Jersey Festival of Words, Day Two: Aren’t Women Inspiring?

I only attend one event on the second day of the festival because it’s a male heavy day, but what an event I attend. Clare Balding needs no introduction if you’re from or live in the UK. To most of us, she’s the most prominent female sports presenter on television. If you’re a child, she’s the author or two books about Charlie Bass and her family, which includes the horse Noble Warrior and the dog Boris.

Balding’s event is part of the school’s programme and I arrive at Jersey Opera House to find 600 very excited children. As soon as the lights dim and a promotional video for The Racehorse Who Disappeared begins to play, they’re all captivated.

‘Who’s got a brother or sister?’ Balding asks as she takes the stage. Most of the auditorium raises their hand. ‘Keep your hand up if your brother or sister is the most annoying person in the world.’ The majority of hands remain in the air, including those of the adults. [Soz, bro.] They know you better than anyone else which is why they can annoy you better than anyone else, Balding tells us by way of introducing the two brothers in her books, Harry and Larry.

On the screen are illustrations from the book and she asks the kids if they know who the illustrator is. Tony Ross is the answer and then the kids tell Balding where they’ve seen his work before: David Walliams’ books, Horrid Henry, The Little Princess and, apparently, a book called Who’s in the Loo? You can imagine how the mention of that goes down with 600 kids.

Balding says she writes about racehorses and a little girl with a close relationship with her dog because that was her when she was young. She talks about falling off her Shetland pony, aged two, and breaking her collar bone. Her father told Balding and her brother that you had to fall off and break your collar bone one hundred times before you could become a jockey, so they set about doing it. ‘If in life you see something that scares you, do it anyway,’ she tells the kids.

‘Has a female jockey ever ridden a winner of the Derby?’ The answer, it transpires, depends how you look at the question. During the actual race? No. But Balding rode Mill Reef, the 1971 Derby winner, after he recovered from the broken leg which ended his career. During his recovery, Mill Reef was kept at Balding’s father’s yard and she was one of the few people light enough to be able to sit on him without causing further damage to his leg.

The story which inspired the first Charlie Bass book, The Racehorse Who Wouldn’t Gallop, is based on another horse that was trained at Balding’s father’s yard; Loch Song got better at racing as she got older but more badly behaved in the yard, refusing to do the jumps. But then she fell in love with Balding’s father’s horse, Quirk, so they positioned him at the bottom of the gallops to encourage Quirk to jump them.

Charlie learns from Olympians in the books too. Balding displays a slide featuring Victoria Pendleton, Charlotte Dujardin and the Brownlee brothers on it. She tells their stories using one of the kids to demonstrate Alistair helping Jonny over the line in Mexico. The slide also includes a picture of Beyoncé. ‘Don’t let anyone tell you Beyoncé is not an athlete, she is an athlete.’ Balding tells of her own insecurities around her body when she was younger saying, ‘I now realise that is a ridiculous thing to spend your time worrying about’. She comments on the powerful thighs of Beyoncé, Serena Williams and Angela Merkel.

The latest book, The Racehorse Who Disappeared, is inspired by the story of Shergar. Balding tells the kids the story of Shergar’s disappearance before moving on to the athletes Charlie is inspired by in this book: Steph Houghton and the England women’s football team; the British women’s hockey team and Maddie Hinch, ‘who made goal keeping cool’; Nicola Adams, who became a boxer when she was told girls didn’t box; the Paralympian swimmer, Ellie Simmonds, with three Paralympic appearances at the age of 22, and Ellie Robinson, also a Paralympic swimmer, who approached the pool in the oversized jacket she’d been provided with, hood up, arms spread, turning an oversight into a statement. ‘You can wear confidence like a cloak,’ Balding tells the kids.

While the kids are fascinated by the stories of all these athletes, Balding’s barely got to Maddie Hinch before I realise I’m crying. To see all these women and girls on a huge screen, in a huge venue, having their achievements celebrated by a prominent female television presenter, in front of a group of school children, feels revolutionary. I buy both of the books for my 11-year-old stepson so we can read them together.

The Racehorse Who Wouldn’t Gallop – Clare Balding

The Racehorse Who Disappeared – Clare Balding

When We Speak of Nothing – Olumide Popoola

The what to do and when to place it. The how to undress and how much to leave underneath. The give someone all that could hurt oneself. Or them. And then stand still. Just stand.

Karl is Abu’s ‘brother from another mother’. The pair are seventeen years old, studying for A Levels and living with their families in the King’s Cross area of London. The novel opens with them walking home from school.

