Thursday, 24 October 2013

Review: Purple Hibiscus By Chimanda Ngozi Adichie

I read this because I'd previously read Half of a Yellow Sun and I'd thought it was amazing, it totally blew me away. This book wasn't quite so good, but really, what's going to be? But it was still good. The book engages with gender, class, colonialism, religion, and coming of age through the eyes of 15 year old Kambili.

 Like in Half of a Yellow Sun, Adichie has a very nuanced understanding of how these things relate to and influence each other and she uses that to weave a compelling engaging story.

 Kambili's relationship with her father seemed very real to me, that he was abusive to her, her mother, and her brother and she was terrified of him but adored and idolised him at the same time. It really resonated with me how much of the abuse stemmed from an oppressive religion and how her father was seen as a good godly man in his community, how he is generous and caring to those outside his home, how he cares about standing up for others and what he believes, but in his domestic sphere he is a controlling abusive tyrant who terrifies his wife and children.

 The book deals a lot with religion, with how the religion of the colonisers effects the colonised, how Kambili imagines God and Jesus as white, which is not something I have ever thought about before but of course makes perfect sense. It interrogates  what it does to ones sense of self if one imagines a supposedly perfect God as significantly different to yourself. One of the running threads in the book was how her fathers conversion to christianity created a rift between him and her grandfather who believed in and practiced traditional Igbo religion, how her father was more concerned about his concept of his fathers soul than their current relationship. It made me think about how oppressive angry tyrannical religious environments damage both people and whole communities and are kept in place through fear.

The relationships between women was interesting, in the way they both supported and conflicted with each other. The support was shown in the way that Kambali's Aunt treated her mother and the way she called her "My wife" which is a traditional form of address that a woman will call her sister in law to express her affection and acceptance of her place in the family. The development of the relationship between Kambali and her cousin  began with  deep divisions around class, about the fact that Kambali's family was far more wealthy and because of that in some ways was far more sheltered than her cousins. But eventually despite that the relationship between them became warm and close and supportive.

 There's a lot, lot more in this book especially touching on issues of masculinity and Kambali's sexual awakening which is real and complicated in a way that it often isn't in many books.

The edition I read was a P.S version so it had a profile of Adichie in the back and in it she talks about how important other Nigerian writers have been in her journey to become a writer

"Reading Achebe gave me permission to write about my world, he transported me to a past that was both familiar and unfamiliar, a past I imagined my great grandfather lived. Looking back, I realize that what he did for me at the time was validate my history, make it seem worthy in some way"

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Review: Guilty Pleasures by Laurel K Hamilton

This book was published in 1993 a year after The Buffy the Vampire Slayer film was released and five years before BTVS the series aired so I don't know how much Hamilton was influenced by Whedon or how much Whedon was influenced by Hamilton but this book is very Buffyesque. The protagonist, Anita Blake, is a abnormally strong, fast quipping, vampire slayer and "necromancer" or animator, someone who can raise the dead for the purpose of settling wills or solving murders. She is so good at what she does that among vampires she is known as "the executioner"

It was an easy, engaging read, interesting enough, the only bits that seem to drag were the ones that were supposed to be romantic, but that may be as much about my complete uninterest in romance as about the writing style . I also think I'm not really the target demographic for the book, although the protagonist is 24, it reads very much like a teen/young adult book.

The book touches lightly, very lightly, on "big" questions such as what does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be a killer even if you do it under the blessing of the law? What would happen if religion became obsolete? I think it could have investigated these questions on a deeper level.

 There was a lot of Expecting Someone Taller as there is in Buffy too, and it made me wonder if in these cases it was code for "expecting someone male."

