Tag: book reviews

Reivew: Tipping the Velvet

It’s Friday night and I’m pretty exhausted, so this isn’t really a proper review; instead, some notes on a novel I really loved recently.

Tipping the Velvet is the first novel by established historical novelist Sarah Waters, which should tell you most of what you need to know.

Namely, that here be VICTORIAN LESBIANS.

Our Heroine is Nancy, an oyster-girl from Whitstable, Kent, who falls in love with a woman from the theatre: Kitty, a cross-dressing singer. After a suitable period of wistful sighing on both sides, Kitty whisks her off to London, there to become a star – and to embark on a journey through Victorian London’s hidden queer scene in search of a place she can find acceptance.

As in Waters’ wonderful Fingersmith, the romantic suspense, especially in the first half of the novel, is incredible. I don’t often ship couples in novels, because I don’t often stumble across fictional romances that convince me – but the mixture of desire and shame and repressed sexuality that Nancy feels for Kitty is irresistible.

The novel’s quite episodic: Nancy moves through a variety of roles as she moves through London (I have a feeling that she does so west to east, but I may be wrong). There’s a lot of emphasis on how she uses clothing to perform these various roles, which I found pretty interesting: she spends time living as a man, first on the streets of London and then in the home of a sadistic, wealthy lesbian widow. That, and her brief career on stage as a cross-dresser alongside Kitty, makes her clothing choices throughout the novel extremely loaded. To take just a couple of examples: she starts dressing as a man on the streets (as opposed to on the stage) because she can move more freely in the city and attract less attention when she does so; she begins a brief career as a rent boy when she’s wearing the uniform of a specific regiment whose members are known for such activities. Clothes in this novel tend to be catalysts: they can be both empowering and restrictive. There aren’t that many authors who acknowledge this everyday reality, and I found it fascinating.

This attention to the detail of how people perform cultural meanings extends beyond clothing: Waters evokes the sounds and smells and tastes of London settings from the West End theatres to Smithfield Meat Market. It’s detail that gives Tipping the Velvet great verisimilitude – it feels solidly researched and true to how a Victorian person in Nancy’s position might have lived. That’s important from a storytelling point of view, but it’s also relevant to the novel’s political project, which is that of queering Victorian history: imagining a lifestyle that’s been erased by popular culture and by centuries of gatekeeping by straight white cis men. (Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge claims that the queer elements of Tipping the Velvet are not actually based on historical research – it’s a testament to Waters’ writing how much this surprises me.) I love the way that we discover this history, this queer culture that we never imagined might be there, alongside Nancy: as she’s drawn into this hidden side of London, so are we. And so, when Nancy finally does find safety and acceptance and people who will love her in the way she wants to be loved, it’s a relief for us too. I almost cried when I finished Tipping the Velvet. It is more lovely than I can say.

Advertisements

Review: Charm School

I first read Anne Fine’s MG novel Charm School years ago; I have no idea how old I was. Certainly old enough to be picking my own books out at Waterstones. I found my copy at my granny’s house a couple of weeks ago, and, well, here we are.

I’m reasonably impressed.

Bonny and her mother are new in town. It’s the beginning of the summer holidays and Bonny’s father is stuck in a layby with a broken-down removal van. Bonny’s mother is busy. Which all means that Bonny has to go, reluctantly, to Charm School, a sort of weekend club for pre-teen girls who compete for the Glistering Tiara by being the most beautiful, the softest-spoken, the most charming.

Bonny’s horrified by the effort these girls put into this, and the spite and jealousy they direct at each other. She decides that she needs to “save” them from a life of empty-headedness by making the competition a bit more exciting.

There are many surprisingly good things about Charm School! There are also, um, not so good things.

Let’s start with the feminism, because that’s what I’m all about. The book’s pretty on point about how the beauty industry perpetuates itself by setting women against each other, asking us all to waste our energy in competing for an impossible standard of beauty:

“One of them gets to come top and be the Supreme Queen. And all the rest go home feeling ugly, and think they ought to try harder. So they waste even more of their time shopping, and even more of their money on stuff to try to look nicer.”

and on how the system encourages women to police each other, so we end up doing its work for it, free of charge:

“Perhaps the pink frock suits your colouring better.”

“Are those split ends in your hair?…Maybe it’s time for a trim.”

“Your hem’s just the tiniest bit uneven.”

and even on the commodification of female beauty as a tool of capitalism:

“That’s what it’s all for, really, isn’t it? To make them buy more stuff. On and on and on.”