Then, out of nowhere, three wannabe guys they knew from sixth form jumping them, right at the corner to Leigh Street. Like real jump. Two of them at Abu calling him Abu-ka-ha-ba-ha-ha-ha-r-pussy and other things that shouldn’t be said in front of anyone, twisting his arm back in its socket like they just got their GCSEs in bullying.

It was crunching. Abu whined.

Being beaten up is a regular occurrence for their pair. The reason for this is revealed as the story unfolds: Karl is transgender and some of his classmates take this as a reason to be abusive towards him and Abu.

And Karl would be all, ‘You know you can just tell them you ain’t gay and be done with it. It’s just me this is for anyway.’ And Abu would be, ‘For real? Bruv, do I look like I have a problem with gay or anything? They know we ain’t gay. I’m not even going to go there. When have I ever let you down? Tell me? Do I really look like I will talk to some pisshead? Got better things to do with my time, mate. If you want to preach again find yourself someone who doesn’t know how to act. Ain’t me.’

Part of what makes this book great is the level of acceptance for Karl from Abu, Abu’s family and Karl’s mum. This isn’t a story about someone transitioning, it’s a coming of age tale of a teenager trying to find their place in the world.

The narrative’s driven by Karl’s lack of contact with his father whom he’s never met. While his mother, who has Multiple Sclerosis, is in hospital, Karl opens a letter from his Uncle Tunde. In it, he tells Karl’s mum, Rebecca, that Karl’s father is ill and now knows of Karl’s existence. He wishes to see Karl. With some manoeuvring that involves Karl, his guardian, Godfrey, and Abu’s family lying to Rebecca, Karl flies to Port Harcourt to meet his father. Things don’t go as expected though: Karl’s father is mysteriously absent and Karl begins to fall in love with a young woman he meets. Back in London, violence is escalating, not only against Abu but across the city following the killing of Mark Duggan.

The novel could’ve been weighed down by the issues it covers. The story meets at the intersections of race, class and gender and considers what it’s like to be a transgender teenager in two different communities; how single parents with health issues cope, and why people respond to a range of situations with violence. However, Popoola’s management of these areas is skilful: she refuses to offer any easy solutions – much of the novel operates in the grey areas of life; there is a clear story about two teenagers negotiating their entry into adulthood, and her use of language is thoughtful and aids in making these characters convincing. She interweaves the vocabulary and speech rhythms of London and Port Harcourt. It isn’t simply a matter of throwing in some dialect or imitating an accent, the grammatical structures echo the spoken word.

When We Speak of Nothing offers a view of teenagers, and of London, rarely seen in literature. It is a tale of friendship, of acceptance, of deciding what’s worth fighting for.

I spoke to Olumide Popoola about writing teenagers, creating a transgender protagonist and playing with language.

Jendella’s playlist is here.

When We Speak of Nothing on Amazon and Waterstones.

My review of The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah. The Book of Memory on Amazon and Waterstones.

Thanks to Olumide Popoola and Cassava Republic for the interview and for the review copy of the novel.

 

The Gender Games – Juno Dawson

Juno Dawson had me at:

Gender is not sex.
Gender is something else.
If that’s all you take away from this book, I’ve won.
Gender, as convincing as he is, is full of shit.
If you take that away from this book, even better.

Gender, despite anything he might tell us to the contrary, is nothing but characteristics we have assigned to the sexes. Like a group of horny teenagers with a Ouija board, Gender was summoned into being by us.

Yes, yes, YES. Not only do I agree with this, I love that Dawson gives gender a male pronoun and the connotations which come with this.

The Gender Games then is part-memoir, part-gender theory, part-cultural critique. Dawson interweaves all three of these aspects to discuss her transition from cis male to trans woman, considering the effect her transition has had (and is still having) on herself and her family.

The book begins with a reimagining of the day Dawson’s mother went into labour.

‘Congratulations, Mr and Mrs Dawson. You have a healthy baby boy.’
And that was where it all went wrong.

Once upon a time there was a little girl.
No.
Once upon a time there was a little boy.

Also no. Any creative writing teacher worth their salt will tell you that a great story never starts at the beginning, it starts when something changes. On 6 August 2015, I told my mother that I was a woman.

Her reply was, ‘Well, I can’t say I’m surprised.’

Dawson alternates between snapshots of her life – from growing up in Bingley, West Yorkshire, to being ‘a right pair of little cunts’ with a friend at school, to coming out as a gay man, to being a primary school teacher, to deciding to transition and the process of that so far – and discussions around gender theory. As someone who’s studying the latter as part of their PhD work, I found Dawson’s relaying of the key ideas of performative gender theory (the idea that gender isn’t fixed) to be clear, succinct and well-researched (there are footnotes) while maintaining the conversational tone in which she has chosen to write. As an introduction to gender theory alone, The Gender Games is worth reading.

