Category Archives: book challenge 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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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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new hair

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!

 

White Tears – Hari Kunzru

White Tears is the story of an audio nerd and his descent into obsession with a ghostly, cursed song. Really, White Tears is about privilege, appropriation, and the bizarre obsession with ‘realness’ and authenticity in music.

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Seth is an audio obsessed loser, who somehow teams up with a rich, trust-fund kid, Carter, who is similarly audio obsessed. Carter’s obsession is for analogue equipment and authenticity. This basically means he is obsessed with very old recordings of blues songs, exclusively sung by black singers.

One day, when out recording the sounds of the city, Seth records a man singing a blues song in a New York park. Carter becomes enthralled by the recording and makes it sound like it was recorded in the 1930s, and gives the artist a name: Charlie Shaw. They then meet an old record collector who insists the recording is genuine and has heard it before.  Except it seems it was… and anyone who has had dealings with the song, have been cursed by it…

This excellent book about cultural appropriation of black culture by white people, is also a gripping read. Slight elements of a ghost story come into the story as Seth and Carter get more deeply pulled into the world of Charlie Shaw and the deep south and the origins of blues music. In fact, the later part of the book is quite experimental. You lose track of time, and there are strange episodes that take place in the present, but also the 1930s, and other times. It becomes a very confused timeline, and I took this to be showing how this sort of exploitation has been going on for time eternal. Issues of who can, and should, profit from old recordings of blues music are explored through Seth’s demise. The past seems to be coming to the present to get revenge.

I listened to White Tears as an audio book. I really enjoyed it, and was drawn into the strange style of the latter part of the book. I would highly recommend it.

The Silence of the Girls – Pat Barker

This last few months my reading has been very Iliad themed. First I read The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, about Achilles relationship with Patroclus. Then I read (two thirds) of The actual Iliad (reviews of half of it here in part 1 and part 2). Now I find myself reading The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker. It’s The Iliad from the point of view of Achilles’ war prize Briseis. She who is the cause of the entire plot of The Iliad.

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Chocolate Guiness Cake. Happy Birthday to me. 

Briefly, Achilles tells the big boss Agamemnon to give back a girl he has taken as a war prize, because her Father has come with a ransom to beg for her to be returned. The Father happens to be a priest of Apollo, and with Agamemnon’s refusal, Apollo is reigning down death and destruction. Agamemnon concedes, but says he will now take Achilles war prize Briseis as compensation. Achilles says if he takes her, he won’t fight anymore. Achilles is their best fighter, so this is a serious threat. Briseis is returned to Achilles when he returns to the fighting after his good buddy, Patroclus is killed.

The little we know about Briseis from The Iliad includes that her Father, Mother, Husband, and three brothers died at the hands of Achilles. But that also her relationship with him is considered by both of them to be maybe more marriage-like, and Briseis grieves for Patroclus when he dies.

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I read a lot of this on my birthday, as the pictures show. 

In The Silence of the Girls we get Briseis point of view from her life in the city of Lyrnessus, her witnessing the arrival of Achilles and the subsequent murder of all her family, her experience in Achilles’ house, the change to being Agamemnon’s slave, and her return to Achilles and situation after his death. (Think I’m ok with these plot reveals, as The Iliad is quite well known… ).

I really enjoyed reading about what the women were doing, while the men were hacking each other to death. It has a lot to say about the erasure of female voices in literature, though it doesn’t come across as preachy at all. And it puts the story of women at the heart of this retelling of The Iliad, and I really, really enjoyed that.

As later Priam comes secretly to the enemy camp to plead with Achilles for the return of his son Hector’s body, he says: “‘I do what no man before me has ever done, I kiss the hands of the man who killed my son.”
Those words echoed round me, as I stood in the storage hut, surrounded on all sides by the wealth Achilles had plundered from burning cities. I thought: “And I do what countless women before me have been forced to do. I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers.

I prioritised reading The Silence of the Girls because I’m going to a Manchester Literature Festival event with Pat Barker tonight! She is going to be in conversation with Kamila Shamsie, who wrote Home Fire that I also loved. I can’t wait!

Crudo by Olivia Laing

I was drawn to Crudo when I saw it’s cover, and read the description – it’s about a summer and a marriage and Brexit and the world generally seeming to fall apart, and a forty year old woman struggling with all of this.

I was drawn to the cover, actually I was repulsed by it. It makes me feel physically sick to look at it. I needed to know what this book was like.

Added to that, there are supportive quotes on the back cover of Crudo by both Viv Albertine, and Jilly Cooper. I am totally sold. What a combo.

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From the back of the book:

Kathy is a writer. Kathy is getting married. It’s the summer of 2017 and the whole world is falling apart.

Olivia Laing radically rewires the novel in a brilliant, funny and emphatically raw account of love in the apocalypse. A Goodbye to Berlin for the twenty-first century, Crudo charts in real time what it was like to live and love in the horrifying summer of 2017, from the perspective of a commitment-phobic peripatetic artist who may or may not be Kathy Acker.

From a Tuscan hotel for the super-rich to a Brexit-paralysed UK, Kathy spends the first summer of her forties trying to adjust to marriage. But it’s not only Kathy who’s changing. Political, social and natural landscapes are all in peril. Fascism is on the rise, truth is dead and the planet’s hotting up. Is it really worth learning to love when the end of the world is nigh? And how do you make art, let alone a life, when one rogue tweet could end it all?

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enjoying the park

I enjoyed Crudo, but it’s a little bit strange… It’s written as though it is Kathy Acker writing it, who is a real person, and there are references throughout the text to work by Kathy Acker. I didn’t know who Kathy Acker was before starting to read Crudo (disgraceful, I know). I’ve since done some reading on her, but maybe it would help to know something about her before starting this book. It reminded me of Autumn by Ali Smith – another book anchored around Brexit, with its references to Pauline Boty.

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From her wikipedia introduction:

Kathy Acker (April 18, 1947 – November 30, 1997) was an American experimental novelist, punk poet, playwright, essayist, postmodernist and sex-positive feminist writer. She was influenced by the Black Mountain School poets, the writer William S. Burroughs, the artist and theoretician David Antin, French critical theory, feminist artists Carolee Schneeman and Eleanor Antin, and by philosophy, mysticism, and pornography.

I’m grateful to Crudo for making me aware of Kathy Acker.

But back to the actual book. Kathy is getting married, to a man much older than herself. She didn’t think she ever would, and she doesn’t seem that enthused about the whole thing, but she feels confident in the love between herself and her nearly husband. Also, the world is falling apart. Its the summer of 2017.

Her husband’s sad eyes upset her but also infuriated her, she detested being responsible for anyone else’s happiness. Like can’t you just figure out what you need and get it? Why do you have to keep asking me?

Oh god, so relatable.

 

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Parts of this story are from Olivia Laing’s life, parts are from Kathy Acker’s life and writing, and parts are pure fiction. It’s a strange mix. It wasn’t exactly what I was expecting (and now I can’t even describe what I WAS expecting). The events in the novel are quite small and insignificant – there’s no high drama. It ended up being a quiet novel; though the world events providing the backdrop are high drama and potentially world ending (e.g. the potential for Donald Trump to take us all to our deaths in a nuclear war via a tweet).

Laing wrote it in real time, and the settings and the main events follow what she was doing at the time. It’s interesting to know this now, but I only knew this after I’d finished reading it – I don’t tend to read reviews of books before I read them because I don’t want to have the plot revealed to me.

So overall it’s a bit strange, quite short, interesting in a wider context to do with how it was written and its inspiration, and I would recommend it if it sounds interesting to you at all!