A year of reading women

365 days of women's lit

Diana Wynne Jones: Howl’s Moving Castle

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You’d have to have been taking part in a three-year BBC 4 social documentary recreating the living conditions of 18th century crofters not to have picked up on the YA hype that’s been going around lately. Young adult fiction (just in case you are still struggling out of your smock) is massive and, as one literary agent tweeted breathlessly from the Frankfurt Book Fair last month, even publishers who would never have dipped their toes into the teen lit market before are crying out for dystopia, fantasy, werewolves and vampires.

Bloggers are on to it too. In fact many of the comments and feedback I’ve had for this site have involved recommendations of YA books to read. And one name has cropped up again and again: Diana Wynne Jones.

Published in 1986, one of the English writer’s most famous novels Howl’s Moving Castle has been reaping the benefits of the YA surge. Set in the magical kingdom of Ingary, it follows Sophie Hatter as she sets out to seek her fortune in the wake of being turned into an old woman by the Witch of the Waste. Sophie is thrown on the mercy of Wizard Howl, whose moving castle has been menacing her town, and who has a nasty reputation for sucking out the hearts of young girls. But of course nothing is quite as it first appears and before long she is striding around the country in seven league boots, casting all sorts of spells in an effort to defeat the witch and return Ingary to its happily ever after.

So far, so conventional. What lifts the narrative out of its fairytale formula, though, is the wit and verve with which Jones sets out her stall. We hear that magical folk only wear cloaks and buckled boots on festival days and would never dream of putting them on for work, and that ‘it is quite a risk to spank a wizard for getting hysterical about his hair’. And when Sophie makes it through the castle’s mysterious black exit to the weird land of Wales (where the provenance of Howl’s name — Howell — suddenly becomes clear) her response to cars and computers is a joy to read.

I loved it. But one of the things I loved most about it was how familiar it felt. Far from being part of a brave new genre, this book took me back to the children’s stories I got from my Mum’s collection — forgotten classics such as Marion St John Webb’s The Little Round House (London, 1956), which, for all their political incorrectness, managed to spin engrossing yarns with wit and clever observations layered on top.

Judging by Wynne Jones, I couldn’t help wondering whether YA fiction is simply what used to be thought of as good children’s lit. And if, instead of creating a magical new genre, publishers have simply shrunk childhood and pulled off the greatest marketing trick of the 21st century to date.

Picture by laserbub

Written by londonchoirgirl

November 17, 2011 at 2:13 pm

Heather Peace: All to Play For

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I first met Tom Chalmers six years ago when I went to interview him about his bold decision to launch his own publishing company at the age of just 25. It was the dawn of the mass-market e-book era, independent bookshops were folding like origami and the only works that mainstream publishers seemed interested in selling were ‘autobiographies’ by celebrities with one-word names. Watching Chalmers launch his plucky little list of Legend Press print titles on to the turbulent waters of the book trade felt like witnessing someone begin an attempt to row round the world in a bath tub: it was daring, intrepid and more than a bit mad.

So it was great to bump into Tom in a pub a couple of weeks ago and hear that, in spite of all the squalls, twisters and hurricanes buffeting the literary market in recent years, Legend Press continues to go from strength to strength. I was also intrigued to hear that, since taking on a female member of the editorial team, the list has incorporated more women’s lit, and was only too pleased to take up Tom’s offer of sampling one of the latest titles.

Judging by Heather Peace’s All to Play For, the company is in very good shape indeed. Ambitious and wide-ranging, this insider’s portrait of the BBC (Peace was a script editor in the corporation for much of the early-mid nineties) charts the careers of a group of misfits and megalomaniacs as they struggle to carve out a career in television in the face of cuts, political pressures and vicious micro-management.

At its very best, it feels as though Peace has snuck you past security at Television Centre and given you carte blanche to wander in and out of production meetings and scheduling sessions, rummaging through people’s desk drawers as you go. This is made even better by the fact that Peace clearly has an axe or two to grind about some aspects of the Beeb in the nineties and combines this with an ability to draw a range of compelling, believable characters to body forth her peeves in glorious Technicolor.

That said, the book could have done with some tighter editing. Rants on David Cameron’s government, the youth of today and the challenges of writing a novel can make you feel as though you’ve been cornered by someone’s verbose uncle at a party when you’re itching to talk to the more interesting people in the room (of which there are many). Unless you’re Nabokov writing Pale Fire, phrases such as ‘I’m rambling’ and ‘sorry if I’m labouring the point’ are usually a cry for the pruning shears.

Overall, though, in the best traditions of BBC scheduling, this is a highly enjoyable spread of light entertainment and cultural commentary with some moments of high drama thrown in. I found myself thinking about it when I wasn’t reading it and looking forward to the hour I could spend with it on the tube.  Congratulations to Peace and Legend Press. More please.