I thought the relationship between Anita and her friend, Ronnie, was interesting and real, both close and complicated as women's friendships often are. I really liked the way they trusted and depended on each other and the way they worried about each other. It seemed Ronnie was the only person who genuinely cared about Anita without any ulterior motives. which is pretty radical because women are so often writen as competting with and scheming against each other. I really would have liked to see more of Anita and Ronnie's interactions

I liked Anita's fallibility and vulnerabilities, her existing scars, her understanding that there's a really high price for what she does but she chooses to do it anyway. The scene where the vampire bite in her neck was being cleaned with holy water made me cringe but it was part of a running thread through the book about the pain and discomfort and danger she was prepared to go through to keep her city safe

Hamilton is not a writer I would seek out but if I stumble across her books I wouldn't turn them down either and I can totally see why someone fifteen or so years younger than me would love them

Changing my mind: after the first month

So I've been doing this project for about a month and I think it's already changing the way I think, I'm becoming incredibly impatient with all forms of media for their lack of women's representation and their lack of women creators. and the casual, insidious misogyny and erasure of women's experiences, achievements, and lives. and the way they kill off women with impunity.

 I know at the beginning of this blog I said that I probably would read some books by men for this project, but I think I've changed my mind about that, I think I only want to read women because women's experiences are different from men's, even men who are silenced and sidelined by the mainstream

 I'm becoming actively more aware, rather than just intellectually aware, of the lack of women that get published in most genres. (and I haven't even yet found ten contemporary books about nature writing written by women even though there are so many written by men.)

Its been a really good month for  women writers Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature and  Eleanor Catton won the Booker Prize,   But that doesn't mean there's been an overall change in the culture of publishing, reviewing, or attitudes to literature in relation to women writers.(After all still male untalented hacks feel that they can opine on their craftswomensship, I've never read Munro but I have read Ellis and works of art they are not)

I'm becoming more aware, not only of the lack of women's voices but of which women's voices are generally allowed and which are ignored or silenced, so while I am only going to read women I am also going to try and focus on women who don't get heard as much.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Link Post

Empowering Books For Little Black Girls
From the moment they come into the world, little black girls works just a little bit harder than their peers to construct a healthy sense of self in a society that prizes values and attributes that don't mirror those they possess. We as their caregivers must help them find the way by offering them as many affirming messages as possible. We can do this with our words and by our example; however, books can also prove to be important points of contact into the souls and spirits of black girls. Here, we've compiled a list of books to promote a positive self-image in younger, black girls.

LGBT YA by the Numbers
In 2013, it looks like that gender equality has disappeared, and we’ve gone back to a majority of books about cisgender male characters. Among the mainstream and Big 5 publishers, approximately 59% of LGBT YA books were about cisgender male characters, with 34% about cisgender females. Additionally, this year saw one novel about an intersex character (Pantomime by Laura Lam) and one novel about a transgender character (Freakboy by Kristin Elizabeth Clark).
The Blog Post That Lost Me Half my Audience
to watch women and their opinions removed from the dialogue entirely was really bizarre, and a testament to how difficult it is to change the narrative of how we talk about things that are important. How wonderful it is that sexism is now deemed important to talk about… but why are we only recommending male “experts”? Why are all the women who championed and participated in these very public conversations (some of them for many, many years) ... very rarely quoted? Why aren’t they the first folks that come to mind (to women and men!)? Are people scared of them? Do they forget them?
 The Gender Coverup
And the simple fact of the matter is, if you are a female author, you are much more likely to get the package that suggests the book is of a lower perceived quality. Because it's "girly," which is somehow inherently different and easier on the palate. A man and a woman can write books about the same subject matter, at the same level of quality, and that woman is simple more likely to get the soft-sell cover with the warm glow and the feeling of smooth jazz blowing off of it. ... We're the high fructose corn syrup of literature, even when our products are the same. It's okay to sell the girls as long as we have some men to provide protein.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Reading Plan for the Next Month

  1. Anita Blake: Guilty Pleasures by Laurel K Hamilton  (Fiction)
  2. Schoolgirl fictions by Valerie Walkerdine (Feminist Theory)
  3. Dragonflight: In search of Britains dragonflies and damselflies  by Marianne Taylor (Nature Writing)
  4. Missed  Her by Ivan E Coyote (Queer Autobiography)
  5. Bi: Notes for a bisexual revolution by Shiri Eisner  (Queer Non Fiction)
  6. Unruly Bodies: life writing by women with Disabilities ed Susannah B Minz (Feminism, Disability)
  7. Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Post Colonial Fiction)
  8. Word Warriors: 35 women in the spoken word revolution ed Eve Ensler and Alix Olson  (Feminism, Poetry)

Review: And Still I Rise: A Mothers Search for Justice by Doreen Lawrence

This was a really hard read, unsurprisingly. losing a child must be the hardest thing in the world but losing a child to racism and then having that compounded by the racist society around you must make it so much worse.

