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Really Underrated Books (Part One)

My Really Underrated Books week which ran in November last year proved to be quite popular, and I received a lot of kind comments about how much you enjoyed the series.  What better, then, to champion fifty other underrated books, which look of interest, and are certainly worthy of one seeking them out?  Each day this week, I will be finding ten interesting books which have fewer than five hundred ratings on Goodreads, bringing them to your attention, and hopefully to a wider readership.

1. They Were Counted (The Transylvania Trilogy, #1) by Miklos Banffy 9781910050903
Painting an unrivalled portrait of the vanished world of pre-1914 Hungary, this story is told through the eyes of two young Transylvanian cousins, Count Balint Abády and Count László Gyeroffy. Shooting parties in great country houses, turbulent scenes in parliament, and the luxury of life in Budapest provide the backdrop for this gripping, prescient novel, forming a chilling indictment of upper-class frivolity and political folly, in which good manners cloak indifference and brutality. Abády becomes aware of the plight of a group of Romanian mountain peasants and champions their cause, while Gyeroffy dissipates his resources at the gaming tables, mirroring the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire itself.’

 

2. The Book of Hrabal by Peter Esterhazy
An elegant homage to the great Czech storyteller Bohumil Hrabal, The Book of Hrabal is also a glowing paean to blues music, saxophones, and the mixed blessings of domestic life. It is also a farewell to the years of communism in Eastern Europe. And it is a treatise on the ongoing relationship between God and humankind as reflected in the lives of a Hungarian writer and his wife. The novel centers on Anna, the blues-singing housewife and mother of three (soon to be four) who suffers through her husband’s often impossible writing experiments. She addresses her reminiscences and reflections to Hrabal, his current subject. Her thoughts swing from domestic matters to the injustices suffered by her family during the Stalinist 1950s, the police harassment in subsequent years, and the many strains on her marriage. Her husband, in turn, is so hopelessly entangled in his project celebrating Hrabal that he is incapable of actually writing it. The story develops into a literary love triangle, as Hrabal becomes Anna’s confidant and an invisible participant in the marriage. Meanwhile two angels shadow the house, disguised as secret policemen and speaking with God via walkie-talkie in a surprising blend of celestial and urban slang. Their mission: to prevent Anna from aborting her fourth child. When this outcome is in doubt, God himself (aka Bruno) enters the scene; he chats with Hrabal, takes saxophone lessons from an irreverent Charlie Parker, and plays the sax for Anna to try to dissuade her from ending the pregnancy. Unfortunately the Lord is tone deaf, and his love for jazz and blues is matched only by his utter lack of musical talent. A brilliant stylist, Esterhazy creates a complex and playful novel through deft manipulation of language, tone, and perspective.

 

97818739823033. The Opal and Other Stories by Gustav Meyrink
Meyrink’s short stories epitomised the non-plus-ultra of all modern writing. Their magnificent colour, their spine-chilling and bizarre inventiveness, their aggression, their succinctness of style, their overwhelming originality of ideas, which is so evident in every sentence and phrase that there seems to be no lacunae; all this captivated me, and seemed to me to provide the proper antidote to all the adjectival prose and shallow, false romanticism of the immediate preceding generation.

 

4. Goose of Hermogenes by Ithell Colquhoun
The heroine of this story (described only as “I”) is compelled to visit a mysterious uncle who turns out to be a black magician who lords over a kind of Prospero’s Island that exists out of time and space. Startled by his bizarre behavior and odd nocturnal movements, she eventually learns that he is searching for the philosopher’s stone. When his sinister attentions fall upon the priceless jewel heirloom in her possession, bewilderment turns into stark terror and she realizes she must find a way off the island. An esoteric dreamworld fantasy composed of uncorrelated scenes and imagery mostly derived from medieval occult sources, Goose of Hermogenes might be described as a gothic novel, an occult picaresque, or a surrealist fantasy. However one wants to approach this obscure tale, it remains today as vividly unforgettable and disturbing as when it was first published by Peter Owen in 1961.

 

5. The Devastating Boys by Elizabeth Taylor 9780860683605
Here is the collection of Elizabeth Taylor’s greatest short stories. Varied in their settings and characters, they are nevertheless the quintessence of all that is most distinguished, and witty, in her art. We meet women, children and men, often ostensibly ordinary, who follow their paths of ruthlessness and ambition, each in pursuit of happiness, love, or power – each a classic creation.

