Reveal: Robbie Williams

Something of an unlikely book for me to be listening to, given that I wasn’t ever even much of a Take That fan and I’m not particularly interested in Robbie Williams. I was aware of Reveal but I’d assumed it was the usual ghost written celeb biography/hagiography and I wouldn’t have gone near it were it not for it being picked up on Simon Mayo’s Books of the Year podcast. I’m always on the look out for long books, too, and this clocked in at 17 hours.

The book is actually written by Chris Heath, who seems to have shadowed, interviewed and had a bunch of friendly chats with Williams over more than 10 years. Although Heath does make his own stance very clear, particularly when recounting the Twitter abuse Williams gets, the book is very much warts and all. Two things become clear very quickly: First, that Robbie Williams has no filter. Despite his years in the business, his tendency is to react first and then deal with the consequences later. But secondly, that despite or because of his success, he’s a hugely polarising character and plenty of people seem to hate him just for being there. They are very happy to express their hatred, for which we all have social media to thank, without any seeming realisation that there is a person at the receiving end of the invective. That’s disturbing and probably unhealthy and I’m sure studies are being done on the way that internet anonymity intensifies force of expression, and I’m equally sure that the results will tie in with those famous torture studies. Net result – people suck, unless they are very watchful of themselves.

Add to that the consistent and deliberately negative misrepresentation by the press, and there is absolutely no way Williams can win. His choice is either to work very hard at crafting a press friendly personality that then has to be maintained 100% of the time. Or just to carry on being himself as much as possible.

So I found Reveal very interesting, although less because of Williams himself and more because of the insight given into the damage that fame, money and the press can do to someone. In this case, particularly if that someone started as a 16 year old with pre-existing depressive and insecure tendencies. The book goes up to about 2016, by which time Williams is describing himself as agoraphobic. If this were an allegory, it would be one at which people could nod wisely and note the irony in being a hugely successful pop icon who yet prefers not to leave his own estate. But that’s his life, and if I had that kind of money and faced that kind of relentless scrutineering and abuse I wouldn’t go outside either. In fact, I would reinforce the bars of my gilded cage with something a whole lot stronger than gold, hire bodyguards with a zero tolerance policy and become a complete recluse. All of which means that I simply could not do the job that is ‘being famous’.

Fame just looks like an absolute nightmare, a game that is played with loaded dice. Robbie Williams is just a regular bloke, except with such incalculably huge insecurities that none of the markers of success manage to weigh in the balance against them. He loves his wife, he loves his kids. He falls out with people, his weight fluctuates, he’s a songwriter even during the period when he thinks he’s retired from the game. After making it through his wild years, about his only remaining vice is smoking. I lost track in the narrative but I actually think he quit that too. His job is to make music but it’s every single aspect of his life that is continually judged and usually found wanting.

There were times when I had to stop listening, usually when Heath was listing the troll comments Williams gets on social media. Experiencing the abuse third hand was overwhelming. The other eye-opening moments were when Heath unpicked various media storms. We all know that the tabloids are purely exploitative and will never let the truth get in the way of a damning story. Turns out, it’s not just the tabloids – everyone will run with the dominant narrative. So the take aways for me from this book were that I need to re-evaluate my own relationship with social media, and with the press in general.

As for the famous, it’s a reminder that they give us their talent. They don’t owe us their lives. As Neil Gaiman put it ‘G RR Martin is not your bitch.’


The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins

Due small print, I got a proof copy from Transworld by asking nicely on Twitter.

Rachel is the girl on the train, and she’s an unemployed, recently divorced alcoholic who is getting the train because she used to work in London and that’s what she does. The whole framework of her life has collapsed and she has no idea how to put it back together again, and this is her way of treading water. Rather than paying attention to her own life, she creates a story around the lives of a couple whose house the train passes, and who coincidentally live on the street where Rachel used to live with her ex-husband. I think anyone who has ever commuted regularly will know the idle speculation that goes on as you become familiar with snapshots of other people’s lives, so this way into the story really appealed.

And then the woman from the couple, Megan, disappears, and Rachel thinks she has information relevant to the investigation because one morning, as the train passed Megan’s house, she saw her kissing a man who was not her husband.

But, Rachel is a thoroughly unreliable narrator. Not only does she have blackouts after drinking, but she’s been behaving a bit crazily towards her ex-husband,Tom, and his new wife, Anna. The police have multiple reasons not to trust her, but Rachel is a bit obsessed with Megan and she won’t give up. It’s as if she wants to protect the fantasy life she’s created for her, so she starts her own investigation.

There are some good twists, so I’ll avoid spoilers. I like this as a thriller and also as a character study of someone who has fallen pretty far down the ladder and might just be on her way back up. Rachel isn’t entirely sympathetic but somehow, Megan’s disappearance gives her something to seize onto. Seeing it through offers her some sort of redemption, even as she continues to screw up any remaining friendships along the way. She’s also not the only unreliable narrator; pretty much all of the characters are hiding something and so the reader’s understanding shifts as Rachel starts to piece together the truth and her own part in it.

New books roundup

Back from California, bruised from falling over an urn (with grace and elegance, I might add), with an annoying tickle in my throat and really quite tired, but otherwise unscathed. The post waiting for me on my return home cheered me up immensely. 

