Book reviews: ‘Dear Ijeawele’ and ‘We should all be feminists’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I posted on here recently that the reading I seemed to have planned over the summer had a definite feminist theme to it. This was largely accidental although it could be something to do with having read WE: A Manifesto for Women Everywhere recently, and thinking about the subconscious messages that women and girls inherit. Top of my list we’re these two slim volumes from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

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We should all be feminists was given to me by a friend for my birthday last January and I have been mulling over its content ever since. It is the modified text of a TEDx talk that the author gave in 2012 and was published in book form a couple of years later. Adichie grew up in Nigeria and now divides her time between there and the USA. It would be true to say that the book is written with an African context, that she has in mind many of the social and cultural norms that women in many African societies experience. It would also be narrow-minded and complacent, however, to dismiss the points she makes as not being relevant elsewhere.

Adichie writes that in some parts of society ‘feminism’ is a term of abuse or is used as an insult; in Nigeria it is often used to describe women who have not been successful in finding a husband! I have heard the term ‘feminist’ used in derision in the U.K. too and we are sometimes inclined to think that feminism is no longer necessary; equality has been achieved they say, it’s merely spiteful to keep banging on about it. (Then you see the  BBC gender pay gap or the online vitriol that JK Rowling, and many others, have to put up with on social media and it’s very clear that battle is nowhere near won.)

Adichie writes that we ‘normalise’ discrimination when we allow casual differences in the way we treat boys and girls to go unchallenged. Having different standards and expectations is part of the problem, as is gender-specificity in things like toys, behavioural norms and the interests which are promoted to each of the genders. These attitudes can be problematic for boys too; they can create expectations which may lead to poor self-esteem for many young men (if they are not able to be physically strongest or not inclined towards rough and tumble).  Adichie wants us to raise both sexes with equality in mind.

Dear Ijeawele takes this theme a step further. Published earlier this year it is written in the form of an extended letter to a new mother. Some years previously, a friend of the author wrote to her after she had just given birth to a baby girl, asking for advice on how she might raise her daughter as s feminist. The author explores more deeply the ideas that she first expressed in We should all be feminists and has come up with a list of fifteen suggestions for her friend. There is much here to digest. She encourages her friend to ensure the task of raising the child is shared fully by both parents and that gender roles must be eschewed not only in the endeavour itself but also in the language they use and the expectations they express to their daughter.

“The knowledge of cooking does not come pre-installed in a vagina.”

Daughters should never be called “princess” (passive, linked to prettiness and dependency) nor taught to value marriage as an achievement. A girl does not need to be likeable but merely to be her full self.

“Instead of teaching her to be likeable, teach her to be honest. And kind. And brave.”

This is a powerful little book that I can imagine giving as a gift to a new mother or to a friend who might be experiencing dilemmas about how to handle certain parenting problems. As a mother of two girls (and one son) it certainly gave me food for thought. Highly recommended if you are interested in this topic and grapple with these issues.

If you have read either of these books I would love to know what you think. Do we unconsciously raise girls differently?

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Book review: “Jo Cox: More in Common” by Brendan Cox

No-one could forget the terrible events of June 16th 2016, the week before the UK referendum on exiting the EU, when Jo Cox, the British MP for Batley and Spen in West Yorkshire, was brutally murdered whilst in her constituency. It was shocking on so many levels. Firstly, that, in the midst of a profound expression of our democracy (which I believe we should never take for granted), campaigning during a referendum, one of our most conscientious and hard-working elected members should be killed for doing her job and what she believed in. Secondly, and most upsetting to me and, I’m sure, to many others, that a mother of two young children, a wife, a sister, a daughter, should lose her life and all those close to her should lose the most important person in theirs. It was truly awful.

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In the days that followed, campaigning in the referendum was suspended as the news reverberated around the world. Support was shown and condolences sent by dozens of world leaders, not least President Obama. Jo’s death had a huge impact. So many had felt the insult to our democracy. In those subsequent days and weeks, we also learned much about this young woman and her life, and the loss felt even greater.

