Welcome to my Pandora's Box of culture reccs
My favourite books of 2022, the pods and TV shows I'm bingeing this month and the joy of @depopdrama
Welcome to the inaugural edition of Books + Bits! I’ve been wanting to launch this for quite some time. The common thread in my work (which over the last 13 years has covered fashion, lifestyle, culture and books), is that I love giving and receiving recommendations and have done for as long as I can remember: most pertinently as Wardrobe Mistress columnist at The Sunday Times Style, where I would solve scores of reader sartorial dilemmas every week; and then on The High Low, where the recommendations up top were one of my favourite parts of the show, even when Dolly recommended the Sainsbury’s app as one of her cultural recommendations. It could be a book, a dress, or a bed pan (coming soon) - my capacity to find things that I want to recommend is seemingly endless.
After The High Low ended, I begun to share things I loved via Instagram Stories, but I never seemed to have the app downloaded when I had something I wanted to share, and then the Story would disappear and people would message me saying “what was that book you liked?” and I wouldn’t have a clue as I have a brain made of melted cheese.
So! Here we are. Books + Bits: a free newsletter, which will land in your inbox every other Friday. Not just £ free, mind, but free from ads and sponsored content. Should you so want some extra content, you can up your free sub to £5 a month (or £50 a year) and in return, you will receive a edition of The List, a curation of affordable second-hand finds and little life enhancers, also every other Friday and a monthly edition of What Should I Read Next? where I will act like a human algorithm and recommend a clutch of books based on what you last enjoyed. I am sure in time I will add to this offering - with discussion threads and possibly some audio - but this is what I’m starting with. So that’s two newsletters per month for free subs and five, for paying subscribers.
Thank you, deeply, to those paying subscribers, who will make it able for me to spend the time I want to spend, on this Pandora’s box of a newsletter. But to the rest of you, please rest assured that 80% of this newsletter - the meat of Books + Bits - will remain free, because I want as many people to enjoy (tolerate?) it as possible. And if you want a paid sub but can’t afford one, e-mail me and I will comp you one.
Books + Bits is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Before I get into the books and the bits, I want to spotlight some of the newsletters that have made Substack such a happy place for me - best enjoyed on the Substack app, fyi.
In no particular order:
Back Row, by Amy Odell - former Cosmopolitan editor and the author of Anna, Odell writes about the intersection of fashion, pop-culture and politics in a rigorously researched yet pithy way that delights me. Her piece on Kanye West - and who gets forgiven in fashion and why - was one of the best I read during that whole shitstorm.
Culture Study, by Anne Helen Petersen - a wide-ranging culture dispatch by one of the Substack OGs and former Buzzfeed-er, most famous for her piece on millennial burnout.
Out of It, by Mary Gaitskill - I was thrilled to discover that the American essayist, novelist and short story writer, responsible for one of my favourite short story collections of all time, Bad Behaviour, has a newsletter. I particularly recommend her piece on femcels.
Great Women Artists, by Katy Hessel - also a podcast, Instagram account and now, a best-selling book, The Story of Art Without Men. On a mission to remedy the unappreciated women of the art world, Hessel writes with such joyful enthusiasm, making art accessible to everyone.
Pass The Aux, by Eleanor Halls - The Telegraph music and culture editor writes brilliant dispatches on pop-culture, music and media. Dip a toe in with her Dorian Lynskey interview on how celebrity interviews have changed for the worse, or her piece on journalism’s accountability problem.
The Cereal Aisle, by Leandra Medine - the original Man Repeller, back doing what she does best. There are so few genuinely useful styling outlets on the internet and I love the innovative tips and tricks in this newsletter.
Earl Earl, by Laurel Pantin - if you are going to subscribe to a shopping newsletter (and I understand resisting that) make it this one. Style editor, Laurel, takes weekly edit requests (clogs, jeans, t-shirts, crew-necks etc) and delivers the tried-and-tested best, for all budgets.
Hung Up, by Hunter Harris - I don’t know nearly as much celebrity goss as I did 10 years ago (the brain can only carry so much, etc etc), but former Vulture writer Hunter’s smart, arch and very funny newsletter keeps me in the loop.
Vittles, by Jonathan Nunn - a full-scale online magazine about food based in the UK and India, with a paid roster of contributors. Jonathan has described Vittles as “a culture publication masquerading as food writing. Food is kind of the MacGuffin to get you in, when, in actuality, it’s something completely different”. Which is probably why, despite not being a foodie, I love this newsletter.
The Unpublishable, by Jess DeFino - the woman who first got me reading Substack, via her fearless ‘anti-beauty’ newsletter about how the beauty industry is hoodwinking us. My favourite instalment is her regular ‘Don’t Buy List’. You can listen to me interview her on the myth of good skin for Doing It Right.
