Tag Archives: books

August: Book County

14 Sep

Shockingly late, I know, but I did actually read some books in August and I’ve only just got round to writing down what I thought about them. In part this is because my internet is currently refusing to play ball, so I can’t fanny around on Buzzfeed and the Vagenda, but it is also because I have started a new job and I’m not sat in front of a computer for 8 hours a day. (Not that I ever used said time in front of a computer at work to do anything *but* work, naturally).

Well. You already had 1 book review that got its own blog post devoted to it (Laurie Penny’s Cybersexism) but I did read some other things. The first: Female Chauvinist Pigs, by Ariel Levy. This book, published in 2003, explores the rise of ‘raunch culture’ and the effect this has had on (particularly Western, mostly American) society. Essentially, Levy contests the idea that female liberation seems only to be sought in accordance with the male-endorsed ideal of femininity. In the light of Twerkgate (or whatever it is being called these days – y’know, that thing, with Miley Cyrus and the VMAs), this is particularly relevant. On the one hand, women should be free to express themselves as sexual beings. On the other – female sexuality is rarely portrayed as anything other than an accessory to or facilitator of male sexuality and male power. And this is the point Levy makes, wisely, wittily and with great passion. And notably – she does not by any means restrict her criticism to men. Oh no! Women too can be relied upon to endorse this model. Why? Because it’s sold to them as ‘empowerment’. Because it’s explained as ‘confidence’, and as ‘liberation’. “Get your tits out for the lads” is a rallying cry for the raunch-culture generation.

There were times when I thought whilst reading – hold on a moment, maybe this is going too far. The danger of carrying the argument forward so heatedly is that some smart arse will turn around and say ‘I suppose you want everyone back in corsets then, huh?’. Perhaps such an aggressive attack on raunch culture will instigate a backlash that is even more unpalatable. But, then again, perhaps not. And these are all problems with which, ten years later, we are still facing. So. Ariel Levy. I highly recommend her.

Next – The Cuckoo’s Calling, by [Robert Galbraith]. Actually by JK Rowling. To read a novel for no other reason than that I wanted to – a novel that had no bearing on any of my current interests or academic intentions – a novel that was wholly and utterly a self-indulgent literary experience, where I wasn’t analysing as I went along – was delightful. And it was a relief, too, to read it and find that it was really rather good. Of course I read it in the light of a previous post on gender and authorship. I came to this conclusion: if you know who it’s by, you can see the similarities – if you don’t, you’d struggle to pick them out.

Rowling loves to use floods of adjectives; to make her places (especially, in this case, London) absolutely vivid and often quite grimy; to come up with some weird names and to talk about the weight of expectation carried down from parents to children. I wouldn’t say any of those are especially gendered traits, but they are very Rowling-y. And combined with her subject and her storytelling, the result was a very neat tale with some compelling characters and fascinating snippets of celebrity life. Refreshingly, there is no romantic frisson between the detective and his sidekick. Or rather, they are both very clear to demonstrate that there is no such thing. It’s really very good. I look forward to future evenings in Galbraith’s company.

After being told many a time that I must read Orlando, by Virginia Woolf, I finally did. As I had been assured, it was funny (I laughed out loud on a bus more than once and earned myself some odd looks), combining some of Woolf’s excellent Victorian Gothic parodic skills with her typical light wit. You almost don’t notice it at first – and then you spot it, you breathe it in, you carry it about for a long time and eventually it kills you. Her wit is devastating. ‘Nobody minds a woman thinking, so long as she thinks of a man’ – what a line. What a genius. What a novel, to turn a life-and-love story into a meditation on art, on time, on gender, on value, on spirituality. What a treat. But don’t take my word for it. If you haven’t read it, you really must.

One of my favourite things in the world is ‘popping in to the library’. I read Matilda as a child and her enthusiasm for books matched my own. I love the library. Cambridge recently (-ish) had a library upgrade, too, so going to the library in town is now an even more pleasant experience than ever it was. Well, when I last ‘popped to the library’ (en-route somewhere, I think), I acquired three books. One of these books was Backlash by Susan Faludi. I started reading it, but I’ll be absolutely honest, it’s hard going. Not because it’s not well-written, or compelling or anything like that – it is – but because it’s so anger-inducing. You read a chapter and you have to put it down and fume for a little bit. Sometimes you have to go for a walk and be a bit rage-y. The worst of it is that it was published in the early 1990s – yet so much is still so relevant! It’s truly incredible.