Jo’s husband, Brendan, became famous overnight, a role he would never have wanted. The grieving widower, the father of two shocked and grieving young children (then aged just five and three), the spokesperson for his late wife and all the good and powerful things she stood for. He was frequently on our television screens, looking dazed and gaunt, in Parliament, just days after Jo’s death, hearing MPs’ tributes, at a memorial event in Trafalgar, attended by thousands. It is a wonder how he got through those days.

It is thirteen months since Jo’s death and Brendan has been busy. He has set up the Jo Cox Foundation which seeks to promote fairness and tolerance in the world through practical actions. He has also published this book, which is part biography of Jo, partly an account of loss and, I suspect, part catharsis. It is rare that I have sat down and read a book in a couple of sittings over a weekend, but this book lends itself to that kind of immersion.

First and foremost the book, for me, provides an intimate glimpse into the architecture of grief. We will all experience grief in our lives, but most of us will never have to lose someone in the circumstances that Brendan lost Jo, that their children lost their mother. The pain is profound. We see Brendan go through all the stages we are familiar with – shock, denial, etc, though he clearly fights very hard against anger, and seems to have won. He describes in detail the unique way that nature enables children to process it. In the midst of his own grief Brendan’s primary concern was to support his children through their even greater loss to ensure that it was handled in the best possible way. Brendan talks about taking advice from experts in child psychology on how he should talk to them about their mother. The overwhelming consensus is that children should be allowed the space to grieve as they need, in their own unique way, and that it is important that we do not impose adult preconceptions and expectations about their level of sadness. For a young child, losing a mother is a profound and life-changing event that will affect the rest of their lives and it is so important to handle it right.

The sadness in this book is at times unbearable, but Brendan also writes with joy too. He provides an account of Jo’s life, her humble family background and childhood, her life as a student at Cambridge and her early achievements in a career that was destined to be stellar. Brendan, in providing this account, is honouring his late wife and the enormous achievements she made in her short life. There is a definite sense that the best was yet to come.

We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.” Jo Cox, maiden speech to Parliament, 2015 

 

Finally, the book is a love letter, a tribute from a bereaved husband to the woman he clearly loved so deeply. His love drips from every page. Some of the detail he gives is surprisingly intimate almost too much for me as a reader. The kind of small details of a relationship that couples normally only share with one another. But then you remember that Brendan no longer can, and his sharing with us feels all the more poignant.

The book is structured so that parallels are drawn between events in the months following Jo’s death and important stages in Jo’s life. For example, the account of Jo and Brendan’s time working in America and joining the Obama presidential campaign is given alongside an account of Brendan’s visit to the White House with his children, at the invitation of President Obama.

It is an incredible book and all proceeds from sales will go to the Jo Cox Foundation. It is hard to say I ‘enjoyed’ it but it felt like a very important read. It has certainly caused me to reflect, and the lesson that comes from it, for me, is along the lines of that old truism (with apologies for misquoting) that it’s not the years in your life that really count, but the life in your years. And Jo certainly packed a lifetime’s worth in her 42 years.

An emotional read, but highly recommended.

If you have read this book, I’d love to know how it affected you.

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Book review: “WE: A Manifesto for Women Everywhere” by Gillian Anderson and Jennifer Nadel

I plan my reading a good few weeks in advance, partly because planning is what conscientious bloggers are supposed to do (so I’m told!), but also because I always have such a substantial TBR (to be read) pile, that the only way I can excuse my excessive book-buying is to write down my intention to read them all! It seems that for the next few weeks I am planning to read a number of what might be described as feminist books, starting with the one I have just completed and which I’m reviewing here today.

WE: A Manifesto for Women Everywhere demonstrates its feminist credentials by encouraging a “sisterhood” in which women support and encourage one another. That is quite an ambition, given that we live in a society which often seeks, or so it seems to me, to set women against and in competition with one another. Anderson and Nadel deplore the scandal of inequality in our society which they seek to counter by encouraging us all to strive for a fairer and more just world for ourselves and for others.

