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 Writes of Woman Interviews Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, there’s every possibility you’ve also come across another brilliant blog about women writers: Something Rhymed. Something Rhymed is the work of writers Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney. It looks at friendships between women writers. A Secret Sisterhood is the book that grew out of that blog.

A Secret Sisterhood looks at the friendships of a number of well-known writers. In some of the pairings, both writers are famous, as in George Eliot and Harriet Beacher-Stowe as well as Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, while for Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë they’re the well-known halves of their pairings.

The book is structured in chronological order beginning with Jane Austen. Austen’s featured friendship was with a governess in her brother’s house, a woman called Anne Sharp who wrote plays. Midorikawa and Sweeney reconstruct how the friendship might have played out from unpublished letters and notebooks, ‘largely unmined by literary critics’ written by Fanny, Austen’s niece and Sharp’s charge. This friendship is particularly fascinating as it crosses the class divide and no doubt made Austen’s brother uncomfortable. I can’t discuss this section of the book without mentioning one sentence in particular; it refers to Anne Sharp whose mother died in 1803, the year before she began her employment for the Austen’s. I’ll just leave it here for your delight:

In the early nineteenth century, a single woman in her position, without affluent male relatives to support her, would have faced the unenviable task of securing a respectable way to earn her keep.

Charlotte Brontë’s friendship was with Mary Taylor, author of the feminist novel Miss Miles, although they were schoolchildren when they first met. They did not hit it off immediately:

The girl looked miserable and antiquated to Mary – a sharp contrast with the fashionable young ladies of the school. Like the newcomer, Mary and her boisterous sister Martha were far from stylish. The blue cloth coats they wore outdoors were too short for them, their black beaver bonnets only plainly trimmed. They even had to take the extra precaution of stitching over new pairs of gloves to try to make them last. But, rather than empathising with Charlotte, Mary scorned the girl’s outdated dress and cowed demeanour. Why, she noted to herself, she looks like ‘a little old woman’.

They bonded instead over intelligence and common interests – politics and literature – the best type of female friendships, I find.

George Eliot and Harriet Beacher Stowe’s friendship is particularly interesting as they never actually met. It seems some literary scholars have underestimated the strength of their friendship on the basis that they were pen pals. Despite this, the two confided in each other about their families and their work.

Despite marked differences in their temperaments – Harriet being the livelier and more impulsive of the two – their shared experiences as the most celebrated living female authors either side of the Atlantic immediately drew them close. That the pair shared this extraordinary status makes it all the more surprising that their friendship has not gone down in history.

Finally, the friendship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield is revealed to be a friendship, rather than the mere rivalry it’s been painted to be.

At their best, both women recognised that when ‘afflicted with jealousy’, as Virginia would put it, ‘the only thing is to confess’. This lesson allowed these two ambitious women to benefit from their creative competition – a process that proved as valuable to their shared art as that experienced by better-mythologised male writing duos.

The book is well-written and curated, turning historical documents into something between recreation and critique. My only criticism is that I would’ve liked more – more pairings, specifically including a wider demographic of women, the choices are very white, anglo-centric. However, I do recognise what a difficult sell this book would have been and am glad it exists.

A Secret Sisterhood is an engaging look at the little written about female friendships of significant women writers. It’s a delight to see women as the focus of this type of work; here’s hoping there’s a sequel!

You can buy A Secret Sisterhood 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 Emily Midorikawa, Emma Claire Sweeney and Jessie Sullivan for the interview and the proof of the book.

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.

 

Non-Fiction Round-Up

There are some books that, for a range of reasons, I read but just didn’t get around to reviewing in full this year. Because I’d like to start the new year without a pile of books I haven’t reviewed yet glaring at me I thought I’d do a couple of round-ups instead. Today it’s non-fiction, earlier in the week it was fiction.

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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.

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The Pursuit of Happiness – Ruth Whippman

When her husband’s job takes her and their toddler to California, Ruth Whippman decided to take a look at the USA’s happiness industry. What does it consist of? Does it work? On a personal journey that takes in mindfulness, happiness gurus, a cultural project in Las Vegas, parenting, Mormons, Facebook and positive psychology, Whippman discovers what’s simply big business and what might actually be the key to feeling happy. Told from a cynical Brit’s point of view, this cynical Brit found it an interesting and engaging read.