 

6. The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, 1920s to 1950s: Class, Domesticity, and Bohemianism by Nicola Humble
“Middlebrow” has always been a dirty word, used disparagingly since its coinage in the mid-1920s for the sort of literature thought to be too easy, insular and smug. Aiming to rehabilitate the feminine middlebrow, Nicola Humble argues that the novels of writers such as Rosamund Lehmann, Elizabeth Taylor, Stella Gibbons, Nancy Mitford, played a powerful role in establishing and consolidating, but also in resisting, new class and gender identities in this period of volatile change for both women and the middle classes.

 

97818784487437. Trutor & the Balloonist by Debbie Lee Wesselmann
Trutor and the Balloonist has it all: mystery, Victorian riddles, contemporary issues, art mirroring a most unusual life, eccentric and lovable characters, suspected and surprise villains, domestic strife, and conflicted romance. Michelle Trutor accepts the task of compiling the biography of deceased Caroline Wharton, sifting through shocking materials forbidden to the Balloonist and his family in the will, and guarded by an overly zealous attorney. Readers are invited into the sleuthing as Caroline’s riddles are revealed – as if she planned the visits with Michelle’s all along.

 

8. Bright Day by J.B. Priestley
The novel was written towards the end of World War II. J.B. Priestley disclaimed any autobiographical roots in the work, but it is nontheless resonent with his early youth and coincided with JBP’s recoil from the commercial film world. Bright Day was the only serious novel that he wrote in the first person.  Gregory Dawson, the novel’s hero, is a middle-aged film script writer who goes off to Cornwall to complete a script. At his hotel he spots Lord and Lady Harndean, and realizes that they are the Malcolm and Eleanor Nixey he knew when he worked as a clerk in a Bruddersford wool firm. They represent the beginning of the break-up of the bright day which had preceded the year 1914, and thus the story starts to unfold…

 

9. The Misses Mallett by E.H. Young the-misses-mallett-e-h-young1
She sat there, vividly conscious of herself, and sometimes she saw the whole room as a picture and she was part of it; sometimes she saw only those three whose lives, she felt, were practically over, for even Aunt Rose was comparatively old. She pitied them because their romance was past, while hers waited for her outside; she wondered at their happiness, their interest in their appearance, their pleasure in parties; but she felt most sorry for Aunt Rose, midway between what should have been the resignation of her stepsisters and the glowing anticipation of her niece.

 

10. The Tudor Wench by Elswyth Thane
A novel of the young Queen Elizabeth I, first published in 1932, subsequently a play in London. Beginning with six year old Elizabeth puzzled by Anne Boleyn’s life and death, rocky relationship with her father, King Henry VIII, and her own instinctive, evolving regal role. Four sections: child, maid, princess and woman. Imaginative early years of the Elizabethan force based on extensive historical research, actual letters and compelling writing.

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‘Women of the Asylum: Voices from Behind the Walls, 1840-1945’ – edited by Jeffrey L. Geller and Maxine Harris ****

Women of the Asylum: Voices from Behind the Walls, 1840-1945 has proved a difficult book to get hold of.  I eventually sourced an inter-library loan which came all the way to my University’s library from Cardiff.  Jeffrey L. Geller and Maxine Harris have presented one of the first books of its kind here, bringing together the voice of women who were incarcerated in American institutions against their will over a 105-year period, and giving them ‘the opportunity to speak for themselves’.  Twenty-six first person case studies have been included in all, offering a ‘rare privilege’ to the reader.  ‘As a whole,’ the editors write in their introduction, ‘these narratives offer a clear picture of women’s lives from both within and outside the asylums in which they lived.  Individually, they provide some of the most harrowing tales of the abuses of the psychiatric system’.44099

Women of the Asylum has been split into four separate, distinct sections to cover the rather vast historical period – 1840 to 1865, 1866 to 1890, 1891 to 1920, and 1921 to 1945 – which all loosely relate to particular periods in treatment, or important turning points within political discourse. Geller and Harris also discuss their decision to split the period up into smaller chunks due to shifting moral and social conditions in the United States.  They write that ‘the nineteenth-century women of the asylum are morally purposeful, philosophical, often religious.  Their frame of reference, and their use of language, are romantic – Christian and Victorian.  They write like abolitionists, transcendentalists, suffragists.  The twentieth-century women are keen observers of human nature and asylum abuse – but they have no universal frame of reference.  They face “madness” and institutional abuse alone, without God, ideology, or each other.’

The women focused upon here, some of which you will have heard of (Charlotte Perkins Gilman, for instance), and others who were publicly unknown, all ‘wanted to right the wrongs they saw being perpetuated by what they perceived to be autocratic families, domineering physicians, unfeeling attendants, and misguided lawmakers’ in one way or another.  Regardless of their social class, whilst trapped within the asylums, none of the women were ‘treated with any kindness, sympathy, or medical or spiritual expertise’.   Each account here was written once the woman in question had been handed her freedom once more, and many were later published as warnings to others about the horrors which the asylum held, or as a process of self-healing.  Some of the women took direct action afterwards, campaigning for change, and others faded into relative obscurity.