2017-07-26 20.42.01 I am an admirer of Gillian Anderson, not since her X-Files days, but since watching The Fall, the hugely popular television drama about a misogynistic and brutal serial killer in Northern Ireland, in which Anderson played the beautiful, enigmatic, but also rather damaged DSI Stella Gibson. The drama ran for three series between 2013-2016 and I was hooked. (It also starred Jamie Dornan, which helped). Jennifer Nadel, Anderson’s co-author, is a former journalist, writer and activist. Both women are open about their experiences of depression and poor self-esteem, despite their hugely successful careers and enviable lifestyles, and this book is their account of recovery and a ‘guidebook’ for other women who may be suffering from mental health issues.

To that extent the book is very much a self-help guide, but it is also provides a roadmap for women to avoid depression, suffering and, in their words, live “a more meaningful life” by offering nine principles for living.  Before discussing the nine principles, the authors set out four essential daily practices which, they say, we should all be incorporating into our lives in order to achieve greater peace. These are: showing gratitude, being gentle with ourselves and others, taking responsibility for self-care, and meditation.

“Taking care of yourself emotionally, physically and spiritually is a profoundly political act”

The nine principles are: honesty, acceptance, courage, trust, humility, peace, love, joy and kindness. Each of the principles is discussed in a separate chapter and there are exercises and instructions readers are invited to undertake to get the most out of the book. There are also individual paragraphs from each of the authors scattered throughout where they reflect on their own experiences. They rail against fear as a barrier to woman achieving happiness and their potential and they discuss at length what they call the “Toxic Cs”, the five bad habits of the ego – Comparing, Criticising, Complaining, Controlling and Competing. They offer instead Compassion, Cooperation and Connection.

There is a great deal in this book which makes sense. It is well-written, well set-out, the motivational quotes are well-chosen and I found many of the exercises useful. I liked its gentle approach; some self-help books can come across as self-righteous and are self-congratulatory exercises by an author wanting to tell us how well they have done. This is not like that. I have already given this book as a gift to a dear friend who I thought could benefit from reading it. I think its audience could be clearer: it talks about “addiction” as one of the ways women can sabotage themselves. For most women who read this, that is not going to mean drug or alcohol addiction, I imagine, but it could apply to weight problems or other subtler ways that we become reliant on repetitive behaviours as a coping strategy. Some women who may benefit from the book may therefore not see it as for them.

I enjoyed reading this. I borrowed it from the library but think I will buy a copy as I could see myself dipping into it quite regularly. Recommended.

Do you find self-help books useful?

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Book review: “Post-truth: Why we have reached peak bullshit and what we can do about it” by Evan Davis

I love Evan Davis; I think he is probably the cleverest journalist on telly at the moment. I marvel at his ability to cut to the core of an issue and his mastery of material across a broad range of topics. His analytical ability, tenacity and eloquence made Newsnight unmissable during the UK election campaign earlier this year. I actually felt a bit sorry for some of the second and third-rate politicians he had to interview at times because he was clearly so much cleverer and in command of the brief than they were! He never goes for the jugular though, as Paxman used to, it’s just more like watching a grown-up talking to a child.

Post truthThis is actually my July reading challenge book, which was to borrow something from the library. I read it in virtually one sitting on a train journey to London. For a weighty non-fiction book it’s very readable and the writing is resonant of Evan’s relaxed and articulate presenting style. There were parts where I could almost hear him reading it out. There are many references to the help and support he has had in the acknowledgements, so I’m sure he had plenty of research assistance (how could he not – with Newsnight, The Bottom Line and Dragon’s Den he is a very busy fellow!), but the authorial voice is definitely authentic, and I would bet it isn’t ghost-written, which just makes me love him all the more!

The central premise of the book, and indeed which lends him his title, is the concept of “post-truth”, which was the Oxford Dictionaries word of the year in 2016 and is defined as:

Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

For Westerners, key events which have lent prominence to this concept are, of course, the UK referendum on membership of the EU and the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency. More latterly, for those of us in the UK, the British election campaign is pertinent to the discussion, though the book was written before it was announced.