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Rain: Four Walks in English Weather – Melissa Harrison

Harrison explores the English countryside in the most British of weathers: the rain. Beginning in the waterlogged Fens before taking the reader through Shropshire and The Darent Valley to Dartmoor, Harrison combines historical fact with a glimpse of memoir and notes on the countryside, making you feel as though you’ve visited each place with her. Interesting enough from your armchair if you’re not a fan of walking in the rain; you can also amuse yourself with the 100 Words Concerning Rain contained in the back of the book and impress your friends with a range of dialectal terms.

 

Thanks to Canongate, Windmill Books and Faber and Faber for the review copies.

Kanda for Christmas – Guest Post by Yemisi Aribisala

If you read my interview with Sarah Ladipo Manyika, author of the Goldsmiths Prize shortlisted Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun, you might have noticed that one of the books listed in her current favourites wasn’t published at the time of writing. That book, Longthroat Memoirs: Soup, Sex, and Nigerian Taste Buds by Yemisi Aribisala is now available, published by Cassava Republic. Aribisala’s aim in writing it is to bring Nigerian cooking to a wider audience via a mix of cultural history, memoir and recipes. It’s beautifully written and I’m delighted to share with you a special piece, not in the book, in which Aribisala looks at Christmas in Nigeria.

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Kanda for Christmas

On the morning of Christmas Eve of 2009, my neighbour’s husband came around to express nervous concern. He had opened the pots and found nothing but Kanda (pomo, long-sufferingly boiled cowhide) there. Was he to take this as a sign of what Christmas day held? Everyone found his concern hilarious. We laughed so hard we couldn’t breathe. Deep down we were as nervous as he was. There was a cloud of misery over Christmas in Calabar that year. It was tall, deep, wide, dense as the humidity that cloaked many of the days in the month of December. As if to commemorate the eccentricity of that year, even Harmattan winds failed to bring expected freshness in the mornings and evenings. The air was hot and heavy from morning till night, day after day, distended by the incessant grinding of running generators boring into our brains already overwhelmed with keeping count of the amount of diesel being guzzled by hard-working engines. Someone brought a food hamper round and then came back for it a couple of hours later because he’d made a mistake – it wasn’t for us. We desperately needed something to laugh out loud about, so we laughed at my neighbor and his nervousness about eating Kanda for Christmas. We kept him handy for when reality wanted to steal on us, to remind us there was hunger at our gates and in the city and everywhere. We cried out aloud and crowned the declarations with more laughter – “God in your infinite mercy, please don’t let Kanda be what is on the menu this Christmas.”

What did I end up eating that Christmas? I ate everything.  If it was possible to eat the sofa, I would have done so.  Slow roasted chicken marinated with coriander, cloves, cardamom, hot-peppers, garlic, ginger, raisins and coconut milk; the gamiest most tender he-goat oven-cooked with garam masala spices eaten with fluffy bowls of basmati rice; barbecued pork cooked with Cameroonian peppers on an outside grill, the aroma of charred fresh meat and sweet peppers carrying all the way to Akpabuyo; creamy potato salad made creamier by soft yielding potatoes; sweet fat plantains roasted on the grill alongside the meat, too sweet and soft to be boli eaten with groundnuts, not sweet and soft enough to be mashed into stew then scooped up into your mouth; more plantains fried with sprinklings of cinnamon and pepper, drenched in pineapple juice-then fried in coconut oil. There was freshly juiced pineapples and ginger root served with chilled sprigs of mint; supple clouds of fufu eaten with briskly cooked Afang and Kundi; mugs of Milo made up with peppermint teabags eaten with staggeringly drunk Christmas cake; freshly brewed coffee laced with Irish-cream eaten with almond, raisin and coconut flapjacks. Some mornings, breakfast was hot puff-puffs fried in chili-pepper infused oil eaten with a whole cafeterie of black coffee.

