In the Media, June 2016, Part One

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 as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

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It’s impossible to begin with anything other than the Stanford rape case. The victim’s court statement was published on Buzzfeed and went viral. The piece, along with responses from Brock Turner’s father and friends, including a female friend who defended him, have prompted some impassioned and powerful pieces: Louise O’Neill wrote, ‘20 minutes is an awfully long time when you’re the one being raped‘ in the Irish Examiner; Estelle B. Freedman, ‘When Feminists Take On Judges Over Rape‘ in The New York Times; Sarah Lunnie, ‘Maybe the word “rapist” is a problem: The utility of nouns and verbs, or accepting who we are and what we do‘ on Salon; Adrienne LaFrance, ‘What Happens When People Stop Talking About the Stanford Rape Case?‘ on The Atlantic; Kim Saumell, ‘I was never raped but…‘ on Medium; Rebecca Makkai, ‘The Power and Limitations of Victim-Impact Statements‘ in The New Yorker; Roe McDermott, ‘He Said Nothing‘ on The Coven; Glosswitch, ‘Does the outrage over the Stanford rape case do anything to help victims?‘ in the New Statesman

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The other big news this fortnight was Lisa McInerney’s debut novel, The Glorious Heresies, taking The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2016. Justine Jordan wrote, ‘Sweary Lady’s riot of invention is a well-deserved winner of the Baileys prize‘ in The Guardian. While McInerney wrote about her working day for The Guardian and shared a secret in ‘Bad Behaviourism‘ on Scottish Book Trust

There’s a new series on Literary Hub about women writers in translation. Written by a group of translators, each fortnight they’re looking at a country and the women writers from there yet to be translated into English. So far they’ve covered Germany, China and Italy. I’ve added it to the regulars at the bottom of the page.

And finally, the excellent Jendella Benson has a new column on Media Diversified. This week’s is ‘How to Raise a Champion‘ and I’ve also added her to the list of regulars at the bottom of the page.

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The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

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Personal essays/memoir:

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Feminism:

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Society and Politics:

Dan Phillips

Film, Television, Music, Art, Fashion and Sport:

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The interviews/profiles:

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The regular columnists:

In the Media, April 2016, Part Two

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 as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

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It’s the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth. Contributors including Sarah Waters, Margaret Drabble and Jeanette Winterson reflect on Jane Eyre in The Guardian; Samantha Ellis wrote about ‘The Greatest Heroines of All Time‘ on the BBC, and Sam Jordison asked, ‘Reading Jane Eyre: can we truly understand Charlotte Brontë or her heroine today?‘ in The Guardian. The Brontë Blog is doing an excellent job of curating everything and well worth having a look at.

The Guardian commissioned some research into the 70 million comments which have been left on its website since 2006. The results revealed that while the highest commenters are white men, the most abuse was left on articles by eight women writers and two male writers of colour. The only people who seemed surprised were white men. It’s great to have statistical evidence in support of this but listening to female writers and male writers of colour and acting on it might be a good idea too. Jessica Valenti, the most targeted writer wrote, ‘Insults and rape threats. Writers shouldn’t have to deal with this‘.

Andrew Piper and Richard Jean So decided to carry out some analysis regarding the words used in book reviews of books by male and female writers, ‘Women Write About Family, Men Write About War‘ in the New Republic details their findings.

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The Baileys’ Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist was announced this week. Hanya Yanagihara has ‘A Little Life – A Photo Story‘ on the Picador Blog; Anne Enright, Elizabeth McKenzie, Hanya Yanagihara and Lisa McInerney are interviewed on the Baileys’ Prize blog, along with longlistees Shirley Barrett, Vesna Goldsworthy, Becky Chambers, Julia Rochester and Kate Atkinson. Some of us (myself included) were shocked that Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins failed to make the shortlist, Eleanor Franzen considers why on Litro.

And in Australia, the Miles Franklin literary award longlist was announced with books by women taking five of the nine slots.

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The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

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Personal essays/memoir:

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Feminism:

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Society and Politics:

Film, Television, Music, Art, Fashion and Sport:

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The interviews/profiles:

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The regular columnists:

The Baileys’ Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist 2016

The judges have made their decision! The absence of Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins is a complete shock. Many of us on the shadow panel thought it was by far one of the best books on the list. The shadow panel shortlist shares three titles with the official shortlist. I’m also pleased to see The Portable Veblen and A Little Life on the list, both of which I rated highly.

