In the Media: 26th April 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.

This week’s been all about friendship. The Cut declared it Friends Forever Week and ran a series of articles including, ‘The Friend Who Showed Me the Life I Could Have Had‘ by Nell Freudenberger; Emily Gould wrote, ‘Envy Nearly Wrecked My Best Friendship‘; Carina Chocano, ‘9 Friends Who Made Me Who I Am‘; Heather Havrilesky, ‘The Friend I’ve Been Fighting With for 20 Years‘; Clique-Stalking: Instagram’s Greatest Social Pleasure‘ by Maureen O’Connor, and ‘25 Famous Women on Female Friendship‘. While Megan O’Grady wrote ‘This Spring’s Literary Subject May Have You Calling Your Pals‘ in Vogue; Lauren Laverne says ‘It’s time to rehabilitate matchmaking‘ in The Pool, Sulagna Misra writes ‘How Captain America Helped Me Make Friends in the Real World‘ on Hello Giggles and Leesa Cross-Smith writes, ‘Broken Friendships & Knowing All Too Well‘ on Real Pants.

If you’re still to discover it, one of my favourite blogs Something Rhymed covers friendships between female writers and is run by two female writers who are also best friends, Emma Claire Sweeney and Emily Midorikawa. On the site this week, ‘Crying Tears of Laughter: Irenosen Okojie and Yvette Edwards‘.

And then there’s the Amy Schumer sketch with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Patricia Arquette and Tina Fey celebrating Louis-Dreyfus’ ‘Last Fuckable Day’. If you haven’t seen it yet, you must watch it RIGHT NOW! And when you’ve done that you can read Eleanor Margolis, ‘This Inside Amy Schumer sketch about the media’s treatment of “older” women is perfect‘ in the New Statesman and/or Lynn Enright, ‘Hollywood actresses skewer sexism and ageism brilliantly‘ in The Pool.

Unfortunately, it’s also been about Twitter trolls: Soraya Chemaly wrote in Time, ‘Twitter’s Safety and Free Speech Tightrope‘; Fiona Martin wrote ‘Women are silenced online, just as in real life. It will take more than Twitter to change that‘ in The Guardian; Sali Hughes wrote, ‘Trolls triumph by shutting down women’s voices‘ in The Pool

Congratulations to Yiyun Li who became the first woman to win the Sunday Times short story award and to Emily Bitto who won The Stella Prize this week.

In this week’s Harper Lee news, ‘Reese Witherspoon set to record Harper Lee’s new novel‘ reports Alison Flood in The Guardian.

And the woman with the most publicity this week is Kate Bolick, author of Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, who writes ‘How Writers Can Grow by Pretending to Be Other People‘ in The Atlantic, and is interviewed on Slate, in Cosmopolitan and on Longreads. While Stephanie Gorton Murphy writes, ‘The Uneasy Woman: Meghan Daum, Kate Bolick, and the Legacy of Ida Tarbell‘ on The Millions.

The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

Personal essays/memoir:

Feminism:

Society and Politics:

Music, Film and Television:

The interviews:

If you want some fiction to read:

If you want some poetry to read:

If you want some non-fiction to read:

The lists:

The Bailey's Prize – A Guide to the Shortlist

The Bailey’s Prize is announced this week. At this point the only thing that’s certain is the five judges are going to have a tough time choosing a winner; the shortlist is exceptional. Here’s my guide to the six remaining books (if you click on the covers it’ll take you to the full reviews):

 

Americanah is the story of Ifemelu and Obinze’s enduring love but also a tale of racial inequality and the West’s racial narrative.

Best for: A new perspective and a cracking love story.

Any flaws? I loved it so but I could see why people might find it slightly too long.

 

 

 

Burial Rites is a fictionalised version of the story of Agnus Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland.

Best for: Incredible descriptions of the Icelandic scenery; giving a voice to a marginalised woman.

Any flaws? The conversations Agnus has with the Reverend Thorvadar become an expositional device towards the end.

 

 

The Lowland is the story of two brothers, Subhash and Udayan, and their lives. Initially the action takes place in Calcutta and then moves to America. There is also a third character, a woman, Gauri, who becomes central as the novel progresses.