Picture by I-b-p-2011

Written by londonchoirgirl

November 1, 2011 at 11:02 am

Carol Birch: Jamrach’s Menagerie

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This year’s Booker Prize brought out the best and the worst of the UK literati. The best was the long-awaited triumph of Julian Barnes, thrice the bridesmaid but never before the bride, for The Sense of an Ending (which I haven’t read yet, owing to my women-only diet, but should be a worthy winner if his previous efforts are anything to go by).The worst was a maelstrom of barracking and back-biting about the shortlisting and  judging process, centring around the issue of readability versus quality.

The pity of it was that the debate shifted the focus away from the shortlisted novels, many of which were controversial and intriguing works in their own rights — none more so than Carol Birch‘s 11th novel, Jamrach’s Menagerie. Set in the 19th century, the book weaves together two historical happenings — an escaped Bengal tiger’s brush with an eight-year-old boy in Victorian London and the shooting of a teenager sailor by his childhood friend after drawing straws — into a rich and wide-ranging adventure.

Told through the eyes of young Jaffy Brown, who takes to sea in search of a real-life dragon wanted for a wealthy client’s collection, the story has an episodic, almost picaresque feel to it. However, unlike many picaresque novels, in which writers often struggle to stitch substance into sensational tales of derring do, the novel brims with meaning and insight. Birch achieves this through her attention to detail and the fresh vision she brings to each scene. Thanks to her skill, even the ragged finger nails of  a street urchin take on a compelling quality, while the chaotic shop and menagerie of the kindly Jamrach are heady, enchanting creations.

But the crowning achievement comes when calamity strikes and Jaffy and is shipwrecked. Cast adrift in lifeboats for a good 100 pages or so, the motley band is pushed to the limits of existence and forced to taste the dregs of mortality (and each other).

A huddle of characters bobbing around on the ocean with nothing to do except butcher and eat those who die every now and again sounds like a commissioning editor’s nightmare, but in Birch’s  hands it is subtle, compelling and disturbingly visceral. I’ve never eaten human flesh (shock admission, I know), but after reading this book I feel as though I can still taste it.

Should Birch have been shortlisted for the Booker Prize? Was this one of the six best books published this year? I don’t know. Perhaps the plot is a little simplistic and linear. Maybe the later part of the book could have done with an edit or two more. To be honest, I don’t really care.

Whether it deserved the accolade or not, this is an exceptionally good book that whips along at a cracking pace, engrossing the reader in a world sturdy enough to bear the weight of some deep insights into what it means to be a member of humanity. Quality and readability combined. Who’d have thunk it?

Picture by Monceau

Written by londonchoirgirl

October 22, 2011 at 4:57 pm

Jilly Cooper: Prudence

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Yeah, yeah. I know what you’re thinking. I was thinking much the same when a friend thrust a copy of Prudence into my hands with instructions to read it for my blog.  Her attempt to reassure me that this was one of the early novels ‘before she got into threesomes’ and that anyway sex was only ever a tiny part of the Cooper experience only made things worse.

Who was she trying to kid? I’d seen the book jackets with the horse whips and basques and suspenders: Jump and Buck and whatever else they were called. Clearly — clearly — Jilly Cooper was all about sex. You didn’t have to have read her to know that. And if this was Jilly Cooper without the sex, it was definitely going to be very weak and very dull.  Like green tea without the… green.

Not a bit of it. From the gutsy opening scene at a raffish London party — complete with a guest who mistakes it for a fancy dress party and arrives togged up as a goat only to have his udders hurled out of the window — you know you are in for a witty, irreverent ride. As Prudence follows the mysterious Pendle to the Mulholland’s Bohemian family seat and tries to unpick the emotional knots that bind the family and herself, it’s impossible not to be drawn in. Forget the tea, this is gin and ginger wine with a whisky chaser to boot.

One of the best things about it is the humour, which comes not only from a number of neatly contrived calamities, but also from Cooper’s sparky prose. There are some excellent gags and oneliners (‘He’s been away all week shooting.’ ‘Grouse?’ ‘No. Butter commercials in Devon’) and some killer descriptions (the mother who’d ‘set like a pink blancmange on the sofa’, the dashingly serious journalist: ‘Each time he opened his mouth, I expected the Panorama signature tune to strike up’), some of which are every bit as good as Gibbons, Coward or Stoppard.

That said, it’s important to take the book on its own terms. High literature, this ain’t — no matter what the Harpers & Queen reviewer quoted as branding Cooper ‘the Jane Austen of our time’ on the jacket may think. Nor does it pretend to be. The plot is unapologetically predictable and the characterisation veers to fit it, much as the characters themselves must when they get behind the wheels of their expensive motors in a gin-sozzled haze.