Here’s the six shortlisted books. If you click on the cover, it will take you to my review.

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In the Media, April 2016, Part One

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 as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

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There’s been a strong narrative about the abuse of women over the last fortnight. Jessica Knoll wrote a personal and powerful essay about the gang rape which informed the writing of her novel Luckiest Girl Alive. What I Know‘ was published on Lena Dunham’s site Lenny. Daisy Buchanan interviewed Knoll for The Pool. Jia Tolentino looked at the reporting of abuse in ‘Is this the End of the Era of the Important, Inappropriate Literary Man‘ on Jezebel. Helen Walmsley-Johnson wrote ‘The shame of abuse has held me hostage for years‘ on The Pool; Kathryn Joyce wrote ‘Out Here, No One Can Hear You Scream‘ on The Huffington Post; Jade Blair wrote, ‘Women Do What They Need To Do To Survive‘ on Hazlitt, and Louise O’Neill wrote ‘Nothing could prepare me for what happened when I published my book‘ on The Pool and ‘What a privilege it is to think that I might have touched other peoples lives in some small way‘ in The Irish Examiner. (The later is O’Neill’s weekly column which I’ve now added to the regulars section at the bottom of the post.)

The 2015 VIDA count for the number of bylines and reviews for female writers in literary magazines was announced. There’s some good news in some areas but, overall, there’s still a long way to go. Rachel McCarthy James followed this with, ‘Women in Publishing 100 Years Ago: A Historical VIDA Count: Representation and Gender (Im)Balance in 1916‘ on Literary Hub

The longlist for the Desmond Elliott Prize was announced with seven books by female writers in the running.

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The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

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Personal essays/memoir:

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Feminism:

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Society and Politics:

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Film, Television, Music, Art, Fashion and Sport:

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The interviews:

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The regular columnists:

The Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2016

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8th March 2016: The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction announces its 2016 longlist, comprised of 20 books that celebrate the best of fiction written by women

Here they are, the 20 books longlisted for this year’s Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. In alphabetical order (of author’s surname):

A God In Ruins – Kate Atkinson

Rush Oh! – Shirley Barrett

Ruby – Cynthia Bond

The Secret Chord – Geraldine Brooks

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet – Becky Chambers

A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding – Jackie Copleton

Whispers Through a Megaphone – Rachel Elliott

The Green Road – Anne Enright

The Book of Memory – Petina Gappah

Gorsky – Vesna Goldsworthy

The Anatomist’s Dream – Clio Gray

At Hawthorn Time – Melissa Harrison

Pleasantville – Attica Locke

The Glorious Heresies – Lisa McInerney

The Portable Veblen – Elizabeth McKenzie

Girl at War – Sara Nović

The House at the Edge of the World – Julia Rochester

The Improbability of Love – Hannah Rothschild

My Name Is Lucy Barton – Elizabeth Strout

A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara

My initial reaction is that the three books I thought were certs are all on there – A God in Ruins, My Name Is Lucy Barton and A Little Life. Very pleased to see all three.

I predicted six of the titles, which is my highest success rate ever! Very pleased to see Girl at War on the list as well as The Portable Veblen. I’ve enjoyed all those I’ve already read, which includes The Green Road which I haven’t posted my review for yet.

As for the rest of the list, I’m delighted to see Pleasantville – I loved Black Water Rising and have had the latest on my TBR pile for ages. I’ve also heard good things from people I trust about The Book of Memory, At Hawthorn Time and The Glorious Heresies.

As always with The Bailey’s Prize there are some books I hadn’t heard of before I saw the list. My absolute favourite part of this is reading those titles, there’s always one in there that surprises me with its brilliance. On looking through the blurbs, I can’t believe I hadn’t come across Ruby, it’s had so many fantastic reviews, and The Anatomist’s Dream is perfect for my PhD thesis so I’m very pleased it’s come to my attention.

I’m looking forward to getting stuck into the reading and debating the books with the rest of the shadow panel. I’m hoping you’ll join in the discussion on our blogs and Twitter too. Can’t wait to hear what everyone thinks of the chosen titles.