Entry-level feminist theory by way of The Evils of Capitalism! I clearly had excellent taste as a child. I really, really appreciate how aware Charm School is of how oppressive systems work, their self-perpetuating nature and their inescapability. (At one point Bonny has a conversation with the tea boy in which they theorise that the beauty industry is a conspiracy of “green glop men”, which is kind of perfect and I suspect has also fuelled my deep and abiding suspicion of anything a magazine might call a “beauty regime”.)

But. Of course there’s a but. In its haste to identify and condemn the systems that coerce women into wasting their energy in being rather than doing, I think Charm School overlooks how fashion and beauty are actually kind of important for most women. Through Bonny, it focuses its attack a little too much on the symptoms of institutional misogyny (spiteful, empty-headed girls) rather than the cause (the kyriarchy, woop). It judges these girls: there’s a sense that they’re obsessed with fashion not just because they’re being brainwashed by the green gloop men, but because they’re in some way less intelligent than Bonny.

If you’re a woman, what you wear to work, whether you wear makeup or not, how you wear your hair, can affect how seriously you’re taken by your colleagues – female and male, because the kyriarchy is self-perpetuating.

If you’re a woman, what you wear in public can dictate whether random men will hit on you, or worse. “She was asking for it” because her skirt was too short, her makeup too suggestive, her top too low.

If you’re a woman in cosplay, you might get unwanted attention from men who think they have a right to your body.

The point is that it’s not just women policing each other; it’s men too. And, unless Bonny is exceptional (and maybe not even then), a woman who dresses the “right” way is probably more likely to be promoted into “serious” jobs than she is, with her practical clothing.

Which is not a good reason to judge someone for not conforming; but it is a good reason not to judge someone who is – someone who chooses to play the game to protect herself. Because under the kyriarchy there are no good choices.

On a happier note, the book also glosses over the tremendous sense of empowerment the right clothes can give you: the pair of shoes that make you feel invincible, the necklace that gives you a little bit more courage to get you through the day, the outfit that makes you feel most you. Fashion may be a coercive, capitalist construct, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t value in coopting it for your own ends. Quite the opposite, in fact.

I think what’s actually most telling about my memories of reading Charm School (which I must have done several times, knowing my childhood reading habits as I do) is that I was far more interested in the dressing up than I was the feminism. (Even though I was not at all that kind of child.) Because even kids are capable of resisting the narratives that get foisted on them. Sure, women and girls are more than just decorations. Absolutely. But that doesn’t mean that we should be shamed for choosing to dress up on our terms.

(I still like the book. It does great work. I would just like it to have done even greater work!)

Review: The Alchemaster’s Apprentice

I found thinking about Walter Moers’ The Alchemaster’s Apprentice hard, and not very rewarding, work.

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it, exactly: it was fine, and occasionally quite entertaining. It’s more that it did a few quite interesting things which failed to go anywhere.

Take, for instance, the first line of the novel:

Picture to yourself the sickest place in the whole of Zamonia.

This is an instruction that’s impossible to follow. First: where is Zamonia? (Readers of Moers’ other books will know the answer to this, but The Alchemaster’s Apprentice plainly doesn’t expect you to be such a reader.) Secondly: what does Moers mean by “sickest”? Cruellest? Best? Most disease-ridden? It’s a sentence that destabilises the author/reader relationship from the start; it unsettles us, it invites us in.

The sickest place in the whole of Zamonia, it turns out, is Malaisea. Everyone is ill in Malaisea, with all manner of exciting diseases ranging from the common cold to tuberculosis. This is the doing of the town’s resident alchemist, the titular Alchemaster, Ghoolion, who creates noxious fumes in his noxious castle above the town to oppress the people of Malaisea.

The story follows Echo, a talking cat. His owner has recently died, and he’s close to death from starvation, until Ghoolion offers him a terrible bargain: he’ll be fed the most luxurious meals for a month, at which point Ghoolion will murder him and use his fat in his alchemy.

Echo takes the bargain, goes to live in the creepy castle, and spends the rest of the novel trying to find a way out.

Now, Moers’ Zamonia is a place at once whimsical and dark. It has talking cats. But it also has Anguish Candles: candles that have been made (by Ghoolion) to experience terrible pain when they’re alight. And what use is a candle if it’s not alight? Ghoolion provides lakes of milk for Echo, but he also renders down rare and innocent creatures for their fats. Zamonia is a world that contains vampire bats called Leathermice and trees that can move and a city made entirely of iron and steel.

