Book Lists for All Humans #1

This morning, the Independent ran a book list, ‘13 books everyone should read‘. It popped up on my Twitter feed when someone I follow (a white male) tweeted it with the words, ’13/13 men, 13/13 white. Seriously?’ Clicking the link led to the discovery that the list was voted for by reddit users. My only surprise on discovering this was that House of Leaves wasn’t one of the books on the list.

What isn’t a surprise though is that yet another book list is all-male and all-white. It happens a lot in the media. Last year I got into a debate on Twitter as to whether those writers who selected 10 books related to whichever subject their latest work is on for The Guardian should be given guidelines stating/advising/suggesting they consider a diverse list. Someone (a white male) argued that because they were personal choices they should be allowed to reflect that person’s taste. A point that would be perfectly valid if structural inequality didn’t exist and the majority of people writing these lists weren’t white. At that time, Sarah Jasmon, author of The Summer of Secrets, counteracted the largely male, all-white, list of Top Ten Summers in Fiction.

I’ve long been riled by this situation: when I used to include lists in In the Media, I spent a disproportionate amount of time checking whether the lists were gender balanced. Most were not. Include the balance of white to brown writers and there would’ve been barely any lists left. Every time one appears, I think I should counteract it with an all-female list of writers of a variety of skin tones and today I’m riled enough that I’m doing just that.

BookListsforAllHumans

Welcome to the first in a series! Here’s my take on 13 Books Everyone Should Read. I’m aware there’s many more I could’ve chosen so please, leave your suggestions in the comments. I’m hoping this will become an series of excellent crowdsourced book recommendations. Then, maybe, the media might just have a word with itself and compile lists reflective of the actual world rather than its own narrow one.

Citizen – Claudia Rankine

To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf

The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison

Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronté

Americanah – Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

Human Acts – Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)

The Bloody Chamber – Angela Carter

Quicksand and Passing – Nella Larsen

Geek Love – Katherine Dunn

Push – Sapphire

I Love Dick – Chris Kraus

Trumpet – Jackie Kay

(Links are to my reviews.)

In the Media: 24th May 2015

In the media is a weekly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous week and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

The Cannes Film Festival’s been in the spotlight (haha) this week for turning women away from a screening because they were wearing flat shoes. Heels as compulsory footwear for women may or may not (depending which day it is someone asks) be part of their dress policy. Helen O’Hara writes ‘How the 2015 Cannes Film Festival became all about women‘  while Laura Craik asks, ‘Is the tyranny of high heels finally over?‘ both in The Pool. Hadley Freeman wrote, ‘Can’t do heels? Don’t do Cannes‘ in The Guardian, while Elizabeth Semmelhack wrote, ‘Shoes That Put Women in Their Place‘ in The New York Times

The other big feminist story was about ‘wife bonuses’ after Wednesday Martin wrote a piece for the New York Times called, ‘Poor Little Rich Women‘. Amanda Marcotte asked, ‘What’s Wrong With “Wife Bonuses”?‘ in Slate

Awards this week went to the five 2015 Best Young Australian Novelists, three of whom are women, all of whom are women of colour – hurrah for progress. Also in Australia, the shortlist for the Miles Franklin Award was revealed, four of the five shortlisted writers are women. The O. Henry Prize Stories for 2015 were announced. Of the twenty selected, fifteen were by women. You can read those by Dina Nayeri, Molly Antopol and Lynne Sharon Schwartz by clicking on their names.

The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

Personal essays/memoir:

Feminism:

Society and Politics:

Film, Television, Music and Fashion:

The interviews:

If you want some fiction to read:

Photograph by Kwesi Abbensetts

If you want some poetry to read:

If you want some non-fiction to read:

The lists:

In the Media: 17th May 2015

In the media is a weekly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous week and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

Two excellent UK prizes – the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize and the Desmond Elliot Prize announced their longlist and shortlist, respectively this week. The former has eleven women on a longlist of fifteen. Yes, that does say ELEVEN, that’s 75% of the shortlist (well, 73.3 if you’re being pedantic). And the latter is an ALL WOMEN shortlist of three, from a longlist of ten that had gender parity. Excellent news.

