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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I was given We should all be feminists by a friend for my birthday last January and 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 some 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; it is 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 it is no longer necessary; equality has been achieved they say, it’s merely spiteful to keep banging on about it! (Then you see 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 of the problems of ‘normalising’ 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 different groups.

Adichie writes that 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 their daughter is shared 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 daughters (and one teenage son) it has given me much food for thought.

Reading these books made me reflect deeply on how I raise my girls. Thanks for the comments on the post I published last week about that. 

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July reading challenge – something from the library

You know summer is on its way when the local library announces the annual Summer Reading Challenge! Aimed at children of primary school age in the UK it is a great way of getting kids engaged in books (any books!) and giving them rewards for achieving certain reading goals. I love the way the organisers come up with different themes each year, and interesting activity packs that provide a surprising amount of diversion. This year the theme is Animal Agents and it’s being launched next week, so do look out for it if you have primary age children. I’ll be writing more about it once it’s launched so look out for a future blog on the topic.

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In the meantime, it’s the beginning of the month so it must be time for this month’s reading challenge! With the holiday season upon us, June’s challenge was to read a literary travel book. I chose On a Shoestring to Coorg by Dervla Murphy, and posted my review earlier this week, which you can read here.

This month’s challenge is to go to the local library and pick out a book (the challenge will be to keep it to just one!) and to read it before its due date. I have had a deep passion for libraries since I was a child (I was lucky that my mother took me regularly) and believe firmly that they provide an essential service. I am a compulsive book-buyer, but there is no doubt books can be expensive and what if you’re not sure whether you’re going to like the book? For the old and the young and for those on fixed or low incomes, libraries may be the only viable source of books. Not only that, but libraries provide a host of other services: librarians are information specialists and can help you find things out, they are often at the centre of a community providing reading groups, children’s book clubs, places to sit when it’s cold, places to study where it’s quiet, access to computers (not everyone has one at home) and of course reference books which you may not necessarily want to buy. Need I go on?

You will gain much from a visit to your local library. I came away with a whole bunch of leaflets about things to do over the summer, theatre guides, etc, a couple of guidebooks on Portugal (where I’ll be heading in August) as well as three books:

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The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri was shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2013, and caught my eye as I love Indian literature, and having just read about Devla Murphy’s travels in the south of the country, my interest was piqued anew. It’s set in Calcutta in the 1960s and ’70s and is about two brothers, very close as children, whose lives take dramatically different paths as historical events unfold around them. I was also drawn to The Art of Flight by Frederik Sjoberg which I think is a kind of memoir, structured as a number of short essays and prose pieces about the natural world. Sjoberg is a Swedish writer I’ve never heard of, but the book looks interesting. Finally, I had reserved a copy of Evan Davis’s newly-published book Post-truth: why we have reached peak bullshit and what we can do about it, after spotting it in the bookshop recently. Evan Davis has for years been one of my favourite journalists because he is warm, watchable, connects well with the viewer and is fantastically clever. He has an ability to cut to the essence of an issue and frequently outsmarts even the most nimble interviewees, so I’m interested in his take on this cultural shift we seem to be experiencing in politics.

I want to read all of these now, so I’m not sure which I will take on for the July challenge. I’m off on a train journey to London tomorrow, so it might well be the one which weighs least!

Have you picked up anything interesting from the library recently?

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Life without a computer!

I have a poorly computer and so it’s off at the repair shop getting its hard drive replaced 🙁

I am typing this post on my mobile phone and whilst it’s truly amazing what these little devices can do, I’m afraid I can’t face typing a book review! So this month’s Reading Challenge book (On a Shoestring to Coorg by Dervla Murphy) will have to wait until next week. 

It’s amazing how dependent we now are on our technological connectedness. I’m just hoping the computer repair lady is able to retrieve all my data from the corrupted hard drive…not least the several thousand words of my book that I’ve written since we last backed up!

On the plus side, lack of computer has given me lots of ‘found time’ for reading, so I’ve been able to finish two books this week; The Essex Serpent as well as the Dervla Murphy. And that’s been rather nice!

#IBW 2017 – Independent Bookshop Week 24 June – 1 July

IBW 2017We’re all on a budget and we’re all busy, so why would you make the effort to go to an independent bookshop when, with a couple of clicks, you can get what you want from the comfort of your armchair and have it delivered, and probably for a discount on the jacket price? Well, as they say, use it or lose it!

