Enter Helen: The Invention of Helen Gurley Brown and the Rise of the Modern Single Woman

by Brooke Hauser

HarperCollins (e-book)

3.5/5 stars

Let’s deal at the outset with the Hermès handbag in the room and say that Carrie Bradshaw is more the love child of Helen Gurley Brown than Candace Bushnell. But for Brown, former editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine, Sex and the City might never have existed, such was the impact of her epiphany that sex sells. The story of how an erstwhile advertising agency secretary came to take a sledgehammer to entrenched attitudes to mothers, wives and girlfriends, Brooke Hauser’s entertainingly honest biography doesn’t dodge the fact that Brown remains a divisive figure for feminists. Brown’s bestselling 1962 book, Sex and the Single Girl, declared that if sex outside marriage was proceeding then women had just as much right to it as men; she also believed that exploiting relationships with men for advancement was a skill, not a sin. Enter Helen, incidentally, is a stage direction from a planned musical about Brown’s life (so stop sniggering at the back), but as a double entendre it’s a neat nod to Brown’s realisation that she was a master trader in the most powerful currency of all. Few “mousy” types from Arkansas have climbed the greasy pole so successfully.

This is Africa: a Dream Chaser’s Odyssey

by Dashiel Douglas

Amazon Digital Services (e-book)

2.5/5 stars

In a sort of one-man reversal of the prolonged exodus that took millions of unwilling Africans to the Americas, Dashiel Douglas had an overwhelming dream – to live in Africa. His wife and family were various shades of thrilled to supportive; his father, having escaped a recession-ridden 1940s Jamaica for his own promised land of the United States, was inimical. And at some point in the process of trying to win over his father, the empathetic, initially Cape Town-bound Douglas had the ingenious idea of telling the story of his father’s literal journey of self-discovery side by side with his own: double the fun, double the anecdotes. In his account of his discoveries and misadventures, sometime store detective and civil rights lawyer Dashiel often seems too unworldly for someone taking on the Dark Continent (“where you never know what to expect … where a woman shoves her breasts through your car window to introduce herself”) and the humour is often clumsy, yet the joy of fulfilling his dream shines through, be it in South Africa, Ghana or elsewhere. But who other than an innocent abroad would fail to realise that roadkill warthog makes for an excellent barbecue?

The Genius of Birds

by Jennifer Ackerman

HighBridge Audio (audiobook)

4/5 stars

Until about 20 years ago, scientists were much like the rest of us when it came to mocking the apparent redundancy of what we patronisingly called our feathered friends: birds of a feather they were, flocking together to deride those “mere flying, pecking automatons”, as Jennifer Ackerman calls them. That arrogance began to crumble with Alex, famous African grey and subject of American animal psychologist Irene Pepperberg’s decades-long experiment on cognitive abilities in parrots. Alex, of course, was not alone, meaning that now humans have stopped being so dismissive (sometimes), Ackerman has a global fund of stories of avian achievement with which to dazzle. Crows that make their own tools – and pass on the knowledge to subsequent generations; leadership qualities emerging from personality traits in barnacle geese; Java sparrows discriminating between languages; recognition of human faces by pigeons: all suggest that anything primates can do, birds, in their own way, can match. Engagingly narrated with suitable wonder by Margaret Strom, this is one of those popular science books destined to recalibrate blinkered attitudes. And as we continue destroying the planet and everything on it, it might even give a few species time to take cover.