The first part of the book documents Doreen Lawrence's life starting in Jamaica and then moving to England, her marriage and the birth of her three children. It then  moves on to Stephen's murder, the emotional aftermath and the fight for both justice and to highlight the racism of the police service, the judiciary and the wider society.

 She explains how straight from the beginning they were dismissed, patronised and ignored by the police:

"Already despite the shock and grief I was feeling, it seemed strange to me that when we turned up to the hospital on Thursday night the police must have seen us coming...and yet no police officer said anything to us. No one offered to take us home after we were told Stephen was dead . No one took our addresses or any other felt as though we were completely isolated  and that our wonderful young man's death was of little concern to anyone in authority" p73
She writes of how the police initially assumed that Stephen was in a gang and his death was a result of a gang fight even when they were repeatedly told that this wasn't the case. She writes of how the police didn't understand and judged negatively, how after the murder, there were always lots of Black family and friends in the Lawrence house supporting the family, how the police were suspicious of these people and "acted as if some of these people might just be involved in the murder" The police behaved as if the Lawrences were not smart enough to understand police procedure and what they were doing about the case. After the inquests and the McPherson report it turned out that the police were not doing everything they could, that they lied about having their best detectives on the case and they ignored a flood of tip offs from local people telling them who committed the murder. While at the same time the police managed to catch a burgular in the area who was a black man

"The black thief took priority over the white murderers. Even in my darkest moments I would not have believed this possible"

Stephens Murder was not highly publicised, was hardly picked up by the press at all until the Lawrences met with Nelson Mandela and Mandela made a statement about it, because no one cared about the murder of a young black man.

One thing that really struck me was how activist groups with their own agendas tried to jump on the campaign and turn it or use it for their own agendas rather than supporting getting justice for Stephen. I have to say i am not at all supprised that the SWP was one of these groups

"The Anti Nazi League (ANL), which we had by then come to realise was a front for the SWP, wanted to hold it in southeast London  around the BNP "bookshop" ...At a meeting...the argument was put to a vote. The central London march was agreed.While we were away in Jamaica burying our son, it emerged that the ANL had organised  a demonstration in the south-east regardless of our wishes and of the vote at the meeting" p116

And it just reminded me how carefull we, as activists, have to be not to hijack or let causes be hijacked by people with other agendas, and why so many people are suspicious of or refuse to work with the SWP because they do this sort of thing ALL THE TIME (Still! Twenty years later!)

Doreen Lawrence comes across as angry, understandably, and  she channels all her anger into energy for her fight for justice, her anger is controlled, focused, planned almost so she can get the most out of it.  she says
"it was anger that stopped me going insane, anger at all the things the police were doing and saying, anger at the judicial system, the lawyers exploiting loopholes for the suspects, the complacent judges bending over backwards and never in our direction"

She talks about how one of the things that helps her move towards a place where she is comfortable with herself is the work of Black writers such as Maya Angelou, Terry Mcmillan, Alice Walker, How Black historical work made up for what she wasn't taught in school, and how she read the autobiographies of Black civil rights leaders. She comments:

"There are still so few meaningful writings about our Black British experience; I feel that we are still playing catch up, and I would love to see more young black writers addressing the realities of our situation in Britain"
And this is partly why diversity in writing and publishing is so important, So everybody, not just white middle class men, can see themselves reflected back in the books they read.

At the time of publication of this book (2006) no one had been found guilty of Stephens murder but in 2012 two of a highly probable five suspects were given prison sentences of fifteen and fourteen years.

