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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August reading challenge: a book with a summery cover

Last month I ticked off my July reading challenge pretty quickly, having skipped through Evan Davis’s Post-truth: Why we have reached peak bullshit and what we can do about it fairly quickly after a train journey.

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This month, mindful that we are in the middle of the holiday season, the challenge is to choose a book, the cover of which is reminiscent of summer. (Whilst I definitely do not judge a book by its cover, I’m afraid I’m a sucker for the book that jumps off the shelf and grabs my attention!) Between the Baileys Prize in June and the Man Booker longlist in July, I’ve bought quite a lot of books recently, so I thought I’d dig through my not insubstantial pile of unread books purchased over the years for inspiration.

2017-08-05 07.34.39I have chosen On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan, which was published in 2007. I suspect it has been languishing unread on my shelf for a number of years! The cover is, arguably, not particularly summery, showing a young woman walking along Chesil Beach in Dorset, at what looks like dawn, but could possibly be twilight. For those of you unfamiliar with Dorset, Chesil beach is a unique natural feature of the area. Geographically, it is known, I believe, as a tombolo. It is a 20 mile stretch of shingle beach that lies in a long, fairly straight line from Abbotsbury (near the swan sanctuary) to the Isle of Portland in Dorset. Whilst it is connected to the land at each end, it sits apart from the main beach along its length, creating  a kind of lagoon which is a haven for bird life.

Dorset is one of my favourite counties of England. I wouldn’t say I have spent lots of time there, I have been maybe four or five times, but each time I’ve visited I have found it the most beautiful, fascinating and interesting place. It is also deeply connected with my literary life. I am a huge admirer of Thomas Hardy and a few years ago, following a horrible relationship breakdown, I spent the most wondrous and life-affirming fortnight cycling around the county, visiting many of the towns, villages and monuments which appear in Tess of the D’Urbervilles and other Hardy novels. Jane Austen also has connections with Dorset, and who could forget The French Lieutenant’s Woman, a wonderful book, set in Lyme Regis, possibly the loveliest seaside town in the world.

Dorset also has many fascinating geographical and historical features; you can go fossil-hunting in Charmouth, and there are of course, the incredible cliffs at West Bay, made famous as the site of the murder of Danny Latimer in the TV series Broadchurch. The beaches are spectacular, my favourite is the beautiful, horseshoe-shaped Lulworth Cove. As I write this, I am reminiscing about a wonderful week we had there with the children two of three years ago, and aching to go back, even though the weather was typically British!

So, I will look forward to reading this book, as I set off on a short trip to Dublin later today to visit my in-laws.

What books remind you of summer?

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Summer holiday reading suggestions

The 2017 Man Booker longlist was released yesterday and there are a number of books on the list this year which most avid readers and observers of the book world will recognise. A wide mix of well-known and debut authors, women and men, and diverse countries. So, if you’re looking for some summer reading suggestions, you could do worse than browse the list. I’ve only read Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End, which I reviewed here back in June, and which I absolutely loved, but there are plenty of the others in the list that are on my TBR pile, including Arundhati Roy, Mohsin Hamid and Colson Whitehead.

However, I think it is fair to say that when it comes to holiday reading, most of us are usually looking for something a little lighter? (Which Days Without End certainly is not!) Something you can read and enjoy on the beach with one eye on the kids? Something you wouldn’t mind leaving on your holiday rental’s bookshelf? If these are your criteria, I would suggest the following from my most recent reads (the title links through to the reviews).

Firstly, Holding by Graham Norton, which I enjoyed on audiobook (you will too), but which would be equally good as a hard copy and which, for me, is perfect holiday reading. Secondly, Sometimes I Lie by Alice Feeney, a decent thriller which I enjoyed, despite it not being my favourite genre. Thirdly, The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, which is a lovely life-affirming book.

The Music ShopThere are of course, a lot of titles published in the Spring and early Summer, marketed specifically for the holiday reading market. I’ve been perusing the titles and these are the ones that have stuck out for me. The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce, is a love story set in the 1980s about Frank, a record store owner, and Ilse, a German woman whom Frank meets when she happens to faint outside his shop. It’s had good reviews and Rachel Joyce’s earlier novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, did very well.

