The Writes of Woman Interviews Salena Godden

If you’re active on social media or a regular at live spoken word events, it’s unlikely you won’t have heard of Salena Godden. It seems as though she’s been everywhere – geographically and media wise – for the last few years and with good reason. A regular (and when I say regular I mean practically every night) on the spoken word scene, 2016 also saw her included in the bestselling, award winning essay collection The Good Immigrant while the beginning of 2017 brought a shortlisting for the Ted Hughes Award for the album LIVEwire.

LIVEwire is a mixture of poems and extracts of prose (from Godden’s memoir Springfield Road). It’s a mixture of live performances and studio recordings. It’s a mixture of unaccompanied and accompanied (Godden sings during some pieces) verse.

It begins with ‘Swan’, a tale of a relationship between two people grown old together, ‘We never agree about the temperature, maps and train timetables’. It prepares the listener for the thread about relationships which runs through the collection, not just romance as in ‘You Like that One’ about the dating scene and ‘Snooker’ where Godden uses snooker as a metaphor for being hit on in a bar but also friendship. In ‘Under the Pier’ teenage girls hang out drinking and talking. This is the softer side of Godden’s work and makes an interesting contrast to the more political pieces (small and capital ‘p’).

Politics emerges as both public and personal in the collection. There are direct responses to the Paris attacks in ‘November, Paris Blue’, ‘It stinks the way they continue to lie and conspire, to make money, to trade arms, enslave and murder people’ and ‘Titanic’, which initially appears to be about the Kate Winslet/Leonardo DiCaprio starring film but takes a swift turn part-way through, ‘I used to love that film Titanic…but now it looks like the Channel 4 news’. Winslet is mentioned again in ‘Public Service Announcement’:

Kate Winslet has had three children from three different fathers
Three children from three different fathers
She has clearly been doing what the fuck she likes with her own vagina.
We have contacted her
We have scrutinised her choices
And we’ve gone through her bins

There is a feminist streak which runs through Godden’s work, although she’s not uncritical of the movement itself; ‘My Tits Are More Feminist than Your Tits’ parodies the in-fighting which take place on social media and in the press as to who’s doing feminism right.

Godden’s delivery varies from solemn to shouty, the contrast striking a good balance for the listener. The moments where she shouts lines, often repeatedly, carry a real punch and appear to be Godden at both her most passionate and her funniest. In ‘I Want Love’, written 20 years ago when she was 20, Godden descends into laughter as she sends up her younger self. She demonstrates an understanding of humanity – the good, the bad and the ugly – and also a self-awareness which means the human behind the words is often present, providing a connection to the points Godden’s making, however shocking.

LIVEwire has something for everyone. Whether you’re a seasoned reader of poetry/a regular on the poetry scene or someone new to the form looking for a way in. It’s a joy to listen to the capture of Godden’s live performances, the passion with which she delivers her thoughts. I can’t recommend her work highly enough.

I interviewed Salena Godden in Manchester last month. The photographs were taken by Matt Abbott.

You can find Salena on her blog, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

You can buy LiveWIRE from Amazon
Springfield Road from Amazon or Waterstones
The Good Immigrant from Amazon, Waterstones or support your local independent bookshop. If, like me, there isn’t one near you, I recommend Big Green Bookshop.

Thanks to Salena Godden and Matt Abbott for the interview and to Nymphs and Thugs for the review copy.

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.

Negroland – Margo Jefferson

“We’re considered upper-class Negroes and upper-middle-class Americans,” Mother says. But most people would like to consider us Just More Negroes.”

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.

Negroland is my name for a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege or plenty and that most whites would be glad to see them returned to indigence, deference, and subservience. Children there were taught that most other Negroes ought to be emulating us when too many of them (out of envy or ignorance) went on behaving in ways that encouraged racial prejudice.

She explores her personal experience as a member of Negroland beginning with a letter her mother wrote to a friend during her parents’ time stationed at an army base during WW2. The letter ends ‘Sometimes I almost forget I’m a Negro. That’s something, huh?’ Jefferson follows it with the times she’s almost been allowed to forget too and the times when she definitely hasn’t. She takes us with her to summer camp where she’s directed to befriend a black boy; to the private, mostly white, school she and her sister attended; to the neighbourhoods the family lived in – mostly white when they arrived, mostly black within a few years; to the hotel in Atlantic City where they’re put in inferior rooms; to university.