The book is divided into three sections: What, Why and How. In the first part “What” Evan (is it okay to call him that? I spend most weekday evenings with him, after all!) deconstructs his subject, looking at the various forms BS takes in our society today. His starting point is the professionalization of the information industry and the increasing desire to ‘sell’ rather than ‘tell’ in order to further a cause. In spite of (or perhaps because of) the unprecedented amount of information that we as citizens and consumers have access to, our weak ability to navigate it makes us vulnerable to those who would convince us that their particular interpretation of the facts is the one and only truth.

If you were unhappy with the UK European referendum campaign (regardless of which side you were on) or opposed the election of Donald Trump, there are times in the first section where you will be screaming “Yes, yes, yes”, but the second part is more sobering as it looks at the social forces that have enabled BS to become the new norm. Basically, we are all at least a little bit guilty. Haven’t we all, at some point, slightly misrepresented ourselves, or exaggerated our strengths in order to achieve something? Have you ever overstated an achievement on a CV, pushed up a price estimate of a job, in the knowledge you’ll be negotiated down by a percentage, been a willing accomplice in overpaying for desirable commercial goods (mobile phone, car, clothing, etc) simply to get a bit of the status that rubs off from owning it? We’re all at it. And as for those of us (irony alert) who might look down on the poor unfortunates misled into voting for the ‘wrong side’ Evan simply says the

“Disposition to accept bullshit probably derives from a sense of tribalism fuelled by feelings of grievance. The bullshit becomes more than just a signal of tribal allegiance; it becomes a way of strengthening a sense of membership of the tribe.”

In the final section of the book, Evan flags up a number of ways that we can all halt the rise of the post-truth tendency. He acknowledges that, basically, we get the BS we deserve, so the power lies with us to change it. Firstly, he says

“Where you have a craving for something to be true, apply a double dose of scepticism to anybody telling you that it is?”

We all have to do more research to ensure we are given the full facts and hold professional communicators to account rather than be complicit in the deception, what he refers to as “information hygiene”. (Using product X will prevent condition Y – show me the evidence?)

This book is quite an accomplishment which made me think very hard about the world we live in and what I am teaching my children. Undoubtedly, we all need to improve our skills when it comes to challenging what we are being told. A fascinating and engaging read on a very current issue.

Book review: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

This book was everywhere when it first came out last year, surprising since it was written by a little known author and published by a relatively small independent publisher. It became a bestseller, was shortlisted for the 2016 Costa Novel Award and was the Waterstones Book of the Year. I was very keen to read it but it seemed to take a long time to be issued in paperback, so I’ve been hanging on for a while.

The Essex Serpent imgThe book is set mostly in the fictional Essex village of Aldwinter in the 1890s and the action takes place over the course of a year. The central dynamic of the plot is the relationship between Cora Seaborne, a woman approximately in her late 30s, who at the start of the novel is newly widowed, and William (Will) Ransome, the local minister. Will is happily married to Stella and they have three children, while Cora is happily widowed! It seems hers was a fairly loveless marriage in which she felt constrained and imprisoned and her husband appears to have been somewhat older than her. The lack of intimacy in the marriage is indicated by the fact they had only one child, Francis, and that he is an unusual boy (for Cora “nothing shamed her as much as her son”), who is almost certainly autistic.

Once she becomes widowed, Cora is able to follow her passion for natural science, and she moves out of London to Essex. There she becomes captivated by a local myth, a mysterious serpent that villagers feel is responsible for unnatural happenings, including unexplained deaths, crop failures, madness and distressed livestock. Cora first encounters Will on one of her forest walks, when the two rescue a sheep from a bog. They later meet socially and thereafter strike up an increasingly intimate friendship. The book becomes about the development of their relationship against a backdrop of events connected with the serpent, with the illness of Will’s wife, and Cora’s relationships with other friends, including that of Luke Garrett, a brilliant surgeon who is clearly in love with her.

