Monthly Archives: October 2018

The Mother of All Questions: Further Feminisms – Rebecca Solnit

The Mother of All Questions is Solnit’s follow up to the amazing Men Explain Things to Me (my review of this can be found here). Firstly, if you haven’t read Men Explain Things to Me, please rectify this immediately. It is a brilliant book that sets out all the basics of feminism and why it’s so bloody necessary in the modern world. It makes arguments that I wish I could always remember. It is brilliant.

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I *really* dislike the cover

The Mother of All Questions, as the follow up, is also excellent. But it doesn’t cover the same ground as Men Explain Things to Me. It’s more of a what has happened since that was published (2014), with some new ground covered. If I was to recommend only one of them to you, I would say read Men Explain, but really read both!

So what is covered in The Mother of All Questions? The format is essays on different subjects, I should probably have mentioned that first. Some of which have appeared in other places previously. The longest essay is about ways in which women are silenced. It opens with the title essay: about families and motherhood. There are also essays on the cultural change that seemed to happen around feminism in 2014, men and feminism, gun violence and misogyny, the recent history of the rape joke, and a few other short essays on various pop culture topics at the end of the book.

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My favourite essay was The Mother of All Questions. It is no exaggeration to say that I found this essay to be life changing, or at the least to entirely give me confidence with some hard decisions I made at the end of last year. It was life-affirming for me. Solnit discusses attitudes to motherhood and her own experience of how people treat her as a childless woman.

She begins by telling a story about a talk she gave on Virginia Woolf. A lot of audience questions were about Woolf’s childlessness.

What I should have said to that crowd was that our interrogation of Woolf’s reproductive status was a soporific and pointless detour from the magnificent questions her work poses. (I think at some point I said, “Fuck this shit,” which carried the same general message, and moved everyone on from the discussion.)

 

In the long essay on silence, I underlined a few key points. They are firstly a clarification between silence and quiet:

for the purposes of this essay, regard silence as what is imposed and quiet as what is sought.

I like that and I’ll remember this difference. I don’t really think its something I’ve thought about before.

Being unable to tell your story is a living death and sometimes a literal one.

and

What we call politeness often means training that other people’s comfort matters more.

We could all do with remembering that every now and then.  Finally:

Being a woman is a perpetual state of wrongness, as far as I can determine. Or, rather, it is under patriarchy.

This essay takes up 50 pages of the book, and the whole thing is less than 200 pages altogether. It a wide ranging essay and is well worth a read. Some of it is reminiscent of Mary Beard’s Women and Power (my review here) and Beard’s lectures that Women and Power are based on, are discussed in Solnit’s essay.

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I love Solnit’s writing, so I was always going to love this book. It doesn’t disappoint.

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Manchester Literature Festival 2018

This year I went to two events for Manchester Literature Festival. They were both really enjoyable and I wish I could have got to more of the excellent events that made up the festival this year.

These two events happened on two different Tuesdays. I’m a creature of habit, so before each event I took myself off to have dinner, with my book, to the excellent Rudy’s for pizza and beer. I was even reading the same book both times. Are you afraid to eat by yourself in a restaurant? I used to be. The best advice is to just pretend you are a confident person who can just casually eat alone, whilst not giving a fuck what anyone thinks. Before you know it, you will just be eating alone, and not giving a fuck what anyone thinks.

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Pat Barker: The Silence of the Girls at Manchester Central Library

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Pat Barker was introduced by Kamila Shamsie.  This was a really enjoyable evening with Pat Barker talking about her new book: The Silence of the Girls. My review can be found here. It’s a retelling of The Iliad from the perspective of Briseis.

Kamila Shamsie, of course, wrote Home Fire last year (my review here), itself a retelling of Antigone by Sophocles. So retellings of classic Greek stories is the theme of the night, along with feminism and the erasure of women’s stories from these classics.

Anita Sethi interviewing Guy Gunaratne and Nikesh Shukla at Waterstones, Deansgate.