Anyway, in despair (with fortune and men’s eyes), I turned back to Angela Carter for a break. I read American Ghosts and Old World Wonders, another short-story collection in the manner of The Bloody Chamber but less explicitly figured as ‘fairytale’. It was wonderful. Carter is so deft, allusive and manipulative with language – much like Woolf, but in a subtly different way. She also has a great touch of wit. When I read her description of a martini as ‘gin at which a lemon had briefly sneered’, I sniggered audibly and I had to immediately message the excellent E to suggest an Angela Carter themed cocktail-party. Well, all the stories are self-contained, so it doesn’t make much sense for me to give you a plotline (although I tend to avoid that anyway, because I know I for one can’t un-see spoilers), but they are very much individually worth reading. I particularly liked the story containing the gin-line (about a young film student going to visit the wife of a deceased great of the profession)  and the story about the puppets.

OK. That’s your lot, for this month. I’m still battling through Backlash, so I’ll hopefully be able to say something more coherent about it soon. I’ve also read The Uncommon Reader, which was fun. Hopefully I’ll get through The Common Reader too, although as I’ve only got a week before I start uni for the second time, I don’t know how much reading for my own pleasure I’m going to get done. You have been warned! 

July’s Books

5 Aug

July has been a good month for reading. Beautiful weather makes me think ‘I must enjoy this! I must spend time outside!’. Computers and the like are for cold days. Books are for sunshine. Add to that the family holiday – ten days in Tenerife and hours of quiet, uninterrupted words – and the fact that the Aga has been off (so no diversions into the kitchen occupying hours of my weekends) and I’ve read really quite a lot. So here we go.

First – A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, by Mary Wollstonecraft. Not Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, author of Frankenstein, but her mum. Written in the 1790s, Vindication is one of the seminal English texts in modern feminism, though it was largely ignored and/or viciously criticised at the time.

It’s not an easy read nowadays as most of us (with the exception of some ancient academics) have lost the habit of reading and writing like we live in a Victorian crime novel. Yet if you can soldier through the prose and hang the arguments together you get an impressive pearl string of points. Wollstonecraft’s most oft-cited maxim is the one that goes along the lines of ‘I do not wish women to have power over men, but over themselves’. Which is a great line, no?

Wollstonecraft’s argument is imbued with religion, which can make it rather difficult to read if you’re not really into the whole ‘God’ thing. However, she (unusually) uses religion to justify her argument for equality, which is obviously quite a different use when compared to many hardline religious groups even today. She also struggles slightly to escape the biological and, in chastising the often destructive nature of ‘romantic’ love, creates a picture of a marriage that few would wish for themselves in the 21st century.

What I found particularly fascinating was Wollstonecraft’s attribution of much of the unequal treatment of women to economic and industrial factors. The changing perception of what a woman is good for and how much she ought, accordingly, to be educated go hand in hand and in turn create a vicious cycle. That’s why education for girls is so important – because it demonstrates the faith we have that they are worth it.

Anyway. Read Wollstonecraft if you can. Remember the context and try not to judge her by her verbosity, religious fervour and occasional inconsistencies. It really is fascinating.

Next on my list: To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf. Written during the phase of Woolf’s career in which she seems to have found her voice and her style, TtL is a novel about children, about parents, about gender and about expectation (from my reading, anyway. Doubtless others have come away with different impressions). It’s also about art and construction. I enjoyed it for the characterisation of Mr and Mrs Ramsay and their relationship, and also for the flow of the prose and the natural descriptions. I enjoy reading the characters Woolf writes. They always sound familiar while still being mysterious and interesting. She catches human nuances really well.

Next I read The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter – a compendium of short ‘fairytales’ designed, I assumed, to sit together. Written along similar lines and with very similar themes, each story was about femininity, property, innocence and violence. I raced through these – not because they were insubstantial; more because they were delicious. I couldn’t wait to read each one. I’m going to go back and read them all again because they really were great.

Continuing the Angela Carter theme, I next read Nights at the Circus. This was a slightly different kettle of fish as it was a full novel rather than a collection, although the themes were very similar and the characters and premise no less fantastical. It was funny, endearing, wild – and though-provoking, questioning, too. I later loaned it to my mum who had run out of things to read and I think she was a bit baffled by it, but a fantastical version of late Victorian London and its unusual inhabitants is right up my street. I loved it. If it’s up your street, I definitely recommend.

Written on the Body, by Jeanette Winterson, was the penultimate book I finished on holiday. I wrote about this at the time (and subsequently) when I wrote about gender and authorship. That aside – I thought it was a beautiful book. Winterson is so deft with her language – rarely, if ever, overblown. Whatever she is writing about, the tone is always right on the money between tripping and sincere; light enough to be humorous, dark enough to be deadly. I don’t know if I could pick a favourite JW of all the ones I’ve now read, but if you prefer reality to fantasy, this one’s a good bet.