You can read interviews with two of the Desmond Elliot shortlisted writers, Cary Bray and Emma Healey, in The Bookseller

Two important pieces about sexual abuse and victim blaming were published this week: Hayley Webster ‘31 years have passed with me thinking I asked for it…but what if I didn’t‘ on her blog and Lizzie Jones, ‘Sexual Assault: Society, Stop With the Slut Shaming‘ on The Huffington Post.

 

The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

Personal essays/memoir:

Feminism:

Society and Politics:

Film, Television, Music and Fashion:

The interviews:

 

If you want some fiction to read:

If you want some poetry to read:

The lists:

In the Media: 21st December 2014

In the media is a weekly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous week and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. Also, just a note to make it clear that I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely.

Lots of end of year round-ups this week, as you might expect. Two great things happened on Twitter: on Saturday morning, the @#ReadWomen2014 account became @#Read_Women and will continue. I say reading books by women is for life, not just for 2014 (I might make that the blog’s subtitle). Proustitute is convening a goodreads group for 2015 and Travelling in the Homeland has begun a list of Indian women writers available in English translation to help you continue and broaden your reading of books by female writers. Secondly, in response to a male dominated piece on hits and misses in the year in publishing in The Guardian, Ursula Doyle, Associate Publisher at Virago started #hitsandmisses which women in publishing then used to respond with their own take on the year. It’s well worth a read to pick up any gems you might have overlooked.

Elsewhere, Electric Literature told us Why 2014 Was the Year of The Essay; The Guardian had The Best Thrillers of 2014; Buzzfeed had The 28 Best Books By Women in 2014; Rabble in Canada had The Best Book Reviews of 2014; The Huffington Post had The Highlights: Best of Fiction 2015 and The Ones to Watch: Best Debut Fiction Coming in 2015 both from Hannah Beckerman; Flavorwire had The Best Non-Fiction Books 2014; Longreads had the Best of 2014: Essay Writing, and The Coast had Top 15 Books of 2014. And more mini-round-ups were published on The Millions. Ones by Rachel Fershleiser, Yiyun Li, Rebecca Makkai, Gina Frangello, Michelle Filgate, Emma Straub, Jean Hanff Korelitz and Tess Malone are particularly interesting in terms of female writers.

The best of the rest articles/essays:

The interviews:

If you want some fiction or poetry to read:

And the lists:

And because it’s Christmas:

In the Media will be taking a two-week break over Christmas and new year. Thank you to everyone who’s read, shared and commented over the last three months.

Nights at the Circus – Angela Carter

We meet Sophie Fevvers (read it with a Cockney accent), l’Ange Anglaise, ‘the most famous aerialiste of the day’ in her dressing room being interviewed by Jack Walser, American journalist.

At close quarters, it must be said she looked more like a dray mare than an angel. At six feet two in her stockings, she would have to give Walser a couple of inches in order to match him and, though they said she was ‘divinely tall’, there was, off-stage, not much of the divine about her unless there were gin palaces in heaven where she might preside behind the bar. Her face, broad and oval as a meat dish, had been thrown on a common wheel out of coarse clay; nothing subtle about her appeal, which was just as well if she were to function as the democratically elected divinity of the imminent century of the Common Man.

Fevvers is unusual though for on her back she sports a pair of feathered wings inherited, it is said, from her father. Her mother, possibly a Cockney Leda, is equally unknown to Fevvers, having deposited her on the steps of a brothel in Whitechapel.

‘…for I never docked via what you might call the normal channels, sir, oh, dear me, no; but just like Helen of Troy, was hatched.
‘Hatched out of a bloody great egg while Bow Bells rang, as ever is!’

She was discovered by Lizzie, now her assistant, and brought up in the brothel. Lizzie may or may not be her biological mother.