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Firstly, I was quite gutted when I arrived to find out that Sharlene Teo was no longer able to be at the event. I’d just finished listening to the audio book of her novel Ponti (review here), and I loved it and wanted to hear her speak about it. Luckily there was still Guy Gunaratne and Nikesh Shukla talking about their books, with Anita Sethi introducing them and asking questions.

Guy Gunaratne was discussing In Our Mad and Furious City. His book about a London estate in the aftermath of a terrorist incident. My review is here, and I love this book. Nikesh Shukla was talking about his new book The One Who Wrote Destiny. It sounds great, but I haven’t had time to read it yet. I have read his first book, Coconut Unlimited (pre book blogging though! so no review. Its good though!) and I absolutely love The Good Immigrant that he edited (my review here).

And it’s not quite finished yet either, because although the main festival is over, there are still a few events happening over the next month or so. I have tickets for Ben Myers and Adelle Stripe in December. Of course I also now have The Gallows Pole and Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile in preparation for this, that I will need to read in November!

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I might try and eat somewhere different for this one… or even have a friend to go with! Imagine!

 

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I’ll need a different book though.

Top Ten Villains in Books

This post is part of Top Ten Tuesdays organised by ThatArtsyReaderGirl. Other contributions to this week’s topic can be found here!

Villains. Oooh top ten villains. No one immediately springs to mind, so I’m going to have to have a sneaky look through my reading history on goodreads to get some inspiration…

Ok, I found some obvious excellent villains, and also some slightly more abstract ones. My criteria is: whatever I decide is a villain counts, and it could be because they are truly evil, or just quite camp with good hair.

Let’s begin…

10) Teenagers in Getting the Buggers to Behave by Sue Cowley.

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Hahaha I’m a teacher, but anyone can tell you that the villains in this story are teenagers. Lovely, lovely teenagers who prey on weakness like a pack. In all seriousness, if you know someone training to be a teacher, buy them this book. It is excellent and very useful!

 

9) Lucius Malfoy from Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling.

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OK, it’s a hair thing. I did once joke about taking a picture of Lucius to the hairdressers as my inspiration picture. I wasn’t really joking, though I did think my hairdresser might already think I was a loon, so I didn’t. I’ve also done Lucius Malfoy for a fancy dress party. He is an excellent camp, evil villain.

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Lucius Malfoy hair plus an expression he would be proud of.  Apologies for the ears.

8) Cersei Lannister from A Song of Fire and Ice by George R. R. Martin.

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Evil, incestuous, lady. Vicious and cruel and so power hungry. She’s more evil in the books, TV series fans. I had to include a character from A Song of Fire and Ice, but so many are not straightforward villains. They do evil things then really nice things. Cersei is not complicated – she’s a straight up evil villain.

7) Voldemort from Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling.

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Snake nose evil man. Stop being mean to Harry you absolute bastard!

 

6) Al Binewski and ‘Crystal’ Lil from Geek Love by Katherine Dunn.

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Ewwwwww is all I can say. Ewwwww. This book. OMG. Have you read it? I think you should, but beware, scenes will stay with you forever. FOREVER.

5) The Grand High Witch in The Witches by Roald Dahl.

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See that nice old lady? Witch. Wants to kill all children. Can take her face off to reveal her hideous witch face underneath.

4) Sauron from The Lord of the Rings.

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Big evil firey eye. Lives in a volcano. Totally evil. His house is called The Dark Tower, near Mount Doom. What more do you want? He’s very horrible to little Hobbitses.

3) Amon Goeth in Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally.

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Here to represent ALL Nazis and fascists. I could have gone for general fascism from On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder, but I decided to go with the character from Schindler’s Ark who represents all Nazis and fascists.

2) Racism in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Beloved by Toni Morrison, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, The Good Immigrant ed. by Nikesh Shukla and so many more…

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Bloody racism. This really ties for first place along with The Patriarchy. The dual scourge of the world. Fuck racism. Challenge it when you see it. Actively combat it whenever you can. Champion non-white writers and read their books. My book club are doing Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge in December and I’m just so happy more people will read that book.

