In the Media: 18th January 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. 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.

It’s been another grim week for news. There’s been some insightful commentary from a number of female writers on the big stories though:

Charlie Hebdo and terrorism was written about by Caitlin Moran in The Times; while in The Guardian, Natasha Lehrer wrote ‘The Threat to France’s Jews‘; Hadley Freeman covered the same issue alongside the UK’s antisemitism survey, and Suzanne Moore declared ‘Add faithophobia to my crimes: I have no respect for religions that have little respect for me‘. On Reimagining My Reality, Steph wrote ‘Charlie Hebdo, freedom of speech, and male privilege‘ whilst on Media Diversified, Cristine Edusi wrote, ‘Ongoing terrorism in Nigeria is not a novel, the use of children as human bombs is #WeAreAllNigeria‘.

The Stuart Kerner case was commented on by Janice Turner in The Times; Gaby Hinsliff in The Guardian, and Antonia Honeywell on her blog.

The lack of diversity in the Oscar nominees was written about by Roxane Gay in The Butter

And if that’s all made you thoroughly miserable/angry, here’s Sophie Heawood on Clooney’s Golden Globes speech and her daughter’s first day at nursery and Hadley Freeman on ‘How Amy Poehler and Tina Fey made the Golden Globes the first feminist awards ceremony‘ both in The Guardian.

Speaking of award winners, Hilary Mantel’s having another moment with the BBC television adaptation of Wolf Hall beginning this week. She’s in The Guardian, writing about the TV version; while John Mullan, also in The Guardian, profiles her ‘strange and brilliant fiction‘, while Kirstie McCrum tells us ‘What TV series like Wolf Hall can teach us about history‘ on Wales Online.

Joan Didion’s stint as a model for Celine has also been big news again this week. Adrienne LaFrance writes about fashion and loss in Didion’s work for The Atlantic; Molly Fischer tells us ‘Why Loving Joan Didion Is a Trap‘ on The Cut; Lynne Segal talks about ‘Invisible Women‘ in the LRB; Haley Mlotek declared ‘Free Joan Didion‘ in The Awl and Rachel Cooke says ‘That’s so smart‘ in The Observer, while Brainpickings revealed ‘Joan Didion’s Favorite Books of All Time, in a Handwritten Reading List‘.

 

The best of the rest articles/essays:

The interviews:

If you want some fiction/poetry to read:

The lists:

And the best things I’ve read this week:

Books of the Year 2014 (Part 1)

I’m being cheeky this year and splitting my books of the year into two posts. Tomorrow will be books published in 2014; today’s it’s books I’ve read this year and loved but that were published prior to 2014. I’ve decided to do it this way because (at the time of writing) I’ve read 131 books so far this year and there are 24 that I think deserve highlighting. That needs splitting into two, so this seemed like the fairest/easiest/most sensible way to do it. So, the books I loved this year that were published before 2014 were (click on the titles to see the original reviews):

 

Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

It’s not often as an adult that you read a book which changes your world view. Adichie uses her main characters Ifemelu and Obinze to explore race in America and the UK and love in Nigeria. It’s thought-provoking and compelling. A potential future classic.

 

 

The Lowland – Jhumpa Lahiri

A book that I nearly gave up on and ended up so pleased I didn’t. It begins as the story of two brothers, Subhash and Udayan, growing up in Calcutta, one involved in political protests, the other studious and well-behaved, but it becomes the story of Gauri, transported to America after Udayan’s death. Sparse prose and a woman in a situation she doesn’t know how to deal with. Superb.

 

 

All the Birds, Singing – Evie Wyld

Jake’s a sheep farmer on a remote island. She chooses to cut herself off from the locals but something’s killing her sheep. As her present day story is told, alternate chapters reveal why she left Australia – in reverse chronology. Inventive, tense and told in sharp prose. Deserves every award it won.

 

 

The Awakening – Kate Chopin 

A feminist classic, republished this year by Canongate. Edna Pontellier, treated as an object by her husband, begins to reject motherhood and decides to break from society’s expectations of her. Powerful and still relevant.

 

 

The Story of a New Name – Elena Ferrante (translated by Ann Goldstein)

2014 was the year of #FerranteFever. Fuelled seemingly equally by the compelling story of Elena and Lena in The Neapolitan Novels and her desire to protect her anonymity. The Story of a New Name is my favourite book of the series so far. Ferrante is superb at depicting the type of love/jealousy filled friendship that only women seem to have. The novels are brutal, both in terms of the relationship between the two women but also because of the backdrop of Naples and poverty. I intend to spend some of 2015 reading the rest of her back catalogue.

 

The Woman Upstairs – Claire Messud

Nora Eldridge is angry. She’s spent years as the woman upstairs, the one who’s well-behaved, who no one pays any attention to because she’s single without any children. She meets the Shahid family and life changes for a time but is Nora really being seen? I loved this book and if you don’t agree, well ‘fuck you all’!