There are many other things I loved about this book too: Dawson’s honesty is striking; she’s no holds barred in terms of discussing the shape her life has taken, including her sex life (a section which comes with four pages of warning for her parents encouraging them to skip this bit). She talks about being a teacher and the limits of the education system – just how bloody difficult it is to work in a system that values results over the well-being of students, teachers and parents. And she discusses the impact of culture on the way we view ourselves:

Culture and society are a two-way mirror. Ropey and clichéd, but life does imitate art as much as art imitates life. ‘The media is the message and the messenger,’ said Pat Mitchell, former CEO of PBS, in the fantastic 2011 documentary Miss Representation.

She looks at TV, film and music. She discusses wanting to be a Spice Girl, the impact Madonna has had on our view of women, and the idea of ‘strong female characters’ – a term Dawson seems to dislike as much as I do while acknowledging that these representations are beginning to shift our society’s view of women.

Dawson is very clear that she isn’t representing the trans community, this is her transition and her story. What I do think she does very well which she does – and should – own as representative, is discuss feminism and what it can do for women and men from her position as a modern-day Tiresias:

My credentials to speak on such issues have been challenged, but I think trans voices are uniquely positioned to discuss inequality. For thirty years, I was given access to the ultimate prize: white male privilege. As you’ll learn, I never ‘passed’ as a straight man, so it’s hard to say what power I ever really had at my disposal, but I have lived as both a man and a woman while at the same time never being accepted wholly as either. Like some mad soothsayer in mythology, I’ve lived slightly outside of my gender my whole life – and I’ve seen both sides.

The Gender Games isn’t just a cracking good read, for the times we live in and the fight we still need to win over the destruction gender wreaks on us and our society, it’s an essential one.

The Gender Games is out now and available from Amazon, Waterstones or your local independent bookshop. If, like me, there isn’t an independent near you, I recommend Big Green Bookshop.

Thanks to Two Roads for the review copy.

The Rules Do Not Apply – Ariel Levy

People have been telling me since I was a little girl that I was too fervent, too forceful, too much. I thought I had harnessed the power of my own strength and greed and love in a life that could contain it. But it has exploded.

You may be aware of Ariel Levy and, therefore, why this memoir is a big deal. Levy is a staff writer at The New Yorker and in 2013 wrote a piece called ‘Thanksgiving in Mongolia’. It’s one of the most powerful pieces I’ve ever read and went on to win the National Magazine Award for Essays and Criticism in 2014. The Rules Do Not Apply grew out of that piece.

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Levy had it all: a great job, a wife, a baby on the way. And then she was left with just the job, her personal life in ruins. This is the story of how that happened.

Unpopular as a child because she preferred to pretend to be an explorer than play house. She was also ‘domineering, impatient, relentlessly verbal, and, as an only child, baffled by the mores of other kids’.

She loved books and became a journalist after deciding to write a story about a nightclub for obese women in Queens and presenting it to the editor at New York magazine where she was an assistant. The story gave her the focus for the journalism she wanted to produce:

I was writing about an unconventional kind of female life. What does it mean to be a woman? What are the rules? What are your options and encumbrances? I wanted to tell stories that answered, or at least asked, those questions.

If you’re looking for confidence, Levy has it by the bucket load.

But there was one area of life she was unsure about:

To becomes a mother, I feared, was to relinquish your status as the protagonist of your own life. Your question was answered, your freedom was gone, your path would calcify in front of you. And yet it still pulled at me. Being a professional explorer would become largely impossible if I had a child, but having a kid seemed in many ways like the wildest possible trip.

The Rules Do Not Apply combines three strands of Levy’s life: how her journalism evolved to the point where she was offered a position at The New Yorker; her marriage, including her wife’s alcoholism and Levy’s affair; the lengthy debate over whether or not to have a child and her subsequent pregnancy.

What’s most striking about the memoir is Levy’s apparent honesty; no one comes out looking great, least of all Levy herself. But this is not a misery memoir, rather it is the story of those women who ‘were given the lavish gift of our own agency by feminism – a belief that we could decide for ourselves how we would live, what would become of us’.

Levy’s aware of her own privilege but is stunned to discover that it won’t protect her from all of life’s sorrows and hardships. She is ill-equipped to deal with them and the memoir appears to be her attempt to come to terms with this. By writing her story, she wrests back control.

Daring to think that the rules do not apply is the mark of a visionary. It’s also a symptom of narcissism.

