A year of reading women

365 days of women's lit

Archive for the ‘Published post 2000’ Category

Marilynne Robinson: Gilead

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Preachers tend to get a bad press in literature. From bumbling buffoons like Jane Austen’s Mr Collins through to Hilary Mantel’s sinister and erratically cruel Cardinal, it’s clear that there is not much love lost between many wordsmiths and the Church.

Much of this is no doubt justified by the countless instances of abuse of trust and power, not to mention downright idiocy, bodied forth in pulpits around the world across the centuries. Nonetheless, it was surprisingly refreshing to find an alternative perspective in Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead

Set in 1957, the novel is gathered together out of the final writings, recollections and pensees of the Reverend John Ames, a pastor in the two-horse town of Gilead in America’s Midwest. Aware that death is approaching fast and that he will not live to see his young son grow up, the old man sets about writing an extended letter that he hopes will explain something of his history, life and belief system to his child in years to come.

It sounds like a recipe for a huge helping of mawkish sentimentalism. And yet it absolutely isn’t. Instead, Robinson uses a talent for transfiguring the mundane to create a monument to the beauty of the human spirit and the honest attempt to seek out and remain faithful to truth, whatever it may be.

It’s a novel built on moments. The fragmentary nature of the narrative allows Ames to dwell on particular instances, imbuing them with significance because of the way he remembers them. The best of these have a poetic lyricism, backlit by Ames’s certainty about their eternal significance, which offers readers of any religious persuasion and none a compelling insight into the alchemy of faith.

Ames could be a prig, but he isn’t. Suspicious of the shiftless Jack Boughton, who he fears may have designs on his much younger wife, Ames wrestles with his own jealousy and paranoia, deceiving and rebuking himself by turns. He also loves life with a fierce passion that breaks through the measured prose, full of joy, wistfulness and poignancy: ‘Oh, I will miss the world!’ he exclaims in the middle of an anecdote.

This, coupled with Robinson’s excellent eye for awkwardness, and an impeccable interweaving of scripture, gives the narrative a richness and humanity guaranteed to sweep the reader along. I doubt there are many who make it through the final quarter without shedding a tear. 

Picture by Pam’s Pic-‘s

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Written by londonchoirgirl

December 27, 2011 at 8:53 pm

Grace Dent: How to Leave Twitter

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The two biggest books by British female journalists of 2011 are styled as ‘how to’ guides. While Caitlin Moran packages her witty and passionate, if self-contradictory, memoir-cum-feminist-manifesto-for-the-modern-gal as How to be a Woman, Guardian columnist Grace Dent brands her canter through the ills and marvels of microblogging site Twitter as a roadmap for leaving social media behind.

And the similarities don’t end there. Like Moran, Dent trades off the sharp, gag-packed style of much of her journalism in her book. You can almost hear the keyboard rattling as she sweeps you through the pros and cons of tweeting, following, unfollowing, ffing and much, much more.

Dent does a particularly nice line in witty similes, capturing all shades of virtual social awkwardness from the moment you join Twitter (‘you feel like an enormous, unpopular child lumbering into the sandpit bellowing “HALLO CAN I PLAY WITH YOU?”‘). Anyone who’s dipped a toe in the social media pond will recognise the description of ‘desktop multi-application spiralling circle of hell syndrome’ – it made my head ache in sympathy – and the series of succinct but oh-so-accurate character sketches of the different virtual personalities you might bump into online. At its best, the whole thing reads like an etiquette guide for the digital age – something you can imagine historians picking over in centuries to come to construct a vision of early twenty-first century mores.

There are some meatier points too. The consideration of the impact of Twitter on journalism and newsgathering – touched on here but worthy of several books in its own right – is interesting, as is Dent’s point that Twitter has provided a space for women to engage with each other and be witty in a way that few social structures and entertainment outlets have allowed for before.

Once more in line with Moran, Dent has an axe to grind on the subject of the under-representation of funny women in the media. Although I find it hard to believe that this is any more extreme than, say, the dearth of women in engineering or boardrooms, I was intrigued by Dent’s comments on the experience of being edited ‘to sound more like a woman’, chiming in as it did with some of my limited dealings with publishers.

The similarities end, however, when you step back and look at the bigger picture. Much as I have a problem with the fundamental contradiction of expounding an all-embracing philosophy of everybody living as one of ‘the guys’ while railing continually against the patriarchy, I have no doubt of Moran’s sincerity.

Dent’s work on the other hand feels much more cynical. She lays into boastposting (shamelessly tweeting your achievements), yet riddles her book with flattering anecdotes and tweets about herself; she sets out the need for heavy tweeters to be expert skim readers, yet repeats herself to the point where you can’t help applying the same technique to her book; she tears apart the hyped and misleading headlines splashed across women’s mags, but titles her book in the same way (this is not a book about leaving Twitter, in case you were wondering).