 

 

In the Media, March 2016, part one

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.

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It’s Mothers’ Day in the UK today, so inevitably there’s been lots of writing about mothers – being one, having one, not having one – this week. Contributors including Jackie Kay, Jeanette Winterson and Helen Simpson wrote about ‘… my mother before I knew her‘ inspired by Carol Ann Duffy’s poem ‘Before You Were Mine’ in The Guardian; Liz Dashwood asks, ‘What do I *really* want for Mother’s Day?‘ on The Pool; Rivka Galchen talked about ‘The Only Thing I Envy Men‘ in The New Yorker; Robyn Wilder wrote, ‘Maternity leave: the reality versus the expectations‘, Emily Eades wrote, ‘Becoming a mother without your own mother to rely on‘ and Sinéad Gleeson wrote, ‘Mothers, and the pram-in-the-hall problem‘ all on The Pool (Do follow the link to the Anne Enright clip on that last piece. Spot on and very funny); Susan Briante wrote, ‘Mother Is Marxist‘ on Guernica; Kate Townshend asked, ‘Is it possible for a mother and daughter to be *too* close?‘, Samira Shackle said, ‘Returning to my mother’s homeland helped me to make sense of my place in the world‘, Cathy Rentzenbrink said, ‘There is no such thing as a smug mother, we’re all terrified and struggling‘ and Rosalind Powell wrote, ‘I didn’t give birth, but I became a mother‘ all on The Pool; Sarah Turner wrote, ‘Mother’s Day Without Mum‘ on The Unmumsy Mum

Louise Rennison

Sadly, Louise Rennison died this week. Philip Ardagh wrote, ‘My Hero: Louise Rennison‘ in The Guardian. Shannon Maughan wrote her obituary for Publishers Weekly.

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The woman with the most coverage this fortnight is Sanjida Kay with ‘Where’s the Diversity in Grip-Lit?‘ on The Asian Writer; ‘on Switching Genres‘ on The Literary Sofa, and ‘Fairytales‘ on Women Writers, Women’s Books

Exciting news as forthcoming novels from Jilly Cooper, Zadie Smith and Ali Smith were announced this fortnight.

And I’ve added Kaushana Cauley’s new Intersections column for Catapult to the regulars list at the bottom of the links. It’s well worth a read.

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The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

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Personal essays/memoir:

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Feminism:

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Society and Politics:

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Film, Television, Music, Art, Fashion and Sport:

Author Petina Gappah 'brilliantly exposes the gap between rich and poor.'

The interviews:

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The regular columnists:

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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In the Media: January 2016

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.

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January’s been living up to it’s reputation as the most miserable month in the calendar. There’s been the misogynistic and racist response to Sarah Howe’s Young Writer of the Year Award and TS Eliot Award wins. Poet, Katy Evans-Bush responded with ‘TS Eliot prize row: is winner too young, beautiful – and Chinese?‘ in The Guardian.

The deaths of David Bowie and Alan Rickman at least inspired some great writing: Stacey May Fowles, ‘Reconciling David Bowie‘ on Hazlitt and Sali Hughes, ‘I’ve had it up to here with the grief police‘ on The Pool. Gwendolyn Smith, ‘Forget Snape – in concentrating on him, we leave out one of the greatest roles Alan Rickman ever performed‘ in The Independent and Daisy Buchanan, ‘Alan Rickman’s Colonel Brandon taught me an important lesson about love‘ on The Pool

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In happier news, there were a number of other prize wins for female writers: Kate Atkinson won the Costa Novel PrizeAnuradha Roy won the 2016 DSC prize for south Asian literature; A.S. Byatt won the Erasmus Prize, and the writers shortlisted for the Costa Short Story Award were revealed, including Annalisa Crawford, Peggy Riley and Erin Soros.

Glamour welcomed a transgender columnist: Juno Dawson will chart her journey in the magazine. I’ll add Juno’s column to the regular columnists list once it has a permanent URL.

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The Observer revealed their New Faces of Fiction for 2016 and Joanna Cannon wrote this great piece – The Monster Under the Bed – about her inclusion.

