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.

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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, May 2016, Part Three

In the media is a fortnightly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous fortnight 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 as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

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Books in translation have been having a moment following Han Kang and translator Deborah Smith winning the Man Booker International Prize for The Vegetarian. They wrote, ‘It is fascinating to ponder the possibili­ties of language‘ for The Guardian; Charles Montgomery wrote, ‘The Triumph of Han Kang and the Rise of Women’s Writing in Korea‘ in The Los Angeles Review of Books; Sophie Hughes wrote, ‘On the Joyful Tears of a Translator‘ on Literary Hub. Judith Vonberg writes, ‘Translated fiction is not a genre. Why do bookshops tell us it is?‘ in The New Statesman and Anjali Enjeti asks, ‘Do Americans Hate Foreign Fiction‘ on Literary Hub

‘The abiding memory of my childhood is being unwelcome wherever we went’… Nina Stibbe.

The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

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Personal essays/memoir:

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Feminism:

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Society and Politics:

Film, Television, Music, Art, Fashion and Sport:

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The interviews/profiles:

Tracey Thorn photographed by Suki Dhanda for the Observer New Review

The regular columnists:

In the Media, May 2016, Part Two

In the media is a fortnightly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous fortnight 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 as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

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It seems there’s been a return to traditional topics this fortnight. Having children (or not) and body image are back at the top of the agenda. On the former, Daisy Buchanan wrote, ‘I’m economically infertile, and I’ve made peace with that‘ on The Pool; Stephanie Merritt, ‘Sheryl Sandberg admits she did not get how hard it is to be a single mother‘ on The Pool; Ashley Patronyak, ‘A Slight Risk‘ in Guernica; Jordan Rosenfeld, ‘On Discovering Real Mothers on the Page‘ on Literary Hub; Diana Abu-Jaber, ‘Motherhood vs. Art: There Is No Wrong Choice‘ on Literary Hub; Rivka Galchin, ‘Why Does Literature Hate Babies‘ on Literary Hub; Willa Paskin, ‘Speak, Motherhood‘ on Slate; Jennifer Gilmore,’I’m Glad My Mother Worked‘ on The Cut, and Louise O’Neill, ‘I think I would be a good mother; I just don’t want to be one‘ in The Irish Examiner.

Discussions about body image seems to be around the publication of two new books: Shrill by Lindy West and Dietland by Sarai Walker. West wrote, ‘The ‘perfect body’ is a lie. I believed it for a long time and let it shrink my life‘ in The Guardian. Walker was interviewed in The Bookseller and The Pool. And Mallory Ortberg wrote, ‘“We would have paid her the same if she weighed 500 pounds”: Publishing, Weight, and Writers Who Are “Hard To Look At”‘ in The Toast

And then there was this: the men-only bookclub who only read books about men. LV Anderson at Slate decided to tell us all off for being outraged about it, ‘Feminists Shouldn’t Roll Our Eyes at Men-Only Books Clubs. We Should Applaud Them‘.

This fortnight saw the deaths of Sally Brampton and Geek Love author, Katherine Dunn. Kathryn Flett wrote, ‘Sally Brampton – the woman who made ‘Elle girls’ the new normal‘ in The Guardian and Daisy Buchanan wrote, ‘Depression is not a battle that can be won or lost‘ on The Pool.

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The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

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Personal essays/memoir:

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Feminism:

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Society and Politics:

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Film, Television, Music, Art, Fashion and Sport:

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The interviews/profiles:

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The regular columnists:

Books of the Year, Part One: Pre-2015 Publications

Like last year, I’ve read a lot of books so I’ve decided to split my books of the year post into two – those published pre-2015 and those published in 2015 (UK dates where applicable). The latter will appear tomorrow, in the meantime, here’s my pick of the former. Clicking on the book cover will take you to my review.