The bigger they get the more powerful they become

Most of us would be uncomfortable with the idea of only one major supermarket or only one petrol station. We all recognise that competition means consumers get the best deal. If there were only one supermarket around, you would not see the BOGOFs, the price reductions, the CHOICE. Don’t get me wrong, I use A****n along with everyone else, but I try to spread my spending. And when you work it out, it usually is not that much cheaper. As for choice, well, I am plagued by daily emails recommending heavily-marketed titles to me, but what about the books that are not pushed my way, and the authors that have written them? There’s nothing qute like discovering something new, a title you haven’t heard about. Bookshops can give you those surprises.

If it’s cheap you value it less

Anything that is cheap and plentiful we tend to treat with less respect than something that is scarce or more expensive. In my household, cheap food is much more likely to go to waste or pass its ‘use by’, whereas we are undoubtedly more disciplined about expensive organic or free range products. I think the same is true of other items we consume in our households; if we’ve paid more for a book, we may be more inclined to value it.

You don’t get much buzz with a ‘click’

For me, there is nothing quite like the smell of a bookshop, or the pleasure of browsing the shelves, spending time properly choosing, reading the first couple of pages, feeling the weight of a book in may hands. An online purchase just does not give me that same experience. I know some people like to choose in the shop and then go home and buy online, to get the discount, but, really, for a book? If you’re there in the shop, you’ve made the effort to go there, is it really worth the one or two pounds you might save by buying  it online? And then you’ve to wait until it’s delivered!

Real-life independent bookshops provide an experience, and the good ones (and it’s mainly the good ones that have survived) often provide spaces for you to sit and read, or to hang out with your kids. A Saturday afternoon activity that will cost you less than a tenner! For a child this is exciting, and will encourage them to read much more than a brown package arriving through the post, two or three days later.

You are dealing with people who are passionate

It’s hard running a small shop in today’s often under-crowded high streets, but it’s even harder running an indie bookshop when you consider what they’re up against. Bookshop owners definitely don’t do it for the money! If you love books you have to love indie bookshops and for my money their passion, expertise and sheer tenacity deserve our support.

So, check out your nearest indie bookshop here and make an effort to take yourself along some time this week. You won’t regret it.

Do you live near a great indie bookshop? If so, give them a shout out here.

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New books this summer

Summer is an important time of the year in the publishing calendar; it’s when a lot of us are starting to think about what we might be packing in our suitcases as our thoughts start to turn to holidays. I recognise that this might be a distant dream for those of you with small children as they will need to be constantly watched, managed or entertained. This was certainly the case for me when mine were small, but now that they are older I really savour the selection process – I make a ritual visit to the bookshops (as if I needed an excuse!), peruse the new titles, consider the special offers and try to work out how much each book weighs and how  many I can afford to pack!

So, if you recognise this sort of behaviour, I thought you might like to know what’s new and what’s hot in publishing this season. Arundhati Roy has been given a lot of attention in recent weeks as she publishes what is only her second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. (She was speaking here in Manchester last week and I’m so cross because I wasn’t very well and couldn’t go!) Her first novel The God of Small Things won the Man Booker Prize twenty years ago. Since then, she has been best known for her activism and writings on various causes both domestic and international . So, there is a great deal of excitement about this novel and I’m looking forward to reading it.

Recent terrorist incidents in the UK have made many Brits aware of the need to build the community cohesion, which I think many of us had taken for granted. Last week saw the first year anniversary of the murder of Jo Cox MP by a far-right extremist. Her husband, the ever-dignified Brendan Cox has published a book Jo Cox: More in Common, the title of which recalls her now famous House of Commons maiden speech where she reminded us that as human beings we have more in common than that which divides us. I expect this to be a very emotional but ultimately uplifting read.

You might not want to take a hardback on holiday, so I’m delighted that The Essex Serpent, the debut novel from Sarah Perry, is now available in paperback. It was first published last year, and has had fantastic reviews. The paperback has been a long time coming, but this is a must-read.

I posted here last week about my ambivalence towards thrillers, but they dominate the bestseller lists week in, week out, so clearly many people love them. One of the most popular of recent years is Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train (which I’m currently listening to on Audio). Paula has just published her latest book Into the Water which has had some solid reviews and is selling well in mainstream retailers. It strikes me as the obvious beach read!

Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (published in 1999) is one of my favourite books of all time. Her latest novel New Boy is part of an intriguing project whereby a number of authors have retold a Shakespearean story in a contemporary setting. New Boy is about Osei, an 11-year old Ghanaian boy, son of a diplomat posted to Washington DC, and his relationship with a girl in his class, Dee. Osei is the only black child in the school and his friendship with Dee makes another boy, Ian, extremely jealous…

Finally, for now (I’m not sure your TBR piles can take much more!) The Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla (ed.) caught my eye on a recent trip to London as it had a prominent display in the window of a smart bookshop. It’s a collection of essays exploring the theme of immigration to the UK. The writers are all emerging black, Asian and minority ethnic, looking at why people come to Britain, why they stay and and what life is like for them. It could well be essential reading.

Looking at what I’ve picked out in the above list, it strikes me that there is a bit of a theme there too. I’m sure it has a lot to do with the horrors and tragedies we have been witnessing in the UK in the last few weeks and months. It preys on the minds of many of us, I suspect.

What new publications have caught your eye?

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Happy blogging birthday to me!

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So, one year ago today I published my inaugural blog post. It was both a hello to the world and a review of two books – The Green Road and A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian. It was strangely scary at first, but I very quickly got into the groove and I can say, hand on heart that I love it! It’s also great to have an excuse to spend so much time reading! I’m not as ‘productive’ as many other book review bloggers, but, as regular readers will know, I am a mother of three and the family comes first.

So, as I commence my second year of blogging I wanted to thank everyone who has read, liked or followed my blog. To know that people enjoy what I write is much appreciated.

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I also wanted to share with you a few of the things I have learned over the past year:

  • Consistency is key – as a blogger I know I don’t necessarily have to post frequently, but I need to post regularly. I aim for twice a week, at least one of which is a book review, and most weeks I have achieved this.
  • Keep a reserve stock of blog posts – I try always to be a couple of book reviews ahead, because there are some weeks I just can’t get through a whole book…like now for example! Between half term and ferrying the eldest to and from school for exams, a lot of time has been whipped away from me this last month.
  • Plan and schedule – it’s the only way I can do it. I always have my next couple of months of posts mapped out. I’m also always reviewing the plan as occasionally something happens and I write a spontaneous post. I also schedule posts ahead, which is very useful because using Analytics tools, I can identify when are the best times and days to post.
  • If you build it, they don’t necessarily come – (Bonus point for anyone who knows which film I’m referencing!) It is unfathomable to me now why I havered over starting my blog – it’s not like I was bombarded with thousands of comments and followers when I first posted! You have to work hard to be heard in the blogosphere and it’s something I aim to do better this coming year.
  • Social media is key – each blog post is a tiny piece of driftwood in a vast ocean. You have to set off a few flares to get found. Social media is the only way to do this. Cross-post like crazy and don’t be shy. (Further note to self: do more of this!)
  • Write from the heart – some of my ‘favourite’ posts have not necessarily been my most popular. There are the ones I am proud of, pretty well-written, I thought, and there are those which just burst from my fingertips without too much advance thinking. Guess which ones have generated most comment?
  • There is no formula – there are an infinite number of ways to skin this particular cat. Do what is right for you, use the analytics tools and be willing to adapt.

If you are currently blogging I’d love to know what you think of the above tips, and if you have any of your own to add.

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Manchester

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I won’t be posting a book review this week. I can’t. Not when, in this city I call home, the families of 22 people are grieving. Many of these are parents, whose children are dead. Not when the families of 59 others are at their bedsides, hoping they’ll recover from their injuries, some of which will, no doubt, be ‘life-changing’. Not when hundreds, maybe thousands, of others will be traumatised, emotionally and psychologically scarred. After attending a pop concert.

I am a mother of three. I send two of my children off to school on Manchester’s Metrolink every morning. They go ‘into town’ with their friends. I always expect that they will come home again. My two daughters love pop music.  I’ve been wondering for a while when might be the right time to take them to a concert. It could quite easily have been this one. Had I not balked at the ticket price, had I been willing to scramble for the tickets online. I feel sometimes we are all just a breath away, just a click away, from tragedy.

I have lived in Manchester for five years. I’m a blow-in, from the South, and yet there is nowhere I have felt more at home in my life.  I have this strange sense of being offended that someone could carry out an extremist attack in this magical melting-pot of a city – there are so many accents, so many languages, so many colours and creeds here. All are welcome. How dare they do that here!

This glorious, gutsy city has known hardship and sorrow before. But there is so much love here that the true spirit of Manchester will certainly prevail.

But, for now, all our love is directed towards those among us whose agony I cannot even begin to comprehend.