1) The Patriarchy from Everyday Sexism by Laura Bates, The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry, Women and Power by Mary Beard, Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine, Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit, Inferior by Angela Saini, A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf and… I could continue this until it is a very big list!

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Yes, fuck the patriarchy. Biggest evil villain from any of the books I’ve read. And most pervasive villain across my reading.

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I’ve ordered a print of this I love it so much!

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And so there is my top ten villains from books I’ve read. Special shout out to the Tigers from In Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan, because they might eat your family, but they are so polite about it! and also Woland from The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov The actual devil. He does a magic show. He holds a ball. He’s quite likeable. Final honorary mention is to Dr Frankenstein from Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. He’s such an absolute bastard for abandoning his own creation. #teammonster

 

Who are your top villains?

In Our Mad and Furious City – Guy Gunaratne

Set in a London estate in the aftermath of a terrorist attack, In Our Mad and Furious City, explores the life of five of the estate residents. It’s a brilliant book about life in London, and struggles against racism, oppression, religious expectations, and uniting them all – poverty. I was rooting for all these characters so badly during the latter stages of the story. No spoilers here though, don’t worry!

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Three of the characters are young men on the estate. Selvon is an athlete desperate to be able to escape the estate life. Yusuf a muslim boy whose father, the local Imam, died. He is being watched over by the new leaders of the mosque. And Ardan, a boy obsessed with music and a talented grime artist himself, held back by such low self worth. These three are friends, and spend hours playing football on the square between the four tower blocks of the estate, along with a background cast of diverse estate characters.

Added to these three young voices are two older characters. Nelson, his thoughts trapped inside his head after a stroke, he came over to London as a young man in the 1960s from Montserrat. He thinks back to when he arrived, with gangs of Teddy Boys terrorising the black community, Mosley standing for election locally, and racist violence all around.  Finally there is Caroline, a single mother from Ireland, haunted by her family’s involvement with the IRA.

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wine and a book = saturday party time

Each character has a distinct vernacular and reading from each characters perspective is a real joy from a language point of view. The young men each have their own struggles while outwardly navigating the social hierarchies around them, and obsessing over girls and grime.

In Our Mad and Furious City is set in the aftermath of a terrorist incident where a young black man kills a soldier. It’s reminiscent of the murder of Lee Rigby from 2013. This is the incident that Gunaratne used as inspiration for the story, after the video showing Rigby’s killers went viral, Gunaratne says the thing that was so striking was how the killers were so familiar to him, and he could see himself in them, and how they spoke, rather than identifying with the soldier. This is what he wanted to explore, and provides the set up for In Our Mad and Furious City. In the opening chapter, Selvon expresses how the viral video of the killer seemed just like one of the lads from school, from the estate:

He called himself the hand of Allah, but to us he looked as if he had just rolled out the same school gates as us. He had the same trainers we wore. Spoke the same road slang we used. The blood was not what shocked us. For us it was his face like a mirror, reflecting our own confused and frightened hearts.

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The reason I picked up In Our Mad and Furious City to read was because Guy Gunaratne was one of the writers speaking at a Manchester Literature Festival event I went to last week. I’m so glad I read this book, and hearing him talk about his own life and his inspiration for the book was really fascinating.

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Anita Sethi, Guy Gunaratne, and Nikesh Shukla at Waterstones, Deansgate. 

London and the estate life are a strong presence throughout the story. The current of violence and extremism in the air after the terrorist incident is prevalent throughout, and builds in the background through the several days over which the story is set. It took me until about half way through the book before I really felt invested in the characters and the story, but oh, I was not let down by the emotional roller coaster of the second half. I desperately wanted every character to get exactly what they wanted: to escape, improve or make their lives happy.

