Book Lists for All Humans #5

BookListsforAllHumans

It’s been a while…not because there haven’t been lists published that weren’t gender balanced, I’m sure there have been, more because while I’m not compiling In the Media, I’m not in my media Twitter feed and so I’m not seeing them. However, I was on the Guardian website this afternoon and they’d published a new ‘Top 10 books’ list. DBC Pierre deserves some sort of award for producing the whitest, most male list I’ve seen so far. Apparently, women/people of colour don’t write books that writers should read. Be told people, only white men know how to write.

Here’s my alternative list, please feel free to suggest your own additions/alternatives in the comments:

To create a setting that feels as though it really exists: The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry

To see complex characters, whose behaviour raises questions about morality, in action: Waking Lions – Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (translated by Sondra Silverston)

To write successfully from a child’s point-of-view: My Name Is Leon – Kit de Waal

To manage a complex structure based on a lunar cycle and as good as any box set: The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton

To change point-of-view in every chapter, including that of a dead body, and detail some of the atrocities of which humans are capable: Human Acts – Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)

To incorporate your own life and letters into fiction/essay/critique: I Love Dick – Chris Kraus

To bring a historical character to life: Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel

To write a coming-of-age story in fragmented sentences: A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing – Eimear McBride

To write a metafictional account of a massacre: The Gypsy Goddess – Meena Kandasamy

To create an unreliable, first person narrator: The Private Life of Mrs Sharma – Ratika Kapur

 

Links are to my reviews.

My Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction 2016 Wishlist

It’s almost time! The Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist will be announced next Tuesday, 8th March. Once again, I’ll be shadowing the prize and for the second year running, I’ll be doing so with a panel. I’ll introduce you to the members of that panel on Friday.

For now though, here are the books I’d like to see appear on Tuesday’s list. They’re a combination of books I’ve loved and those I’m keen to read based on what I’ve heard about them so far. I’ve had to cull this list significantly to keep it to 20 books so, as usual, anything’s possible with the real one!

To be eligible, books have to be written in English and first published in the UK between 1st April 2015 and 31st March 2016. Publishers can enter three full length novels per imprint plus anything eligible by writers who have previously won the prize.

I’ve reviewed the first eleven titles – click on the covers to go to my reviews – and read the next three as well (reviews coming soon).

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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.

In the Media, December 2015

In the media is a fortnightly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous fortnight and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

This fortnight’s mostly been about end of year lists. Last year I linked to those that were gender balanced but this year I gave up counting after the first two, deciding it was a futile endeavour. Having said that, Sarah Seltzer says , ‘White Men Are the Minority on This Year’s Biggest Book Lists‘ on Flavorwire and there was some excitement around a new ‘Best UK novels’ list commissioned by the BBC. On The Pool, Lynn Enright said ‘Women writers dominate the top spots in list of best British novels‘. Which they do but the list as a whole isn’t balanced and it’s dominated by Nineteenth Century novels.

A fortnight ago I was going to begin this piece by mentioning The Good Immigrant an essay collection being published by Unbounders which means it needed crowdfunding. It includes essays by Chimene Suleyman, Bim Adewumni, Salena Godden, Sabrina Mahfouz, Coco Khan, Sarah Sahim and Reni Eddo Lodge and was fully funded in three days, partly thanks to JK Rowling. You can read about what an excellent person she is and what a great collection it sounds in The Guardian. And you can still contribute to the funding.

Clare Vaye Watkins essay ‘On Pandering’ is still being discussed. She talks about it further (with Marlon James) on NPR. Anne Boyd Rioux responded with ‘A Brief History of Pandering‘ on The Rumpus. Aya de Leon responded initially with ‘“On Pandering” and Subversive Revelations of Female Insecurity‘ and then to Marlon James’ Guardian conversation with ‘On Pandering, White Women as Scapegoats, and the Literary Industry as a Hand-Me-Down‘ on her blog, while Dreda Say Mitchell replied with ‘Black authors don’t write only for white women‘ in the Guardian.