The comfortable, upper-upper-middle-class horsiness will be too much for some readers to take. But those that can are in for a whole scullery-load of fun. This is a romp; a jolly; a lark. It is the definition of all those feel-good adjectives that have been worn thin on the jackets of a billion airport novels up and down the land. It is exactly the book to curl up with on a winter evening, to take to the beach or to stretch out with on the croquet lawn (whether you have one or not).

Thanks Anna — doubtless I’ll be back for more.

Picture by Walt Stoneburner

Written by londonchoirgirl

October 17, 2011 at 4:53 pm

Ann Patchett: Bel Canto

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Many of the books I’ve blogged about so far this year have dealt with the difficulty of reconciling people. From Marilyn French’s stark portrait of the gulf that separates men and women, to Trilby Kent’s depiction of the rift between coloniser and colonized, the impenetrability of the barriers that divide us — whether political, historical, physical or financial — are a recurring theme in women’s lit (perhaps in all lit, although it hasn’t struck me so forcibly before).

Ann Patchett‘s Bel Canto flirts with being an exception to this rule. Set in an anonymous South American state, this Orange Prize-winning work depicts the creation of an unlikely Utopia after a kidnap attempt finds a gaggle of rebel fighters holed up with 200 wealthy dinner guest hostages at the vice president’s mansion.

As days turn into weeks, the captors and captives’ perspectives soften and their horizons narrow until none can imagine an alternative existence. Set free from the straitjackets of their roles and routines, they are at liberty to structure their world afresh and explore the wells of potential — for music, communication and love — that everyday life too often leaves unplumbed.

Patchett’s skill lies in her ability to inhabit her characters, giving even the most peripheral a rich, inner life. The mystery of prayer, the alchemy of translation, and the curious blend of the physical and the mental that singing requires are all bodied forth, clothed in lavish perceptions.

Yet it’s the little human touches that bring the story home: the longing for a piece of cake you’ve saved to the end of a meal, the memory of a childhood party, the president’s secret penchant for a particular soap opera that means he misses the party — and scuppers the kidnap plans — in the first place.  

In fact, human frailty — or at least humankind’s collective inability to get past the barriers that the characters overcome on a personal level — is ultimately what brings Utopia crashing to earth. While the epilogue may feel a little too neat for some, there can be no question of the power of the novel’s final events.

As the threads of understanding that the narrative stretches across political, religious, national and financial boundaries tremble and snap, you feel deep sadness that the level of harmony reached (in all senses) in the compound cannot be translated into the wider world.

I doubt I’ll read anything as wistful for a long time.

Picture (from Libya) by Nasser Nouri

Written by londonchoirgirl

September 28, 2011 at 7:40 am

Kat Banyard: The Equality Illusion

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A couple of years ago, I was queuing for a cashpoint in Queen’s Park, sporting a baggy jumper and the remnants of a hangover, and arguably not looking my radiant best. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help being taken aback when the man in front of me — a late-middle-aged chap with a thick French accent — turned, pointed to a heavily made-up woman in a shift dress and knee-high boots, and informed me: ‘You are not as beautiful as this girl’. I was so surprised to be addressed in this way that all I could do was voice an incredulous ‘So?’ at which this connoisseur of female beauty raised his eyebrows in disgust and turned away.

The world that Kat Banyard describes in The Equality Illusion is full of such incidents. Echoing Richard Dawkins in much more than her title, she sets out her stall passionately in her ‘Alarm call’ introduction, stating that ‘it is time to find the way back’ and recognise feminism as ‘one of the most vital social justice movements of our age’ by debunking the comfortable lie that we now live in an equal world and demonstrating that women are still very much considered as objects to please and serve men. 

There can be no doubt of the work and effort that has gone into the compilation of Banyard’s book. Based on hundreds of interviews with marginalised and vulnerable women, and bristling with statistics, this is an ambitious and heart-felt attempt to unpick the structures of everyday life.

When it works, it is compelling. The discussion of gender creation in young children, for example, with its examination of the active toys, pursuits and clothes we give baby boys and how they contrast to the passive, pretty and impractical objects with which we surround girls — and the way parents have been shown to reward assertive behaviour in boys and punish it in girls — is fascinating.

But it doesn’t always work. Much like Dawkins, Banyard is so passionate about her subject that she is often unable to give the case for the opposition its due (and sometimes neglects to acknowledge it altogether). For example, the possibility that a woman could enter prostitution through anything other than male coercion is never entertained. Instead, Banyard is relentless in her attacks on popular portrayals of prostitution such as the Billy Piper Secret Diary of a Call Girl series, which she sees as a gross and misleading glamorisation of a seedy and exploitative industry.

