In the Media: 7th December 2014

In the media is a weekly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous week 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. Also, just a note to make it clear that I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely.

This week brought the news that the police involved in the deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner would not stand trial. Reaction came from many people. Janee Woods writes, ‘A Different Kind of Justice‘ in Guernica; Roxane Gay, ‘What he St Louis Rams know about Ferguson is a righteous glimpse of the way forward‘ in The Guardian; Mallory Ortberg, ‘Eric Garner’s Killer Won’t Be Indicted‘ on The Toast.

It’s fitting that Claudia Rankine’s Citizen was published recently. Here it’s discussed in The New York Times and on PBS.

It’s that time of year; the round-ups started weeks ago but this week they’ve proved impossible to ignore. First up is Joanna Walsh, creator of #ReadWomen2014 on the Shakespeare and Company blog and Sinéad Gleeson in The Irish Times. While The Millions do fantastic ‘A Year in Reading’ round-ups. Here’s Haley Mlotek, Karen Joy Fowler, Emily Gould, Laura van den Berg, Celeste Ng and Lydia Kiesling. Huffington Post has its ‘Best Books of 2014‘; Electric Literature asks ‘Was 2014 the Year of the Debut?‘; ‘Three million voters reveal the books of 2014‘ on Stylist; ‘The 24 Best Fiction Books of 2014‘ on Buzzfeed along with ‘32 of the Most Beautiful Book Covers of 2014‘; The Independent has ‘The best debuts‘ The New York Times has ‘The 10 Best Books of 2014‘; Bustle has ‘10 Female Authors That Ruled 2014‘, while Slate has ‘The 22 Best Lines of 2014‘, ‘27 Books You Shouldn’t Have Overlooked in 2014‘ and an all-female, yes, you read that correctly, an all-female – by choice not design – ‘Best Books of 2014‘.

Ayelet Waldman took to Twitter to comment on her non-inclusion in The New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2014. You can read about it in The Guardian and Erin Keane responds on Salon. While Laura Miller tells us ‘What I learned from reading two decades worth of NYT notable books lists‘ also on Salon.

The best of the rest articles/essays:

The interviews:

If you want some fiction/poetry to read:

The lists:

And the things I’ve most enjoyed reading this week:

Butterflies in November by Audur Ava Ólafsdóttir – Translated from the Icelandic by Brian Fitzgibbon

Today is Jacqui’s (@JacquiWine) first guest post on the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist which she is shadow judging, along with several other bloggers. You can find more information about it on my introductory post here.

The first IFFP longlist contender by a woman Jacqui’s reviewing here is Butterflies in November.

Butterflies in November is a quirky and darkly humorous novel narrated by a unnamed woman in her early thirties.  She has a talent for languages and earns a living as translator and proof-reader. The story opens in Reykjavik where our narrator is having quite an eventful day. Having being dumped by her lover she arrives home where her husband reveals he’s leaving her for another woman (a work colleague who happens to be pregnant with his baby).

Audur, a close friend of our narrator, persuades her to visit a medium/fortune-teller who predicts a journey ahead and a future involving money and love. After being told to buy lottery tickets, our narrator soon discovers that she has a double win on her hands, netting her a prefabricated summer bungalow coupled with a life-changing amount of money totalling several million kroner.

As a result of these events, she decides to restart her life by embarking on a road trip around Iceland with the intention of visiting the area she loved as a child, a location where her grandmother once lived. To complicate matters, though, Audur requires a huge favour of our protagonist. Just before the trip is due to commence, Audur, a single mother heavily pregnant with twins, twists her ankle. Complications with her pregnancy come to light and an extended stay in hospital is prescribed. She asks our narrator to look after Tumi, her four-year-old son who happens to be hearing-impaired, and seems keen for him to experience the trip. So, before she realises it, our narrator has agreed to look after Tumi and to take him with her on vacation…all this despite her apparent lack of both maternal instincts and previous experience of caring for a child.

These events form the first third of the book. The road trip itself plays out over the remainder of the novel as the couple encounter a variety of animals, birds and an Estonian choir who seem to crop up repeatedly. These sections of the novel remind me a little of Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared with its cast of idiosyncratic characters and slightly surreal journey and I wonder if Butterflies might appeal to fans of this one.

As the story unfolds, we also learn more about our narrator through occasional glimpses into her own childhood and teenager years and these snapshots provide hints and clues as to the nature of her somewhat detached demeanour. If anything, I would have liked further exploration of these elements as they point towards significant darkness and sadness in her past…and I couldn’t quite piece all of these fragments together to form a coherent picture. Some of these recollections are quite distinct, others more opaque:

It’s as if everything were filtered through a veil of white silk or film, giving it a soft and blurred appearance, like the fading pages of an old psalm book or an over-exposed photograph. I think I’m in a white knitted woollen sweater. My cousins are also dressed in white, strange as it may sound, white tuxedos, so removed from reality, so close to the memory.

Butterflies in November is a slightly difficult novel to describe. Everything feels just a little off kilter. Peoples’ limbs and bodies can seem oddly out of proportion and characters (especially the protagonist’s husband) pop up and disappear again in the most unexpected places:

He has stood up and I realise how tall he is, he is literally towering over the table. He hands me a parcel wrapped in gilded paper, after fishing it out of the inside pocket of his jacket. I finish the remains of two glasses before opening it, exhausting my annual ration of alcohol in a single day.