In prize news, Sarah Howe won the resurrected Young Writer of the Year Award for her poetry collection Loop of Jade. She’s profiled in The Sunday Times (£) and interviewed on Bookanista and The Workshy Fop. And the Saltire Society Literary Award was announced with wins for Helen McClory, Patricia Andrew and Tanja Bueltmann.

The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

Personal essays/memoir:

Feminism:

Society and Politics:

Film, Television, Music, Art and Fashion:

The interviews:

The regular columnists:

The Private Live of Mrs Sharma – Ratika Kapur

In the line at a train station ticket counter, Renuka Sharma meets Vineet Seghal, a thirty-year-old hotel manager who lives with his mother. They see each other several times a week on the station platform until they eventually strike up a friendship.

He had walked up to me at the station on Wednesday and asked me if I would like to go with him for a short outing on his motorbike, which had just come back from the workshop. See, I was not born yesterday. I know what it can mean, I know how it can feel, to ride behind a man on a two-wheeler. I know how the man could slowly lean back into the woman sitting behind him until his body is pressing into her chest, while the woman’s hands could move from the handlebar behind her to the man’s waist and then finally rest on his thighs as she leans forward against him. But I also know that this can only happen if a woman allows it to happen, which, obviously, I would never ever do.

If Vineet had asked Renuka Sharma any question about herself, he would’ve discovered that she’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, a flat they moved into when her husband, Dheeraj, a physiotherapist, went to work in Dubai.

Renuka works as a receptionist for ‘Dr Raghubir Singh…a world-famous gynaecologist and obstetrician’, a job that she took after her mother became ill and her father spent all his money on medical bills, suffering two heart attacks as a consequence. Her ambition is to ‘start a training academy for Office Management, Computer Proficiency, Personality Development and Grooming, Business English, everything.’ She is fastidious, making the cleaner at the clinic ‘use sellotape to pull off any fallen hairs on the carpet in the waiting room’. Very clear of her duties, the reason Dheeraj has been in Dubai working tax-free and sharing a flat with four other men for eighteen months is because they need the money.

Sometimes I want to ask these people, these people who go on and on with their pity, who make me seen like I am some stone-hearted witch, sometimes I want to ask them one question, just one simple question. When my inlaws’ medical bills grow into lakhs of rupees, when my son has to do his further studies, who will save us? Will love and romance save us?

She’s adamant that Bobby will do an MBA even though he wants to be a chef and becomes almost obsessive about buying him a suit.

The book is a character study, Renuka’s narrative moving between her meetings with Vineet and telling the reader about her life, her thoughts and feelings. Soon it becomes clear she’s not quite as prim and proper as she initially comes across. She tells us about the times she and her husband turned the washing machine on in their flat so Bobby wouldn’t hear them having sex.

And from time to time I touch myself and there is nothing wrong with that. A long time ago I read in one of the magazines at the clinic that masturbation, even for women, is normal and healthy, and a doctor wrote that magazine article…And, actually, many women masturbate. They are just too ashamed to say that they do. I know all about sex. I have been married a long time. I even know about porn…And I know how men think, I know what they want. At the clinic, for example, day after day men come in with their wives and take small, little plastic cups into the toilet to collect their semen. I think that some of those men think about me when they are inside the toilet. I see how they look at me.

The novel’s structured like a corkscrew: tightly wound, seemingly returning in circles to the same ideas – her husband’s absence, her need for her son to study for an MBA and wear a suit, her desire to start her own business – whilst swirling ever deeper and darker. The veneer which Mrs Sharma paints at the beginning of the book wears thin as it progresses and her private life, that which she contains within herself, is revealed.

I think this book’s as close to perfect as it gets. The repetition of thoughts and ideas while the action moves forward, the precision of the language, the slow cracking of Mrs Sharma, is all brilliantly done. The character and the atmosphere of the book reminded me of Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs although The Private Life of Mrs Sharma is more restrained in its delivery. All the literary editors who called in people’s books of the year choices weeks ago should be kicking themselves, The Private Life of Mrs Sharma deserves to be on every list.

 

 

Thanks to Bloomsbury for the review copy.