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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.

There are some awful instances of racism and a heart-wrenching moment, reminiscent of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, when Jefferson confesses ‘she was silly enough to believe her hair would turn blonde when her mother washed it. Fortunately, she aired this belief, and it dies a clean, brisk death’ but there’s also humour. One of my favourite moments comes during a discussion about passing:

Suddenly the fact of racial slippage overwhelmed me. I was excited for days after. I knew something none of my white school friends knew. It wasn’t just that some of us were as good as them, even when they didn’t know it. Some of us were them.

There’s been some discussion this week on Twitter around the idea of ‘identity politics’ and whether they reduce people to characteristics. (If you haven’t come across the debate, Musa Okwonga wrote a point-by-point response to the criticisms on his blog.) As the conversation went on there were some fairly crude comments about levels of privilege in relation to race. I’m going to quote Jefferson at length because I think what she has to say on this, from a self-identified position of privilege, is important:

In Negroland we thought of ourselves as the Third Race, poised between the masses of Negroes and all classes of Caucasians. Like the Third Eye, the Third Race possessed a wisdom, intuition, and enlightened knowledge the other two races lacked. Its members had education, ambition, sophistication, and standardized verbal dexterity.

– If, as was said, too many of us ached, longed, strove to be be be be White White White White WHITE…

– If (as was said) many us boasted over much of the blood des blancs that for centuries had found blatant or surreptitious ways to flow, course, and trickle tepidly through our veins and arteries (cephalic, aortal, renal, femoral, jugular, subclavian, and superior mesenteric)…

– If we placed too high a value on the looks, manners, and morals called the birthright of the Anglo-Saxon…

White people wanted to be white just as much as we did. They worked just as hard at it. They failed just as often. They failed more often. But they could pass, so no one objected.

Negroland is a superb book. Non-fiction books that meld genres seem to be having a bit of a moment but what this one does differently is consider the intersections of race, class and gender in a way I haven’t seen before. It’s a fascinating read and an insight into an underexplored area of society. Highly recommended.

 

Thanks to Granta for the review copy.

The Naked Muse – Kelley Swain

The Naked Muse is framed (sorry, couldn’t resist) by a month Swain spent in Bruges working as a life model for a class of painters. She has modelled previously in London both for classes and for individuals. While Swain discusses these experiences, she also comments on the practicalities and etiquette of live modelling, ownership of image and the artist’s gaze.

…the young woman, Sarah, is no longer looking at me, but seeing me. Under her trained painter’s eye, I’m beginning to break into shape, shadow, texture, colour […] If I glanced into Sarah’s eyes, the spell would break. I am meant to be here, but not here. I am meant to be available, but not available. I am meant to give myself wholly, yet remain at a remove.

She goes on to talk about how artists unconsciously paint themselves, even when Swain is the model in front of them. There is a discussion – one which she has had with several of the artists she’s modelled for – regarding portraits and flattery vs realism. It’s impossible for Swain to discuss her modelling experience without considering the art which is created. She interweaves thoughts and conversations about relevant theoretical concepts: Sartre’s ‘the gaze of the other’; Dayes and Hogarth on beauty, amongst others, and considers specific paintings and the women who sat for them. Her exploration of other models throughout history is particularly fascinating, especially Amelie Gautreaux, ‘Madame X’ in John Singer Sargent’s portrait. The poses and the scandals considered provide exemplification of the standards women have been and are held to by society.

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Perhaps the most interesting sections of the book could also be considered the most banal: those that look at what it’s actually like to be a live model.

‘I sit,’ I write to my mother, ‘they paint’.

This is the essence.

But try it. Try sitting in a pose that you think, at first, is comfortable. Try not stretching your neck when it begins to ache. Try not scratching your ear when it begins to itch. Try not sneezing. Try keeping your eyes open, focused on the same spot on the wall. Try being still. Try not rolling your shoulders, not passing wind if you need to, not falling asleep, and not talking. Try not to think about whether you are hungry or need the loo. Try it when you’re hungover, when you haven’t slept well, when you have a cold, when you have cramps, or when you’re menstruating. Try it for five minutes. Not bad? Try it for forty.

Comfortable? Try it in the buff, in England, in January. And remember, it’s for a room full of people you’ve probably never met.

The structure of the book allows Swain to consider modelling for the same group of artists over a lengthy period of time, showing the tensions that can arise and the fluctuations in mood and well being and how that affects her work.

