Everyday Sexism by Laura Bates

I'm a feminist. To some people, that's unsexy, or unnecessary or uncool. To some people who know far more about gender studies, I need to be defining it in clearer terms. But I don't think that everyone needs to understand the complexities of gender equality (because to me, that's what feminism means, it means gender equality) to relate to a movement like feminism.

So, you can probably tell that I was going to be pro-the Everyday Sexism movement before reading this. Well surprise! It's a good book. It's even got a chapter about men in there - quite rightly, in my view - because gender equality is about men too.

The book takes some of the comments uploaded to the website Everyday Sexism Project and themes them around chapters: street harassment, the workplace, education etc etc. It's a book written for popular consumption, therefore some of the arguments aren't as rigorous or structured and are somewhat emotive, but that's okay because what struck me most about this book was the emotion behind this outpouring. It makes me reflect on my own experiences: being groped on the tube, shouted at on the street, undermined in the office. This shit is real, and it happens to millions of women every day, which is such a sad, sad fact. This book made me really glum.

But then I sent a picture of it to a group of male friends asking for non-fiction book recommendations. And then I finished it, and my sister asked to borrow it. (I don't know if she's read it yet!) And I thought: this isn't a sad book, because it's about sharing these stories, and making people more aware and conscious of the decisions they make every day. All of us need to read it!


Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

In June I spent a weekend in Berlin. In a bid to, Daunt-books-style, get under the skin of a place I was visiting I started reading this after googling "best novels about Berlin." 
The city is great, if you've not visited it before I would definitely recommend it. It felt empty and spacious compared to London, and I soon discovered the best way to get around is definitely by hiring a bike, which makes you feel just like a local.

I didn't actually do much reading whilst in Berlin - there was far too much to see and do! - but I was already halfway through Alone in Berlin on arrival so it worked out quite well. The book is about a married couple who lose their son in the second world war and start writing anti-Nazi sentiments on postcards and dropping them around the city. It is based loosely on a true story, and that and the story of Hans Fallada (not his real name), who wrote the book are equally fascinating.
Alone in Berlin (taken back in London with an Aperol spritz haha)

The Reichstag dome from the river at sunset

In all honesty, the book took me a fair bit of time to read, I found the plot faltering and slow in places. The ending seemed pointlessly inevitable too. I sped up reading it towards the end with the explicit purpose of finishing it off. The book seems to 'leave no stone unturned' and jumps around the subplots in a seemingly random way, only to tie off every narrative neatly. It does give a very good sense of what life in Nazi Germany must have been like for ordinary Germans, which is fascinating. And as I said, the author's life is fascinating, so it was worth the read for that alone. 


Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín

It took me a long time to read this; a combination of it not being a story that I needed at the time I came to read it and me not enjoying it because of the slow start were probably to blame. I bought it because Colm Tóibín is an astoundingly good author and if you haven't read Brooklyn, you should go out and buy it now because it's lovely and sad and he has this fantastic simplicity in his language that makes the worlds he creates seem so real.

But back to Nora. I found her a difficult character to empathise with at the start, an Irish housewife during the troubles with a distant relationship from her children. I think this empathy issue really highlights how far forward a leap in culture we've made since when the book was set, Nora has been completely dependent on her late husband, Maurice, for everything in her life and has to learn to forge an identity and way of living of her own. I said earlier that I felt the book was slow to start but I wonder if that is purposeful because of the build up of Nora's character, which is fantastically wrought. I was rooting for her by the end, as she seems to express herself as an individual more and come to terms with her new life without her husband.

At it's heart, this book is a great character study, but I think it lacked pace and story at the start. Maybe I just didn't have the patience to get to know Nora, which reflects more badly on me than it does on Tóibín's writing. It's a worthwhile effort if you do manage it, but don't be expecting a pageturner, instead this novel is quiet and understated, but beautiful.

Both Nora Webster and my next read, Alone in Berlin, have really slowed my reading pace this year. It's looking increasingly unlikely that unless I pull my finger out (or pick up a few page turners!) I won't make the 30 book Penguin challenge, which would be disappointing. Best not to dwell on it though, and it means I can take up the challenge again in 2016!


Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healy

I saw Emma Healy speak at the Southbank Centre around this time last year, as part of a panel on a session called ‘Your First Novel,’ part of the Bailey Women’s Prize for Literature events. The panel included a literary agent, a publisher and Sarah Waters (I’ve not read any of her books but want to). I signed up for the event last minute, not really expecting anything and wanting to be part of the action after missing out on the shortlist readings, and I came out pumped up, full of wanting to write my first novel.

Why? Because they made it look so easy. By the panelists’ own admissions, the only difference between us the audience and them the novelists was that they’d… well, to put it bluntly, they’d sat down and written some stuff. Now, that’s not to say that I think that anybody can just sit down and craft a novel. But, how many people do you know who have the potential to, but just don’t? 

I made a promise to myself that I’d write a novel. And I set a deadline: one year. Well, it’s a year later and surprise surprise, I haven’t written a novel. But I have started a writer’s group, read some awesome books, changed jobs twice and had a lot of life stuff go on. So I’m not too worried about not meeting the deadline. But NEXT year...

Part of this ‘process’ was that I wanted to read Emma Healy’s book, partly to see if I thought I could have written it. For a while I was put off by the Richard and Judy book club thing it had going on (book snobbery all over) but then I was looking for something I could get swept away by, and it fit the bill. 

There are things I loved about Elizabeth is Missing, and things I hated. Loved: the portrayal of what it is like to have dementia was absolutely devastatingly good. The story, weaving in small details for the reader to understand what Maud has forgotten, through to chapters in which the entire chapter reads as a new experience for both the reader and Maud, only for both to discover that Maud is repeating her actions again. It’s clever writing, believable and oh so well thought through. 

Hated: the past backstory. It augmented the portrayal of dementia by making the ‘ramblings’ of Maud to her daughter or any other character in the present day make sense, which was a nice touch. But the ’Sukey’ (the name irritates the hell out of me) story seemed slow, the younger Maud annoyingly disinterested in putting the puzzle pieces together… and the final climatic scene (no spoilers, I promise) was just ridiculous in the ‘Gone Girl’ sense.

All in all, a good holiday read. Do I think I could have written it? I don’t think it’s my style. But it’s not put the flame of wanting to write my own thing out. 


Hiatus (The Spirit Level and Blaming by Elizabeth Taylor)

The first rule of blogging should be to never start a blog post with an apology for the lack of blog posts.

I’m behind on reading. Life has been one hiccup after another and I’ve found myself unable to start and finish and blog about a book for an entire month. I’ve started loads of books: modern novels by well loved authors, introductions to art, purchases from cute bookshops near work. I’ve read entire short stories from bumper anthologies (doesn’t count) and discovered again how great poetry is (doesn’t really count either). I’ve drafted blog posts in my mind. But none of these dabbles really constitute a full, dense wedge of a book, and that feeling of satisfaction and completion.

This is a terrible confession, especially as I spent most of a week in May sat on a beach watching the sea.

During that week I did finish a couple of books (impossible not to, really): The Spirit Level, a popsci book about inequality (thesis: inequality is bad for us) and a short novel, by one of my faves Elizabeth Taylor, called Blaming. Elizabeth Taylor (not to be confused with the actress) also wrote Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, which is a beautiful short novel about ageing and odd friendship and London and dignity. 

Blaming is about a woman called Amy who is learning to cope with the death of her husband, Nick. She is befriended by another woman called Martha, and the book is about their friendship. Amy struggles to be a friend to Martha. What I loved most about this book is that Amy is a rather unlikable character, cruel in her opinions of Martha and her grandchildren and her life, and yet the book is very kind towards her, the third person narrative distances the reader from her judgements and allows other characters to show their unlikable sides too, thus making Amy seem less cruel. Elizabeth Taylor has a delicious way of switching between narrative voices (in the third person) to create very real seeming characters in a very simple way. I’d definitely recommend her books.