The Country of Ice Cream Star – Sandra Newman

Not just a book of the year, this is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Set in the Nighted States sometime in the future and narrated by fifteen-year-old Ice Cream Star. White people are dead of a disease called WAKS. Black people die of something called Posies at eighteen/nineteen. Ice Cream Star’s brother, Driver, is dying and she sets out to find a cure. Written in a futuristic version of AAVE, the novel considers race, religion, politics, class, war and love and has one of the best heroines ever. Newman also gives good interview, you can read my interview with her here.


Prayers for the Stolen
– Jennifer
Clement

Ladydi Garcia Martínez was dressed as a boy until she was eleven, as were all the girls in her village. This was to prevent drug traffickers kidnapping them. But Ladydi’s friend, Paula, was taken and – astonishingly – returned. Clement illustrates the way poor, brown skinned women in an exposed state in Mexico are treated by men. Fathers are feckless; brothers are dangerous. An unknown man entering the area is to be feared. Houses are peppered with bullet holes. Ladydi’s narration lifts this from being utterly bleak and Clement’s plot twists, often buried in a mid-paragraph sentence, are brilliant.

 

The Gypsy Goddess – Meena Kandesamy

The story of the Kilvanmani massacre and events leading up to it in 1968. A small village in Tamil Nadu, where the farm labourers haven’t had a pay rise for ten years and any insubordination against the landlords results in beatings. When Communism arrives, the local workers stand strong but their strength results in a massacre in which 42 villagers, mostly women and children, are killed. This is also a book about how you might tell the story of a massacre and the problems you might incur. Intelligent, layered, funny metafiction blending facts and storytelling.

 

how to be both – Ali Smith 

how to be both either begins with George in the car with her recently deceased mother discussing a moral conundrum or it begins with a 550 year old painter returning (sort of) to see his painting in an art gallery and to tell us about his life. George’s section is about life after the death of her mother; Francescho’s is about his youth and becoming an artist. Smith considers what art is and what’s its value, as well as how to be two things at once – alive and dead, watched and watcher, male and female. One of the joys of reading the novel is spotting the connections between the two sections.

 

Every Kiss a War – Leesa Cross-Smith

A collection about our battle with love: to find it, to keep it, to get over it once it’s gone. Teenagers deal with abortions, parental arguments and first loves:your heart beating like two quick tick-tocking clocks, like two fists with their muffled punching. Adults negotiate beginnings, endings and whether to stay or go: And staying in love is like trying to catch a light. To hold it in my hand. Even when it looks like I have it, I don’t. Ranging from flash fiction to interlinked stories, this is a confident, beautifully written collection.

 

 

Geek Love – Katherine Dunn 

The story of the Binewski family. Crystal Lil and Aloysius Binewski created their own freaks, experimenting with ‘illicit and prescription drugs, insecticides, and eventually radioisotopes’.Five children survived: Arturo, known as Aqua Boy; Electra and Iphigenia, conjoined twins; Olympia, a hunchback, albino dwarf, and Fortunato, known as Chick, who appears to be ‘normal’ but is revealed to have telekinetic powers. Competition is fierce between them. The sub-plot, set in the future tells of Olympia and her daughter, Miranda, pursued by heiress, Mary Lick, who pays for women to be operated on so they’re less attractive/less likely to be exploited by men. A cult classic.

I Love Dick – Chris Kraus

My review of this was bumped to January 2016 due to #diversedecember but I love this book. Chris Kraus and her husband, Sylvère Lottringer, have dinner with Dick, a cultural critic and acquaintance of Sylvère’s.  Chris falls for Dick and begins writing letters to him. The love is largely unrequited but she explores her feelings for him through the letters. The second half of the book, in particular, becomes much more than that, it’s filled with critical essays on art and theorists and explores the role of women in culture and life. A book you need to read with a pencil in hand. Should be described as ‘a classic’, rather than ‘a feminist classic’.