The Naked Muse is an interesting look at a role which is rarely considered, particularly not from the model’s point-of-view. Swain successfully melds memoir, philosophy and criticism, creating a meditation on the position of the model in the world of art.

 

Thanks to Valley Press for the review copy.

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.

Books of the Year, Part Two: 2015 Publications

Here we are then, the books from this year I’ve read and rated most highly. I’m basing my choices on the very unscientific, I thought it was brilliant at the time and I’m still thinking about it. I was concerned this would skew the list towards the end of the year but it hasn’t at all – two thirds of the books are from the first half of 2015. Publication dates are UK (where applicable) and if you click on the cover it will take you to my review.

Citizen – Claudia Rankine 

A superb book. An examination of race and the treatment of black people in present day America. Rankine uses flash fiction, essays and poetry to explore the way people of colour ‘…feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background’ and, by implication, how often, as a white person, you are complicit in creating and maintaining that background. Short, sharp and powerful, I’d like to see a copy of Citizen distributed to every household, taught in schools and university, and added to the canon. If you believe art can change the world, this is a book that should be able to do so.


A Little Life
– Hanya Yanagihara

It’s divided readers and critics but I make no apologies for including this book for several reasons: it’s utterly absorbing, I felt as though I’d been entombed in Yanagihara’s world; it focuses on male friendship which I think is unusual; the friendship group consists of four men of different ethnicities and different sexualities, one of whom is disabled and Yanagihara has written about their lives as though they are, well, people. They are not defined by their ethnicity or sexuality and this feels like a break through. It’s huge and harrowing and clearly not for everyone but I’m still thinking about it six months on.

 

The House in Smyrna – Tatiana Salem Levy (translated by Alison Entrekin)

A short, sharp tale told in fragments. At the centre of the book is the story of the key given to the unnamed narrator by her grandfather: the key to his old house in Turkey, in Smyrna. There are four threads to the book: the narrator’s journey to her grandfather’s house; the grandfather’s journey from the house to the woman who became the narrator’s grandmother; the narrator’s relationship with her dead mother, and the narrator’s passionate affair with an unnamed man. A shocking and beautiful novella about exile in many different forms.

The Private Life of Mrs Sharma – Ratika
Kapur 

Mrs Sharma’s thirty-seven-years-old and married with a fifteen-year-old son, Bobby. They live in a flat in Dehli with her parents-in-law. Her husband, Dheeraj, a physiotherapist, has been working in Dubai for over a year in a bid to raise enough money to cover his parents’ medical bills and send his son to college to do an MBA in business. She works as a receptionist in a gynaecological clinic and dreams of starting her own business. Mrs Sharma’s veneer begins to crack when she meets Vineet Seghal on a station platform. Tightly plotted with precise, often repetitive, language, this is a brilliant book about an unfulfilled woman.

Vigilante – Shelley Harris

Jenny Pepper, 42, manager of a charity bookshop, married to Elliot, graphic designer, with a 14-year-old daughter, Martha, is fed-up of her life. She’s particularly annoyed and frustrated by the way men objectify women and the consequences of this behaviour. Donning a superhero costume for a fancy dress party, she stops a mugging and gets a taste for the vigilante lifestyle. Before long, she’s on the tale of someone who’s attacking teenage girls. A gripping and believable look at the concerns of a middle-aged woman and her life.

 

The Last Act of Love – Cathy Rentzenbrink

When Cathy Rentzenbrink was seventeen, her sixteen-year-old brother, Matty, was hit by a car and left in a persistent vegetative state for eight years. The book is Rentzenbrink’s story of the effect of Matty’s accident on her and her family. Told in an unflinching first person account with a huge amount of love and dollops of humour, Rentzenbrink brings the Matty she loved back to life and pays tribute to her parents without descending into mawkishness. Heartbreaking and heartwarming. Buy tissues before reading, I’m welling up just thinking about it.

 

A God in Ruins – Kate Atkinson

A companion piece to Life After LifeA God in Ruins focuses on Ursula’s younger brother, Teddy and those who’ve shared his life – his wife, Nancy; daughter, Viola; grandchildren, Bertie and Sunny, and the men he served alongside in the RAF. The structure’s non-chronological, creating a jigsaw puzzle of Teddy’s life and the lives of his family members for the reader to reconstruct; every chapter capable of standing alone as a story in its own right. The chapters set in the war are some of Atkinson’s best writing but this is more than a character study, it’s a book that explores what fiction is. Superb.