Whilst the book is essentially about relationships and the nature of love (it is explored in many forms) it is also about a clash of worlds. Firstly, the old versus the modern – it is no coincidence the book is set on the eve of the 20th century – and science versus religion, where Cora and Will have some of their most passionate debates. There is also reason versus superstition; the villagers fear the Essex Serpent, whereas Will finds his parishioners’ fears almost pagan in tone, and Cora wants to prove the existence of the serpent, as some sort of lost creature.

Perry also explores the position of women, from Cora, the scientist, for whom marriage had “so degraded her expectations of happiness” and for whom widowhood and thus the single life had “freed her from the obligation to be beautiful”, to Stella the model dutiful Victorian wife and mother, afflicted by a quintessentially 19th century illness. There is also Martha, Cora’s maid (although her exact position in the household slightly defies definition!), also a political activist who utilises the connections she has made through Cora to further her Marxist leanings. In many ways the themes of the novel are very modern indeed – Martha’s campaigning for suitable social housing for the poor of London is resonant of a very 21st century problem. It’s also a very erotic novel, in the Gothic sense, without being explicit; there are many tensions below the surface and some of these do not get fully resolved, which is actually quite true to life when you think about it.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend it highly. It gripped me to the end. It’s a novel rich in themes, rich in its descriptive power and rich in its evocation of time and place.

If you have read this much talked-about book, I’d love to know what you thought of it.

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Book review: “On a Shoestring to Coorg” by Dervla Murphy

I selected this book for my June reading challenge. June was a slow month for reading for me – half term, plus running my son to and from school for exams ate into my time. So, it took me a while to get through this book. That said, I think it’s genuinely a slow book to read, rather like the unhurried travelling that takes place within the pages. I was very specific in my challenge for the month, which was to read a literary travel book, not a guidebook. I am somewhat perturbed by the preponderance of ‘pack as much into as little as possible’-type travel guides that I see all over the bookshops: the 48 Hours in… series is popular, but the New York Times now has a range of 36 hours in… various European capitals! I’ve spent longer than that in the railway stations and airports of various European cities on my travels in the past! Art imitates life, it is true, and that is the nature of life these days. I feel sure this will be to our detriment, ultimately, but perhaps the pendulum will swing the other way at some point.

On a Shoestring to Coorg imgIf, like me, you find yourself a little nostalgic for an era when travel meant slowing down, getting to know a place and its people  (rather than just taking a selfie with a local and posting to Instagram), and immersing yourself in the new environment, then Dervla Murphy could be the travel writer for you. In On a Shoestring to Coorg, Murphy travels for the first time with her five-year old daughter, Rachel. They travel scarily light (I would take more stuff on a day out when my kids were younger!) with very little money and are dependent on the kindness and hospitality of people they meet, including a number of British ex-pats, who have made India their home in the post-colonial era.

Murphy confesses at the outset to being not especially enamoured of India generally, and openly expresses what she sees as the hypocrisy implicit in Hinduism and the caste system which she feels keeps so many in poverty and destitution. (You have to remember this was written in 1976). However, she and Rachel fall in love with the tiny region of Coorg (in southern India), with its continued observance of many traditions (which she sees as an indicator of the society’s wellbeing), the warmth of its people and the beauty of the landscape.

“Seldom in the 1970s is folk-dancing performed for fun – not self-consciously, to preserve customs, or cunningly, to please tourists. But my pleasure can never be unalloyed when I chance upon such fragile and doomed links with the past. One knows that before Rachel is grown even Coorg will have opted for that pseudo-culture which ‘kills time’ (grimly significant phrase) but leaves the sprit starving.”

They travel further south to Kerala, which Murphy also loves. As the book progresses you get the sense of Murphy settling into the journey more, as she adapts to travelling with her young companion where, previously, this very unusual and idiosyncratic traveller was accustomed to being alone and not having anyone depend upon her. She writes more and more of the landscape:

“Beyond the palmy islands across the bay the sun was sinking in a red-gold sky and when it had gone – so swiftly – a strange amber sheen lay on the water and I felt very aware of the drama of day and night: something that passes us by in the twilit north.”