I also read The Waves, another Virginia Woolf. I had heard that this is a difficult text to comprehend, let alone to get through. I’ll admit that I’m reasonably sure a lot of the significance of things was lost on me (although reading the critical introduction after I had finished the book was a little illuminating on that score). However – I actually really enjoyed it. The style is an almost relentless narrative relay, the baton passing between the six main characters across the course of their lives. I say ‘almost relentless’ because there are clear pauses between the otherwise-unbreaking patter of voices. These pauses take the form of an ongoing description of a sea landscape, described throughout the course of a single day, mirroring the characters’ much slower incandescence and subsequent decline. These bits have a lot in common with To the Lighthouse, especially in the ‘Time Passes’ segment. There’s nothing like a contrast with nature to emphasise the brevity of human life (I always think of Sophocles’ Ajax in these instances. But that’s just me).

Unwilling to take my kindle to the beach for the rest of the holiday (the sand was getting *everywhere*) and caught in the straitjacket of my good intentions pre-holiday, all I had left to read in paperback was More’s Utopia or Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies. Foolishly, perhaps, I went for Popper. I read a significant amount of it before coming home, but I find it difficult to read except in hefty chunks, as I struggle to pin down the philosophy straight away and need to allow it to build up until I have a mental breakthrough of understanding.

I didn’t finish Popper because once I got home, I had a conversation with the wonderful E in which we agreed to send each other books (yes, we’re starting our own Feminist Library Lending Service, one day to be a full blown library/bookshop/café affair). Anyway, I sent her The Feminine Mystique and Tiffany Atkinson’s Catulla et al, and she sent me Toni Morrison’s Jazz and a short poem by Adrienne Rich. So I read those instead.

Jazz is set in the early years of the 20th century, mostly in New York but ranging around America in the telling of the main characters’ backstories. It’s soulful, thoughtful, with a narrator who places herself on the edge of the action to watch but who admits later on her fallibility and its basis in the human trait of making stories up about people to make them more interesting. Jazz is imbued throughout with the music that makes uptight characters suspicious and everyone else relaxed. It’s a book about colour and what it means, love and what that means and happiness, and what that means. In every case, the meaning is practical as well as emotional.

Jazz had some great lines and there was a particularly powerful segment about the way the black women of New York defend themselves or die. Though it wasn’t a book I would have thought to pick up off a library shelf or in a bookshop, I really, really enjoyed it. It was deep. It was funny. It was illuminating and it was dark. The characterisations were brilliant; the scenes were evocative. No character stayed the same and the end was pleasingly rounded off without being obvious from the beginning. Jazz left an impression.

Well. That’s it for July. August has started well so far after a large order of new books and the arrival of some university reading lists. Ariel Levy and Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling, in case you still hadn’t heard) are already on there. Til then, toodles!

June’s (belated) books

8 Jul

This month has been another fairly quiet one on the book front but I feel beholden to point out that I have read 2 non-fiction titles and they definitely take longer. So. Here we go.

First up – Screenplay, by Syd Field. This is basically a manual for writing a screenplay that has bankability, structure, character and plot. It also tells you how to get it to Hollywood, find agents, secure copyright etc. I think it’s fairly safe to say it’s aimed at an American audience. My parents bought it for me when they were in New York, possibly because they believe I’m the next *insert famous scriptwriter here* but mostly because they are pandering to my great desire to Write Stuff.

It was very illuminating, if extremely repetitious – people talk about three act structures and plot points but until you have had the diagram shoved under your nose a few times, you don’t necessarily think in that structure. It’s actually very easy to develop a story when you have such clear building blocks (writing it is, of course, another matter; I’m not that presumptuous!). And it’s quite fun to invent a character and then spend a few days mentally writing his or her life story, just for your own pleasure. If absolutely nothing else, I now have a list of films I really, really have to get on and see because they were referenced so many times as being great examples of X. So I feel culturally, future-ly empowered for reading it. Thanks, Syd.

Feeling a bit lacking on the ol’ novel front, I next picked up The Passion, by Jeanette Winterson. I’ve developed a bit of a love affair with her (inspired by the excellent E) so this isn’t the last mention you’ll see. After the last two books I read, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect; her style is quite mutable according to her subject and she likes to hop between narratives, genders, timeframes; the lot, really. Trying to describe when The Passion is set is a tricky one; it’s written from the perspective of one reflecting in a (recently) post-Napoleonic world, but the timeframes jump according to the character and the Venice sequence about halfway through seems quite timeless. This is possibly something especially interesting given that in Sexing the Cherry there really is a time leap between 17th century London and the present (whenever that is); in Venice, it’s just the behaviour which is atemporal; it soon becomes enmeshed within the time of the story’s plot and, indeed, history.

I really enjoyed The Passion. I think it was possibly less reflection-inducing, less questioning, than Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit or Sexing the Cherry; I can’t decide if that’s because it did those things but on a subtler level, or if it’s because it didn’t really do those things. Nevertheless, it was a supremely satisfying story, without being one of those ‘boy meets girl’ tropes. It was emotionally complete, though not necessarily with the expected emotion. Basically, JW FTW.