 

The Vegetarian – Han Kang (Translated by Deborah Smith)

Mr Cheong chose his wife, Yeong-Ho, because she’s passive. But then, due to a set of reoccurring dreams, she turns vegetarian; a highly unorthodox act in South Korea. The reactions of Mr Cheong and Yeong-Ho’s family turn dark and sometimes violent quite quickly. But Yeong-Ho’s brother-in-law is fascinated with her and her mongolian mark which leads to him creating a physical work of art with her. A disconcerting story that explores society’s treatment of a woman who defies expectations and how her internalisation of those expectations affects her psyche.

 

The Ship – Antonia Honeywell 

In the not so distant future where banks have collapsed, the homeless population is out of control, food is scarce and the military rule, Lalage is protected by her father, Michael Paul, and his creation, the ship. The ship is a version of paradise, stocked with everything you might need and more. As it sets sail with Michael Paul’s chosen people on it, Lalage begins to question her father’s motives and what she really wants from life. The Ship raises questions of wealth and poverty; of governments who fail to protect all their citizens; of the value of art and artefacts. It’s futuristic setting is misleading, this is really a novel about what’s happening to society now.

The First Bad Man – Miranda July 

Cheryl Glickman, early forties, lives alone and works for a company who make self-defence, fitness DVDs. She has two fascinations: Phillip Bettelheim and babies who might be Kubelko Bondy, the son of her parents’ friends. Cheryl’s bosses ask if their daughter, Clee, can move in with her until she finds a job. First Clee trashes Cheryl’s system for keeping the house clean and tidy, then she’s physically fighting Cheryl for extended periods before Cheryl begins imagining herself as Phillip having sex with Clee. It sounds absurd but it’s a sharp exploration of loneliness which transforms into something emotionally fulfilling.

The Wolf Border – Sarah Hall

Rachel has spent almost a decade in Idaho, monitoring wolves on a reservation but an unplanned pregnancy, the death of her mother and the offer of a job supporting the reintroduction of the Grey Wolf to Great Britain sees her returning to the Lake District. The Wolf Border considers a variety of different intersections that humans come up against – birth, death, addiction, love, political change and, of course, nature. The precision of the language, particularly in the descriptions of the Lake District and the wolves, is superb as is the characterisation of Rachel. One of our best novelists, probably her best book.

Grow a Pair: 9 1/2 Fairytales About Sex 
 – Joanna Walsh

From the very opening sentences of the first story to the end of the afterword of Grow a Pair transformations occur: characters adopt and change their genitalia; a man becomes a woman; a queen becomes a witch; a woman fragments into multiple vaginas. Walsh mixes retellings of traditional fairytales like ‘The Princess and the Penis’ with new pieces. Filled with as many moments of humour as it is ones of magical realism, the collection allows its women to take control of their own sexuality and fulfilment. Entertaining, smart and thoughtful.

The Gracekeepers – Kirsty Logan

A dual narrative following two young women – North, who lives with Circus Excalibur, travelling the sea but performing most nights on land with her bear, and Callanish, the gracekeeper, living on a tiny island by the graveyard and performing Restings for the dead. North has a number of issues to deal with – she’s engaged to Ainsel and his father wants them to live on land, but she doesn’t want either of these things; Ainsel’s mother is jealous, and North is pregnant to someone else. She’s also tied to Callanish in ways that only begin to reveal themselves when the two meet. A beautifully rendered world.

 

An Untamed State – Roxane Gay 

Mirelle is kidnapped in front of her husband, Michael, and their baby, Christophe, directly outside the heavy steel gates at the bottom of the drive to her parents’ house in Haiti. She’s been taken because her father’s rich and the kidnappers believe he will pay a lot of money for her, his youngest and favourite daughter in U.S. dollars. He refuses, assuming they will return her unharmed. She’s repeatedly raped and tortured. The majority of the book deals with the aftermath, looking at whether it’s possible to rebuild a life, a marriage, a familial relationship after such horror. An interesting examination of power and privilege.