Levy’s prose is crystal clear and never mawkish, although there are many points in her story where a lesser writer would’ve descended into the sentimental. What I found most interesting – and surprisingly endearing – is the degree to which Levy, the protagonist, could be described as ‘unlikeable’ (by people who are wont to do so). The quotation I headed the review with – that she was too much, even as a child – says more about society’s views of girls and, ultimately, women than it does about Levy herself. That she owns this, writes unabashedly about it, is a triumph of its own.

The Rules Do Not Apply is a gripping, multi-layered, non-fiction narrative about a woman coming to terms with the limits of her own agency. It’s a book that ought to contribute to a change in the way we view women.

 

Thanks to Fleet for the review copy.

Ones to Read in 2017

One of the joys of running this blog is getting to read advance copies of books I’ve been looking forward to as well as titles from new writers being published in the first half of 2017. I’ve read a whole host of books, mostly fiction – novels, novellas, short stories, and I’ve selected ten I think are must reads.

All publication dates are correct as of 2nd January 2017 for UK publication.

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Homegoing – Yaa Gyasi

Effia Otcher and Esi are sisters, unaware of each other’s existence. In 1775, Effia’s mother, who beats her and is manipulative, conspires to marry her to one of the white slave traders. Effia goes to live with him in Cape Coast Castle, unaware that Esi is in the dungeon, packed tight with other women – alive and dead – waiting to be shipped to America. Gyasi then follows the two women’s timelines through to the present day. The story alternates between West Africa and America, each chapter told by one of the offspring of the previous character in that branch of the family tree and becoming a guide to the creation of black as a race. It’s an incredible piece of work. If you only read one book in 2017, make it this one.

Published 5th January 2017 by Viking

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Homesick for Another World – Ottessa Moshfegh

If you thought the title character in Eileen was despicable, wait until you meet those who populate Moshfegh’s first short story collection. From a teacher who spends her summer break slumming it with drug addicts to the old white dude who tries to hit on his young neighbour to the girl who’s convinced she needs to kill a particular person in order to go to a better place, all of Moshfegh’s characters are unlikeable in some way. But that’s also because they’re real, their lives like ours. And that’s the beauty of her work. This is a brilliant collection; Moshfegh’s rapidly establishing herself as one of the best writers of her generation.

Published 12th January 2017 by Jonathan Cape

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First Love – Gwendoline Riley

Neve, a writer in her mid-thirties, is married to Edwyn, an older man. She documents their turbulent relationship alongside an earlier reacquaintance with an ex-boyfriend and the relationships she had with her mother and father. All are manipulative and abusive in different ways and to varying degrees. Riley’s writing is razor sharp. She places the reader in Neve’s position and it never feels less than real. Packs a literal and metaphorical punch, leaving space for interpretation and discussion.

Published 2nd February 2017 by Granta

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The End We Start From – Megan Hunter

As the sea-level rises around the UK, a woman gives birth to a boy her and her husband name Z. They leave for the mountains where her husband, R, grew up. Before long, queues are forming for food and basics and the family starts to disintegrate as R mistrusts the authorities and the unnamed narrator wants to protect Z. Taut, beautifully written, this tense novella will keep you gripped. I read it in one sitting and returned to it the following day.

Published 18th May 2017 by Picador

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Little Deaths – Emma Flint

Queens, NYC, 1965. Ruth Malone’s in a bitter custody battle with her ex-husband when her two children Frankie, five, and Cindy, four, go missing from her apartment and are later found murdered. When the police discover Malone drinks, dates and takes care of herself they’re determined to pin the murders on her. A page-turner which explores patriarchal attitudes to women who don’t play the angel. Rage-inducing but gripping.

Published 12th January 2017 by Picador. 

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Stay With Me – Ayòbámi Adébáyò

When Yejide fails to conceive, her husband, Akin, is convinced by his mother-in-law to take a second wife who will deliver the grandson she so desperately desires. Yejide is horrified at becoming a first wife and Akin feels little better about the arrangement but it will change both of their lives and their marriage for better and for worse. Told from alternating points of view Adébáyò explores the effect of patriarchal society on women and men with thriller-like pace and twists. Gripping and thoughtful.

Published 2nd March 2017 by Canongate.

cover1Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life – Samantha Ellis

If you enjoyed the BBC’s To Walk Invisible over Christmas, or can only name two of the Brontë sisters and their work, or have long been a fan of Anne and are glad someone else gets it, then Samantha Ellis’ investigation into who Anne Brontë was, her work and why we know so little about her is one for you. Ellis examines Anne through those who were closest to her and her two novels Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The Anne Brontë reassessment/revival begins here.