Quicksand and Passing – Nella Larsen 

Two novellas packaged together. In Quicksand Helga Crane searches for happiness. It’s always fleeting and she moves on until she finds herself trapped. Passing, the stronger of the two stories, focuses on a rekindled friendship between Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry. Clare is passing as white to the extent that not even her racist husband knows she’s black. The tension comes from knowing she’s bound to be exposed but also the devastating consequences her reappearance has on Irene’s life too.

 

Blonde Roots – Bernadine Evaristo

A counterfactual slave narrative in which black people rule the world and whites are slaves. Divided into three sections, the first and third focus on Omorenomwara/Doris Scagglethorpe and her attempt to escape Chief Kaga Konata Katamba (KKK) and return to her family. The middle of the novel is the chief’s story of his involvement in the slave trade. His pronouncements about the inferiority of the Caucasoinid are supported by anthropology, ideas of savagery and a mission to save souls. Very funny in a horrifying sense. The reversal highlights the ludicrousness of the slide trade as well as reminding us of the barbarity of it.

How to Be a Heroine – Samantha
Ellis 

On a visit to Top Withins, the house that inspired Wuthering Heights, Ellis has a revelation: My whole life, I’d been trying to be Cathy, when I should have been trying to be Jane. It leads her to revisit heroines from her formative years and consider others she didn’t read at the time. Part-memoir, part-literary criticism, fearlessly feminist, this will add to your TBR books you want to read and books you want to revisit. Part of the joy of this book is the space Ellis leaves for you to discuss and argue with her. I didn’t always agree with her points (#TeamCathy) but I was always engaged.

 

 

Mân – Kim Thúy (translated by Sheila Fischman)

Mãn is raised by her third mother after the first dies and the second retreats from the world. Maman takes her to a big city and passes on the things her mother has taught her. Maman finds Mãn a husband and moves to Montreal to live with him, helping to run his restaurant. As it becomes more and more successful, Mãn travels to Paris where the cookbook she’s co-written has also been a success. There she meets another restaurant owner and falls in love. Told in first person narrated vignettes, this is a beautifully written and emotionally engaging book.

Geek Love – Katherine Dunn

‘And do you know what the monsters and demons and rancid spirits are? Us, that’s what. You and me. We are the things that come to the norms in nightmares. The thing that lurks in the bell tower and bites the throats of the choirboys – that’s you, Oly. And the thing in the closet that makes the babies scream in the dark before it sucks their last breath – that’s me. And the rustling in the brush and the strange piping cries that chill the spine on a deserted road at twilight – that’s the twins singing practice scales while they look for berries.’

Geek Love is the story of the Binewski family. Crystal Lil, the mother, used to be a geek, biting the heads from chickens. After a stint training on the trapeze (cut short following a fall that broke her nose and collarbones), Lil married Aloysius Binewski, owner of the carnival.

When Al inherited the carnival, aged twenty-four, the business was in decline. Determined not to allow it to fold, he came upon a brilliant idea: to breed his own freak show. Lil was happy to be part of the scheme.

As she often said, ‘What greater gift could you offer your children than an inherent ability to earn a living just by being themselves?’

They experimented with ‘illicit and prescription drugs, insecticides, and eventually radioisotopes’.

Five children survived: Arturo, known as Aqua Boy; Electra and Iphigenia, conjoined twins; Olympia, a hunchback, albino dwarf, and Fortunato, known as Chick, who appears to be ‘normal’ but is revealed to have telekinetic powers.

Arturo, the eldest, has flippers that protrude straight from his torso in place of hands and feet. He’s displayed naked in an aquarium.

His favorite trick at the ages of three and four was to put his face close to the glass, bulging his eyes out at the audience, opening and closing his mouth like a river bass, and then to turn his back and paddle off, revealing the turd trailing from his muscular little buttocks.