As a teacher, I really enjoyed the aspects of the story that were to do with the young men building aspirations and talking about their school life. Selvon is the only character with aspirations to get to University and his training is part of his plan to get a scholarship to a sporty Uni. I loved, and felt so sad, at this exchange between Selvon and Ardan:

-What about you? You going uni? you apply?

Shrug the question off, as if. These are new rules now, ennet. During school term no-one ever spoke nuttan about no uni. Everyone was trying to bunk off school, not long it out. Now I’m left feeling like a BTEC dickhead just because I ain’t going uni and everyone else is. As if it was even my choice in the first place.

-How am I going to uni fam?

-Didn’t you get the grades?

-Blood, I did alright in mocks. But I dunced my GCSEs. I never got proper marks for sixth form. But they let me off, ennet. Mum’s on benefits and that, so.

Selvon looks away and I watch him think about it.

-What you gonna do then?

-Minimum wage, ennet.

I say it and give a laugh like fuck it.

I just want to hug Ardan and help him out! And that phrase ‘BTEC dickhead’ nearly killed me.

Great book. Would recommend to anyone 😀

 

Ponti – Sharlene Teo

Ponti is about three Singaporean women: Szu, an awkward and lonely teen, Circe, Szu’s abrasive new (only) friend, and Amisa, Szu’s cruel mother. We start out in 2003 when Szu and Circe are 16 and meet in high school. We are gradually introduced to Amisa’s childhood and teenage years, and Circe’s life in 2020. It’s a great story about the relationships between these women, and their shared and personal histories.

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The whole novel is set in Singapore. The oppressive, muggy heat and polluted atmosphere infect all the stages of the Ponti story.  There’s sweat and stench everywhere.

Amisa, Szu’s mother, was the star of some vanity project horror films, when she was around 20 years old. She was a stunningly beautiful Pontianak – a female vampiric ghost of a woman who dies in childbirth. This wasn’t the launch of the fabulous career she wanted, and by the time Szu is 16, she runs a clairvoyant business from their run down home, with her sister. Szu’s mother is bitter and cruel, especially to Szu.

Szu and Circe’s friendship is similarly strained. Circe can be viscous with her humour and makes sharp, cutting comments. Their friendship is intense, but unbalanced. Circe is well off and is able to get along with other girls, while Szu is awkward, clingy, and struggles to fit in.

In 2020 Circe is recently divorced, working for a digital marketing company and still as viciously funny as she was as a teenager. Her descriptions of how she feels about a tapeworm she has is just… great. And disturbing. This theme of monsters runs throughout the book. Sometimes the characters act like monsters, while there’s also the tape worm and the Pontianak horror film throughout the story.  We know from quite early on that Circe and Szu are no longer friends in 2020, and that something happened during their friendship at high school. Guilt is another theme that holds these characters together.

I read Ponti as an audiobook, read by Vera Chok, and it was really well narrated with a clear distinction between the different characters voices.

Since I’ve finished Ponti, I’ve read about the very scathing review of it that appeared in The Observer, and the backlash to this review of a debut novel. I do think a reviewers honesty is extremely important, but I disagree with this particular review because I loved this story! I have read books that have been very highly acclaimed, that I have hated though, so fair enough! (*cough* Reservoir 13 *cough*)

Overall I really enjoyed this story about these three complicated, interesting women. They all have flaws and this just makes the relationships more believable. I would really highly recommend Ponti!

Miss Nightingale’s Nurses – Kate Eastham

Ada Houston’s brother, and only surviving family, goes missing on Liverpool Docks. As she strongly suspects he has ended up on a ship to the Crimea, she follows and ends up becoming a nurse, helping the wounded of the Crimean War. Set in the 1850s, through Ada’s journey we find out about the origins of nursing as a profession, and about the Crimean War. It’s a really enjoyable read and I learnt loads from it too.

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breakfast.

In all honesty, I would never have picked this book to read in a million years. It doesn’t have a cover that appeals to me – it slightly makes me judge it and want to run away. I read it because it was chosen for a book club I’m in. And even more interestingly, Kate Eastham IS IN THE BOOK CLUB. No pressure then… I approached it with trepidation, but genuinely enjoyed it. I’m not even just being nice. It’s a really good book. The book club discussion was also really good because Kate was there (BRAVE!) and so we learnt a lot about the process of getting published too. It was a great night at book club!