There’s a sense of time being stretched and then collapsed, distance too. Here are our narrator and Tumi in the Icelandic countryside:

I drag the little man with me onto the moor, moving swiftly in my leather boots, which sink into the soggy earth. After some initial effort to keep up with me he starts to drag his feet and falter, tripping over rocks, as I tow him over clusters of heather that scratch his calves, and stumbling against something every few metres, because the pile of stones that we are heading towards on this forsaken path always seems to remain at the same distance, at least another hundred years away.

It’s a novel that draws on the senses; one in which scents, smells and fabrics play a role as reminder of specific people or events. Perfumes, after-shaves and items of clothing appear as signifiers and there are other recurring motifs, too.

Darkly comic moments also feature, especially in the initial sections of the narrative, and these slightly surreal touches drew me into the opening scenes. The tone and mood shift somewhat as the trip unfolds and our narrator begins to develop a close and heartfelt bond with Tumi. We can see she’s undertaking and emotional journey as well as a physical one…and perhaps the butterfly (which makes a few fleeting appearances in the novel) is a metaphor for change and re-invention, signalling a transformation in her life as she learns to take more risks?

As Naomi mentions in her review, the novel ends with forty-seven rather unusual cooking recipes and one for knitting, although Ólafsdóttir accepts that some might be more suited to the page than the plate! And this addendum feels very much in tune with the off-beat, slightly surreal nature of the book.

In summary, I found Butterflies in November to be a quirky and enjoyable novel, although I preferred the first third of the book to the subsequent sections involving the road trip where the narrative just lost some of its momentum for me.

What about its chances as a contender for the IFFP? Well, it strikes me as an interesting inclusion on the longlist, but I’m not sure it’s quite strong enough to make it to the final six. There are a couple of other longlisted books by women writers that I’d place ahead of Butterflies in the pecking order – more about those books in future posts.

Butterflies in November has also been reviewed by fellow judge Stu.

Butterflies in November is published in the UK by Pushkin Press.
Source: personal copy.

Butterflies in November – Audur Ava Ólafsdóttir (Translated by Brian Fitzgibbon)

Soon I’ll be buying two new down duvets at the Co-op, because it’s not proper for a thirty-three-year-old woman to be sharing a sleeping bag with an unrelated child, it’s simply not done. It shouldn’t be any bother to buy them because the glove compartment is crammed with notes, straight from the bank. No crime has been committed, though, unless it’s a crime to have slept with three men within a 300-kilometre stretch of the Ring Road…

Our unnamed narrator is a proof-reader, reviser of theses, articles, speeches, letters and obituaries as well as a translator working in eleven languages. We meet her having killed a goose after accidentally running over it in her car. She picks it up and takes it with her to serve up for her husband, although not before she pays a visit to her lover:

The faint October sun, which is sinking over the tip of Seltjarnarnes, filters through the semi-closed slats of the venetian blinds, corrugating our bodies in stripes, like two zebras meeting furtively by a pool of water.

When her lover asks her if she intends to divorce her husband and she says no, he finishes with her. Ironically, she returns home where her husband informs her he’s divorcing her, partly because she’s childish and unpredictable, partly because he’s been having an affair with a woman at work who’s seven months pregnant with his child. Events so far suggest that our narrator isn’t all that observant of the world around her.

Between leaving her lover’s apartment and returning home, our narrator visits a fortune-teller, an appointment that her friend Audur was unable to keep:

“To summarize it all,” she concludes in the manner of an experienced lecturer, “there is a journey here, money and love, even though you can expect some odd twists along the way.”

And there’s the plot of the novel in a nutshell. Two odd wins – one competition, one on the lottery – leave our narrator with a destination and the money to get there despite Iceland suffering the rainiest November on record – milder than Lisbon – and the butterflies, or at least a butterfly, remaining outside of their cocoons.

This should all suggest to you that Butterflies in November isn’t your usual narrative. There are a number of strange goings-on, people appearing at odd moments in odd places; it’s reminiscent of a number of Haruki Murakami’s novels in places. But it’s also about language and communication and the bond between a parent and child.

Audur, pregnant with twins, is admitted to hospital. She asks our narrator to look after her four-year-old, Tumi, who’s hearing-impaired and has a speech impediment. Although our narrator protests, including the reason that she ‘…won’t even be able to sleep with anyone’, she relents and takes him on her trip which makes for some interesting scenes.

There’s a point towards the end of the book where she takes Tumi to see a film. When it ends, he asks whether it was ‘for pretend’:

“No, the things that we experience and imagine are also real,” I say, and he knows exactly what I mean.

And so, as readers, do we.

The book ends with ‘Forty-Seven Cooking Recipes and One Knitting Recipe’ connected to the novel. These are not your straight-forward recipes, although many of them appear to be perfectly possible to follow. It seems more likely that they are there to blur the lines between the fictional world of the book and reality. After all, how many odd things occur in everyday life?

Butterflies in November is a quirky book with a dusting of magic realism. I really liked the relationship that developed between the narrator and Tumi throughout their road trip and the idea the novel leaves us with: that we should embrace the imaginative and unexpected in our lives.