Best for: Incredible layered prose that builds into something spectacular.

Any flaws? A slow starter.

 

 

The Undertaking tells the story of Peter Faber and Katharina Spinelli’s marriage. It’s 1941 and Peter is a soldier fighting at Stalingrad. Katharina is the daughter of a family of Nazi sympathisers.

Best for: The dialogue is superb; the viewpoint is unflinching and relates without condemning.

Any flaws? It’s grim, oh so very very grim.

 

 

 

A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing is a coming-of-age tale of an unnamed Irish girl who tells her story to her younger brother who is dying from a brain tumour.

Best for: Fragmented prose which builds images in an almost poetic way. It’s like nothing you’ve read before.

Any flaws? It’s grim; the darkest book on the list. It will leave you broken.

 

 

The Goldfinch is Theodore Decker’s story following his mother’s death in a terrorist bombing in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. It follows him through New York, Vegas and Amsterdam along with the painting from which the book takes its name and Theo takes from the museum.

Best for: A cracking good yarn you can immerse yourself in.

Any flaws? The ending’s ludicrous.

 

The Winner? For me, it has to be Americanah; it’s an incredible book – a book that changed my perspective while making me will the lovers on.

However, if I was in the judging room and forced to compromise, The Lowland and A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing would be my alternative choices.

The Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction Shortlist

It’s here! The six shortlisted books are:

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Americanah

Hannah Kent – Burial Rites

Jhumpa Lahiri – The Lowland

Audrey Magee – The Undertaking

Eimear McBride – A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing

Donna Tartt – The Goldfinch

(Click the titles for links to my reviews.)

First thought: Oh my goodness, no The Luminaries followed by yessssssss for Americanah and The Undertaking. Four of my wishlist are on, including the two that for me had to be there. Very much looking forward to the debate over these six for the next few weeks.

The Bailey's Women's Fiction Prize Longlist 2014

Well it’s after midnight and I’m bleary eyed but here it is, the Bailey’s Women’s Fiction Prize longlist for 2014.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Americanah

Margaret Atwood – MaddAddam

Suzanne Berne –  The Dogs of Littlefield

Fatima Bhutto – The Shadow of the Crescent Moon

Claire Cameron –  The Bear

Lea Carpenter – Eleven Days

M.J. Carter – The Strangler Vine

Eleanor Catton – The Luminaries

Deborah Kay Davies – Reasons She Goes to the Woods

Elizabeth Gilbert – The Signature of All Things

Hannah Kent – Burial Rites

Rachel Kushner – The Flamethrowers

Jhumpa Lahiri – The Lowland

Audrey Magee – The Undertaking

Eimear McBride – A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing

Charlotte Mendelson – Almost English

Anna Quindlen – Still Life with Bread Crumbs

Elizabeth Strout – The Burgess Boys

Donna Tartt – The Goldfinch

Evie Wyld – All The Birds, Singing

First thoughts: I’ve got a lot of reading to do! I’ve read and reviewed seven: The Luminaries, The Flamethrowers, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, Still Life with Breadcrumbs, The Burgess Boys, The Goldfinch and All the Birds, Singing. Am particularly thrilled for Eimear McBride, Anna Quindlen and Evie Wyld. I also think The Burgess Boys has been hugely underrated in the UK, so it will be wonderful to see Elizabeth Strout get the recognition she deserves.

As for the rest, Americanah, Burial Rites, The Lowland and Almost English were already high on my review pile. I have copies of The Signature of All Things and Maddaddam, although Maddaddam’s terrifying me – I love Margaret Atwood’s writing but it’s the third part of a trilogy of which I’ve read nothing and I don’t want to read the end before the beginning. I might have to hide for a long weekend to read that one!

The Dogs of Littlefield, The Bear and Eleven Days were also already on my radar and I’m really looking forward to those.

That leaves four I’ve never heard of, which is exactly what I was hoping for.

As ever, I’ll be linking my reviews on this page as I add to them. I’m excited as to what the next month of reading brings.