This year Doreen Lawrence has been awarded a Labour Peerage for her work

"A Labour source said: "Doreen Lawrence is a hero of modern Britain. The strength and courage she has shown in her fight for justice for her son Stephen has had a profound impact on attitudes to racism and policing. Her campaigning has changed, and will continue to change, our country for the better.
 She acknowledges in her book and is proud of all the changes that have come about because of her persistence and campaigning but she also warns against complacency:

"When people say things like 'you've changed policing in this country' I feel a chill, because it sounds as if we're all right now, and it is so easy to find reasons not to keep a close eye on what those with the power in our society do. It is easy to criminalise whole groups of people and not take seriously what is done to them by others. This book for me is a warning as well as a reminder. May you never experience what I have experienced"

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Review: The Adventures Of Alyx by Joanna Russ

I haven't read any Joanna Russ before, though I've known about her as a writer of feminist fiction and feminist theory. After reading this I'm not sure I would go out of my way to read any more of her fiction but I will check out her theory stuff.

 I liked this book, I wouldn't say it was brilliant but within its genre and time it is definitely very solid. it was pretty much a trailblazer in having a female protagonist in fantasy/scifi stories and she's an interesting multi dimensional protagonist (at a time when male sci fi writers were even bad at writing men) I think it probably made more sense to me than it might to a lot of people because I've read an enormous amount of sci/fi fantasy that was written in the same general era. (The book was published in 1982 but the stories were written in the late 60's/early 70's)

The book is a collection of stories, some fantasy, one sci fi.  All but one of them revolve around a woman called |Alyx who is a small time thief and lockpick. I liked the science fiction story best, maybe because it was the longest, maybe because it's a genre I am more familiar with. I felt the longer length of the story gave the reader more time to get to know the characters. I also liked the juxtaposition of the thoughtful, imperfect Alyx with the one dimensional cliched hero figure (I'm pretty sure it was a deliberate cliche to highlight the type of protagonist that usually gets written into this kind of book)

It was a short book and I don't have a whole lot to say about it but I'm glad I read it

Monday, 7 October 2013

Review: Strands A year of Discoveries on the Beach by Jean Sprackland

 with the exception of one chapter I really, really enjoyed this book it was a really engaging, enveloping read. I loved the way she entwined nuggets of history, science, environmentalism, , folklore, and archaeology together with the descriptive pieces, I love the way she started with the immediate local environment and ecology beneath her feet and widened out to talk about the global and how those things were connected.

I learnt a lot about sea life, my favorite being the Sea Mouse and the Sea Potato  I also really liked her random nuggets of scientific knowledge such as:

 "You can keep a peacock feather for years and the blue will not fade; ... the reason for the longevity of these colours is that they are a sort of optical illusion, made up not of pigment but of photo-tonic crystal structures generated within scales on the...feather.The same phenomenon is responsible for the Sea Mouses fantastic skirt of rainbow hairs"

 The basic shape of the book is that Sprackland documents a year of walking on one particular stretch of beach and the things she finds there, that get washed up or uncovered by the sea, things such as dead sea creatures from seals to starfish, driftwood, china, a shipwreck, seven thousand year old footprints, enormous amounts of small bits of plastic, two messages in a bottle. She takes each item and weaves a net of knowledge around them, reflections on their place on the beach,in time, in her life, in the world

The chapter I didn't like was the one on Prozac and what that is doing to the ecosystem. I thing its important to know what it is doing to the ecosystem but I feel she ends up blaming depressed people themselves for the damage it does and minimizing depression. I've been on Prozac since i was seventeen and i can't function without it, I've tried several times but every time i stop taking it i come to a grinding halt. i just stop functioning. there are lots of things i am willing to give up for the environment but my sanity isn't one of them. and as i understand the chapter on Prozax isn't even entirely factual accurate. Sprackland  suggests strongly that all SSRI's contain Fluoxetine which is not true and she states that everybody who take Proxac looses their sex drive and is unable to fall in love, neither of which have been the case for me. She also seems to minimize depression by saying Proxac is "oversubscribed" Maybe it is, but also maybe we live in a world that damages so many people and pushes them in to unnatural  shapes and that's why they end up depressed.