During the first section of the novel, Fevvers tells Walser about her upbringing. He begins the interview with the intention of discovering the truth about her, specifically ‘these notorious and much-debated wings’. However, Fevvers and Lizzie – who come as a team – are smarter than he is and successfully direct the conversation as well as disorientating Walser; several times during the conversation he hears Big Ben sound midnight, the time the old-fashioned clock Lizzie and Fevvers keep in the dressing room is permanently set to, although when the interview ends it is almost seven a.m. Here, Carter seems to allude to either the fairy tale idea that the veneer may be stripped after midnight and the truth of Fevvers revealed or the folklore belief in the witching hour, as the women control time and Walser finishes the night bewitched by Fevvers.

Part two of the book sees Walser joining the circus and following Fevvers to St Petersburg on tour. There we’re treated to a host of circus escapades before they move on through Siberia, in part three, where the adventures become wilder and the narrative moves unpredictably between third person and Fevvers in first person, giving us a long-awaited glimpse into her thoughts.

Nights at the Circus is unmistakably Carter – an intense, fast-paced voice; a narrative packed with implausible scenarios that you accept regardless, and a cast of colourful characters. Fevvers is a fantastic creation – part-myth, part-East Ender – she knows what she wants – money, power over her own destiny, fame – and she takes it.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book whilst being aware that there was so much more for me to return to and investigate more thoroughly – feminist themes and the use of the circus to explore gender and drive the narrative. But that’s often what I enjoy most about books – that they don’t yield all they’ve got on first reading – and I’m already looking forward to returning to Nights at the Circus.

Unsung Female Writers (Part Three)

When I ran the Unsung Female Writers’ lists parts one and two, JacquiWine contacted me and suggested I ask some male bloggers to share their suggestions. What a fantastic idea, I thought, so I contacted two of my favourite male bloggers, both of whom are great champions of women writers.

Today, I’m delighted to welcome Eric from lonesomereader and David from Follow the Thread to share the women writers they think we should be reading.

David reads and reviews mostly fiction and although he’s happy to read any book as long as it’s good, he particularly enjoys reading speculative fiction. This year he’s aiming for two-thirds of his reading to be either literature in translation or English language works from outside the UK or the USA. He also reviews for a number of publications and is the current guest editor for Fiction Uncovered.

Nina Allan

(Photograph from ninaallan.co.uk)

Nina Allan’s work sits on the boundary between literary and speculative fiction, skilfully combining both with a strong sense of the southern English landscapes in which her stories are often set. Most of her work to date has been short fiction, including the collections The Silver Wind, a fragmented portrait of loss depicting multiple versions of the same characters; and Stardust, which chases the dream of a film actress through past, present and future. But perhaps the best place to start is The Race, Allan’s recently published debut novel, which begins as a tale of the racing of genetically enhanced greyhounds, and turns into an examination of individuals having to re-evaluate their place in the world.

Octavia E. Butler (1947-2006)

Octavia Butler was one of the most significant African-American writers of science fiction, whose work explored issues of race, gender, and power struggle, amongst others. Her books ranged from Kindred, the tale of a contemporary African-American woman sent back to the early 19th century; to the “Lilith’s Brood” trilogy, in which the remnants of humanity are rescued by an alien species able to manipulate genetics. From the work of Butler’s that I’ve read, I would suggest starting with Parable of the Sower, whose protagonist founds her own humanist religion in a near future afflicted by environmental damage. It was the first in a series which was left unfinished after two volumes by Butler’s sudden death at the age of 58.

 

Liz Jensen

Liz Jensen is a difficult writer to pin down, as she never quite does the same thing twice (which is always a good thing as far as I’m concerned!). She has written a mystery from the viewpoint of a boy in a coma (The Ninth Life of Louis Drax); painted a satirical portrait of contemporary Britain seen through the eyes of a 19th-century time traveller (My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time); and told an unsentimental tale of life on the Home Front (War Crimes for the Home). If you’ve never read Jensen before, try The Rapture, a sharp study of a paralysed psychotherapist trying to prove her worth whilst treating a girl who is apparently able to predict catastrophe.