Published 12th January 2017 by Chatto & Windus

 

Difficult30644520 Women – Roxane Gay

Third mention for the ‘p’ word but the women in Roxane Gay’s short story collection are only difficult because they break the rules the patriarchy imposes on them. Often they’re punished for it though – from the sisters who are kidnapped to the stripper followed home by a client – and question their worth to society. Written in clear, brutal prose, Gay shows how race, class, sexuality and gender affect average women every single day.

Published 3rd January by Corsair

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The Things We Thought We Knew – Mahsuda Snaith

Ravine Roy has chronic pain syndrome and hasn’t left her mother’s council flat since her best friend, Marianne, disappeared ten years ago. Now she’s eighteen, her mum’s determined to get her out, starting with voting in the General Election. But Ravine’s got other things to worry about such as writing to Marianne, wondering who her mother’s companion is, and the noises coming from the unoccupied flat next door. If you loved The Trouble with Goats and Sheep or My Name Is LeonThe Things We Thought We Knew is your summer 2017 read.

Published 15th June 2017 by Doubleday

4111fppgtel-_ac_ul320_sr198320_See What I Have Done – Sarah Schmidt

Schmidt takes the infamous case of Lizzie Borden and explores what might have happened on the days surrounding the murder of Borden’s father and stepmother. The narrative moves between Lizzie, her sister Emma, the maid Bridget and a young man called Benjamin, unknown to all but the Borden’s Uncle John, their late-mother’s brother. Schmidt creates a claustrophobic atmosphere placing the reader in the centre of a house stifling with heat and tensions. Gripping.

Published 2nd May by Tinder Press

Books of the Year 2016, Part One

As usual I’m dividing my Books of the Year into two parts. Part Two, coming tomorrow will be fiction published in 2016. Part One is fiction published pre-2016 and 2016 non-fiction. If you click on the pictures of the books they will take you to my full review.

WL PBK FINALWaking Lions – Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (translated by Sondra Silverston)

Doctor Etian Green finishes a nineteen hour shift at Soroka Hospital, six of which he spent helping to stabilise road traffic accident victims. In the time it takes for him to walk from the hospital ward to his car, he goes from exhausted to adrenaline-fueled. He decides to drive to ‘a particularly challenging SUV track’ he’s read about. Sprinting along, he hits a man and leaves him for dead. The next morning, Sirkit, the man’s wife, appears at his door along with Etian’s wallet which he dropped at the scene. Sirkit offers him a deal but it’s one that will have serious consequences for his home life and his job. Everything in Waking Lions is grey area. Sharp, thoughtful and challenging.

7016625Push – Sapphire

Claireece Precious Jones – Precious to her friends, Claireece to ‘mutherfuckers I hate’ – 16-years-old, five feet nine or ten, two hundred pounds, is pregnant for the second time to her father. Suspended from school, she goes to Each One Teach One, located on the nineteenth floor of a local hotel. Precious tells the story of her time attending the group, in which she learns to read and write, intertwined with that of her family situation. Push could be an unbearable read: every time you think it couldn’t get any darker, it does, but it’s balanced by Precious’ determination and Sapphire’s rendering of Precious’ voice which is pitch perfect and authentic.

getimage239-669x1024.aspxOne Night, Markovitch – Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (translated by Sondra Silverston)

Yaacov Markovitch and Zeev Feinberg go on the run after Feinberg is caught having sex with the wife of Avraham Mandelbaum, the slaughterer. The deputy commander of the Irgun, a friend of Feinberg’s, sends the pair to Europe where they will marry ‘a Jewish girl’ and bring them back to Palestine, thus circumventing the closed gates of Europe. Once the men return, they will divorce and the women will be free to remain. But Markovitch refuses to divorce his wife, the stunning but cold, Bella Zeigerman. The backbone of the story is that of three women: Bella; Feinberg’s wife, Sonya, and Mandelbaum’s wife, Rachel. Gundar-Goshen uses them to explore the ups-and-downs of marriage, parenthood, war, death …basically all of life is here.

51-2bjcqwu2l-_sy344_bo1204203200_The Glorious Heresies – Lisa McInerney

Maureen kills Robbie O’Donovan when she finds him in her house. As the mother of Cork’s biggest gangster, Jimmy Phelan, she doesn’t need to worry about clearing up her mess. But the mess is bigger than a body and some blood: Robbie’s girlfriend, Georgie, is looking for him and she has problems of her own; Tara Duane, Georgie’s confidant is keen to know everyone’s business and she lives next door to Jimmy’s alcoholic clearer-upper, Tony Cusak. And then there’s Cusak’s son, fifteen-year-old Ryan, who loses his virginity, starts his first long term relationship and begins to step out from the shadow of his alcoholic, violent, widowed father. A bloody entertaining read.