In other words, the more I thought of world hunger and local hunger and recessions and depressions, the more I evoked the shell-shocked expressions in people’s faces in the market place, the weary despondency of light in Goshen and darkness everywhere else in Egypt.  The cracks in buying power and dinner plates between the haves and have-very little and have-nots; the middle-class falling into the crevices and disappearing altogether the more I ate.  I engaged all the different joys and rationales of eating: comfort eating, Christmas entitlement eating, eating in company so that people don’t feel bad that you are not eating, eating the left-overs so they don’t spoil, eating what the neighbour sent round because you can’t very well throw good food away. And, let’s not forget that I am a food writer so I must eat to fulfill my purpose, Thank God!

The peppery puff-puffs, Cameroonian coffee, barbecued pork and potato salad were courtesy of my neighbours whose pots had hitherto only exhibited Kanda till Christmas Eve. My neighbour’s wife’s love for Kanda was passionate – so passionate that the rolls of cow-hide had to feature in most of her pots of soup throughout the year. But at Christmas, that love had to be abruptly filed as inordinate for everyone’s sake in order not to attract the misfortune hanging around waiting to pounce. Beneath the under-toned laughter we ate and gave thanks.

The most interesting aspect of Nigerian Christmas fare for me is the snubbing of the food we would normally eat, for food that we consider festive even if the preferred food makes no real festive sense. If you served the most spectacular Afang soup at Christmas, the most beautifully dressed, stuffed roast turkey with the most expensive ingredients in the world, it would still come second place to Rice and Chicken, just rice and chicken. There must of course be stew. Nigerian Christmas stew is 70% psychological fare and 30% gastronomical fanfare.  The psychological and gastronomical balance for Christmas stew, rice and chicken adds up and exceeds the psychological and gastronomical balance of roast turkey plus everything under the sun to go with it. For many years, I wanted to write a Christmas column for the Nigerian, to explain how we feast with modesty, to commend the uncomplicatedness of our requirements of rice, lots of rice, rice flowing down the streets, rice bags rolling everywhere with hens running around the place to become chicken, stew, bottles of Guldier and Star Beer, a new wrappa, dresses for little girls, new shirts and trousers for little boys.  I wanted to say that the emphasis was on being with family: sitting around with them and laughing a lot, slaughtering chickens and stewing them into juicy chunks on steaming white rice, visiting people and eating their food and letting them come over and eat yours.

And then my good intentions got run over by the years, and by successive governments and economic downturns and inflation and grief. The truth is that the food writer at Christmas is a hoggish callous character – she must emphasise the glory of food regardless of other people’s hunger. She must contemplate food, eat food, intellectualise gluttony and suppress guilt. The gathering of words together in one place to eulogise food is ever more so irritatingly elitist when contrasted with real life, so much more vividly callous in times of national celebration. If we thought things were bad in 2009, in 2016, the Christmas stew became officially endangered from the middle of the year, when a basket of tomatoes became more expensive than a barrel of crude oil. Then rice because of high foreign exchange rates became unaffordable. In essence even our chosen simple fare became imperiled, and with it our willingness to entertain guests and burden others with our visits. If we laughed at my neighbour in 2009 at his snubbing of Kanda, in 2016 we can’t laugh because we understand that food is no longer a “safe topic”, a topic that we can laugh at; a topic we can resort to when there are no other uniting colloquialisms, when soccer has failed and politics is unapproachable. We are expecting famine in 2017, and whole parts of Nigeria are already starving, the images of starvation on social media is heartbreaking, mandatory and crushing.

What is one to do with the obligation to celebrate Christmas in light of all this strong painful awareness?   I’m all for gratitude for well-cooked stewed Kanda as a good starting point. The simplicity of meals reassures me that I am alive. How lucky the person is who loves stewed Kanda in the first instance – they won’t feel hard done by if required to eat it. They will be happy eating it whenever – Christmas, New Year, Monday, Friday, Sunday. I suspect my neighbour’s wife had spent a few lean Christmases before her marriage and had learnt to be happy with little or with plenty on her plate. Whatever manner of Christmas she thus encountered after those lean ones, she met them with happiness and gratitude.