Also, I was quite pleased to see Mike, who has been ploughing on manfully with War and Peace in my absence, in between what he assures me were lengthy periods of moping and going into a bit of a decline. I may have to read that too, because when we visited the Bartons a War and Peace discussion ensued in which I could not participate because I. Had. Not. Read. The. Book. It was a very weird experience and quite uncomfortable. Being outread by plenty of other people is fine. Being outread by my husband who didn’t even used to read fiction? That wasn’t in the small print. Not that reading is a competitive sport, of course. Except when it is.

However, I’m really not up to the Russians at the moment, I’ve made laughable progress with The Faerie Queene and so – what next?

Eva’s meme from Emily

It seems that my public is clamouring for more, more, more! Or, at least, Emily is. Never let it be said that I am unresponsive to my fan. Here follows Eva’s meme on reading.

Which book do you irrationally cringe away from reading, despite seeing only positive reviews? Almost anything for which I see only positive reviews, and that everyone else is reading. This includes everything on the ‘3 for 2’ table at Borders; anything for sale in Starbucks; anything at the top of the NY Times best seller list; and most certainly anything recommended to me by people who don’t read very much, or any of my relatives. The classic example is The Kite Runner. No way in hell am I reading that. I’m not even linking to it. Yes, I am a terrible book snob. I have learned to live with it and am unrepentant.

If you could bring three characters to life for a social event (afternoon tea, a night of clubbing, perhaps a world cruise), who would they be and what would the event be? Peter WimsyWimsey, James Bond and Sir Percy Blakeney, for a night of excellent dining and hard core drinking at a good London club, perhaps followed by a bit of dancing and then some fast driving in Mrs Merdle. I think they might all get on quite well. I’m prepared to run the risk of either murder, an international incident or a dramatic rescue somewhat derailing the evening. I think all of them would reschedule, and probably make it up to me. My heart is aflutter at the very thought. I would have to spend the entire week getting tarted up, reading Kai Lung, refreshing my knowledge of the French Revolution and learning to dance.

(Borrowing shamelessly from the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde): you are told you can’t die until you read the most boring novel on the planet. While this immortality is great for awhile, eventually you realise it’s past time to die. Which book would you expect to get you a nice grave? Ulysses. Although I’m really not sure I could ever, ever get through it. I think it would take me a lifetime of grim determination to die.

Come on, we’ve all been there. Which book have you pretended, or at least hinted, that you’ve read, when in fact you’ve been nowhere near it? Honestly, I don’t think I have done this. I am usually quite happy to be up front about what I haven’t read, and why. In the past, I think I would be apologetic about not having read some canonical work. Now I don’t care.

As an addition to the last question, has there been a book that you really thought you had read, only to realise when you read a review about it/go to ‘reread’ it that you haven’t? Which book? Again, I don’t think so. If this has happened, I don’t remember. Usually it’s the other way round – I think I haven’t read something (eg Neuromancer) and it turns out that I have.

You’re interviewing for the post of Official Book Advisor to some VIP (who’s not a big reader). What’s the first book you’d recommend and why? (If you feel like you’d have to know the person, go ahead and personalise the VIP) It would very much depend on the VIP and their personal likes and dislikes. There are no books that I am so evangelical about that I would foist them on everyone. Although, if they haven’t read The Iliad and The Odyssey, they damn well ought to, whoever they are. And the Aeneid. And then the Oresteia.

A good fairy comes and grants you one wish: you will have perfect reading comprehension in the foreign language of your choice. Which language do you go with? Italian. Dante, and Sciascia, Pirandello and Calvino.
A mischievious fairy comes and says that you must choose one book that you will reread once a year for the rest of your life (you can read other books as well). Which book would you pick? Pride and Prejudice. I read it every year anyway, along with the rest of Jane Austen. Also, A Little Princess. And probably The Dark is Rising sequence too. And perhaps Gaudy Night.

I know that the book blogging community, and its various challenges, have pushed my reading borders. What’s one bookish thing you ‘discovered’ from book blogging (maybe a new genre, or author, or new appreciation for cover art-anything)?

Definitely new authors, I pick up recommendations all the time from other bloggers. It works the same way as Slightly Foxed, in that people write about what enthuses them, which is very alluring. For example, I have seen Josipovici referred to on a couple of blogs recently, so his name is hovering up near the surface, about to progress onto my ‘What to read’ list. The scope of what I read has also been broadened, by reading challenges or just by being exposed to more authors and writing, and thinking ‘That sounds interesting’.
That good fairy is back for one final visit. Now, she’s granting you your dream library! Describe it. Is everything leatherbound? Is it full of first edition hardcovers? Pristine trade paperbacks? Perhaps a few favourite authors have inscribed their works? Go ahead-let your imagination run free.

My library is a circular room, lined floor to ceiling with shelves, with a walkway that goes round the entire perimeter halfway up. There are a couple of sliding ladders that can be moved around the room so that I can reach all the shelves with ease. There is a roaring fire and a bottle of perfectly chilled champagne near a leather topped desk fully equipped with an array of writing materials. One window looks out over a forest, the other window looks out over the sea, both have built in window seats of immense comfort. Somewhere there is also a kettle, an array of teas, milk and a tin of biscuits. The door locks, from the inside.

The books themselves are a jumble of first editions, dog eared paperbacks, hardbacks without their covers, books inscribed by friends, books bought on holiday, books found, stolen, borrowed but never returned, books rescued. They are organised in alphabetical order, or perhaps by theme (the QI bookshop in Oxford organises by theme, and it throws up some interesting juxtapositions).

Eva’s rule is that everyone who does this meme has to tag four people, so I’m tagging:
Zoesmom, Dave (because something has to get her blogging again), The Reading Nook (her first meme!) and Noble Savage.