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Ruby – Cynthia Bond

Ruby’s returned to Liberty Township, Texas from New York City. Everyone knows she’s mad: she pees in the street and has sex with many of the men in Liberty, but Ruby’s caught the attention of one man who wants to treat her differently; Ephram Jennings is planning to bring Ruby one of his sister’s white lay angel cakes. Ruby’s tortured by the ghosts which have attached themselves to her. As she gives herself to them, we learn about her childhood and the long-standing relationship she has with Jennings’ family. Bleak but threaded with hope and beautiful writing.

 

9781444775433The Devil in the Marshalsea – Antonia Hodgson

Tom Hawkins, eldest son of a Suffolk gentleman, Oxford graduate, set to join the clergy and inherit his father’s position, finds himself in the Marshalsea for unpaid rent and other debts. He arrives after the widow of Captain Roberts has taken up residence in the debtor’s  prison after Robert’s murder made to look like suicide. Hawkins gets drawn into solving the murder as he deals with his roommate, the despised Samuel Fleet, and the prison’s regime, divided by rich and poor. Intelligent, packed with period detail and plot, bawdy, has a social conscience and some hilarious lines. Entertaining.

 
9781846689499Pleasantville – Attica Locke

Pleasantville is a neighbourhood in Houston, Texas, built in 1949 “specifically for Negro families of means and class”. As a middle class, politically aware area, it also holds political power, a power which has become legendary over four decades. The story takes place in 1996 in the run-up to Houston’s mayoral election, the results of which might bring Alex Hathorne to office as the city’s first black mayor. As the novel begins the situation is quickly complicated by two events: the first is the abduction of a teenage girl, following a stint distributing campaign leaflets door-to-door in Pleasantville; the second is a break-in at Jay Porter’s office.As the story unravels, all the threads become entwined with the mayoral race at the centre. Locke considers who really runs an election campaign: a matter of business and money – who pays for the campaigns, who dictates strategy – but ultimately, how low people are prepared to go in their desperation for power.

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Negroland – Margo Jefferson

Margo Jefferson grew up in Chicago in the 1950s and ’60s. Born to a paediatrician father and a socialite mother, she experienced a particular type of privilege: that of the well-off, educated, black family. Personal experience is interwoven with the history of those Jefferson identifies as belonging to Negroland: Frances Jackson Coppin and Joseph Willson, for example; and cultural commentary on film, television and the media, discussing those black men and women who did appear on and in those mediums and what they came to represent for black communities. Negroland is a superb book which consider the intersections of race, class and gender. It’s a fascinating read and an insight into an underexplored area of society.

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The Argonauts – Maggie Nelson

The Argonauts charts Nelson’s relationship with the artist Harry Dodge, including the conception and birth of their son, Iggy, and Dodge’s decision to begin taking testosterone and have top surgery. The Argonauts is not straightforward memoir, it is intellectual argument illuminated by personal experience and supported by academic rigour. It explores love – constructing and maintaining a relationship outside of heteronormativity and maternal love as stepmother and mother (the latter from the point of view of adult child and parent as well as the expectant mother/mother of a young child) – and the body – sex, gender fluidity, pregnancy and birth. Rigorous and fascinating.

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The Lonely City – Olivia Laing

Laing examines the idea of being lonely in the busiest place on earth – the city, specifically in her case New York City. Part memoir, part mediation on art, Laing looks at a number of artists who’ve dealt with the theme of loneliness – in their work and often in their private lives too – focusing in on Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Henry Darger and David Wojnarowicz. The Lonely City is a fascinating exploration of what loneliness is; how we attempt to stave it off; why some people are consumed by it, and what its relationship to artistic creation might be.

 

Flying Under the Radar…but well worth your time

2016 is shaping up to be such a corking year in books (thank goodness, eh, considering the state of everything else…) that I was going to do a books of the mid-year point list. However, when I drew up my longlist I noticed that it split neatly into two categories: those books you already know about because everyone is talking about them and those that I wish everyone was talking about because they’re brilliant and haven’t had the recognition they deserve. So here’s twelve books I’ve read so far this year that I think are worthy of your time and attention. Clicking on the covers will take you to my full review.

Let Me Tell You About a Man I Knew – Susan Fletcher

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A new patient arrives at Saint-Paul-De-Mausole, an artist called Vincent van Gogh. The story of the novel, however, belongs to Jeanne Trabuc, the warder’s wife. van Gogh serves as a catalyst for a change in her steady, claustrophobic life. A fantastic portrait of a marriage and the power of art to change how you see the world.

Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun – Sarah Ladipo Manyika

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Doctor Morayo Da Silva is approaching her 75th birthday. Former academic, ex-wife of an ambassador, she’s seen the world and lived it all. Now settled in San Francisco living a steady, reliable life…or so she tells us. The multiple narrators of this fascinating tale might not agree. (This also gives me an opportunity to point you in the direction of this excellent piece recommending more women novelists you might enjoy by Sarah Ladipo Manyika on Vela: Seven Bold and New International Voices.)

Martin John – Anakana Schofield

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You know that reviewers’ cliche about books staying with you long after you’ve turned the final page? Well I read this in December and I still shudder every time I think about it. Martin John is an ‘inadequate molester’. Exiled to London from Ireland, by his mother, following an incident in a dentist’s waiting room, Martin John follows his rituals and circuits to ensure he stays on the right side of the law. But he’s already made a mistake and now Baldy Conscience has stayed too long in Martin’s house they’ll be consequences. John’s mother’s story is also very interesting, equal parts heartbreaking and disturbing.

Under the Udala Trees – Chinelo Okparanta

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A coming-of-age novel in 1970’s Nigeria. Ijeoma discovers her sexuality when she meets Amina. Her mother attempts to ‘correct’ her homosexuality through schooling her in The Bible and manoeuvring her into marriage. Gripping, heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful.

Sitting Ducks – Lisa Blower

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The perfect post-Brexit novel if you’re one of those people wondering who was ‘stupid’ enough to vote Leave in those run-down post-industrial towns destroyed by Thatcher and neglected by subsequent administrations. ‘Totty’ Minton’s fed up of being skint, unemployed and living in a house marked for demolition by his former school mate and private property entrepreneur, Malcolm Gandy. Corruption and despair are rife in the lead-up to the 2010 general election and there seems to be no end in sight.

The Living – Anjali Joseph

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Joseph also looks at working class lives. 35-year-old, single mother, Claire, works in one of the UK’s remaining shoe factories and struggles with her teenage son, Jason, while her feud with her mother rumbles on. Arun, a shoe maker and grandfather in Kolhapur, struggles with his health and looks back on his life and marriage. An excellent character study.

Under the Visible Life – Kim Echlin

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The story of two women, Mahsa Weaver and Katherine Goodnow, who have two things in common: 1) jazz 2) their mixed heritage and the issues which have come with it. Two women who want independence but are prevented from having it in different ways although all under the banner of the patriarchy. Piercingly astute on women’s lives.

If You Look for Me, I Am Not Here – Sarayu Srivatsa

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Mallika, Siva’s Amma, becomes pregnant with twins: a boy and a girl. The girl, Tara, arrives with the umbilical cord still around her neck and dies moments later. The boy, Siva, survives. But Mallika wanted a girl and her grief for Tara leads her to reject Siva and accuse her husband of killing Tara. Brought up as a boy by his father and grandmother and a girl by his mother, Siva spends his childhood and adolescence questioning whether he is a boy or a girl. His story is interwoven with that of George Gibbs, an Englishman who used to live in their house. You can read my interview with Sarayu Srivatsa here.

Mend the Living – Maylis de Kerangal (translated by Jessica Moore)

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Simon Limbeau is fatally wounded in a road traffic accident. Pulled from the wreckage and transported to an Intensive Care Unit, the novel charts the progress to the point when Simon’s heart becomes that of Claire Méjan. As the heart’s journey progresses, we meet all of the people involved in transporting it from one body to another. Gripping and fascinating.

Masked Dolls – Shih Chiung-Yu (translated by Wang Xinlin and Poppy Toland)

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Twenty-three chapters, each one titled ‘Conflict’ and the number of the chapter. Initially these conflicts seem to be individual tales: Judy and her Chinese lover; Jiaying and Lawrence, her Western boyfriend; Jiaying’s father’s stories of World War Two; the person who steals underwear from the flat Jiaying and her friends live in when they’re students; Jiaying’s friend Fat Luo’s increasing hatred of her. But as the book progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that these ideas are thematically linked. Greater than the sum of its parts.

Ghostbird – Carol Lovekin

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In a Welsh village where it rains every day in August, fourteen-year-old Cadi Hopkins begins to ask questions about her dead father and sister and why she’s not allowed to go to the lake. Cadi lives with her mother, Violet, with whom she’s locked in an intensified teenage daughter/mother battle. Cadi’s aunt/Violet’s sister-in-law, Lili, lives next door and acts as a surrogate mother to Cadi. Lili also has a contentious relationship with Violet. Nature, magic realism, secrets and family relationships. Atmospheric.