This year I’m not going to pretend that my job requires the eating of everything in sight. I’m not going to eat the sofa, the cushions and the remote controls for the television. In honour of the insufficiently acknowledged resilience of Nigerians, the long fought battle of retaining basic happiness and good hope in-spite of many dire twists and turns of life; in consideration of those in real danger of starvation, in commending those still willing to share a meal with a neighbour, in earnest prayers that God in his infinite mercies won’t let the coming year be one of famine for the sake of us all, I’m not writing a Christmas column for the food writer, but for that woman, my neighbour who circuitously predicted that in seven years our self-entitlement would have to be curtailed, our snobbery discarded, our people embraced tighter.  She intimated so long ago that we would have to eat less, laugh at ourselves more, give away more and eat Kanda with thanks.

Huge thanks to Yemisi Aribisala and Cassava Republic for the guest post. This post is part of a blog tour. Please do visit the sites listed below to read more from and about this wonderful book.

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Les Parisiennes – Anne Sebba

The life that most of us engage in is a muddle, and that is what is so compelling for any writer or historian looking at France between 1939 and 1949, especially through the eyes of women. Turn the kaleidoscope one way and see women destroyed by the war; turn it the other and find women whose lives were enhanced with new meaning and fulfilment.

Anne Sebba’s account of Parisian women in the Second World War is a fascinating look at a city and its people. The mention of Paris conjures images of chic women and Sebba does consider the role that fashion and couture played in Paris’ fortunes in the war, but she also looks at those women who became part of the war effort both informally and as part of the secret service.

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The book begins before the outbreak of war with a look at high society. There is a jaw dropping account of Elsie de Wolfe’s grand party, given on the 1st July 1939. Sebba comments on the ‘sense of recklessness’ amongst the wealthy who believed that France was impenetrable by the Germans. Coco Chanel was reckless in the sense that when war broke out, she closed her boutique and moved into the Ritz, putting hundreds of women out of work, and former athlete Violette Morris who ‘felt an outcast from French society’ was reckless in driving to the front line and possibly helping the Nazis.

One of the things that’s particularly interesting about the book is the picture of French society that’s created with regards to women. We’re used to thinking of France, and particularly Paris, as liberal, but in 1936 ‘women in France still did not have the vote, nor the right to have a bank account in their own name’. The later became a particular problem when men were away at the front and in the instance of their death. Women were only allowed to take a job outside of the home without their husband’s or father’s permission after 1938 in case they got ‘inflated ideas’ from it.

It’s clear from Sebba’s narrative that women had a difficult time during the war: abortions were illegal and only an option if you had the money to pay for them while any sort of fraternising with German soldiers led to consequences after the liberation in which women were deemed to be collaborators and charged with an act given the delightful title of ‘collaboration horizontale’.

While it’s interesting to hear about high-society and a way of life which continued for some throughout the war – sales of designer clothing increased; cultural pursuits continued as the Germans took in the delights of Parisian society – for me, the most compelling stories were those of women who took part in the résistance and worked for the Special Operations Executive (SOE) working undercover. The work of the latter was so secretive that some of the operatives and their work have only come to light in recent years. One such example is Catherine Dior, sister of designer Christian, who was an agent in the Massif Central unit, ‘gathering information about German troop and rail movements, production and weaponry’. Her story was shared in light of anti-Semitic remarks made by Dior’s now former creative director, John Galliano.

Sebba packs a lot of information into Les Parisiennes, covering a period of ten years and a significant number of women. She handles her material with aplomb spinning a narrative in which key characters reoccur as we move from the outbreak of war to the concentration camps to the aftermath and reconstruction. In both focusing on the stories of women and partially looking at high-society, Sebba provides us with stories about the war which have been hidden and neglected. Les Parisiennes is both a fascinating insight into the lives of women in Paris and a very welcome addition to the coverage of World War 2.

Anne Sebba appears at Jersey Festival of Words on Thursday 29th September, 4pm, in the Arts Centre. Tickets are available here.

Thanks to W&N for the review copy.