The Spirit Level is about how inequality is bad for societies, and once a society has reached a certain level of wealth, more unequal societies have higher crime, obesity, lower life expectancies etc etc. Interestingly it’s not as necessarily leftie as you might think; the authors say that regardless of political stance, most people want to live in a society that is happier and healthier; and that the least unequal societies operate across the political spectrum (Japan has a very small government and fairly equal gross wages, Scandinavian countries have large governments, unequal gross wages and lots of tax) and so there are many different ways to achieve equality. This was interesting, as I originally thought that me buying this book would just be a massive lesson in confirmation bias and I’d read it only to justify my left-leaning views. I was pleasantly suprised.

So what’s next? I’m really into a book has a hint of the Richard and Judy book group about it. And going to continue my forays into art and poetry for sure. Although these might put the '30 books in 2015’ mission in jeopardy, I’m learning at the moment that life, and reading, isn’t a race.


Maddaddam by Margaret Atwood

This is a really difficult post to write. I have massively mixed feelings about this book: I love Margaret Atwood as a writer, I hate science fiction and post apocalyptic worlds... so I'm already massively conflicted. Before I'd even turned the first page.

Some context: Maddaddam is the third in a trilogy, following Oryx and Crake and the Year of the Flood. It's about a world in which bioengineering has been taken to extremes and large corporations govern the world, at least until most people are wiped out by a massive plague.

I'm self interested enough that stories about the mass destruction of the human race and the efforts of a few survivors fascinate me  (what would you DO? see also The Stand by Stephen King and The Road by Cormac McCarthy) but the Maddaddam trilogy is just a bit too 'convenient' at points. It really, really annoyed me that it turns out that all the characters' paths have crossed loads of times before they finally meet after the devastation. I found the brand names irritating, as well as the timescales. Surely there would be enough tinned food to last for a while and not all the buildings would collapse within six months? These far fetched details (putting aside the whole plague plot) just served to jolt me out of the story.

Things I did enjoy: the character of Jimmy in Oryx and Crake. He's a real antihero, and I liked him for it. Also, the creation of religion, writing and myths in Maddaddam is really powerful. It's not subtle, but it's clever. The concept that the human race are passing down stories that are misinterpreted by the Crakers into a pseudo-religion is a fascinating one, and it's executed well even if it is very in your face.

To be honest, though, I wouldn't re-read the set, or rave about them to my friends. A Handmaid's Tale is an excellent, excellent book and I think that Margaret Atwood has lost her way slightly in these novels, focusing too much on the world and the plot and not enough on the subtleties and messages that make her work so powerful.


How to be both by Ali Smith

If I could win a single prize in fiction, the one I'd pick would be the Baileys Prize. Not the Booker, or Pulitzer, but the Baileys: the one that consistently comes up with shortlists of books that I really want to read.
How to be both is on the Baileys Prize shortlist this year. It's by Ali Smith, of The Accidental fame. And it's... weird. Great. But also weird. It's about a girl called George and a girl called Franchesco, one dealing with the death of her mother in the present day and the other a fresco painter in Italy in the 1400s. Frescos are paintings on walls, and they're often uncovered after being painted over. They also, like so much old art, contain hidden subtleties designed to reveal stories or secrets: things people are holding, the direction their eyes are looking, the things in the background. And Ali Smith, in this novel, has tried to recreate a literary fresco; the stories layer over each other like brushwork, the double meanings and the gender differences and the unfulfilled relationships and the death of parents, painted over and over each other in a way that is beautiful yet indescribable, like an image itself. 

The book has been published in two versions: you can buy a copy that starts with George or one that starts with Franchesco. I would recommend starting with George if you can. My mum bought a copy on the kindle that was a Franchesco first, and then a hardback that she lent to me with George first, and said the latter definitely made more narrative sense. Having read it, I'm glad I had it that way round.
It's a great novel, smart and challenging yet very simple in linguistic style and narrative. It's the kind of book that I want to lend to all my friends so we can discuss it, or hear my aunt and cousin and mum and grandmother chat about it around the table at Christmas, picking away at all of the threads of story. I read the Guardian review of it and some of the comments when I was mid way through and rather than being a spoiler it actually added to my enjoyment; this is a novel in which you can just feel that complexities bubble off the page but need someone far more eloquent than you to bring them to life in sentences.
I don't know if it will win the Bailey's Prize, I don't think it's odds on at any of the bookies. Sometimes those prizes can be more political than about great novels anyway. I think this book definitely deserves accolades, either way.