 

Eleanor OliphantEleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman is on my summer reading list. Set in Glasgow, it’s about the emotional and psychological journey of a young woman from shy introvert with a dark past to living a more fulfilling and complete life through friendship and love. I’m looking forward to it.

 

 

 

Into the water imgPaula Hawkins’s new novel Into the Water is everywhere, following the phenomenal success of The Girl on the Train which I’ve just finished listening to on audiobook. I had to find out what all the fuss was about! I enjoyed it, but I found most of the characters a bit irritating (that could be the influence of the actors reading, however) and, as I said, thrillers are not my favourite genre. Into the Water is another psychological thriller about a series of mysterious drownings. Like The Girl on the Train, I think, it’s as much about the internal dramas experienced by the characters as it is about ‘events’ so I’m sure it’s gripping.

Your father's roomFinally, a little-known book that has caught my eye is Your Father’s Room by Michel Deon. Set in 1920s Paris and Monte Carlo (perfect if you’re off to France for your hols!) it is a fictionalised memoir based on the author’s own life. Looking back on his childhood in an unconventional bohemian family during the interwar period, the elderly narrator recounts how the events of his early life, including family tragedy, affected him growing up. I really need to read this; I’m writing a book myself partly based on my grandmother’s life in East London in the same period so I think I could learn a lot from how the author approaches this genre.

 

I hope you have found these suggestions helpful. If you have any of your own, I’d love to hear them. 

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My life with Jane Austen

Today marks the 200 year anniversary of the death of Jane Austen. She died at the age of 41 in Winchester, having moved there whilst ill to spend her final days with her beloved sister Cassandra. She lived almost all of her too-short life in Hampshire. She first lived in the village of Steventon, where her father was the local vicar. After her father’s death she spent some time in Southampton, but it is Chawton near Alton with which she is most closely associated and where, between 1809 and 1817, she wrote most of her great works. Her former home is now the Jane Austen museum and provides a centre for scholarship of her work as well as a place of pilgrimage for her many millions of fans across the globe.

Like many women writers of her time, Jane did not achieve fame and fortune for her work in her lifetime. It was only in the second half of the 19th century, many decades after her death, that she grew in renown, although many at the time still did not favour her writing. It was considered too subtle for Victorian tastes, lacking in powerful sentiment and extravagant prose. It was only really as literary taste evolved that she was more widely appreciated in the 20th century as being way ahead of her time.

2017-07-18 12.56.38I fell in love with Jane Austen in my teens, and I have never fallen out of love with her. The first book I read was Pride and Prejudice, and I remember I much preferred this colourful collection of sisters to Louisa May Alcott’s in Little Women! But it wasn’t until I read Emma for my English Literature A level that I really ‘got’ Jane Austen and I was blown away. Even now when I read Austen I still see her writing as impossibly brilliant. And then when you think about the life she led, her modest rural upbringing, her insight into human character is barely plausible. After Emma I quickly gobbled up all of Austen’s work (sadly, there is too little of it) and my favourite is probably Mansfield Park.

At times, I have felt rather unfashionable saying that Austen is in my top three favourite authors (another being Emily Bronte, who only wrote one book, and was said not to be a fan of Austen). Many people, who have not read Austen deeply, assume she is rather staid and formal and for the middle-class and middle-aged. But to me she is an icon, a woman doing what she was good at in an era when women writers were virtually non-existent and if they were published it was under a masculine pseudonym. Yes, you can argue the range of her subject matter is limited, but she is so much more than that. She tells truth.

In this bicentenary year, there are many celebrations planned, many of them in Hampshire, unfortunately for me! You can find out about the various events planned here. She will also grace the new British £10 note to be issued by the Bank of England in September:

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The anniversary of Jane Austen’s death provides an opportunity to celebrate her great achievements as a writer. For me, she deserves to stand alongside Shakespeare as one of the literary greats at the heart of British arts and culture.

What is your favourite Austen novel?

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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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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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#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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