The Unmumsy Mum – Sarah Turner

In 2013, Sarah Turner started a blog called The Unmumsy Mum. On it she wrote (and continues to write) about her experiences as a mum. The crucial difference between Turner’s blog and the hundreds of other websites you can turn to for parenting advice and experiences is that she’s not afraid to write about the shit bits: the days when you lament the loss of your pre-baby life; the days when you can’t even manage to get a shower; the days when it’s just a bit boring. By the end of 2015, Turner had 325,000 followers on Facebook and a book baby on the way.

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The Unmumsy Mum was published in February and became a Sunday Times non-fiction bestseller. Cynically, I assumed that the book would be a rehash of Turner’s blogposts. I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, to discover that this is an actual book. Although some of the ideas have been drawn from posts Turner’s written, this is partly a book about becoming a successful blogger as well as the first few years of motherhood with two young boys.

When I typed ‘I want my old life back’ into Google during a fraught 3 a.m. feed, I immediately deleted the search history on my phone. I was ashamed of myself because, mostly, I didn’t want my old life back at all. I was head over heels in love with my bald bundle of baby-boy goodness and so very grateful that we had made a family. But there were occasions (like when I had already been up four times and the baby projectile-vomited in the Moses basket) when I couldn’t stop myself from thinking, What have we done? Occasions when I couldn’t stop myself from shouting, ‘I don’t want to do this any more. ‘It’s fucking shit!’ at my husband, whose face told me the baby adventure wasn’t panning out exactly as he had imagined either.

Turner covers everything from pregnancy to finding ‘Mum friends’ to competing over whose day was worse to leaving the house to feeling guilty to whether it’s okay to moan about your kids.

Two things struck me about the book and Turner’s writing: the first is just how honest she is. She lays bare the thoughts and feelings she’s had, regardless of how taboo or unpalatable some might find them; she discusses the physicality of pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding, including a milking incident that will sear itself on your brain forever; she talks honestly about the difference having children has made to her life and her marriage. The second is that she’s fucking funny.

When morning comes around, I sometimes look at the day stretching out in front of me and think, Oh God. James’s alarm goes off, he gets up, has a shower and gets ready for work. My alarm these days is Henry, who loudly shouts, ‘Are you awake, Mummy? My pyjama bottoms are wet. I can’t find my fire engine. Can I have some Weetos?’ If I’m particularly lucky, a series of recorded Minion farts will be the first thing I hear when I wake up, as the fart blaster from Despicable Me 2 is activated next to my head, waking Jude, who promptly performs his first dump of the day. FML. And so the morning circus begins…

‘Have a good day,’ I sneer at my husband as he leaves the house. On time. Without juggling a car-seat-and-pram-base combo into the car. Without worrying if he’s got enough baby wipes and a clean muslin that doesn’t smell of cheese. Occasionally, listening to actual music on an iPod. Bastard.

There’s an emotional core at the heart of the book too though: Turner dedicates the book to her mum who died in 2002 when Turner was fifteen and there’s a chapter about how difficult it is to be a mum without a mum. The book also opens with a letter to her two boys, explaining why she wrote the book and what she hopes they discover in it – as well as her own concerns about this time in her life being preserved on the internet for all to read.

It’s clear that Turner’s writing has made a difference to others. She talks about the comments and tweets and emails she’s had from people who are grateful to find the person who gets it, the one Turner couldn’t find when she needed to. I knew she was a big deal when I mentioned to a couple of people that I’d be interviewing her at Jersey Festival of Words and they knew who she was. Usually when I mention a writer I’ve been reading, I’m met with blank looks.

The Unmumsy Mum is a brutally honest, sympathetic and funny look at becoming a parent. I’d recommend it to people who think they might want kids at some point, as well as those who already have them, for an insight into what it’s really like.

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Sarah Turner, The Unmumsy Mum, will be appearing at Jersey Festival of Words on Saturday 1st October, 8.30pm in the Opera House, where she’ll be interviewed by me. Tickets are available here.

Pimp State – Kat Banyard

The second week of my coverage of books by women appearing at Jersey Festival of Words focuses on non-fiction. It’s not often I choose to read non-fiction books but I always enjoy them when I do. Note to self: read non-fiction more often.