Right. The last book I completed in June was a biggie. I nearly wrote a blog post dedicated to it because it was so interesting. It was one of those books which you read and think ‘Oh em gee, I can’t believe how relevant this is. When was it written? THEN? *amazed face*. Maybe this doesn’t happen to you that often. Anyway. I read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. This was written in the late 1950s and very early 1960s which is, when you think about it, kind of a while ago now. My parents weren’t even born when BF started writing. I mean, wowzers.

So. The premise of The Feminine Mystique is that there existed in this era in the households of white, middle-class America, a ‘problem which has no name’. Countless housewives up and down the country were being referred to therapists and/or self-medicating with alcohol, comfort food and consumerism. The cause? Intelligent women were being actively encouraged not to use their brains. Popular anthropological and psychological ideas were being (mis)applied to a world in which the observations of Freud no longer had any purchase within the cultural setup. Women were talked into believing that their naturally-ordained role was that of wife and mother. Does this sound familiar? Yeah, I know.

Despite a heavy reliance on certain studies (like the Kinsey study), some slightly questionable survey selection techniques and some highly outdated attitudes to homosexuality (as well as an outright avowal that she is dealing only with the problems of white, middle-class America), Friedan’s case is well made. She writes passionately and with great force. She presents coherent arguments, models and examples and argues her points more clearly than someone like Greer, who tends to get swept up in moralising and political ideology. Friedan not only identifies the problem, she points historically to the way it has been allowed (and encouraged) to evolve and the sociological factors that have permitted this.

The Feminine Mystique is a phenomenon that can still be observed today. It’s tied to the religious hangover of the female ‘role’ and perpetrated at an almost-subliminal level by consumerism. What Friedan advocates is emphatically not bra-burning, non-shaving, ‘scary’ feminism. She says women need to be allowed the freedom to tax themselves as far as they want, and to grow and exist as people, not as mother-robots. Some women will be perfectly content to stay at home and rely on their husbands. But many who think this about themselves have been tricked into doing so. They may find fulfilment for a little while through their children (although their children will suffer for this later), but they will come to be part of a trend of miserable, middle-aged women suffering serious empty-nest syndrome. Having been encouraged into education, these girls should continue to want to stay there – not be subject to opinions that suggest over-educated women are unattractive or unfeminine or less likely to be good mothers. They should be pushed to be as good as they can be – not told to stop before they scare men off.

This book sparked a revolution. Read it and you’ll see why.

On the list for July – I’m reading A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft. I’ve also got a LOT of Angela Carter to read. Happily, I’m going on holiday soon, so I’ll have lots of time to get through it all!

The Darling Books of May

4 Jun

I know, I know. Where have all the blogs gone? Where’s the monthly book review? Why is there nothing to read?!

I hear you and I answer. Here is the blog. It has not gone anywhere, I’ve just been… distracted. I’ve been writing other things, for other people and other events. None of those have been finished or replied to or progressed yet, so you can’t see them, I’m afraid. And as for the monthly book list – here it is! Woop woop! So now you can chill out and read about what I’ve been reading. Yeah.

All right. First up – Love in the Time of Cholera (Gabriel Garcia Marquez). I was looking forward to this, as I mentioned to the wonderful E a little while ago that I had bought it and she raved enthusiastically about how wonderful it was. I generally trust E’s opinions on life in any case, but I’m particularly susceptible to her book-loving, so I permitted myself a small rubbing-of-hands-plus-gleeful-chuckle when I got down to opening the book itself.

It’s a great story. I wish I hadn’t read the blurb on the back of my copy, because the first chapter is so integral and yet so disconnected that a blurb which tells you about the story is a bit of a problem. Anyway, I devoured the book. I read it in my lunch breaks and on the bus home and in the evenings after work. I loved it. It was funny and poignant and moving. I had read a Marquez before – One Hundred Years of Solitude – and I was aware that, although I had really enjoyed that, I’d also got quite lost with the seemingly never-ending repeating names and lengthy time span. Happily, the story has a much more compact character base in LitToC, so there’s plenty of opportunity for the pale outlines you meet at the beginning to be fully coloured in as the story progresses. I heartily recommend it to anyone. Especially anyone who thinks that old people shouldn’t fall in love.

I was totally in the zone with my reading one lunchtime when I ran out of book. I had finished the Marquez but I had nothing else with me except my iPad. Happily, I have a kindle app and on that particular day, I even had the wireless connection required to access my books. So there I was, browsing through Aphra Behn, George Eliot, William Thackeray, etc, wondering what to read next. I decided to read Game of Thrones. Sometimes you just need to kick back and read something crazy, y’know?

I couldn’t remember where I’d left off, only that I’d read an awful lot of it back in January (remember that post? Read it here: https://natashasfragments.wordpress.com/2013/02/05/januarys-books-a-rundown/ ). I decided just to crack on. I figured that I’d work out pretty quickly whether I had messed up.