While she is right that that show is ridiculously silly — and while the sex trade clearly exploits many vulnerable people — Banyard conveniently neglects to mention that the concept for the programme was based on a blog by a real-life former prostitute, research scientist Dr Brooke Magnanti, who chose the occupation and appears pretty unscathed. (‘I didn’t go into it cheerfully, but I wasn’t resigned and broken either… I’ve felt worse about my writing than I ever have about sex for money,’ she told The Times in 2009.)

Similarly, again like Dawkins, Banyard has a tendency to get swept off into irrelevant arguments in her enthusiasm. Her analysis of the way the beauty industry works by playing on women’s insecurities may be accurate but is surely no different to the way advertising works across the spectrum. Fear of inadequacy has always been used to shift units, whether you’re selling compacts, cars or cottages in the Algarve.  

All of which is a shame, because Banyard has plenty of good stuff to say. It’s just that she weakens her argument (to use a traditionally male metaphor) by wanting to score more goals than the opposition in every match, rather than trusting that her line-up is strong enough to win on aggregate now and then and scoop the championship overall.

Nevertheless, I can’t help wishing she’d been standing behind me that day in Queen’s Park. Now that would have been entertaining… 

Picture by The Jordan Collective

Written by londonchoirgirl

September 18, 2011 at 2:35 pm

Rivka Galchen: Atmospheric Disturbances

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One of the great things about writing a blog like this is that you get recommendations of things to read. At first they come from friends, but pretty soon people you’ve never met all over the world are chiming in and bringing things to your attention that you would never have found on your own.

So when Andra Watkins joined the debate about magic realism that blew up in the comments to my post on The Tiger’s Wife, and suggested that I give a book about a man who ‘becomes convinced his wife is a doppelgänger and sets off for Argentina to find the “real” one’, I was intrigued.

As it turned out, reading this book in response to a suggestion from someone I didn’t know  over the internet was very fitting. Narrated by, in his own words, ‘a fifty-one-year-old male psychiatrist with no previous hospitalisations and no relevant past medical, social or family history,’ the novel charts the unravelling of reality as Leo gets sucked into the delusions of one of his patients. Increasingly convinced that the woman living with him is a simulacrum of his wife and that he is being recruited by the Royal Academy of Meteorology to help wage a war that involves controlling weather systems in parallel worlds, the New Yorker travels to South America, picking up coded messages, emails and signs from the mysterious professor Tzvi Gal-Chen (haven’t we seen that name somewhere before?).

Books like this live or die on the strength of the narrator’s voice and this novel thrives. Obsessive, quirky and clinical, Leo is constantly surprising. At times, particularly when constructing justifications for some of his more outlandish decisions, he recalls Nabokov’s  Humbert Humbert or John Nash in the 2001 film A Beautiful Mind, enabling the reader to inhabit the rogue selectiveness of the paranoid psychotic and the cruel, strange way that mental illness weaves itself through the personality so that it’s impossible to tell where the condition stops and the person begins.

There are some arresting insights into the more general business of living too. From the nonsense phrases that play at the back of the brain and the paranoid connections made between things by internet search results, to the way that a stain disintegrates into power when you pick at it with your thumb, Galchen is a past master at picking out the little details we are each usually alone with as we move through the world, whether sane or not.

Yet she is not about to let us get comfortable with the notion that what we are reading is purely the addled account of someone experiencing a mental breakdown. Throwing in just enough external coincidences to make Leo’s reading of events conceivable, she teases us with the possibility that his is in fact a reality where there are weather wars, doppelgänger wives and parallel worlds.

The conundrum of what is really going on in the book (and what ‘really’ really means) is something we can never be 100 per cent certain we have solved. Whether we try to explain the strange happenings as elements of magical realism, products of psychosis, or a conscious attempt to mislead, or whether we buy into them wholesale, there is no solid ground on which to base our interpretation. Without an independent, or at least second, perspective from which to calibrate our reading (as Tzvi Gal-Chen discusses in one of his papers on radar technology and the doppler effect), we are dependent on our own partial soundings to try and pinpoint truth.

Leo ponders the dilemma himself:

If a story seems too random, or perhaps too brilliant, for a ‘madman’ to have conceived of it himself, then consider that the ‘author’ might be reality and the ‘madman’ just reader. After all, only reality can escape the limits of our imagination.

But it doesn’t stop there. Qualified psychiatrist Galchen (the author, not the meteorologist) has left the door open for us to wander outside the bounds of the novel and question her storytelling too: her father, in ‘real’ life, is none other than Tzvi Gal-Chen, a professor of meteorology. And the family photograph of the Gal-Chens that Leo keeps on his fridge door is her own.

We buy into her story, suspend our disbelief and allow the narrative to sweep us along.  But what is really behind the words? What hybrid of experience, truth and fantasy constitutes her art?

Maybe the only distinction between madness and sanity is the extent to which you are able to make others believe your story could be true.

Picture by kristiewells

Written by londonchoirgirl

September 8, 2011 at 7:28 am

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