The novel’s full of lively pen and ink illustrations by the author which contribute quite a lot to how this world feels: just familiar enough that the whimsy destabilises us, pulls the rug out from under our feet. It’s also full of plot reversals: the characters tell stories within stories in which star-crossed lovers are separated for ever, pointlessly, in which plucky underdogs are crushed by powerful monsters. Moers wants to keep us on our toes. He never gives us quite what we expect.

And yet. For all the work the novel is doing upfront to destabilise us, defamiliarise us, bring us to a place that’s cruel and unsettling, there doesn’t seem to be a coherent project underpinning all of this. There’s no point.

Well. There’s something of a theme about “the miracle of love”, but Moers’ “miracle of love” is…well. Everything that is wrong with Western conceptions of romance, for a start. There’s a grand total of two named female characters in The Alchemaster’s Apprentice, and both of them exist only to have pointless and doomed romances with Ghoolion, of all people. One of them tests his love for her by telling him she’s going to marry someone else, only to be heartbroken when he disappears off forever. The other is a witch who is Ghoolion’s literal opposite (she cultivates nature rather than destroying it) and whose people have been relentlessly persecuted by Ghoolion since the word go – only she finds his cruelty and complete disregard for other people’s feelings alluring rather than disgusting. She abandons her whole moral system because she’s in luuurve. And then she feeds the object of her affection a love potion to make him love her back.

So “the miracle of love” is beginning to look more like “the miracle of manipulative, not to say self-destructive, behaviour”. Which would be fine if I thought that that was Moers’ point, but the novel literally ends with Echo heading off to the mountains to seek out this miracle.

In other words, Moers is deploying all that destabilising potential, the talking cat, the darkly whimsical villain, the first line you cannot obey, the stories that end in unexpected tragedy, just to repeat old stereotypes. Which, I’m sorry, is just lazy storytelling. It makes for a novel that’s much less than the sum of its parts; a fantasy set in a secondary world that’s only superficially different from our own. And what’s the point of that, really?

Review: The Refrigerator Monologues

The ever-wonderful Catherynne M. Valente’s The Refrigerator Monologues is a series of linked short stories in which a group of women in the afterlife, calling themselves the Hell Hath Club, tell their stories one by one. They’re all women who’ve been fridged – killed or depowered to motivate the men in their lives.

The fridging trope isn’t by any means confined to superhero media, but that’s where the term started; and so the women of the Hell Hath Club are all the girlfriends or wives or love interests of various superheroes.

I’m not generally a fan of superhero stories: the closest I’ve come to reading a superhero comic is Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, which kinda counts but not really, and I pretty much can’t stand superhero films, which in my experience tend towards uncomplicated moral dilemmas, near-constant fight scenes that never lead anywhere, and actors whose idea of looking conflicted actually makes them look constipated.

But Valente achieves a surprising amount of variation in her stories, which I really enjoyed. So while we’ve got recognisable superhero heroines like Paige Embry, a scientist who gets killed when she tries to help her superhero boyfriend defeat the villain she helped create, we’ve also got women like Bayou, Queen of Atlantis, whose love interest assumes she needs rescuing from the sea despite her ruling an underwater society; Julia, a woman with superpowers who’s gaslighted and pushed away by the male superheroes because she’s so much stronger than they are; and Pauline Ketch, an arsonist who courts supervillain Mr. Punch, helps him escape from the asylum they’re both trapped in, and is murdered by him for her trouble.

There’s a strange wildness to these stories that I wouldn’t expect to find in a superhero universe. There’s a woman who lives a different life each day of the week, and only knows it for ten minutes every Sunday. There are superheroes who bring art to life, like something out of a China Mieville novel. There’s an undersea palace made of shipwrecks. And that wonderful range, it seems to me, is part of Valente’s point: it’s a rebuke to superhero media that see women as one-dimensional objects to motivate the men in their lives, when women, in fact, have lives just as colourful and wonderful and varied as men.