Books of the Year 2013

Choosing the books that I’ve loved, recommended and bought the most copies of for friends wasn’t difficult, whittling them down was. Because of that, I’ve gone for fifteen books that I enjoyed the most this year. If you click on the title of the book, it will take you to my original review.

Questions of Travel – Michelle de Kretser

Questions of Travel follows Laura and Ravi. Laura chooses to travel, using her inheritance from her aunt to do so; Ravi is forced to travel when the civil war in Sri Lanka visits his doorstep. de Kretser considers the myriad of ways in which we travel in modern society in a novel that’s sublimely written with a perfect ending. Winner of three awards in Australia, I’m astonished it hasn’t had a bigger fanfare in the UK.

 

Love, Nina – Nina Stibbe

Love, Nina contains a series of letters from Nina Stibbe to her sister Vic, written in the 1980s. At the time, Stibbe was a nanny to the sons of Mary Kay Wilmers, editor of the LRB. Alan Bennet frequently pops round for dinner, while the street contains a number of the UK literati. Stibbe’s letters are full of keen observations delivered in the same tone, regardless of the participants, and this makes the book both warm and humorous. It’s one of those books that’s larger than the sum of its parts. A joy.

Apple Tree Yard – Louise Doughty

Apple Tree Yard tells the story of Yvonne Carmichael, a 52-year-old geneticist, who embarks on an affair with a stranger. An affair that will threaten her family, her career and ultimately, her freedom. Told in retrospect beginning with Yvonne standing in the dock at the Old Bailey, Apple Tree Yard had me up late at night, frantically turning pages. It’s a tightly plotted tale with an ending that will leave you gasping.

 

A Tale for the Time Being – Ruth Ozeki

A Tale for the Time Being is the dual narrative of Ruth, an American novelist living on a Canadian island, and Nao, a Japanese school girl. Ruth finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox, washed up on shore, containing Nao’s diary, some letters and a watch. She assumes it is debris from the 2011 tsunami. As Ruth reads Nao’s diary and the store of her family unfolds, we read Ruth’s story and are manipulated by it. A wonderful story of time and quantum physics.

 

 

A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing – Eimear McBride

After almost a decade of rejections, the small, independent Galley Beggar Press published this gem which went on to win The Goldsmith’s Prize. A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing is the story of an unnamed female narrator as told to (for?) her brother who is dying of a brain tumour. It is brutal both in its short, staccato prose and in content. (I don’t recommend reading it in the depths of January, it’ll send you over the edge.) This really is ‘a new voice in fiction’.

 

The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton

Winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize, The Luminaries is a yarn of a tale set amongst gold diggers during the gold rush in New Zealand. It is a story of murder, theft and love with a with a structure that builds throughout the first half and explodes with revelations in the second. One to indulge in.

 

 

Mr Loverman – Bernadine Evaristo

Barrington Jedidiah Walker, 74, born in the Caribbean but resident in London has kept a secret for fifty years from his wife and two grown-up daughters: the love of his life, his best friend Morris. Barry decides it’s time to come-out but obviously, it’s not going to be that easy. Evaristo has a wonderful ear for dialogue and the rhythms of Barry and Carmel’s speech are a joy.

 

Jacob’s Folly – Rebecca Miller

A story told from the point of view of a fly shouldn’t work but it does and it does so brilliantly. The fly is the reincarnation of Jacob Cerf, an ex-peddler from 18th century France. When Jacob the fly becomes aware that he can influence others, he decides to meddle with the life of Masha Edelman, a 21-year-old Torah Jew and Leslie Senzatimore, a man who lives his life in order to help others. Miller uses their stories to consider whether we really have free will or whether our lives are constrained by other forces.

The Interestings – Meg Wolitzer

Six friends meet at summer camp in the 1970s and their lives become entwined forever despite the huge differences in their statuses. Wolitzer follows them through adult life looking at the choices they make and how these affect the whole group dynamic. It’s a dense novel but one that is driven forward by a non-linear narrative and a thread that you know is going to explode spectacularly.