Talk of the Toun – Helen MacKinven

Angela’s short-term ambition is for her and her best friend, Lorraine, to lose their virginity over the summer holidays. Long-term, she wants to move away from the council scheme she’s grown up on and attend Glasgow School of Art. Her parents are determined she’s getting a job. Over one summer in the 1980s, Angela and Lorraine’s friendship will deteriorate thanks to Pamela aka Little Miss Brown Nose and Stevie Duffy, just out of borstal and ‘a total ride’. Class, religion, family and friendships are all explored but it’s the perceptive look at women’s sexuality and the use of Scots dialect that really make this a stand out read.

 

Honourable mentions also go to The Hourglass Factory by Lucy Ribchester; The Table of Less Valued Knights by Marie Phillips; Dear Thief by Samantha Harvey; Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum, The Chimes by Anna Smaill and Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller.

Dead Babies and Seaside Towns – Alice Jolly

Dead Babies and Seaside Towns is a book from those brilliant people at Unbound. If you haven’t come across this independent publishing house yet, its basic premise is that authors pitch books on the site and if you like the sound of their idea, you pledge to fund the book, buying a copy and possibly other rewards in the process. They’ve had great success in particular with Letters of Note and The Wake by Paul Kingsolver, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2014.

I was one of the people who pledged to fund Jolly’s Dead Babies and Seaside Towns. You would probably assume I did so because I wanted to read it but actually I had little intention of ever opening the front cover. I helped to fund the book because I have two close friends who, between them, have suffered miscarriages, a stillbirth and an infant death. I’ve seen one of them go through multiple rounds of IVF and the other wrestle with depression. Having never been or ever wanted to be pregnant, with no desire to have children of my own (I’m an accidental step-parent: I fell in love with someone who already had a young son and a stepdaughter), I can see what wanting to be a parent means to other people but I only have a limited understanding of it myself. I contributed to the funding because I could see that Jolly’s story was important even if I couldn’t identify with it.

I ended up reading it because Jolly and I have a mutual friend through whom Jolly contacted me and asked if I’d take part in a blog tour for the book. I agreed and then kept forgetting about it. On remembering I’d think, oh goodness, I’m going to have to read it. I put it off until the latest I knew I could get away with and still manage to read the whole thing and write a review in time for my slot on the tour. That was Saturday lunchtime. By the time I went to bed that evening, I was fifty pages from the end, having done little else other than read the book for the rest of the day. Not because I knew I had to but because it’s absolutely bloody brilliant.

Although I’m a writer by profession, I have always felt sure that I would never write a memoir. I do not trust them, never have. Me-me-me, moi-moi-moi. But now our legal team – one law firm in America, two law firms in England and a barrister – have been in touch to say that I need to write a twenty-page statement explaining everything that happened. They need this in preparation for our hearing in the High Court.

The hearing at the High Court is almost the end of Jolly’s story – or at least the end of the one she’s written. Before we get there, she takes us chronologically from the beginning, when her son, Thomas, is two and she is sixteen weeks pregnant. She’s already bled briefly at eleven weeks but it’s begun again and the hospital in Brussels, two miles from their house, tells her to go in for a scan.

There seems to be some delay with the appointments…Apparently there’s an emergency so some routine appointments will have to wait. Stephen and I nod at each other. We are polite and reasonable people, the kind of people who almost relish an opportunity to stand aside and let some other more needy person take our place. Another doctor emerges, peers at me, disappears.

Then I understand. I am the emergency.

The scan reveals that the placenta is partly detached. It’s possible the baby will survive but Jolly is at serious risk of infection. The only thing they can do is wait and hope they don’t lose the baby at six or seven months. Trying to get as much rest as possible while looking after a two-year-old, Jolly continues to bleed regularly.

One night, lying in bed, I hear a loud and rhythmic banging coming from next door. It echoes through the walls of the house and thumps inside my head. It seems odd that our neighbours should start doing building work late at night – and what are they doing which involves this loud and regular hammering? Stephen comes up to bed and I mention that the noise is keeping me awake. He tells me that there is no noise. And I realise that what I’m hearing is my own fear.

I won’t keep quoting at length although it would be so easy to do so. Jolly writes with her novelist’s eyes and ears. The prose is precise and detailed, the sentences rhythmic and often repetitive, highlighting Jolly’s feelings – So this is it then. Our baby has died – and the mundanity of the everyday churning on while she faces such wrenching moments, days, months: I put the washing machine on, hang clothes on the line, load the dishwasher, write a short story, wipe Thomas’ nose.

The detached placenta is only the beginning of the story. A sudden fever strikes Jolly a few days from the twenty-four weeks along she needs to be for her baby to be delivered prematurely. At the point when she thinks the infection is clearing her waters break and her baby, Laura, is delivered stillborn.