It’s important, too, that the women tell their own stories – that the microphone is handed to them, as it were, so they get to reclaim their deaths from sexist storytellers. And it’s also pretty interesting that the stories mostly refuse the conservative moral stance of superhero media: Pauline Ketch the arsonist is granted the same space as Paige Embry the scientist, as she’s just as much a victim of misogyny as her “good” counterparts. That’s not to say, necessarily, that the book approves of arson. It just sees superheroes and supervillains as two sides of the same coin, locked in dramatic but pointless conflicts that are utterly irrelevant to the vast majority of “ordinary” people.

If The Refrigerator Monologues has a flaw, it’s that it’s not exactly subtle. For all its variety of tone and subject matter, its six stories make the same point six times. It’s a necessary point, and everyone has a lot of fun while it’s being made. But there’s also not a lot to be said about it. And it’s unfortunate that we only hear from the romantic partners of superheroes, not their mothers or sisters or daughters or aunts or best friends. If there’s one thing we know about misogyny, it’s that it’s endlessly adaptable; it takes a multitude of insidious forms. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be such a problem. And it’s kind of a shame The Refrigerator Monologues only takes a shot at one particular subset of misogynies – especially given that Western culture is peculiarly obsessed with romantic love anyway.

And yet. At the end of it all, we have a group of women, friends and sometimes lovers, telling each other their stories, reclaiming their deaths, supporting each other and singing together – an antidote to the world of toxic misogyny they’ve left behind. The Hell Hath Club is glorious, and I’d love to read more stories from its members.

Review: Fury

This review contains spoilers.

TW: incest.

Salman Rushdie’s Fury made me, appropriately, furious. It would be nice if I could think that this was a response Rushdie intended to elicit, a deliberate and knowing effect working in concert with the themes of the novel. I’m not at all confident that it is, though. And, for reasons I’ll outline below, I’m not particularly inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt.

Our Protagonist is Malik Solanka, an academic and dollmaker born in New Delhi but lately of London. When the novel begins, he’s left his wife Eleanor and young son to flee to New York, pursued by a nameless fury that he fears will see him murder his family. But there’s fury in New York, too: a serial killer’s on the loose, whacking wealthy young women on the head with lumps of concrete. There’s also a simmering subplot about a small Caribbean nation locked in the throes of a land dispute whose roots lie ultimately in colonialism – a story which Solanka co-opts in the later half of the novel for a multi-media franchise starring his dolls (which in turn starts feeding the conflict).

There’s a lot to unpack here, and Fury would be a fascinating novel if not for its women.

Simply put: Solanka, or Rushdie, or both, see women as objects. Or, at best, as sacrificial supports for Solanka’s own self-actualisation. He becomes entangled with two different women in the course of his sojourn in New York, both of whom he turns into dolls, more or less literally. The first is Mila, a twenty-something manager of a group of Silicon Valley-type techies who are Changing the World, “a girl of exceptional beauty”. Mila reminds Solanka of Little Brain, a doll he created for a TV show exploring the great philosophers, whose character and concept quickly spun out of her creator’s control and became super-famous. He begins thinking of her as Little Brain; and, far from resisting this objectification, Mila leans into it. She dresses like Little Brain and acts like Little Brain, and the whole thing spirals very quickly into a disturbing not-quite-affair with semi-incestuous overtones. (In short, Mila has daddy issues. Oh, such original characterisation! Such nuance!)

Then there’s Neela. Neela is literally so beautiful that men – only men, apparently – routinely drop stuff, fall over and randomly beg her for dates (or, rather, appeal to Solanka for permission to date her, ugh) in the street when she passes. They are unable to control themselves in her presence, see. (This is rape culture speaking, of course.) Solanka turns Neela into a doll: not one but two of the characters in his multi-media franchise are based on her. And then she dies in the conflict that his franchise has helped to engineer. To teach him a lesson in irony, perhaps. Or something like that: I can’t be bothered to work it out when she is so obviously disposable to the narrative, sacrificed on the altar of male self-examination and male woe.

In that respect she’s like those three murdered rich girls, incidentally, who are killed just so Rushdie can prove a point. We’re invited to see the serial killer’s fury as analogous to Solanka’s; indeed, for a time we wonder if Solanka actually killed them. As it turns out, they’re murdered by their boyfriends, who are involved in a violent sex cult whose excesses Rushdie links to the ills of capitalism. There are actually interesting thoughts about ownership and male entitlement and male violence going on here; but they’re overshadowed by how the rest of Fury‘s women get treated. And, anyway, the point still stands that Rushdie’s not interested in these women and the way their lives have been taken from them in a moment of horrific violence. They’re only symbols whose meanings Solanka can fear and ponder on; they’re only objects.