Alas for my presumption! 60% of the way into book 5 I realised to my horror that I had omitted to read book 4. I had been pleasantly enjoying quite a heavy bias of the story towards Tyrion, Daenerys and Jon Snow, all of whose stories followed on from where I had left off at the end of book 3, part 2. I hadn’t really twigged that there was a large chunk of story about Sansa, Arya, Theon, Margaery, Cersei, Jaime, Brienne, etc, etc, etc that I was missing. Don’t believe me? Then you’ve never read a book by George R. R Martin.

That said, I did enormously enjoy the book, as ever. Yes, I was missing a fair bit of backstory but I didn’t really notice this until a fair way along. Wikipedia provided me with enough snippets to fill in the major plot holes I was missing and I continued onwards, since I hate not finishing books and I couldn’t face leaving one book halfway through to tackle another that was set partly concurrently, partly earlier (no, seriously). I am going to have to go back and read book 4, if only for the Arya storyline (she’s so goddam kickass), but a whole book without Tyrion is a pretty hefty ask. He is, after all, the best character.

Book 5 is the latest one to come out, so the ending is actually quite a cliffhanger. There are the usual graphic descriptions of bodily functions (less sex in this one, I think, though a lot more wee) and brutal fighting, with some good turns from Asha Greyjoy and Daenerys especially, waving the flag for the girls. There was also an exceedingly clear framing of the unfair societal restrictions on women – a whole paragraph of internal monologue by one of the female characters mentally decrying her status and power. I don’t know if this is something Martin had in mind all along but he’s certainly bringing it to the fore in the later stuff and also, very much so, in the television series. It’s great. Anyway. Some absolutely classic lines from Tyrion, as ever, and some fascinating plot developments re Young Griff (I’ll say no more, except, in an annoying River Song voice, ‘spoilers!’). But there you have it. Game of Thrones.

Hoping to atone a little for my foray into the world of the ridiculous, I decided the time was ripe for some Jeanette Winterson. I bought some of the books a little while ago on the recommendation, once again, of the fabulous E, and I had been sitting on a little stash of them, Smaug-esque, ready to consume at any moment. Then my sister wandered in to pinch a different book off me one afternoon and said ‘Oh, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit! I’ve read that – it’s really good’. So I had to read it, even if only to catch up with the sis. And it was good. It was very good. Funny and interesting and a tiny bit heartbreakingly sad. And when I’d finished it, I read Sexing the Cherry, which was also funny and interesting and not so sad but very structurally engaging. Now that I think about it, it had a lot in common with Cloud Atlas – but if Cloud Atlas is a series of vanilla sponge layers with interesting fillings, Sexing the Cherry is a chiffon cake, with fewer segments but an infinitely more complex and interesting texture. Edible analogies aside, though, both Jeanette Winterson books were delicious reads, perfect for reminding me why I enjoy books and words and stuff. Yeah.

And on that note, I leave you with news that I’m currently reading a book about how to write a screenplay, and then I have two books in French lined up. And another Jeanette Winterson, in case I somehow manage all of that.

April’s books

1 May

Hullo my lovelies. Those of you among the faithful will be familiar with the monthly book review. As it is now the end of April (with all the attendant Joys of Spring etc that this brings) it is time to look back and consider what I have read.

I’ll be honest, I don’t have a list as lengthy as – well, any of my previous ones. I don’t know if I just burned out after March or if it was something to do with getting off to a bad start, but I’ve only read three books this month, and they aren’t even big ones. Nevertheless, ours not to reason why, so I will give you the (dubious) benefit of my thoughts on them notwithstanding.

I got part of the way through the Mill on the Floss, but after two weeks I realised that I just wasn’t going to finish it. If there is one problem with reading books on a Kindle, it is this: you can’t tell – physically – how far through you are. Now, with something that’s not terribly verbose or is highly character/plot driven (eg Game of Thrones), this isn’t really a problem. But with a Victorian novelist it’s a bloody nightmare. I’ve had the same problem with Vanity Fair. I still haven’t finished the damn thing. And I haven’t finished Mill on the Floss, either. So I’m not counting that as one of my ‘completed’ books, but I thought you should at least receive some explanation for the lack of other titles…

I did, however, read Flatland, by the excellently named Edwin Abbott Abbott. Flatland is a late Victorian novel which was recommended to me by my mathematician friend Michael. I am pretty average at maths and fairly awful at spatial awareness, so even though this is a very short work, it took me a few days to read it – properly – and assimilate what on earth was going on.

Basically, Flatland is a 2-dimensional world inhabited by shapes; the more sides the shapes have, the higher their social prestige and mental capacity (the two are inextricable). The story is narrated by a self-described ‘respectable square’. He lays out the principles and features of Flatland, then goes on to describe a dream he has where he visits a 1-dimensional world. Stepping down the dimensions prepares the reader – though not the poor square – for a visitation by a denizen of Spaceland, who arrives in the square’s home on the evening of the millennium to announce that the concept of three dimensions is  possible. The square takes some convincing but eventually considers himself enlightened; however, he cannot remain in Spaceland and his knowledge of it makes him a traitor in Flatland. He is consigned to a prison and there he ends.