And the woman with the most publicity of late is Amy Liptrot with ‘I swam in the cold ocean and dyed my hair a furious blue… I was moving upwards slowly‘ in The Guardian; interviews in The Independent and The Pool.

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The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

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Personal essays/memoir:

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Feminism:

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Society and Politics:

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Film, Television, Music, Art and Fashion:

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The interviews:

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The regular columnists:

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.

Hanya Yanagihara in Conversation with Cathy Rentzenbrink at Foyles

It’s a warm Wednesday evening in central London when Hanya Yanagihara and Cathy Rentzenbrink take the stage in Foyles’ flagship shop on Charing Cross Road. They’re here to discuss Yanagihara’s second novel A Little Life, recently longlisted for The Man Booker Prize.

The event begins with Yanagihara reading from the fourth section of the novel, ‘The Axiom of Equality’. Before she starts to read, Yanagihara comments on the number of people in the room. ‘I feel like Donald Trump,’ she says, ‘Which would make you all Donald Trump supporters.’

Following the reading, Rentzenbrink conducts a straw poll to see how many of the audience have already read the novel. The poll will determine whether the event needs to be spoiler free or not. As over half of the audience have read the book, they decide to proceed with a full discussion. As a result, THIS POST WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS. You have been warned!

Photograph by Nina Pottell

Photograph by Nina Pottell

Rentzenbrink begins by asking Yanagihara about the inspiration for the novel. Yanagihara says that the first section of the book is a fairly typical post-college, New York novel based on the idea that everyone at that stage, living in New York, thinks they’re interesting! But then the book changes. She compares it to boiling a lobster. The change happens at the point the lobster realises he’s fucked but then it’s too late. She says the first turn happens at the end of part one and she hopes by that point the reader has realised they’re not reading the type of book they thought they were.

Yanagihara says she wanted to write a novel that if it were ombre cloth would run from a shade of light blue to dark indigo. She tells us that Jude was pretty fully formed when she began writing. She wanted to write a character who can’t get better or change or survive his own life. It’s very American to think that life is something to win, she says. Jude is oppressed by hope.

What about the lack of women in the novel? Yanagihara states that she wanted to marry fairytale with a contemporary naturalistic novel. She wanted it to lack parents, to be timeless. She wanted Jude’s redemption to be hollow.

Why male friendship? Rentzenbrink says she doesn’t think it’s been written about this way in literature before. Yanagihara says that she thinks men are allowed to have a more limited emotional toolkit: shame, fear and vulnerability are not there. They’re not encouraged to express these emotions. She says society asks men to change as they grow up and relates an anecdote about two male friends of hers who would wrestle with each other. She says they were wrestling the inexpressible: their love for each other.

Rentzenbrink asks about the reader and how much thought Yanagihara gave to them when she was writing. She mentions Jude and wonders how much a reader can take. Yanagihara says you can never guess accurately what the reader can take but they can tell if you’re withholding. She says readers want to be taken somewhere they haven’t been before. She mentions her two editors – it was edited in the USA and the UK simultaneously – and said they talked to each other which was like having annoying parents! She said they had very different reactions to what they thought were the problem areas in the book: her UK editor thought Jude and Willem’s relationship was a problem, while the US editor thought the length of the novel and the violence were the biggest issues. Yanagihara says that if you believe strongly in something and can answer why it’s in the book, you shouldn’t have to change it.

She goes on to talk about the structure of the book which was the trickiest part to get right. Initially it was two novellas and a coda. The first novella looked at Jude as a success and the second at Jude with a marginal life, the characters from the first novella becoming his counsellors. The coda was his childhood. She wanted to explore different reactions to damage.

Retzenbrink asks about New York City as a setting. The book’s about the sorts of characters and kinds of people who come to NYC, says Yanagihara. There’s a shared sense of collective ambition and whilst that ambition takes wildly different forms, these people are united by being on the run and running to something.

What about the absence of time in the book? Initially every chapter was in present tense, she says, but that was too artificial. She hates readers having to fill in how characters react to big events. Mentioning 9/11 or even that a character is wearing a Prada suit is lazy shorthand, it also dates quickly and the references are never quite right. She says she wanted the reader to have no tethers. The reader is surrendering to the emotional lives of the characters with nothing to ground them. She wanted the reader to feel like they were on one of those wobbly balls.