Sprackland is a poet and she has a poets understanding that the sea while being a real concrete place is also a liminal place, a place of soft edges,blurred  boundaries, a place where stories are told and which humans are pulled to

Sprackland gently but persistently talks about the environmental damage that humans are doing to the sea and shorelines, about the connectedness of environment and how what  we do on the land effects the environment hundreds of miles out to sea. in her chapter on plastic that she finds at the beach she says:
 "The [North Pacific] Gyre has become home to something known as the Great Pacific Garbage  Patch, a gigantic stew of suspended plastic and other human debris.. estimates put the garbage patch at a hundred million tons, and it is aid by some observers to cover an area twice the size of Texas"

she  also talks about the damage this waste does to sea life, how they mistake small pieces of plastic for food and it ends up killing them. In another chapter she explains how seals often wash up upon beaches after having been fatally wounded by boat propellers, how half the know species of shark are now endangered

one of the interesting things was how she talked  about the history of food in relation to the sea , i am known to grumble frequently about how "poor people food" or things that people ate becuae they had to, has now become really expensive, gourmet food and she talks about that a couple of times

"its typical: as with Lava Bread so with Samphire, an ordinary wild food- something you can forage for, free of charge - falls almost completely into obscurity, and then is revived as an expensive menu item"p 87
 but she also points out that this is  not always a bad thing

"it is easy to be cynical about these reinventions. but perhaps something genuine and good is going on here: the rediscovery of the local, the home grown. A revived awareness of the richness all around us. A desire to know where things come from before they end up on our plates" p62

And I'd never really thought about that before, while it is true that while these items are only on the menu of gourmet restaurants only affluent people will be able to afford them, there is a pattern of "posh" food becoming more mainstream and mundane throughout society which may encourage people to start collecting this food themselves from the wild, which would be a really good thing, especially in the current economic climate

  I really liked the way  she went through the whole year, not just documenting the things she found on the beach but also describing the weather and the state of the sea.

There's a lot more in this book than I can even write about here but this book it's absolutely worth a read and it's definitely one to keep and dip in and out of.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

On not writing about books I hate

So I read a book written by a woman, it was an obscure work of fiction published in 1993 and I hated it. The protagonist was a horrible person who seemed to hate pretty much all other women, the protagonist and the author seemed to have a massive amount of victim blaming going on and just there was pretty much nothing redeeming about the book.

I started to review it for this blog an then I just thought "what for?" I thought about how I wanted this blog to be a positive space for writers and readers, how I wanted it to be a supportive, encouraging space. I want this to be a place to showcase interesting, entertaining, thoughtful, writing. I don't want this to be a place for ripping women writers down, plenty of other places do that, that's partly why I started this blog.

I know that some people will see this as me being "unbalanced"or "biased" and yes, yes I am being those things because the literary world is so unbalanced in the other direction, towards, mainstream men, that it needs to be tipped. And I'm not denying or hiding the fact that sometimes women write bad books, of course they do, but people are much more likely to jump on negative reviews of women writers than they are of negative reviews of mainstream men writers to "prove" that women can't write or can't write well.

If I read a book that contains some very problematic things but which overal I like then I will tackle its flaws as well as its strong points.  If I read a book that is contemporary and well known and it contains ideas that are damaging to oppressed people then I might review it and negatively critique it depending on the contents of the book, how popular it is and whether other reviewers are pointing out its faults. But generally if I read a book and I really don't like it I won't review it at all, I will just go on to the next one