 

Yoko Ogawa

Yoko Ogawa is a highly prolific author in her native Japan, but only four of her books have appeared in English to date (all ably translated by Stephen Snyder). These tend towards the dark and macabre, as demonstrated her collection of linked stories, Revenge (shortlisted for this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize), or Hotel Iris, her novel about a teenage girl’s relationship with an older man. But Ogawa’s work also has a lighter side, which can be seen in The Housekeeper and the Professor, the charming tale of a woman who goes to work for a mathematician with short-term memory problems. Any of Ogawa’s books would make a good entry-point, but the three novellas in The Diving Pool stand as a fine showcase of her range.

 

Caroline Smailes

Nothing that Caroline Smailes writes is straightforward; she uses form and structure to transform her subjects. For example, Black Boxes explored the closed emotional worlds of a mother and daughter through their own private ‘black boxes’ – the mother’s conversations with herself about her memories, and the daughter’s diary. 99 Reasons Why was an ebook-only novella with multiple endings, which could be selected at random through your ereader. You might like to begin with Smailes’s most recent novel, The Drowning of Arthur Braxton, which transplants water sprites to a municipal swimming pool in the north of England, but with a real sense of menace and magic.

Eric has had a ‘passion for turning the page’ since he was six. He has a Masters in Studies in Fiction from UEA and writes his own stories too. His novel Enough won the Pearl Street Publishing First Book Award.

Amanda Craig

Writer and journalist Amanda Craig is certainly worthy of more attention and praise. She has produced several excellent books including novels that take you on a girl’s journey in Tuscany, re-imagine a Shakespeare play, uncover the secrets of a British boarding school, survey the changing immigrant population of London and examine the vicious world of journalism. I would recommend starting with her extremely moving novel IN A DARK WOOD about mental illness and the hidden meaning of fairy tales.

 

Angela Carter

Normally I would grudgingly respect judges’ decisions in literary prizes, but the snubbing of Carter on the 1991 Booker shortlist was criminal. She was one of the most innovative English writers of the 20th century and dying from cancer at the time her final novel WISE CHILDREN was released. As with all of this stunning writer’s work, it is a brilliantly inventive book and should have been acknowledged.

 

Rachel Ingalls

Who is Rachel Ingalls? A private and elusive writer who has produced only several slim volumes of writing since the 1960s. Her writing delves into the fantastic where hard reality buffets up against the surreal. Read MRS CALIBAN about a housewife’s love affair with an aquatic being who has a taste for avocados. It’s an inspired, complex, subversive masterwork.

 

Joyce Carol Oates

It’s too easy to gape at Oates’ staggering productivity and dismiss her as a writing machine. Yes, there are over 60 novels, over 35 story collections, more than a dozen non-fiction books – plus poetry, plays, anthologies, young adult novels and more every year. Do not despair! This is a dedicated artist whose writing always surprises and engages you. Begin with her novel THE GRAVEDIGGER’S DAUGHTER and carry on exploring this complex, intelligent writer whose writing you’ll always want to come back to.

 

Jean Rhys

In the 1930s Rhys published a string of intense and beautifully melancholy short novels, but then faded into relative obscurity for 25 or so years. When she successfully returned to the public eye with WIDE SARGASSO SEA many people were surprised she was still alive as they had assumed she committed suicide given the depressing tone of her previous novels. Of course, any fan of JANE EYRE must read Rhys’ novel WIDE SARGASSO SEA, but her early novels deserve exploration – particularly GOOD MORNING, MIDNIGHT whose devastating ending provides the perfect counterpoint to Joyce’s ULYSSES.

 

Huge thanks to both David and Eric. Some brilliant choices, as ever some I’ve read, some I’ve heard of and some I’ll be looking up now. Hope you’ve found someone who looks interesting to you too.