One of the things that makes it difficult to tell whether this objectification is something the novel’s aware of, and working purposefully with, is Rushdie’s prose, which is a headlong rush of detail:

Professor Malik Solanka, retired historian of ideas, irascible dollmaker, and since his recent fifty-fifth birthday celibate and solitary by his own (much criticized) choice, in his silvered years found himself living in a golden age.

That’s the first sentence of the novel. And there are so many currents and undercurrents of meaning going on there: in those parentheses especially we see the traditionally omniscient third person singular clashing with free indirect discourse, with Solanka’s own narrative of himself. In short: we don’t ever quite know whether it’s Rushdie talking or Solanka; whether we’re meant to read Solanka as a misogynist, or whether Rushdie actually is one.

Of course, there are plenty of other avenues we can go down when we’re talking about this particular prose style. But, my gods, I’m so fucking sick of not seeing myself represented in literary fiction; of being relentlessly objectified in the service of endless male existential crises. I don’t want to have to wrestle constantly with male entitlement just to think productively about the latest critical darling. I am so done with excusing literary fiction. That’s not what I want to read for.

Review: Rosemary and Rue

This review contains spoilers.

TW: sexual abuse.

I finally got round to starting Seanan McGuire’s Toby Daye series, which came highly recommended by my TolkSoc friends and geekdom in general, and which has been on my must-read-series list for, oh, quite a long time.

The eponymous October “Toby” Daye is a changeling: half human, half fae. She can pass for human in the right light, or with just a little bit of magic. As Rosemary and Rue begins, she’s working nights in a 7-Eleven, hiding from her fae heritage, trying to make ends meet. It’s not working out great, as you might expect, and everything changes when a fae aristocrat, Evening Winterrose, is murdered. Evening’s last act is to lay a curse on Toby – she has to find the killer, or die in the attempt.

It’s obvious from the word go that McGuire is not! fucking! around! here: the novel literally starts with Our Heroine being turned by an evil fae into a koi carp for fourteen years, losing her human husband and child in the process, which is, you know, fairly traumatic. And it goes on to do some pretty heavy lifting for a novel that’s so squarely, unpretentiously of its genre.

At its heart Rosemary and Rue is a novel about class. As a changeling, Toby’s considered a second-class citizen by most of the pureblooded fae. Her magic’s nowhere near as strong, and though she’ll live a couple of centuries that’s nothing compared to the near-immortality of the purebloods. More importantly, changelings are shunned, pushed to the borders of fae society even as they’re unable to live fulfilling human lives.

Shunned by both races, many changeling children end up at Home. And this is what I really want to talk about, because this is where the novel does some of its best, and also its most troubling, work.

Home is run by a changeling called Devin. Devin is, to put it baldly, an abuser. He takes changeling children in, teaches them to do his work (which mainly involves politicking with the various faerie courts), teaches them to fear him, and rapes some of them. Toby spent much of her teenagerhood at Home, as Devin’s favourite and his “lover” (as she puts it to herself). She’s known at Home as the only one who ever escaped Devin’s clutches, rescued as she was by a friend of her fae mother.

So when Toby finds that her only option for solving Evening’s murder is to go Home and call in some favours…well, there are a couple of ways this could have gone. Devin acts every inch the concerned lover towards Toby – she’s seriously injured several times in quick succession, and he pulls out all the stops to save her. He does her favours without asking for anything in return – something that’s practically unheard of amongst the fae. For a while, it sort of looks like we’re maybe supposed to root for Devin as the romantic interest, which, given everything we and Toby know about him, is pretty damn creepy.

But McGuire, it turns out, is better than that: in the last few chapters of Rosemary and Rue, it turns out that Devin’s been working against Toby all along. And I love how clear-eyed the novel in retrospect is about Devin’s behaviour: like any abuser’s, it’s all about power and control, and McGuire doesn’t flinch from that. I kind of wish I could give Rosemary and Rue to every teenager obsessed by Twilight.

Except I also kind of don’t, because there’s something a little reactionary going on with the treatment of Devin that I want to unpack a bit. Devin betrays Toby because he feels his lot as a changeling is unfair. He wants eternal life, a pureblood’s life, and there’s a McGuffin in the novel that can give it to him, and Toby’s in the way.