Maybe Baby, by Haley Nahman - another former ManRepeller, writer Haley hits all the pop-culture talking points with her weekly newsletter. Tip a toe into the water with her thoughtful riposte to EmRata’s feminist case for plastic surgery, and her piece on the quantified self.
Every Shade of Grey, by Katherine Ormerod - fierce, frank personal writing on everything from second-time marriage to the cult of the present parent. I smile every Sunday evening when it hits my inbox.
The Hyphen, by Emma Gannon - podcaster and writer Emma Gannon gives great recommendations. I really enjoy her Sunday Scroll list of reccs and often come away with an article or book to consume.
The Audacity, by Roxane Gay - another Substack juggernaut, by the powerhouse essayist and novelist Roxane Gay. I don’t get immersed in multi-voice publications the way I do single-author newsletters, but I find the monthly bookclub great for reading reccs.
10 Books I loved in 2022
nb: The hyperlinks below take you to second hand website, World of Books, or Bookshop.Org which collates independent booksellers.
I thought I’d kick off with a dispatch of 10 books I read and loved in 2022. I read a lot in 2022 - more so than usual - because I was a judge on The Women’s Prize for Fiction, which felt like a huge privilege and, at times, an impossible feat (74 books in 4 months, while making Unreal.) A few of these books made it onto the prize list, while some of them were written yonks ago (read as part of my personal project to read more ‘old’ books/ books that have been sitting on my bookshelf for ages). I’ve limited myself to 10 books because Substack is going to cut me off if I write any more.
Build Your House Around My Body, by Violet Kupersmith. A lush, eerie, exquisitely written debut about two young women who go missing in the Vietnamese rubber plantations - one, in 1986, and one, in 2011. It’s about, as the blurb aptly puts it, “possessed bodies and possessed lands” and is a sweeping epic of history, folklore and doomed romance. I really loved this strange, gorgeous and violent book and if the best-seller lists made any sense, it would have been a best-seller.
Man’s Search For Meaning, by Viktor Frankel. Written by an Austrian psychiatrist in 1946 after he spent three years in Auschwitz, this slim, vital book has sold over 15 million copies globally - and sat on my bookshelf for years. Frankel writes about how more than food, or friendship, what kept him alive in a Nazi concentration camp was believing that his life had meaning - even when he was being told, daily, otherwise. The book is an account of his time there, but also an ode to courage and humanity that even a privileged reader who has never experienced the trauma that he has, can take tangible lessons from.
Tomorrow, Tomorrow and Tomorrow, by Gabrielle Zevin. This book landed quietly last year, but has been a real word-of-mouth grower (likely influenced by Book Tok.) It’s a stunningly original, moving debut about two gamers who meet as teenagers in hospital and go on to start a hugely successful video game empire together. It shows how technology can be a force for good - can bring people together, not just tear them apart - and is an ode to platonic romance.
America is Not The Heart, by Elaine Castillo. A firecracker family saga about immigration, trauma and queer love told through the character of Hero De Vera, who arrives in San Francisco, after being disowned by her family in the Philippines. It’s take-no-prisoners tender (I have seen it described elsewhere as “muscular” and “full-throated”) and unapologetically immersive, offering, quite rightly, little concession to the Anglophone reader (you will have to Google Translate the Tagalog passages/ delicacies) a position that she also takes in her ruthlessly intellectual essay collection, too.
The Book of Form and Emptiness, by Ruth Ozeki. This was the winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, and served as my introduction to the Canadian- Japanese author’s work. It’s a chunky book - although, unlike most novels which clock in around 600 pages, there isn’t much chaff - and I adored the plot: a mother and son grieving the loss of their jazz-singing patriarch. While Annabelle turns to hoarding, Benny imagines talking objects and constructs a world of imaginary friends in the local library. It’s a book about books, mental health, philosophy and the meaning of life. Sounds weighty - but it’s done with a light touch.
Love Marriage, by Monica Ali. A deliciously readable novel from the author of Brick Lane, about Yasmin and Joe, two doctors engaged to be married. Yasmin is from a chaste, Muslim family, while Joe was raised by a famous feminist intellectual, who talks about sex freely and constantly. Love Marriage is about expectation versus reality, cultural tradition and the weight of family ties. It’s also a frequently funny social comedy about a young woman, Yasmin, coming of age - and considering, at the age of 26, who she is and what she actually wants.
Darling, by India Knight. A joyous re-telling of Nancy Mitford’s In Pursuit of Love. I adore Knight’s novels - I can still remember reading My Life On A Plate as a teenager - she writes with such perky, idiosyncratic verve. I haven’t actually read the Mitford original, but my sister says it stays close to the humour, eccentricity and the tragedy of the Radlett family, who, in Darling, are the children of an erstwhile rockstar, growing up isolated on a rural farm.