Eileen – Ottessa Moshfegh

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Eileen tells the story of ‘back then’ when she lived with her alcoholic, ex-cop, father, was a secretary in a boys’ juvenile correction facility and met Rebecca Saint John, the beautiful, intelligent, fashionable director of education who befriends Eileen and leads her down a very dark, twisty path.

Book Lists for All Humans #2

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I didn’t expect it to be so soon but here we are, courtesy of this list of Top 10 Books to Make You a Better Person in The Guardian. Four white men (sounding good so far, right?), three men of colour, three white women. Verdict = could do better (the pun wasn’t intended but I’ll take it).

There’s a problem with this list because I don’t know what making someone a ‘better’ person means. Who decides the criteria?

I’ve gone for books that made me think about the world differently (and avoided any I included in list #1 although they’re all relevant too); feel free to interpret it in your own way and leave your suggestions in the comments.

An Untamed State – Roxane Gay
Haiti, kidnapping, rape, privilege, poverty

The Country of Ice Cream Star – Sandra Newman
Dystopia, AAVE, disease, love, war, religion

Under the Udala Trees – Chinelo Okparanta
Love, religion, ‘cures’ for homosexuality, Nigeria, women

Just Call Me Superhero – Alina Bronsky (translated by Tim Mohr)
Disability, friendship, love, sexuality

Blonde Roots – Bernadine Evaristo
Counterfactual slave narrative, race reversal

The Repercussions – Catherine Hall
War photography, Afghanistan, love, women, history

Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged – Ayisha Malik
Hijab, dating, religion, family, writing

Tell No Tales – Eva Dolan
Far right, immigration, politics, crime, corruption

The Book of Memory – Petina Gappah
Race, class, albino, women in prison, perspective

The Glorious Heresies – Lisa McInerney
Working class, feminism, religion, crime, coming of age

(Links to my reviews.)

 

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.)

The Argonauts – Maggie Nelson

In simple terms The Argonauts charts Nelson’s relationship with the artist Harry Dodge, including the conception and birth of their son, Iggy, and Dodge’s decision to begin taking testosterone and have top surgery, but the slightness of the book and its short sections belie the depth of thought which surrounds these events.

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Before we met, I had spent a lifetime devoted to Wittgenstein’s idea that the inexpressible is contained – inexpressibly! – in the expressed. This idea gets less air time than his more reverential Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent, but it is, I think, the deeper idea. Its paradox is, quite literally, why I write, or how I feel able to keep writing.

For it doesn’t feed or exalt any angst one may feel about the incapacity to express, in words, that which eludes them. It doesn’t punish what can be said for what, by definition, it cannot be. Nor does it ham it up by miming a constricted throat: Lo, what I would say, were words good enough. Words are good enough.

It is this, I think, which demonstrates the power of Nelson’s writing. The Argonauts is not straightforward memoir, it is intellectual argument illuminated by personal experience and supported by academic rigour: embedded quotations from the likes of Judith Butler, Sara Ahmed and Luce Irigaray appear throughout the book. Nelson is also comfortable expressing her insecurities and allowing the reader to see her working through her relationship with Dodge.

Your inability to live in your skin was reaching its peak, your neck and back pulsing with pain all day, all night, from your torso (and hence, your lungs) having been constricted for almost thirty years. You tried to stay wrapped even while sleeping, but by morning the floor was always littered with doctored sports bras, strips of dirty fabric – “smashers”, you called them.

 

I just want you to feel free, I said in anger disguised in compassion, compassion disguised as anger.

Don’t you get it yet? you yelled back. I will never feel as free as you do, I will never feel as at home in the world, I will never feel as at home in my own skin. That’s just the way it is, and always will be.

The Argonauts explores love – constructing and maintaining a relationship outside of heteronormativity and maternal love as stepmother and mother (the latter from the point of view of adult child and parent as well as the expectant mother/mother of a young child) – and the body – sex, gender fluidity, pregnancy and birth.

Nelson juxtaposes ideas surrounding these topics with personal anecdotes, shifting seamlessly from one to another, circling around ideas returning to them again and again. She makes the structure appear effortless but this non-chronological weaving is difficult to pull off, but pull it off is exactly what she does, making the book compelling. I did, however, find myself pausing often to think through the points Nelson was making, she packs a significant amount into some of the shortest paragraphs.

Maggie Nelson is one of a number of female writers currently using the essay form in creative ways – Rebecca Solnit, Olivia Laing, Katherine Angel, to name a few – writing interesting, intellectual pieces exploring society/the political through the personal. The Argonauts is a welcome addition to this body of work. Rigorous and fascinating.

 

Thanks to Melville House UK for the review copy.