It’s an effective story about the limits of our perceptions and the way that our understanding about how we live reduces our capacity to think in a different way. It’s also an interesting example of analogy and its various powers. And it’s a social study, too – hierarchy, education, upbringing, social mobility, intelligence, the position of women – all are presented in such a way as to seem perfectly congruous with (perhaps not our own experiences, but certainly) those of a late Victorian – yet also ridiculous.

I can’t say the plot was necessarily ‘gripping’, nor could it be described along generic lines – but it was provoking, engaging and enlightening. A curious read, and not in a bad way.

Well. Empowered by my new understanding of planes and solids, I cracked my literary knuckles and picked up another Virginia Woolf – this time, Mrs Dalloway. My previous experiences with Woolf – detailed in March’s Books, if you’re looking – did not prepare me for this. Woolf the essayist is not the same as Woolf the novelist. Or rather, the core is very much the same, but you are looking in through another window altogether. The Voyage Out is such an early work that it can barely be held up as an exemplary piece of her writing, so that didn’t help me much either, except to make me wonder why the names of some of the characters seemed so familiar (yes, she does reuse them; Richard and Clarissa Dalloway feature in The Voyage Out too).

Anyway. It was – difficult. Stream of consciousness writing is immersive; you have to be able to commit to every line, every sentence, every paragraph, one after the other, unwinding your thread of understanding so you can follow it all the way back through the labyrinthine text and see the point from which you started. Close the book and the skein is cut – you won’t find it again unless you go back to the last place where you tied it to something solid; a chapter heading or new section. So that meant it took me a little while, even though it is, again, only a very short book.

It is short, but it is intricate. There are phrases in it that made me laugh out loud and ones that made me murmur them again to myself, just to feel the buzz of the words on my lips. “The word ‘time’ split its husk; poured its riches over him…” – it’s a lexical aneurysm, a sentence you can’t understand when it first hits you but leaves you reeling with the effects. I could wax lyrical about the words, the characters, the truth, the folly, the compassion, the levity, the painful relevance – but others have said it better. Read it, then decide for yourself if you want to read anyone else.

Finally – finally! I read Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad. I struggled with this one, too.   I don’t know why. It’s not a particularly difficult book; it’s certainly not a long one. It is, however, dense and dark and it clings to you like a viscous, poisonous mud. There are moments where it feels incredibly current and true and cruel – and others which are anachronistic and jarring. I haven’t quite decided where I stand on it yet. I am glad to have read it. That’s about as much as I can tell you today.

That’s your lot, I’m afraid. That’s really all I’ve read. I dabbled a bit with some Hippolytus because I don’t like to feel I’m forgetting all my Greek, and I did the same with the opening of the Aeneid, too, but those aside – that’s April.

I can’t promise great things for May, on this basis, although I have got some good novels lurking around my room, bought in great eagerness earlier in the month. The best I can say is ‘wait and see’.

March’s Books

1 Apr

Hey team,

It’s the first day of April, which means (among other things) that the list for March’s books is now CLOSED. And that you get to hear all about them. Woop!

I’ve read quite a lot this month. I don’t quite know where I found the time to do all this. I’ve also seen an unprecedented number of films. Again, not sure how I did this. The long Bank Holiday weekend can only account for so much.

Without further ado, then: I started the month with Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (not that David Mitchell). This had been on my radar for some time – in fact, since I saw the BBC version of Richard II in the summer and was totally captivated by Ben Whishaw. Anyway. I knew that I wanted to see the film (and not just because of Ben Whishaw) so I read the book first. Coming straight after Wolf Hall, it’s a very different kettle of fish – Mantel writes Cromwell in an almost ahistorical way; Mitchell writes his characters in a manner that is supposed to delineate very clearly where they are from and who they are. The book is divided into the story of 6 characters and each story is split in half so it brackets the stories that come inside it, like a Russian doll. The central ‘doll’ is whole – the character and story are entirely self-contained. If you had to describe the plot – well, you couldn’t, really. You’d have to be content with the idea that the novel is an exploration of the theme of the renegade against a greedy corporate society.  If you haven’t read it, it is really very good. And, incidentally, so is the film.

Next I read Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. It is only a very short book; more like a couple of chapters to Jane Eyre rather than a standalone, requiring as it does fairly good knowledge of Bronte’s novel. I enjoyed it as a study of what you can do with a source text; people can get quite hoity-toity about authors writing sequels or prequels to well-known books (Eoin Colfer’s take on Douglas Adams, for example). There’s really no need. It’s just a more explicit acknowledgment of influence, and it can be very successful. Bertha Rochester isn’t just a madwoman who stands in the way of Jane and E.F.R’s love. Her backstory may not have been something Bronte was prepared to explore or elucidate on, but another’s take on it is fascinating. And, as is the idea with this ‘reception’ lark, the more recent work informs subsequent readings of the earlier one. Next time I re-read Jane Eyre, I daresay I’ll notice things I didn’t previously. 