Arturo rules the roost. He checks the books; is obsessed with making more money than the twins, and eventually begins his own cult. He is cruel and controlling. But his sister Olympia, our narrator, dotes on him, often aiding his schemes out of her desire to be useful to him regardless of any moral or ethical standpoint.

The majority of the novel is set during the height of the freakshow and follows the family as Al and Lil’s power declines and Arturo’s increases. It shows family dynamics and how familial love is strong enough to inspire both incredible loyalty and utter hatred. For Oly and Elly and Iphy, it is also a coming-of-age story.

There’s also an important sub-plot set, so it seems, in the present day of the book. (It was originally published in 1989/90 (USA/UK).) Olympia also narrates these sections but now as an adult with a college-age daughter of her own.

Olympia – now going by the name Hopalong McGurk – owns a run-down boarding house in Portland, which she, her daughter Miranda, and Crystal Lil all live in. Crystal Lil, mostly deaf and completely blind, manages the place; she has no idea that her daughter and granddaughter live in the same building. Miranda is a student at the Art Institute who’s won prizes for her drawings. Having been raised by nuns, Miranda has no idea who Crystal Lil and Olympia really are, she’s just landed a rent-free room which she doesn’t question.

Olympia follows them both, which is how we learn that Miranda works at the Glass House Club, a strip club with a twist:

She was down to her G-String with the fluffy lace plume on her rump, she had her thumbs hooked in it, looking over her shoulder at the crowd, she was waving her ass in a slow semaphore of invitation. The frowning blonde at the table had her chin in her hand. The men were hooting and grunting and watching with smiles. I held my breath, blinked, and she pulled the plume down, unsnapped the G-string and whipped it off with a flourish, waving her ass still, her head tipped up and an unmistakable giggle bubbling out of her as she revealed the thin, curling tail that jutted out from the end of her spine and bounced just above her round buttocks.

This is how Miranda meets Mary Lick, heiress to Lickety Split Food. She offers to pay for an operation to have Miranda’s tail removed and pay her ten thousand dollars for going through the procedure. Miranda is not Mary Lick’s first client:

Miss Lick’s purpose is to liberate women who are liable to be exploited by male hungers. These exploitable women are, in Miss Lick’s view, the pretty ones. She feels great pity for them…If all these pretty women could shed the traits that made men want them (their prettiness) then they would no longer depend on their own exploitability but would use their talents and intelligence to become powerful.

There is so much to explore/discuss/challenge in Mary Lick’s view on gender, power and sexuality. Olympia, however, sets out to deal with her – and protect Miranda – in a more physical way.

Geek Love is a complex, but very readable, portrait of familial love. Dunn’s overarching themes are big ones – sibling relationships; mothers and daughters; capitalism; the patriarchy; money and power – but she explores them through a dynamic that many readers will recognise. Indeed, it was very tempting to begin the review with the opening of Philip Larkin’s ‘This Be the Verse’.

Olympia narrates from a position of love but, despite her adoration of Arturo, she’s also able to articulate his faults clearly – often she’s on the receiving end of his sharp tongue. Dunn also uses her to show how the balance of power can change, evidenced in the present day sections and the way Olympia’s reinvented herself and has, in an unusual way, become the family matriarch.

The novel’s driven by the reader’s desire to know what Arturo will do next – and how his trajectory will end – but also by the present day story, which is positioned between lengthy stints in the sideshow.

Geek Love is a cult classic. The reissue, published to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the novel’s original publication, comes adorned with a list of celebrities who ‘loved’ the book. They include Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love and Jeff Buckley. Given that they’re some of my favourite musicians, it’s no surprise that I read and loved this book some years ago. However, now I’m dissecting it as part of my PhD research, the depth of ideas contained in it are clear and it’s no surprise that the novel has endured.

Geek Love is a brilliant book, everyone should read it.

(If that isn’t enough to convince you, I’ll be publishing an essay next week on my PhD blog, looking at the representation of women in the novel.)

 

Thanks to Abacus for the review copy.