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theming my picture with some NURSING STUFF

Ada Houston is a great character. She’s strong and quite feisty, without it being over the top. I loved the ending, which I won’t spoil here, but let’s just say that I was dreading one thing happening, and that thing didn’t happen, and I was very happy. Hahaha. She encounters Florence Nightingale briefly, on her way to the front. There she has a lot more to do with Mary Seacole.

I didn’t really know anything about Mary Seacole before reading Miss Nightingale’s Nurses, or much about the Crimean War at all. Coincidentally, my five year old daughter has been learning about Mary Seacole at school, and she saw the cover of Miss Nightingale’s Nurses and asked if the lady on the cover was Mary Seacole! I mean, no clearly not, but she recognised the type of nurses outfit from the Crimean War times. She then went on the tell me some facts about Mary Seacole and Florence Nightingale (like before them, you could just do a job if you decided to, and then afterwards you had to be trained. They made hospitals clean. Florence had a lamp. And they were from 200 THOUSAND years ago. So close). So yeh, this book provided some sort of idyllic, educational moment in my household. Ha!

 

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That chocolate was completely EPIC.

Ada’s adventure allows us to travel right to the front and get fully involved in some Crimean War action. We get to find out about the horror of war for the soldiers, and also for the supporting people like the doctors and nurses. It’s definitely not a sanitised look at the effects of war – there are some quite detailed medical bits in this book! But above all else, it’s a good story and I enjoyed reading it.

This is the first in a series of books that are all generally themed around the history of nursing. The next book is about nursing after the Crimean War, in Liverpool. Where the Nightingale nurses came home and became established in hospitals.  I think this one will be interesting too!

 

Books Bought and Read September 2018

Books Bought

I went a bit mental in the first part of the month…

Firstly, a book arrived in a subscription box I get. I keep thinking this doesn’t count as a bought book, but I clearly pay an extortionate amount for the box! It was I Was Told There’d Be Cake by Sloane Crosley.  

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Then Oxfam books went and had a 3 for 2 sale!

  • The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
  • Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel
  • Life on the Edge: the Coming of Age of Quantum Biology by Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden
  • The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante

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Eagle-eyed numbers people might be curious about me buying 5 books during a three for two sale. Well I also bought four kids books too.

Next I found a great sale on Amazon and bought ten books one lunchtime.

So what did I buy:

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  •  The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I already own one unread copy of this, but I keep hearing it’s so good I’m going to give this someone for a xmas pressie.
  • Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig
  • This is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay 
  • Artemis by Andy Weir. I LOVED The Martian, so have high hopes, but a friend recently told me this books is WEIRD. I need to read it soon to see if I agree or not!
  • A bunch of Penguin Little Black Classics
    • Only Dull People Are Brilliant at Breakfast by Oscar Wilde
    • Why I Am So Clever by Friedrich Nietzsche
    • The Suffragettes by Various
    • The Fall of Icarus by Ovid
    • The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

I’m sorry I can’t see or hear the word manifesto without this song jumping immediately into my head.

Anyway, here’s the haul again:

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I also around this time bought Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday. Probably because it’s got a science word in the title. (Not pictured! I didn’t photograph it when it arrived. A clear sign of too much book buying going on). I now have no idea why I actually bought this.

Then a few weeks went buy and I bought myself Cooking With Columbo: Suppers with the Shambling Sleuth by Jenny Hammerton, well because, just look at it. I just wanted to own it.

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Books Read

Finished five books this month. Much better than the one I managed in August! Click the title name for a link to my review.

Out of the Blue – Sophie Cameron

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The Music Shop – Rachel Joyce

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Crudo – Olivia Laing

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The Silence of the Girls – Pat Barker

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White Tears – Hari Kunzru

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