Next on the list – Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman. I heard there was going to be a radio serialisation so I wanted to read it (as it happens, the serialisation was very good and I could have not read the book, but anyway). Neil Gaiman is great. He combines some of my favourite elements of Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett and delivers them forth with lightness and nonchalance. He’s the sort of writer who makes you hug yourself when you come across a really great line, because it’s so delicious and it feels as though it’s been tailored specifically to amuse you. Also, a villain that collects and eats priceless Chinese porcelain. That’s just – inspired.

After a bit of a diversion into Gaiman, I returned to my monster book order with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. I thought this was great – a very twisted, dark story about solitude, reality and sex. Interesting questions raised about narrative, authorship and memory. I wasn’t sure whether I felt let down by the ending or not – on the one hand, an epilogue that contextualises and concludes the story is usually a good thing; on the other, the nature of the epilogue almost made me feel uncomfortable. The ease with which the narrative was explained as a historical account cast a slightly noxious light over my own experience of studying history. So – the novel was still very much a satisfying read, but the ending didn’t quite close down the book as I expected it to do. In retrospect, I think I prefer that.

Around the time I started reading the Handmaid’s Tale, I realised I was running out of books. So I put in a substantial book order, almost exclusively composed of Virginia Woolf. I decided I should get stuck in sooner rather than later, so after Atwood, I began A Room of One’s Own. I know purists would say this isn’t really a book so much as an extended essay based on a couple of lectures, but whatever. It was enlightening and inspiring and so – well, simple. Just a very reasonable rejoinder to so many criticisms people make of women and have done for centuries. I don’t know why it isn’t compulsory reading. I felt a lot better about myself and my insecurities after reading Woolf. I followed up this essay/book with The Voyage Out, Woolf’s first novel. I enjoyed how it seemed very familiar, very close to the late Victorian novelistic tradition and yet – it was more; there was definitely something else to it. I thought there was a powerful subversion of the unity one normally gets from a conclusion. Anyway, two books of Woolf seemed like a good start to improving my general understanding of the development of 20th century literature.

I concluded March with Bring up the Bodies, the second in Hilary Mantel’s projected trilogy on Thomas Cromwell in the court of Henry VIII. Knowing Mantel’s prose style this time, it was much easier to slip into the spirit of the narrative, and with so many threads already set up in Wolf Hall (and a considerable chunk of this history being much more familiar to me than the early years of H8) the story flowed smoothly onward. I suppose the great boon of a historical novel is that it is much harder to accidentally leave a line hanging – every character plays a part, and these parts can be reflected backwards as well as forwards within the novel’s unfolding to cast light on motive and cause. But Mantel shows the folds you can also smooth out of the history – the covered up events that don’t suit the chronologists (or rather, the ones you can invent on this pretext) that can stand as explanations for sudden policy changes and the like. The promotion of Richmond; the return of Henry’s bad leg; Mantel can turn these into elements of her story so skilfully that her retelling could well feed back into our historical understanding of the period.

So. There you have it. March. Lined up for April – a whole bunch more Virginia Woolf, some Betty Friedan and probably some George Eliot, for a personal project.

Til next time, then!

feminism

16 Nov

When I’m not at work, (supposedly) working, or in my kitchen, (definitely) baking, I tend to do a lot of reading and, I reassure myself, at least *some* thinking. I read all sorts, depending for direction on reviews, recommendations, paper trails, gifts and what I can get for free on my Kindle. Recently I met up with a very good friend from university who mentioned that she was reading ‘How to be a Woman’ by Caitlin Moran. I knew I wanted to read this book because I remembered the Twitterstorm about it when it came out, and I also knew that if said very good friend was enjoying it then I would, too, and I would probably find it educating and enlightening. So, off I went and bought it – an actual physical copy, too, because I suspected that I would want to be able to lend it to people and say ‘this is a brilliant book and you must read it IMMEDIATELY kthxbai’.

Which is exactly what happened, as it turns out; after devouring it I handed it straight to my sister, meanwhile telling any friend who struck up a conversation with me that they must read it too. It led me, as I believe its author strongly intended, to consider feminism and feminist literature and how I might go about educating myself with regard to its contents. I feel as though my generation is rather lacking in impetus in the area of feminism; it has become rather a dirty word or even a joke in the eyes of many. It’s not really considered a ‘live’ issue because the problems raised in what is now referred to in feminist circles as ‘the 3rd Wave’ have apparently been addressed; laws have been changed, it is true, but attitudes have not. Feminism is sneered at because few people under the age of 25 understand what it means.