Thursday, 3 October 2013


"These are personal stories and the science informs the narrative and the opinion being expressed.  The natural world is a multi-sensory space and has multiple significances for each individual.
‘Autobiographical’ is often used as an insult in regard to women’s writing, as if by expressing factual data through the medium of one’s own life somehow reduces its credibility.  But it could be seen that scientific objectivity in regard to the sensory world is a bit of a fallacy anyway.
We can only ever experience anything through our own senses and perception, and these are specific to an individual.  Through these two books we are given a window onto the beauty and power of the natural world through these writers’ experience of it."
Why being a POC Author Sucks sometimes
"I am a person of color, a minority, and I am a published author. Did it feel like it was harder for me than a caucasian author to get published? I can't answer that. I have no idea what their path to publication felt like. But I can talk about my own path and the roadblocks that I came across. I can talk about being told over and over again by other writers and publishing professionals that no one would buy a book about ancient Korea. I can talk about having my writing ridiculed by saying it reads like a bad translation of a Chinese book, even though English is my native language, and I'm not Chinese. I have numerous tales of the type of dissuading I endured, but I didn't give up because I believed that there needed to be more books like mine out there. And I was extremely lucky to get published by a wonderful publisher."

Government has failed on library closures, says children's laureate
"Libraries are the best literacy resource we have," she said. "For children, they provide an equaliser that allows everyone the access to books, storytelling sessions, homework clubs, expert librarians who provide non-partisan assistance and advice regarding books and warm and safe environments within which to discover and explore the world of literature. Libraries switch children on to a love of reading, with all the ensuing benefits, and can make them lifelong readers. Without them, literacy may increasingly become the province of the lucky few, rather than the birth right of everyone."

Interview with Lionel Shriver
 "One of the bizarre things about recent times and this whole phenomenon of "most fiction readers are women" is that we have somehow flipped that around to being insulting to women. "Oh, those women, they just have a bunch of time on their hands?" In the olden days, literature was a man's pursuit, and women shouldn't worry their pretty little heads about it. It was about serious, philosophical issues and grand drama, and literature was a man's world and a man's concern. And now that it is a woman's world and a woman's concern, it's considered kind of pathetic. Nobody in publishing ever says that, but there is definitely an element of condescension going on here."

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

More on Kathleen Jamie


Kathleen Jamie was joint winner of the Dolman Travel Book of the Year award with her new collection of nature writing Sightlines

The Scottish Review of books published an interesting interview with her in which she talks about poetry, women writers and nature writing in context of Sightlines and her previous collection of Nature writing Findings
" In terms of women, I can think of Nan Shepherd, but in the whole of the UK, I can’t think of any other women writers like this.

Nan Shepherd was unknown to me until I started working on this book. She was a bit of a cult figure. The Living Mountain was thrust upon me by an ornithologist. It was like it was being passed around in samizdat, she was out of print, almost unknown. I’m sorry she hasn’t lived to see that book get the attention it deserves. But I can’t think of other women… I’m sorry, I can’t even say the words ‘nature writers’, I can’t get it out of my gob … other women pursuing these interests. Why? Why? When women are botanists and birdwatchers and doctors. There’s a lot more women poets now than there are women nature writers. I don’t know the answer to that.

The more you think about it the less explicable it is. I’ve sometimes thought there are fewer women writers because maybe they lived in the countryside, not near a community of other writers, but you’d have thought that would be precisely the environment in which you’d start writing about what’s on your doorstep.

Or maybe you do need that community. Maybe that’s a good point. Because obviously I went into it from being a poet, in a literary community. But to start from scratch, out in the sticks on your own, maybe that’s not doable."
 The Guardian has an overview of her life and career including her thoughts on nature writing
 I do think that part of the reason for Findings' success, for example, was that the land and landscapes were described by an indigene. Not by someone arriving as a tourist – or crucially, as an owner. On the scandalous business of land and land ownership, especially in Scotland, where 80% of the land is owned by 10% of the people, I feel I might be striking a tiny blow: by getting out into these places, and developing a language and a way of seeing which is not theirs but ours. And when we do that – step outdoors, and look up – we're not little cogs in the capitalist machine. It's the simplest act of resistance and renewal. This isn't new, of course, but alas it's still necessary. Never more so."..."Up to the mid-1960s we had something called nature writing, but it just vanished," Jamie says. "It went down its little burrow and stayed there. It wasn't until 40 years on that we started to worry and had to reappraise our relationship with what's around us. Suddenly it was possible to come out with this new kind of work that renegotiated our place in the natural world. I'd like to think that's what books like mine were busy doing."