Photograph by Sylvain Guenot

Jolly describes the book as ‘Laura’s story’ and she is ever present in the rest of the book as Jolly begins to read the stories of others who’ve had stillborn babies, as she goes through the trauma of being told they should try for another baby soon because of her age, as she has several more miscarriages, as they go through IVF treatment, as they try to adopt, as she sees friends become pregnant and deliver live, healthy babies.

Listed like that, the events that occur in Jolly’s life (at least those she focuses on in the book) sound relentlessly grim. But the book is not. This results from a combination of Laura being alive throughout the book, Jolly’s discussions regarding faith, the hierarchy of grief, the moral arguments around IVF and adoption, her son, her friends, and Jolly’s tone which I can only describe as straight to the point of bluntness. There is no dressing up the continuous horror of losing babies, of the attempts to find a way to have a second child, and neither is it mawkish. Although on the surface we have little in common, I find myself thinking I’d probably like her a lot.

The reason for Jolly writing the twenty-pages for the High Court mentioned earlier is that she and her husband eventually decide to have a baby via a surrogate. This is illegal in the UK so they go through an American agency. This is complicated and costly as well as coming loaded with preconceptions from others. As with the rest of the book, Jolly is precise as to the steps her and her husband go through as well as how she feels at different stages of the procedure. It’s a fascinating story.

Dead Babies and Seaside Towns is an important book; I suspect it could be seminal for women who’ve been through similar losses to Jolly. It is also beautifully crafted and compelling. I’m so glad I did read it, it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl – Carrie Brownstein

If you’re a fan of 90s riot grrrl bands, you’ll know that Brownstein is the guitarist in the American band, Sleater-Kinney. If you’re not, what you need to know is that Brownstein can not only write song lyrics, she writes brilliant prose too.

Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is divided into three sections. The first ‘Youth’ looks, as you’d expect, at her childhood. She begins with music and the shared experience of being a fan of a band in your teenage years:

That’s why all those records from high school sound so good. It’s not that the songs were better – it’s that we were listening to them with our friends, drunk for the first time on liqueurs, touching sweaty palms, staring for hours at a poster on the wall, not grossed out by carpet or dirt or crumpled oily bedsheets. These songs and albums were the best ones because of how huge adolescence felt then, and how nostalgia recasts it now.

Right from the first pages of the book, Brownstein’s tone is one of a straight, honest, unflinching account of her life up to the reformation of Sleater-Kinney. She tells us that her first gig was Madonna and it was at a George Michael concert that she realised she wanted to ‘be the object of desire’ on the stage. She bought a guitar, she started going to punk and rock gigs with her friends who were old enough to drive.

I needed to press myself up against small stages, risking crushed toes, bruised sides, and the unpredictable undulation of the pit, just so I could get a glimpse of who I wanted to be.

In this first section of the book, as Brownstein begins to explore who she wants to be, she shows her burgeoning awareness of where she was coming from. She writes about her family life, the secrets her parents held and her own isolation. She’s not afraid to relate moments where she’d be considered unlikeable, or those that reflect her vulnerabilities.

The second section, and the bulk of the book, is titled ‘Sleater-Kinney’ and begins with Brownstein’s move to Olympia in 1993:

…Olympia itself was a university I wanted to attend. Everything coming out of that scene had started to define me, or at least I wanted it to…It was a world I was desperate to be part of. I wanted a new family of outlaws, of queers and provocative punks, of wit and sexiness. I had one trajectory and that was to get out: of Redmond, of my childhood, of my head. But I needed a place to take me in. It was both a calculated move and an aimless one. I possessed the force of a bullet, albeit one shot from a very shoddy gun.

There she spends her time at gigs, plays in a band called Excuse 17, builds on an earlier meeting with Corin Tucker beginning both Sleater-Kinney and a relationship with her, and becomes friends with Miranda July.

Brownstein captures what it’s like to tour on very little money, how each of the band’s albums were made and, most powerfully, the personal impact of being in a band. This comes in three forms: needing a steady home to return to; the variety of illnesses she suffers on tour, and the shape of her identity being decided by music journalists:

I wasn’t reading about myself; I was reading about a character the writer had made up to fit his tendentious point of view about the band, a narrative he was creating that we needed to fit inside…If you haven’t spent any time deliberately and intentionally shaping your narrative, if you’re unprepared, like I was, then one will be written for you.

In Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl Brownstein does get to shape her narrative. Taking a largely chronological approach, her prose is sharp and clear and aids her in discovering who she has become. In the final section of the book, ‘Aftermath’, she’s living with two cats and a dog.

A male loner is a hero of sorts, a rebel, an iconoclast, but the same is not true of a female loner. There is no virility in a woman’s autonomy, there is only pity. I was floating. I had created my own abandonment.

If you’re a fan of the band or musicians in general, there’s much to interest you here. Alternatively, you could read the book as the story of a woman trying to work out who she wants to be, who she is and how the two might marry. It’s a book about how an identity’s created. It’s thoughtful and insightful. It’s well worth a read.

 

 

Thanks to Virago Books for the review copy.

The Last Act of Love – Cathy Rentzenbrink

Cathy Rentzenbrink’s memoir begins almost at the end of her story. She is standing in a chapel. The chapel belongs to the hospital her brother Matty was taken to when he was knocked down by a car aged sixteen. Rentzenbrink recalls her seventeen-year-old self ‘kneeling in front of the altar all those years ago’:

She thought she was living the worst night of her life, but I know that far worse was to come. The thing she feared was that her brother would die, but I know now it would have been better for everyone if he had. It would have been better for everyone if, as she knelt here, begging for his life, his heart had ceased to beat, if the LED lines on the monitors had stopped registering his heartbeat, if death had been pronounced, accepted, dealt with. It would have been so much better if Matty had died then.

Rentzenbrink then goes back to before the accident and introduces us to her family. Her parents owned the Bell and Crown pub in Snaith, in what was then Humberside (it’s now the East Riding of Yorkshire). Cathy and Matty ‘were generally thought to be a bit too clever for our own good’; she loved reading, he was the ‘delight of the ladies’ darts team’. Their father was ‘Irish, covered in tattoos, sang in the street and went to the pub a lot’, their mother was a civil servant, going to work in a suit.

On the night of the accident, Cathy and Matty both did their usual shift in the pub and then went to the disco at the Rainbow, a snooker club about a mile outside of Snaith. Later Cathy was offered a lift back by one of the locals. She asked Matty if he wanted to come with them:

‘No,’ he said grinning, ‘I’ll hang around here. I might get lucky.’

And I threw him a half-smile, an eyebrow raise, a ‘what an arrogant fucker you are’ head-tilt, and I walked out of the Rainbow and into the car.

The next time I saw Matty he was lying in the road. And he never, in any sense of the expression, got lucky again.

The rest of the book deals with the aftermath of Matty’s accident – the eight years he spent in a persistent vegetative state and the impact that had on Rentzenbrink and her family.

There are several things which are really impressive about this book: it’s honesty, it’s humour and the creation of the voice of seventeen-year-old Cathy.

As the first quotation in this review shows, Rentzenbrink doesn’t shy away from stating her feelings about the situation. Towards the end of the book, she talks about how writing Matty’s story began with a list of all the things she felt guilty about. She includes the list which I’m sure many people who might not have dealt with Rentzenbrink’s unusual situation but have dealt with caring for a relative with a long term debilitating illness will recognise and take comfort in.

Much of the humour comes from moments recounted before the accident and helps to show Matty’s personality in particular. My favourite line though comes four days after the accident when the nurse tells Matty they’re going to give him a bath. Cathy thinks he wouldn’t mind their mum being involved, considering the circumstances but:

I could imagine the eyebrow-raise and the hard stare, could hear him say, ‘You can fuck off with the cock washing, sis.’

Rentzenbrink tells the story in first person. When I interviewed her at Urmston Bookshop, she told me that this didn’t happen until a very late draft and that she’d begun by writing the story in third person. I can understand why you’d want to tell a story this emotional at a distance but the decision to change to first person pays off. We see the story through Cathy’s eyes and empathise with her. This also means that the emotional impact of the story is significant; you will need a box of tissues to hand. I made it as far as page 12 before I started crying and there were two further points where I had to put the book down while I sobbed. Despite that, I still read it in an afternoon: it’s both heart breaking and compelling.

The Last Act of Love is a deeply personal and unique story that deals with universal issues around grief. It’s a beautiful tribute to Matty and marks Rentzenbrink as a writer to watch. If you only read one memoir this year, make it this one.

 

Thanks to Picador for the review copy.