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It is a meandering but engaging read, where you very much travel with the author and her daughter and feel the pace of their journey. This is a way of travelling that most of us no longer do. It feels very much like a bygone era and yet is only 40 years ago. The pace of change in all our lives all across the globe has altered so dramatically in that relatively short time. It felt good to slow right down with this book. If you fantasise about long slow travelling (with or without your children) you will find this an interesting read and after reading it you will definitely want to go to Coorg!

Do you have any travel writers to recommend? Are there any young contemporary travel  writers you enjoy who take the ‘slow’ approach?

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“Everything Everything” by Nicola Yoon

Everything Everything, first published in 2015 to great acclaim, was reissued in 2017, after the novel was made into a film, and my edition shows a still from the movie with our two main protagonists, Maddy and Olly, gorgeously pictured on the front cover. It’s a YA novel which I selected for my May reading challenge, having bought it for my teenage daughter a few weeks ago (she hasn’t read it yet!), and I absolutely loved it. I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did, especially when, leafing through, the chapters looked a bit short and I saw that there were several pages with line-drawn illustrations of, for example, diary entries, notes from an exercise book, emails, set out as if they were on a screen, text conversations, etc. Hmm, I thought, all designed to sustain the digital native’s interest! Well, as is so often the case when I stray off my well-beaten literary track, I was truly humbled.

2017-06-21 11.08.32The novel opens with our central character Maddy’s eighteenth birthday. She celebrates this with her mother and her nurse, Carla; Maddy suffers from severe allergies and lives an isolated existence in her hermetically sealed home, which she has not left for many years, so these two women provide the only relationships she really has. Maddy is home schooled, receiving almost all her tuition over Skype from various tutors. Occasionally, they are allowed to tutor her in person, but only after they spend a period of time in a decontamination unit in the house, to ensure Maddy does not come into contact with any pathogens or foreign particles which might harm her. Maddy’s father and older brother were killed in an accident when Maddy was a baby and she and her mother are therefore incredibly close.

Maddy is a voracious reader and in the absence of a lived experience of the world she has framed all her perception of life outside the bubble of her home, and her tiny circle of human contact, from the books she has read. Whilst she is initially reasonably content with her life, accepting its limitations and appreciating the love of her mother and Carla, her love of books is an early hint of her desire to embrace the world. Early on, we learn that she has taught herself not to want things she cannot have:

“Wanting just leads to more wanting. There’s no end to desire.”

But then she meets Olly, when he moves into the house next door with his parents and sister, and everything (everything) changes:

“Maddy knows that this pale half-life is not really living.”

Olly has his own troubles: his father is a violent alcoholic who terrorises the rest of the family. Olly and Maddy begin to communicate by text and email, and it is clear that not only are they deeply attracted but that each fulfils an unmet need in the other. A cascade of events follows which will expose the inexorable pull of the world to the young and vulnerable Maddy, and the pointlessness of an anxious parent’s attempts to protect her child from all risk.

It is a coming-of-age novel, in that we see a young woman separating from her mother, but it is also a great novel for a parent coming to terms with the coming of age of their kids! To that extent, it is an instructive read for parties on both sides of the debate: the older generation can see how important it is for our youngsters to live, love and to learn for themselves, but the young can also see the parent’s perspective, Maddy’s mother’s fear of losing something (everything) so precious to her when she has already experienced so much loss in her life (her husband and son).

It’s a cracking story, with some clever plotting, and great themes which are beautifully handled for a younger readership. It’s well-written and well-crafted and the line drawings do add to the experience! There’s a little bit of sex, but it’s very subtly and sensitively done. Recommended for parents and teenagers alike.

If you have read this book or watched the movie, would you recommend it for teenagers? Could boys and girls alike enjoy it?

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