 

The Engagements – J.Courtney Sullivan

The Engagements opens in 1947 with copywriter, Frances Gerety, creating the line ‘A diamond is forever’. The novel then goes on to intertwine her story – one of a woman who definitely doesn’t want an engagement ring – with those of four others: Evelyn Pearsall, whose son Teddy has just left his wife and children; James McKeen, a medical responder whose wife was recently mugged; Delphine Moreau, whose young lover has betrayed her, and a human rights officer whose helping with the preparations for her cousin Jeff’s wedding to his boyfriend, Toby. An unashamedly feminist look at our society’s values.

Life After Life – Kate Atkinson

Life After Life is the story of Ursula Todd, bound to relive her life until the changes are made that prevent her previous death. The concept sounds bizarre, the execution is brilliant. Atkinson takes us through the war, affairs and a meeting with Hitler. The section of the novel during The Blitz is particularly well drawn, so much so, you’ll want to hide behind your hands during some passages. This one will leave you wanting to find someone else who’s read it to discuss in detail.

 

The Colour of Milk – Nell Leyshon

The only book on the list not published this year, however it is one of this year’s Fiction Uncovered titles. Set in 1830, 14-year-old Mary tells us about life on her father’s farm with her four sisters and her elderly grandfather. Offered work at the vicarage, Mary is forced to go and tend for the vicar’s ill wife. When the vicar’s wife dies, she is kept on and the course of her life takes a turn for the worst. A novel about the control of men over women told with a voice that will have you rooting for this young girl.

 

The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt

The story of Theodore Decker, who’s caught in a terrorist attack at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, in which his mother dies. The attack leaves him with the painting ‘The Goldfinch’ in his possession and a ring that he’s to return to James Hobart. These two things will set his life on a dangerous course. Told in immersive detail, this is a wonderful novel which will have you living Theo’s eventful life alongside him.

 

The Shining Girls – Lauren Beukes

The Shining Girls is the book that reignited my love of thrillers. It’s the story of Harper Curtis, time-travelling serial killer (stick with it, it works) and Kirby Mazrachi, who should have been one of his victims but who survives his attack and sets out to track him down. But The Shining Girls is more than that, it’s also the story of all Harper’s victims and those victims tell the story of women through the twentieth century. Shining, indeed.

 

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie – Ayana Mathis

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie was the first book I read to make the list. It’s the story of Hattie, who leaves the segregated south for Philadelphia and a better life. Hattie is already pregnant with twins and with her womanising, gambling, alcoholic husband whom she can’t stay away from, Hattie will have another eight children. These, along with her first grandchild, form the twelve tribes of the title. Each chapter tells one of their stories, stories of homophobia, abuse and mental illness. A beautifully written story of a family and one woman’s quest for survival.

Thanks to all the publishers who’ve sent books for review this year.

The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt

‘It was wonderful. It was awful. It was ten years. It was everything.’ – Donna Tartt, November 2013, Manchester, U.K.

Donna Tartt’s comment about writing her third novel The Goldfinch could equally have been said by the book’s protagonist, Theodore Decker. Opening in a hotel in Amsterdam, where we know he’s in some sort of trouble, Theo begins to look back over the events that have led to this time and place. These events begin with the death of his mother when he’s thirteen.

In trouble at school, Theo’s mum takes him to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, prior to a meeting that will decide Theo’s future. They don’t make the meeting as a terrorist bomb explodes in the museum and Theo’s mother is killed.

She’s taken him to the Met to see an exhibition titled ‘Portraiture and Nature Morte: Northern Masterworks of the Golden Age’.

…“we can’t see it all on this visit, but there are a few things…”

Her voice drifted away as I trailed behind her up the Great Staircase – torn between the prudent need to stick close and the urge to slink a few paces back and try to pretend I wasn’t with her.

“I hate to race through like this,” she was saying as I caught up with her at the top of the stairs, “but then again it’s the kind of show where you need to come two or three times. There’s The Anatomy Lesson, and we do have to see that, but what I really want to see is one tiny, rare piece by a painter who was Vermeer’s teacher. Greatest Old Master you’ve never heard of.”

The ‘tiny, rare piece’ is, of course, ‘The Goldfinch’ from which the novel takes its title and when the explosion takes place, Theo happens to be in the same room as the painting. He comes round close to a man whom he’s been watching walk around the gallery with a girl who appears to be his granddaughter. Unbeknownst to Theo, this man – Welty – is to be the catalyst for the events which drive the rest of his life.

