Published On: Mon, Jun 19th, 2017

Book reviews: Selfie and Believe Me



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This week’s books fight back against human frailty


Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed And What It’s Doing To Us by Will Storr (Picador, £18.99)

Selfie opens with a quote from the right-wing philosopher Ayn Rand, talking about her discovery of God in 1938. “I am done,” wrote Rand, “with the monster of ‘we’.” She revealed that God is one word, “I”.

The modern human is obsessed with self. We are all little gods, pumped with self-importance. 

The proof being the selfie. No view or experience is worthwhile without a camera-phone pic of me. And since we are now divinities, we are perfectible. And there’s the mental health rub. We try to be slimmer, smarter, wealthier, sexier and sportier, yet fail because we are dogged by our biology. We are animals with paws of clay. 

“Perfection,” writes Storr, “is the idea which kills.” He throws in some alarming statistics. Between eight and 10 per cent of the adult population in the UK and the US are on antidepressants.

In America, suicide rates recently hit a 30-year high. Eating disorders in British girls rose 177 per cent in the decade up to 2014.

If Rand named God as “I”, the history of individualism goes back to Ancient Greece. The Hellenes were as obsessed with the body beautiful as Mr Metrosexual. Of course, to be an individual is far from bad. The history of democracy from Magna Carta to women’s suffrage is the history of self. One person, one vote. 

Storr suggests that where individualism went awry was in 1960s California with Human Potential Movement psychotherapy. HPM sought to release the more talented inner self, which led to the Western idea of self being overtaken by narcissism.

There is a direct line from the HPM to contemporary neoliberalism – whether it’s Trumpite winner-takes-all economics or social media where everybody fights for likes and howls down those who disagree. 

Selfie is also the story of Storr’s own troubles. Born into a strict Catholic family, he had a torrid relationship with his parents, flunked school and has always suffered from low self-esteem. 

Storr suggests self-help for Generation Selfish. Acceptance of your flawed self. You are as you are. No, I am not wholly convinced either, but this is a hellishly good book about the new hell: ourselves.

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Believe Me: A Memoir Of Love, Death, And Jazz Chickens by Eddie Izzard (Michael Joseph, £20)

Anyone expecting comedian Eddie Izzard’s autobiography to be a barrel of laughs will be disappointed. Believe Me is the familiar celebrity misery memoir, albeit with superior brains and feeling. It is also the most maddening book I’ve read in years.  

As a child, Izzard was hit by unspeakable tragedy. In 1968, when he was six, his mother died of bowel cancer. Izzard attributes his success, whether in comedy, running 27 consecutive marathons or becoming a pilot to that one day at 13 Cefn Park in South Wales.

“Everything I do in life is trying to get her back.” The wounded babe is frequently visible. 

But Izzard’s brother Mark is not a cross-dressing, Emmy-winning stand-up. So what made Eddie the funny guy in high heels? 

Izzard rambles engagingly around his childhood and public school and struggles as a comic in the “horrible” 1980s. He is brilliant on the details of life back then. “FuhDONK” is exactly the noise electronic typewriters made. Cake mix does taste better than baked cake. Eddie’s stage shtick, stream-of-consciousness quirky observations transfer well to the page. 

But Eddie skirts what makes him tick. He didn’t do badly at school but didn’t do as well as Mark. When his brother got 11 O levels, Dad gave Mark an umbrella. “I wanted Dad to give me an umbrella, too.” 

Eddie started cross-dressing seriously at 15, wearing the clothes of the new woman in Dad’s life, his stepmother. At the University of Sheffield, Eddie did accountancy. Dad was an accountant. 

A Greekly complex relationship with his pater? Chronic sibling jealousy? With no real steers from Izzard, you start filling the psychological gaps yourself. 

The one surprise for his fans, I suspect, will be his teenage veneration of the SAS. But the last decade of his life fades from view.  

Izzard’s break as a comedian came in the 1990s. The soulless night of Thatcherism was waning, Britpop was on the radio and Eddie Izzard was on stage doing his funny, free-flowing, transvestite thing. He liberated both comedy and sexuality. 

Izzard was both a symbol and maker of a shinier, happier decade, a figure of genuine cultural importance. 

But ultimately Eddie’s own account of Eddie is, well, unedifying. 

VERDICT: 3/5

John Lewis-Stempel

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Fanny Blake selects the finest new women’s fiction to pack in your suitcase

What Happened That Night by Sheila O’Flanagan (Headline, £18.99)

Lola Fitzpatrick’s brief relationship with Philip Warren has repercussions that echo down the decades. His family owns a high-end jewellery store in Dublin and as far as his class-conscious mother is concerned, Lola isn’t good enough.

Lola’s daughter Bey inherits her mother’s determined streak but cannot shut the door on her own past.

The novel revolves around disasters and triumphs in the characters’ lives and the mother/daughter relationship is particularly well evoked. 

The Summer Of Impossible Things by Rowan Coleman, (Ebury Press, £12.99)

Following their mother’s suicide, physicist Luna Sinclair and her sister Pia travel to Brooklyn, where Luna hopes to uncover the identity of her real father and settle her mother’s affairs. But Luna slips through time to 1977 when her mother was a young woman. 

Can Luna change the past to give her mother a different future? And at what cost to herself? Fictional time travel is hard to pull off, but Coleman does it with panache in this exhilarating, thought-provoking novel about family, grief and redemption.

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An Italian Holiday by Maeve Haran (Pan, £7.99)

Four women stay in a villa on the Amalfi coast. Monica leaves behind her overbearing mother, Angela is taking a break from her business, Claire abandons her controlling husband and Sylvie is fleeing her marriage.

The magic of Italy, their friendship and the characters they meet effect a change in all of them. It’s as bubbly and enjoyable as a glass of Italian fizz.

The Sunshine Sisters by Jane Green (Macmillan, £14.99)

Dysfunctional families often make for absorbing reading and the Sunshine family is no exception. Hollywood actress Ronnie Sunshine is terminally ill so she summons her three daughters to help end her life. She was a self-absorbed mother who drove her children away and the sisters are virtually estranged.

Can they bend to Ronnie’s wishes, overcome their grievances and forge bonds? Sparkly characters and an engaging story show Green at her best.

The Friend by Dorothy Koomson (Century, £12.99)

Cece Solarin and her family move to Brighton, where there’s talk of a serious assault on a parent in the children’s playground. The victim, Yvonne, lies comatose in hospital. Who is responsible?

Cece is befriended by three other mums but when she starts making her own investigations into the attack, she realises these women might not be quite who they seem. Skeletons tumble from cupboards with plenty of unexpected plot twists in a compelling race to the conclusion.

To order any of these books, see Express Bookshop at expressbookshop.co.uk.



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