Yanagihara goes on to talk about social media. She’s not on it, apart from Instagram and she doesn’t read reviews. She says she thinks Twitter’s a great boon for fiction writers now there’s no central cultural authority. She’s too fragile and insecure to read her reviews. She says if you only believe the good ones, you’re a douchebag and if you only believe the bad you become a walking mess.

The discussion turns to the difference between the UK and US covers. The latter is a photograph by Peter Hujar (a contemporary of Robert Mapplethorpe) called Orgasmic Man. It dares you to look then dares you not to look, says Yanagihara. You don’t know whether the expression on his face is pleasure or pain. Yanagihara tells us that she fought with the US publisher for months over using the photograph for the cover: ‘It’s so obvious he’s coming,’ she says was the comment from the US publisher.

Rentzenbrink says that the book is gruelling to read, what was it like to write? Yanagihara says that when you’re in the groove you have to stay in it so there were long jags of writing, several hours each day. She found it physically hard, working on it at night. She had one reader whom she burdened with questions while she wrote in a sprint. ‘I think it was a singular writing experience.’

The final question from Retzenbrink is whether there’s any redemption for Jude in a parallel universe. ‘I don’t even know what redemption would look like here,’ says Yanagihara. ‘His life concludes in the only way it could possibly conclude.’

With that, the discussion opens up to questions from the audience.

Did she think about the moral responsibility of considering anew the horrors of child abuse?

She didn’t think about it at all. She didn’t think of the book as cathartic or as a book with a moral. She’s interested in sexual abuse because of the impact on someone’s life. She describes it as the ‘ultimate abuse of power of the most vulnerable in our society’.

Why is the end of the novel narrated by Harold?

Jude is meant to be a reliable and trustworthy narrator but Harold stands in for the reader and provides another perspective. He’s a Greek Chorus appearing after traumatic moments in Jude’s life, providing a pause. She says she knew what the last line was going to be and wrote towards it.

How long was she living with the characters before she began writing?

Five years but she didn’t realise that until she sat down to write.

Which questions was she pondering whilst writing?

She was thinking about friendship, what it can do for us and what we can expect from it and about love, how it can never save or redeem you. Is there a moment when life becomes unbearable? Do we owe it to the people we love to help them find a way out of it?

How do you feel about redemption?

She doesn’t believe in it but thinks that as humans in society we have to pursue it.

Photograph by Nina Pottell

Photograph by Nina Pottell

How do you get into the minds of your male characters?

She says it helps if your characters aren’t meant to stand in for anything larger, including men in general. How do you write something other than you and do it convincingly? You don’t make them stand in for or represent a group. They just need to be compelling, distinctive, interesting characters.

Was A Little Life the first title?

Seconds, Minutes, Hours, Days was the alternative title. She says she wanted to show that all of our lives are equally meaningful and meaningless at the same time. She says the title has proved difficult to translate into some languages.

Would she consider writing any extra scenes for A Little Life?

There are things she wishes she’d done to make the book a little longer, particularly with Jude and Willem’s relationship, which she describes as defying what a relationship is allowed to be. It’s a more lineal relationship – it borrows from love and friendship but takes a third path.

Why did she decide to give all of the characters a level of privilege that meant they’re all successful? Does it allow her to go to dark places with them?

She made them successful because groups like this are a phenomenon in New York City. Also Jude’s life is easier with money to cope with his disabilities and constant care. Money prevents people from seeing Jude clearly, he’s reduced to being successful.

Which books move you/do you enjoy/appreciate?

 The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro is the best book this year. Ishiguro has a single theme – the oppression of memory – but does it differently in each book.

Hilary Mantel had a complete change of style mid-career with The Giant O’Brien and she’d love to know how she pulled that off.

John Banville writes beautiful prose. She tells us she hid from meeting him in Dublin when he came to her event there.

Rentzenbrink ends the evening by asking Yanagihara if there’s anything next. She’s interested in ships and books set on ships because they’re a microcosm of people thrown together. She’s interested in the change the shipping trade brought to Asia in the 1840s but knows that this will take a lot of research so she might write something else in between.

With that, Yanagihara takes her place behind the signing desk as the queue to meet her stretches the length of the room.