Don’t leave it. No.” He was looking past me, trying to point at something. “Take it away from there.”

Please, lie down –

“No! They mustn’t see it.” He was frantic, gripping my arm now, trying to pull himself up. “They’ve stolen the rugs, they’ll take it to the customs shed – “

He was, I saw, pointing over at a dusty rectangle of board, virtually invisible in the broken beams and rubbish, smaller than my laptop computer at home.

“That?” I said, looking closer. It was blobbed with drips of wax, and pasted with an irregular patchwork of crumbling labels. “That’s what you want?”

“I beg of you.” Eyes squeezed tight. He was upset, coughing so hard he could barely speak.

I reached out and picked the board up by the edges. It felt surprisingly heavy, for something so small. A long splinter of broken frame clung to one corner.

Drawing my sleeve across the dusty surface. Tiny yellow bird, faint beneath a veil of white dust.

I crawled over and put the painting in the nylon shopping bag, just to get it out of his sight, it was upsetting him so.

And so, when Theo leaves the museum some time later, he does so with Fabritius’ painting as well as ‘a heavy gold ring with a carved stone’ which Welty has pressed upon him with the words ‘”Hobart and Blackwell…Ring the green bell.”’

The events of the day change Theo’s life in three main ways. Firstly, he needs a guardian while either his errant father is found or his grandparents can be persuaded to take him in. For reasons unknown to Theo, the first people he mentions to the authorities are the Barbours, a Park Avenue based family whose son Andy is a school friend of his. The Barbours introduce Theo to a particular type of lifestyle, one that includes collecting art and antiques. Secondly, taking Welty’s ring to Hobart and Blackwell leads Theo to Hobie, an antiques restorer, who will play a significant role in the rest of his life. At Hobie’s, Theo also discovers Pippa, the girl he’d been watching in the museum whom he thought was Welty’s granddaughter. She also will play a significant part in the rest of his life. Thirdly, and probably most importantly, is Theo’s connection to ‘The Goldfinch’. By taking it, he’s committed a crime that will tie him to the painting forever. This illuminates a key theme in the novel, that of ‘captivity and the ways we try to escape’. (Donna Tartt, November 2013, Manchester, U.K.) Theo is tied to the painting and the day his mother was killed, as the goldfinch is chained to the perch it stands upon. His life is destined to take a particular route because of the extraordinary circumstances he has to deal with at such a young age and the decisions almost forced upon him by Welty.

What’s wonderful about The Goldfinch is the detail with which Tartt explores each scene. She describes herself as ‘a miniaturist’; her first published writing was poetry and she says she maintains the habits of a poet. This allows the reader to become completely immersed in the scene – we live Theo’s life with him, seeing what he sees, doing what he does.

The plotting’s also (almost) perfect. It’s incredible to see all the strands that Tartt runs through the novel and how the moment you begin to wonder what’s happening with the painting or where a particular character is, that thread weaves its way to the forefront of the narrative again.

I do have two problems with the novel though and they’re both with the ending (don’t worry, this will be spoiler free). The first is that events towards the end of the book take a turn for the ridiculous. I can buy into Theo finding himself in the middle of a bombing and, in the aftermath of the event, leaving with a priceless painting that he ends up never wanting to be parted from. However, the final twist, as Theo remains in that Amsterdam hotel room we meet him in at the beginning of the book is too fast-paced and absurd.

The second is that at the very end of the book, we’re told a lot of information about the painting – its creation; the extraordinary circumstances of Fabritous’ death and the survival of the painting, and what the painting might represent. This is problematic because, to me, it didn’t sound like Theo’s voice anymore, it sounded like the author’s, and it felt as though Tartt wanted to give us this information from her research and felt compelled to include it.

However, despite these issues, The Goldfinch is one of the best books I’ve read this year and, the last fifty pages of the novel aside, I thoroughly enjoyed Theodore Decker’s coming-of-age and the cast of characters that populated it. A novel to immerse yourself in over the holidays.