But, as Moran puts it, ‘what part of ‘liberation for women’ is not for you?’ Women are afraid to label themselves as feminists because of the strong cultural reaction to the bold feminism advocated by Germaine Greer and her like. Moran read Greer in her teenage years. I thought, at 22 years of age, I have not read this seminal book. This must change. Especially if I am to formulate a thorough and effective reply to my boss next time I challenge him about some of his ideas.

So. I am reading ‘The Female Eunuch’. It is outdated, now, but unfortunately, nowhere near as outdated as it should be. Take out the statistics about university attendance (although you can keep the truths about many girls seeing it as a stop-gap in between leaving school and finding a husband). Take out the figures about household income (no shillings around these days, dear). Take out the assumption that women with jobs only work in low-paid, menial tasks (although it’s still true in an alarming number of cases, there *are* more women in boardrooms, in Parliament and in GP surgeries than there were in the 60s). Take out the idea that no woman except, apparently, for Greer herself is capable of recognising society is culpable and therefore refusing to comply with it (the attitudes of many women have changed, and even of some men too). But what is left – and that’s still, I would say, around 80% of the book – is horrifyingly, terrifyingly still the case. I know it’s still the case because reading these sections is like looking at a psychoanalytic evaluation of my own brain.

It can be alarmingly reductive to read an attack so ferocious on one’s whole existence and I suspect this is the big problem many women have with feminism. If you accept Greer’s arguments, you are basically admitting you have been hypnotised all your life into believing you are a child-producing drone who yearns for a romantic male who does not exist and probably wouldn’t understand you anyway. You are holding up your hands and saying ‘oh my goodness, I only wear lipstick and care about my hair because I, too, believe in a paradigm of feminine beauty which we all know in our heart of hearts is unattainable’. That is quite a big ask. Result? Many found and still find it easier to assume that Greer was trying to compensate for something, or that she was a madwoman or that she was one of a tiny minority of people who could actually believe such tripe.

This is all heartbreaking stuff, of course, because as Caitlin Moran points out, there are some very simple tenets to feminism which are actually extremely accessible to both sexes and do not require deep rethinking of one’s id. If men are worrying about the same thing you’re worrying about, if men are under the same stress, if men are facing the same problems – it’s fine. It’s not sexism, it’s just life.

BUT – if someone in your office asks you if you left the house in a hurry this morning because you aren’t wearing makeup, you can legitimately say to them ‘what are you implying here, and would you like me to get legal on your ass?’. If a bunch of your married/partnered/coupled friends start talking about how they need to get you ‘paired off’, ask them if they’ve considered your views on the matter. If your boyfriend doesn’t know how to cook or use a washing machine and displays no interest in educating himself, stop and think about whether you are his mother or his girlfriend. If you and your lady friends take great and vicious delight in following the waistlines, bustlines and stretch-lines of a bunch of overpaid, underachieving celebrities, ask yourself why, and maybe, y’know, don’t be so mean. We don’t all have to be angels, of course, and some people are truly deserving of derision – but that’s no reason to be cruel.

After all, who are you really hurting? Kristen Stewart is never going to know that you think she’s an unfaithful slag who doesn’t deserve the attentions lavished on her by a man to whom a considerable chunk of the female teenage population is attracted. But if you persist in holding that opinion of her, you’re only reinforcing in your own mind the strictures of society which insists upon monogamous relationships. (That’s what Greer would say). And you’re projecting your own faults onto her, because, in most cases anyway, you haven’t got a clue what she’s actually like. And, hey, is the Other Man in this situation in as much shit as she is? No? WHY NOT? And why isn’t his wife being treated like Pattinson? Anyway. There you have it. Moran says a cheeky gossip is part of being human; part of being a woman – but it never has to descend to the vicious mudslinging that it often becomes. All human interactions can be governed by the instruction ‘be polite!’. If politeness is lacking in a circumstance, call the perpetrator up on it.

If we’re going to achieve a society in which women aren’t leered at any more than men, can make a decision to remain single or childless without having to justify it to their peers and aren’t continually being asked what their husband does for a living, we need more people to read books like these. Greer is not for the faint-hearted, but I wonder how many opinions she could actually change given the deep-seated fear of bra-burners. Moran, however, is highly accessible, very readable, thoroughly up-to-date and considerably less daunting in her demands. You may think I’ve basically summarised them and my exhortation to you to read the damn books is now pointless. It isn’t! They have so much more to say than I can explain here! They are fascinating women and they have written fascinating books! READ THEM! DO IT!

When I started writing this post my intention was to turn it into an analysis of ‘The Marriage Plot’, a novel by Geoffrey Eugenides, according to Greer’s views on the dangers of female literary fantasy. As you can see, I got distracted. Maybe I’ll have something for you on this tasty topic soon. In the meantime, you can use the lull to go and educate yourselves.

Be the change! Stand on that chair and shout ‘I am a FEMINIST!’