifts, and an acute portrait of grief and mental illness. “Life brought Fauzia pain,” Akbar writes. Continue reading...