This isn’t necessarily a problem, but it’s something to be aware of when you pick the book. If you’re looking for funny reflections on the socmed generation in bitesize chunks, you’ll find them here. If you’re looking for the answer to life, the universe and everything… you won’t. But maybe that’s the point. Maybe the days of the earnest, self-help, ‘how to’ guides so beloved of the Bridget Jones generation are over. And maybe that’s not a bad thing.

Picture by Travelin’ Librarian

Written by londonchoirgirl

December 19, 2011 at 10:43 am

Miriam Toews: Irma Voth

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Of all the book bloggers out there (and there are quite a lot of us), there are few more established and respected than the Dovegreyreader. Prolific yet discerning, this Devon-based woman of letters tears through books at the rate that most of the rest of us Brits go through cups of tea. 

So when I read that Miriam Toews was one of the Dovegreyreader’s favourite writers, it seemed obvious to include Toews’s latest novel on my list of books by women writers  for this year.

Set in the arid plains of Mexico, the novel draws on Toews’ own Mennonite background to provide a portrait of a young woman struggling to build an identity for herself after she is shunned by the closed and traditional community in which she was raised. When a film crew comes to shoot near her home, Irma Voth finds herself caught up with a crowd of people who think and act in ways she has never experienced before and begins a journey that will lead her to question and confront the rules and memories that have held her captive.

I can see why the Dovegreyreader rates Toews. Packed with striking insights and unusual perspectives, Toews’s writing is at once powerful and delicate. On the surface, nothing very much happens for long stretches of this novel, but the narrative is alive and thrilling, feeding off Irma Voth’s sublimated fury and grief and the thousand thoughts and impressions that make the wilderness sing.

Toews is one of the best writers of dramatic irony I have ever read. Time and again, she sets up and plays out misunderstandings that the reader can see through before the character does, wringing a great deal of tension and poignancy from her scenes in the process.

It’s a tough book, but it’s not without humour. Drafted in to translate for the German Mennonite actress, Voth finds herself getting creative with the script, so that the words the character says are often a wry comment on the male-authored script (as well as an expression of Voth’s fears and desires).

The book also yielded the second description I have come across this year of a woman embroidering secret, subversive messages into clothes (the first was in Siri Hustvedt’s The Summer without Men). I’m not sure if anyone has made a study of subversion and sewing in women’s literature, but it seems that this might be a rich seam for inquiry (if you’ll pardon the pun).

There were one or two moments that felt slightly contrived – particularly some of the more philosophical pronouncements from the film director Diego and the revelation of the fate of Voth’s father at the end.  All in all, though, this was an engrossing read that managed to illuminate a little-known way of life without any of the voyeurism usually attached to such works. Highly recommended. 

Picture by crowderb

Written by londonchoirgirl

December 6, 2011 at 3:07 pm

Maile Chapman: Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto

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There can be few ancient Greek tragedies more disturbing than Euripides’ The Bacchae. Building to the cataclysmic scene in which the possessed women of Thebes tear their kinsman Pentheus limb from limb, it packs a serious punch and continues to be lauded by critics who hail it variously as a comment on the dangers of fundamentalism, a parable of excess, and a portrait of the dark desires that seethe within us all.

This sinister ambiguity is something that US writer Maile Chapman harnesses in her excellent first novel, Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto. It is set in a sanatorium in the eerie fringe world of northern Finland and follows a group of women caught somewhere between health and madness as they encounter, battle, and ultimately enact urges and feelings that the world does not allow them to express.

Events move slowly, yet, like the water shifting beneath the thick ice that forms as the sunless winter sets in, emotions stir beneath them, giving a dizzying significance to the catalogue of petty grudges and trivial incidents that the book records. This is heightened by the butterfly narrative, which flits from mind to mind, picking up the pitiful memories of Nurse Sunny here, the sexual trauma of her patient Julia there, and the thousand paranoid impulses, peeves and preoccupations that clutter the consciousnesses of the people who inhabit this halfway house between oblivion and the world.

At first, this can be frustrating as you struggle to catch on to concrete details about the characters that form, merge and mutate before your eyes. But Chapman knows what she’s doing: out of the mist of sensations and impressions a weird, collective consciousness forms that is at once everyone and no-one portrayed and that drives the plot through to its ghastly conclusion.

Reading the work, you become uncomfortably aware that yours is the mind in which its events are playing out. When the depths of the winter pass and the narrative draws to a close, you put the book down with awe, unease and, yes, a faint twinge of guilt.

Picture by Numinosity

Written by londonchoirgirl

November 23, 2011 at 1:26 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

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