Invisible Child, by Andrea Elliot. A non-fiction epic by the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter, which tells the life of Black Brooklynite teenager Dasani Coates and her family over 8 years. Set against a backdrop of New York City’s homeless crisis it exposes a broken care system and asks why, when it would cost less to keep a family together than it does to separate them, is Dasani’s family being torn apart? This exquisite feat of journalism will leave you moved and furious.
Tales of the City, by Armistead Maupin. This was my chosen book for the debut episode of Book Chat, and while I’ve recommended the first book, really I am recommending the entire series (I think - I’ve still got a couple of the nine books to go). Diving into Armistead’s world of queer San Francisco in the 70s and 80s, was an absolute delight. Originally a column for The San Francisco Chronicle near 45 years ago, these smart and saucy books are both a product of their time and utterly timeless. (Don’t watch The Netflix series first!)
A Woman’s Story, by Annie Ernaux. She won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year, (the first ever French woman to do so) and so I thought it about time I tried some of Ernaux’s translated work. I started with A Man’s Place (1983) about her father and moved immediately on to A Woman’s Story (1987) about her mother. At under 100 pages each, Ernaux stresses that the books about her parents are ‘objective’ works about people growing up in France at that time - the Nobel praised her “clinical acuity” - but they still read as deeply personal to me, although written in refreshingly unadorned prose, ruthlessly frank and sociological. I was particularly struck by the book about her mother, as she attempted to capture her on the page once she lost her, in life, to Alzheimer’s.
TV, movies, podcasts, journalism, social media & more
Why do British people love to abbreviate things? Serena Smith’s piece for Dazed made me snort with laughter. The panny d, cozzie livs, platty joobs, latty flow, statey funes, melty d, locky d - we are a nation with a problem. Serena looks at why and how the British cultural penchant for abbreviation started.
Tim Minchin on confirmation bias - I stumbled across this lecture from Minchin’s stand-up show ‘Back’ while puttering around the internet and was struck by his efficiency in communicating something gnarly about our divided times. It’s hard to be serious and funny without moralising, but I think this monologue manages it.
Boys Like Me This is a five-part CBC podcast about radical misogyny and the rise of online incel culture, hosted by Ellen Chloë Bartman and recommended to me by my Unreal co-host, Sirin Kale. I’ve only just started it, but am already gripped.
@depopdrama My husband is constantly screenshotting me updates from this Instagram account, which crowd-sources interactions from the peer-to-peer pre-loved app, Depop. Daft, guilt-free memes that give me the same goodvibez as @90sanxiety.
Cinco Lobitos - a Spanish film about inter-generational motherhood, that I watched recently on a plane and which grievously doesn’t seem to have been screened/ reviewed in the UK. I’m including it here on the off chance you may find it somewhere on the internet, because Susi Sánchez and Laia Costa are magic.
Young Hot and Bothered - I was so absorbed and moved by Guardian writer Harriet Gibsone’s account of going through the menopause at the age of 31, how premature menopause alienates you from your peers, and her subsequent journey to motherhood.
Come. And Be My Baby, by Maya Angelou - I was asked by Red magazine to share a poem that I turn to for comfort, for their February issue. I chose this. If someone could come push me in a swaddled buggy while reading it to me, that would be grand.
Orlando at The Garrick Despite struuuuuggling through Virginia Woolf’s book (for more on this listen to next week’s ep3 of Book Chat), I was so excited to see Orlando, mainly because Emma Corrin has had incredible reviews for her turn as the time-travelling, gender-swapping Orlando but also because I was intrigued to see how a book covering 400 years could be condensed into a 90 min play. Director Michael Grandage’s production is a triumph: Corrin is a spry and supple Orlando, they have ditched tons of the confusing detail and the chorus of Virginia Woolf’s commenting on each era created a really fun atmosphere. Go see it if you can!
Happy Valley s3 on BBC iPlayer If you haven’t watched any Happy Valley (described as ‘northern noir’), I can only suggest that you remedy that right now. Sarah Lancashire really is as good as they say. I hate the BBC for dropping it weekly, instead of as a boxset I can binge in a froth, but I also acknowledge that - like Sky with White Lotus - they are geniuses for doing so.
Axel Scheffler recently revealed that his collaborator, Julia Donaldson, imagined the gruffalo “completely differently” and my mind has been blown because the gruffalo is so obviously gruffalo looking. How did she imagine the gruffalo? I am desperate to know and fear I never will.
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This is brilliant. Welcome to Substack! Perfect place for you and your bitz ✨✨✨
So excited for this! Looking forward to tucking into one your recommended books in Feb 💕 Darling is first on my list!