Of course Devin is a monster. But I’m a little…troubled by the idea that at least part of his monstrosity is rooted in not knowing his place. Striving for the benefits the purebloods get automatically – benefits they could share, the text suggests, with the changelings – is in itself an evil thing to do, it seems.

It’s an effect exacerbated by Toby’s relatively privileged social position: sure, she’s a changeling, but she’s got the ear of the leaders of at least three different fae realms thanks to her mother’s bloodline. Toby is not remotely in the same situation as Devin. And yet I felt that I was being encouraged to compare them: Toby is a good person because she accepts her position in life. She feels it isn’t fair, yes, but she doesn’t do anything positive to change it. Devin, on the other hand, is a monster because he’s not willing just to take the scraps thrown to him by the purebloods. The very framing of the question is suspect.

I mean: this wasn’t really something that affected how much I enjoyed Rosemary and Rue, which I did, a lot. It’s pacy and fascinating and full of faerie lore; it balances magic and modernity really quite well. And I think there’s certainly room for a more nuanced reading of Devin’s monstrosity: that it’s a symptom of the social divisions in fae society, something rotten in the state of Faerie, rather than a dramatisation of reactionary anti-social-mobility sentiment. I mean, I’ve heard that the later books double down on Rosemary and Rue‘s treatment of class, so maybe not. But I’ll still be hanging round for those later books.

Review: From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor

I feel like I say this more often than not, but Jerry Della Femina’s From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor was not quite what I expected.

It was the subtitle that drew me in: Front Dispatches from the Advertising War. Advertising is my field, so to speak. When I’m not overthinking pop culture, I’m a bid writer, which is a specific kind of advertising that calls on you to hold someone’s interest over pages and pages of technical information. It’s tough. It’s fun. If you want to write for your living but also want, you know, financial security, check out becoming a bid writer.

The point being that advertising, the process of advertising, of getting inside your audience’s head and staying there till you’ve said what you want to say, fascinates me. So a memoir about America’s golden age of advertising, by the founder of a major advertising agency, seemed just the thing for a holiday in Norfolk.

(“The cult classic that inspired Mad Men”, says a little silver circle on the cover of my library copy. I haven’t watched Mad Men, but I do love me some 1970s glamour, and so! here we are!)

Here we are, in New York, 1970. The first thing you need to know about From Those Wonderful Folks is that Della Femina is, well, a bit of an arsehole, even by the standards of his time. You can’t read a page, practically, without stumbling on a sexist or homophobic or (as you might have guessed from the title, a tongue-in-cheek suggestion for a campaign for Panasonic) racist remark. Fairly unusually for me, the detail of the book was interesting enough that I could tune this out after a while – but your mileage may well vary.

The second thing, the more surprising thing, is that From Those Wonderful Folks doesn’t really have a coherent shape as a book. It doesn’t have a story. It’s not about a man who sets up an advertising agency (though presumably it could have been). It’s not even about a man who starts a career in advertising one day. It’s just…pages on pages of anecdotes, grouped loosely into chapters, written in slangy, repetitive and kind of terrible prose, like Della Femina has just talked at a dictaphone for several hours and some poor ghostwriter has tidied it up a bit and thrown it at the page as-is.

(Come to think of it, that’s probably exactly what happened.)

Another surprising thing: it’s nowhere near as scandalous as the cover copy would have you believe. Della Femina is very keen to establish that there’s nowhere near as much drinking or sex at the advertising agencies as the pop culture of the 1970s says there is. There are some delicate creative types (one anecdote is about a copywriter threatening to push his desk out of a high window), but delicate creatives have existed since Apollo killed Niobe’s children, so.

What From Those Wonderful Folks does have is some lovely insight into 1970s ad campaigns. This was a time when big, stuffy, old agencies with huge overheads were being threatened by younger, leaner, more creative operations, and were becoming more careful, more conservative, as a result. Della Femina looks at campaigns and pitches and business practices from across the industry, at why they worked or why they didn’t. There’s Volkswagen’s famous “Think Small” advert; the Jolly Green Giant; a disastrous campaign for low-calorie beer that failed because 1970s beer drinkers couldn’t give a fig about losing weight. It’s all this precise detail, this fine-tuned understanding of the psychology behind capitalist consumption, that, for me, made it worth wading through that terrible and decidedly unenlightened prose. It’s certainly not my favourite read of 2018 – not even close – but it’s pretty interesting, and worth a read if you’re into advertising and can look past the rampant 1970s prejudice.