 

 

Woman on the Edge of Time – Marge Piercy

Another feminist classic. Connie Ramos is committed to a psychiatric unit by her niece Dolly’s pimp after she attacks him in self-defence and he – and Dolly – tell the medics that she’s violent. But Connie discovers she can visit the future, a future where there’s no gendered pronouns, babies are all bred mixed heritage/race and have three parents, and people contribute equally to society. Inspiring and depressing in equal measure – how far have we come in 38 years?

 

The Notebook – Agota Kristof (translated by Alan Sheridan)

Twin brothers who are taken to live with a cruel grandmother, surrounded by other cruel people. A dark, twisted alternative take on fairytales and the nature vs nurture question. Brutal, stark and compelling. I’ll be reading the rest of the trilogy in 2015.

 

 

Thanks to Fourth Estate, Evie Wyld, Canongate and Europa Editions for review copies.

The Awakening – Kate Chopin

28-year-old Edna Pontellier is married with two young children. We meet her in Grand Isle where she is staying for the summer. She returns from bathing with a young friend, Robert Lebrun, son of another resident of one of the cottages in which they are staying. He has a habit of attaching himself to one of the women each summer and is considered friendly and harmless.

However, Edna and Robert are not the first people we meet. In order to establish the dominance of Edna’s husband, the reader meets Mr Pontellier in the opening pages of the novel as he reads the financial news from the previous day. When Edna and Robert return to the cottage, he looks ‘…at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property…’. We are told shortly afterwards:

He thought it very discouraging that his wife, who was the sole object of his existence, evinced so little interest in things which concerned him, and valued so little his conversation.

It becomes exceedingly clear as the novel progresses that the idea of Edna being the only thing he lives for is nonsense; the only thing Mr Pontellier really cares for is money and every decision Edna makes must not reflect badly on him and his investments.

But Edna’s view of life and her existence is changing.

A certain light was beginning to dawn dimly within her – the light which, showing the way, forbids it…Mrs. Pontellier was beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her.

She is already aware that she is not like other women when it comes to children – as is her husband who thinks that she ‘failed in her duty toward their children’, although he cannot provide examples to support his thoughts. Edna’s view of motherhood is highlighted through her friendship with Adèle Ratignolle who is beautiful, has had three babies in seven years and is discussing the possibility of a fourth.

…Mrs. Pontellier was not a mother-woman. The mother-women seemed to prevail that summer at Grand Isle. It was easy to know them, fluttering about with extended, protecting wings when any harm, real or imaginary, threatened their precious brood. They were women who idolized their children, worshipped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels.

Chopin uses a swimming metaphor to demonstrate that Edna is ready to break from society’s (that is the patriarchy’s) expectations of her. She has spent the summer learning how to swim, eventually having daily lessons with Robert. Despite this, she is still fearful of the water until one evening when Robert suggests a late night bathe following a party:

But that night she was like the little tottering, stumbling, clutching child, who of a sudden realizes its powers, and walks for the first time alone, boldly and with over-confidence. She could have shouted for joy. She did shout for joy, as with a sweeping stroke or two she lifted her body to the surface of the water.

A feeling of exultation overtook her, as if some power of significant import had been given to her soul. She grew daring and reckless, overestimating her strength. She wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before.

Although some parts of The Awakening might not be as controversial as they were in 1899 – a western woman leaving her husband does not provoke the same scandal today as it would previously – there are certainly strands which feel as relevant as ever.

The idea of motherhood and how women should feel about it is particularly pertinent. Following an interview with Christina Hendricks in last Sunday’s Observer, many news outlets reported the piece by choosing to focus on her comment that she and her husband have chosen not to have children; Cameron Diaz recently felt she had to declare she has no intention of procreating, and barely a week goes by without the latest on Jennifer Aniston’s apparent despair at her childless status.

It’s also still very evident that women are fighting to find their space in the world, to be recognised as individuals with achievements that don’t have to be qualified with or by an acknowledgement of their gender.

Barbara Kingsolver writes the introduction to the new Canongate edition of The Awakening. In it she talks about being a late arrival to the book, discovering it in her first year of college alongside ‘…a choir of renegade women writers…’. That comment alongside this one:

I am also reminded that fiction by and about men is called “literature”, but this novel and others by women are regularly sent to a shelf called “women’s lit,” and more than a few male readers remain as uniterested in that shelf as Mr. Pontillier was in his wife’s conversation.

made me think back to my undergraduate years where I took a module in American Literature. Over the course of the year we studied a number of American classic works – Bartleby the Scrivener, Leaves of Grass, The Scarlet Letter – but only one by a woman, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Where was The Awakening? Why, aged twenty, trying desperately to find my way, wondering why I was so angry about having young men tell me I was ‘scary’ because I had opinions, did someone not put this book in front of me? Why wasn’t it required reading for the course? I can only hope that the current wave of feminism and this excellent new edition places Kate Chopin and The Awakening where they belong: on the literary canon.

 

Thanks to Canongate for the review copy.