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The first book I’m reviewing is Pimp State by Kat Banyard, founder of the campaign group UK Feminista and, according to The Guardian in 2010, ‘the most influential young feminist in the country’. She appears at Jersey Festival of Words on Saturday 1st October, 3pm in the Opera House, where she will be joined by former sex worker, Diane Martins, for a discussion about Pimp State. Tickets are available here.

‘While we have the demand for prostitution not being addressed we cannot achieve gender equality,’ insists Madlala-Routledge. ‘Men who buy sex don’t regard the woman as a whole human being. Basically they regard her as an object – something that’s available to them for their satisfaction for the money…So basically that says to us this can’t be somebody you treat as an equal, this can’t be somebody you treat as having dignity, as being a whole human being, for you to actually treat them like that or think of them like that.’

Banyard makes the focus of her book clear from the outset:

A pimp state – a society where commercial sexual exploitation is promoted, not prevented – is not one where women and men can live as equals.

It is a state that we can – and must – change.

She draws links within the first few pages between the sex trade and ‘society’s notions of sexual consent, violence and equality’ which she explores further in the six chapters of the book, chapters which she titles ‘Myth 1’ to ‘Myth 6’.

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The six myths Banyard unpicks are: demand for the sex trade is inevitable; being paid for sex is regular service work; porn is fantasy; objecting to the sex trade makes you a pearl-clutching, sexually conservative prude; decriminalise the entire prostitution trade and you make women safe, and resistance is futile.

In Myth 1, Banyard looks at the different areas of the sex trade – prostitution, lap-dancing clubs, pornography – and speaks to women who have worked in these areas as well as the men who’ve used them. Interspersed throughout the chapter are reviews culled from a website called ‘Punternet’ where men leave comments about the sex workers they’ve visited. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that they’re grim at best.

Throughout the book, Banyard talks to people who’ve worked in the sex trade, who’ve run elements of the sex trade, who’ve policed the sex trade, who’ve studied the sex trade in an academic context. Parts of it are horrifying. Some of it is very interesting, particularly when she writes about countries where ‘The Sex Buyer Law’ has been introduced.

For me, the section that had me asking the most questions was Myth 2, where Banyard considers the term ‘sex work’, which has become the preferred lexis in recent years. She questions the adoption of the term by a number of international organisations and then gives us the following paragraph:

So if ‘sex work is work’, then presumably if an airline company requires all its female flight attendants to offer male passengers blow-jobs, as well as drinks and snacks, that’s all right? What about City firms stipulating that female employees must have sex with male clients as part of their corporate entertaining duties? OK? How about when a male boss asks his female secretary to give him a blow-job? It’s the kind of scenario feminists have spent decades working to get recognised as sexual harassment. But, I guess, if this is ordinary work then at worst the requested task is merely outside her job description?

It’s an interesting – and a provocative – link supporting the line of argument Banyard takes throughout: How we respond to the core message of the sex trade speaks volumes about how seriously society takes violence against all women. She then invokes legal experts to explain the connotations of sex work becoming a recognised, legal profession. Here she focuses on the rights of the buyer to a ‘good service’ and how, as a worker required to pay tax, a sex worker’s body would be owned by both the buyer and the state.

Banyard’s foci gave me an insight into elements of the sex trade of which I was previously unaware. Her links between domestic/sexual violence and the sex trade are compelling and supported by detailed research, as is her support of The Sex Buyer Law. In general terms, I agree with the points she puts forward but one thing has bothered me since finishing the book: there are no dissenting views considered from a single woman at the front of the sex trade (I’m not including those in ‘management’ roles in this definition i.e. brothel owners). If every sex worker agrees with Banyard’s arguments – even if they would rather not declare it publicly – then fine, but it would have been interesting to hear the views of those sex workers who have embraced the term sex work and want their job to be legalised.

Pimp State is a well-argued, detailed look at the sex trade and its consequences. The fact that some of those consequences are far more wide-reaching than it might seem at first glance make this book a must read and discuss. I’m very much looking forward to Kat Banyard’s event and hearing more about her work.

 

Thanks to Faber and Faber for the review copy.