As one would expect, I’m sure, some incredibly shocking accounts are presented here; for instance, the way in which ‘any sign of economic independence or simple human pride in a woman could be used against her, both legally and psychiatrically.’  There was also the fear that an individual would be driven to become mad solely due to her incarceration, or that she would remain in an asylum indefinitely, with no hope of ever escaping.

Some incredibly interesting questions have been posed throughout – for instance, whether such firsthand accounts can be trusted due to the mental imbalance which their authors may be suffering from, or the possible delusional aspect of their condition.  Each of these women, regardless of her circumstance or the amount of time in which she was locked away – and the periods vary drastically, from two months per year as a ‘rest cure’ of sorts, to the horrific stretch of twenty-eight years, such as Adriana P. Brinckle had to face – has legitimacy; each has her own story to tell.

In Women of the Asylum, Geller and Harris have presented a far-reaching and well-researched account, which has been introduced in a wise and lucid manner by Phyllis Chesler.  The concluding message seems to be this: ‘Whether they were rebels, social misfits, visionaries or madwomen is left for the reader to decide’.  If you can get your hands on this important and invaluable piece of literary gold dust, I would urge you to read it.

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Underrated Non-Fiction Books: Ten More Picks

As promised, here are ten more rather underrated non-fiction books, which I am very much looking forward to getting my hands on.

1. On My Own: The Art of Being a Woman Alone by Florence Falk 9781400098118
‘At some point over the course of the average American woman’s life, she will find herself alone, whether she is divorced, widowed, single, or in a loveless, isolating relationship. And when that time comes, it is likely that she will be at a loss as to how to handle it. As a society, we have an unspoken but omnipresent belief that a woman alone is an outcast, inherently flawed in some way. In this invigorating, supportive book, psychotherapist Florence Falk aims to take the fear, doubt, confusion, and helplessness out of being a woman alone. Falk invites all women to find their own paths toward an authentic selfhood, to discover the pleasures and riches of solitude, and to reconnect with others through a newfound sense of self-confidence.  Like so many women before her, Florence Falk found herself divorced, alone, and unsure of herself. Soon she realized that by embracing her solitude for what it was—a potentially enriching and life-altering experience—she could turn what once would have felt like “loneliness” into a far more positive and empowered “aloneness.” Falk notes that each of us has two opposing drives: one causes us to yearn to make close connections with others, and the other pulls us back into ourselves, into the need for selfhood and certainty that can only be shaped through solitude. In order to be whole, she says, we must heed both of those impulses. But in our modern culture, the former is stressed while the latter is neglected, even vilified. On My Own boldly shifts that paradigm.  With inspiring, intimate stories of women from all backgrounds, Falk illuminates the essential role that being alone plays in women’s lives. Whether she is in a stable relationship or on her own, every woman must learn to be by herself; for if she can be fully free, unfettered by society’s stigmas about being alone, life and all its possibilities will open up for her. And as Falk demonstrates, once a woman has discovered the richness of solitude, she is not likely to give it up so easily.’

2. The Loony-Bin Trip by Kate Millett
‘In this intensely personal account of mental illness, Kate Millett, icon of the women’s movement, tells the gripping story of her struggle to regain her freedom after years of being diagnosed as a manic-depressive dependent on prolonged drug “maintenance”.’

3. Plaintext: Essays by Nancy Mairs
‘”These striking essays by Nancy Mairs are so touching and heartbreakingly honest that one often has to put the book down and rest emotionally before reading on. . . . Readable and compelling, written with intimacy . . . and a swagger.” —San Francisco Chronicle

97800617269414. The Weather of the Future by Heidi Cullen
‘Let’s assume we do nothing about climate change. Imagine that we just continue to emit carbon at our current levels or even exceed those levels. How would our weather change? What would our forecast be? Welcome to The Weather of the Future.  In this groundbreaking work, Dr. Heidi Cullen, one of the world’s foremost climatologists and environmental journalists, puts a vivid face on climate change, offering a new way of seeing this phenomenon not just as an event set to happen in the distant future but as something happening right now in our own backyards. Arguing that we must connect the weather of today with the climate change of tomorrow, Cullen combines the latest research from scientists on the ground with state-of-the-art climate-model projections to create climate-change scenarios for seven of the most at-risk locations around the world.’

5. Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World by Margaret McMillan
‘For six months in 1919, after the end of “the war to end all wars,” the Big Three—President Woodrow Wilson, British prime minister David Lloyd George, and French premier Georges Clemenceau—met in Paris to shape a lasting peace. In this landmark work of narrative history, Margaret MacMillan gives a dramatic and intimate view of those fateful days, which saw new political entities—Iraq, Yugoslavia, and Palestine, among them—born out of the ruins of bankrupt empires, and the borders of the modern world redrawn.’

6. Pompeii: The Living City by Alex Butterworth
‘The ash of Mt. Vesuvius preserves a living record of the complex and exhilarating society it instantly obliterated two thousand years ago. In this highly readable, lavishly illustrated book, Butterworth and Laurence marshall cutting-edge archaeological reconstructions and a vibrant historical tradition dating to Pliny and Tacitus; they present a richly textured portrait of a society not altogether unlike ours, composed of individuals ordinary and extraordinary who pursued commerce, politics, family and pleasure in the shadow of a killer volcano.  Deeply resonant in a world still at the mercy of natural disaster, Pompeii recreates life as experienced in the city, and those frantic, awful hours in AD 79 that wiped the bustling city from the face of the earth.’

7. The Men With the Pink Triangle: The True Life-and-Death Story of Homosexuals in the Nazi Death Camps by Heinz Heger 9781555830069
‘It has only been since the mid-1970s that any attention has been paid to the persecution and interment of gay men by the Nazis during the Third Reich. Since that time, books such as Richard Plant’s The Pink Triangle (and Martin Sherman’s play Bent) have illuminated this nearly lost history. Heinz Heger’s first-person account, The Men with the Pink Triangle, was one of the first books on the topic and remains one of the most important.’

8. Inside the Aquarium by Victor Suvorov
‘Viktor Suvorov takes us inside the Aquarium, Moscow headquarters of the GRU, the super-secret Russian military intelligence organization and rival of the KGB. It is here that agents are brought to be trained, disciplined, and when necessary, broken.  In shocking fashion, Suvorov recounts the first day of training when he is forced to watch a film that shows a disaffected GRU agent being burned alive. This is how the GRU reveals to its trainees that there is only one way out of the organization – death. Other GRU methods are as physically torturous as the viewing of that film is terrifying: electric shocks used to punish a failure of memory; being pushed off a speeding train; hand-to-hand combat with death row prisoners recruited for their viciousness. All are employed in the training of a top agent.’

9. The Pregnancy Project by Gabi Rodriguez
‘Growing up, Gaby Rodriguez was often told she would end up a teen mom. After all, her mother and her older sisters had gotten pregnant as teenagers; from an outsider’s perspective, it was practically a family tradition. Gaby had ambitions that didn’t include teen motherhood. But she wondered: how would she be treated if she “lived down” to others’ expectations? Would everyone ignore the years she put into being a good student and see her as just another pregnant teen statistic with no future? These questions sparked Gaby’s school project: faking her own pregnancy as a high school senior to see how her family, friends, and community would react. What she learned changed her life forever, and made international headlines in the process.  In The Pregnancy Project, Gaby details how she was able to fake her own pregnancy—hiding the truth from even her siblings and boyfriend’s parents—and reveals all that she learned from the experience. But more than that, Gaby’s story is about fighting stereotypes, and how one girl found the strength to come out from the shadow of low expectations to forge a bright future for herself.’

978155597671210. The Empathy Exams: Essays by Leslie Jamison
‘From personal loss to phantom diseases, The Empathy Exams is a bold and brilliant collection; winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize.  Beginning with her experience as a medical actor who was paid to act out symptoms for medical students to diagnose, Leslie Jamison’s visceral and revealing essays ask essential questions about our basic understanding of others: How should we care about each other? How can we feel another’s pain, especially when pain can be assumed, distorted, or performed? Is empathy a tool by which to test or even grade each other? By confronting pain—real and imagined, her own and others’—Jamison uncovers a personal and cultural urgency to feel. She draws from her own experiences of illness and bodily injury to engage in an exploration that extends far beyond her life, spanning wide-ranging territory—from poverty tourism to phantom diseases, street violence to reality television, illness to incarceration—in its search for a kind of sight shaped by humility and grace.’

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The Book Trail: Caitlin Doughty to Walter Benjamin

I am always on the lookout for ‘different’ posts which I can schedule here at The Literary Sisters, and inspiration struck in this instance when I was browsing reviews on Goodreads.  Why don’t I create a post where I begin with a book on my TBR, and then click on one of the recommended reads on that particular page?, I thought.  On the next page I will do the same, and so on, until I have created what I am terming a book trail.  I hoped to pick up some interesting choices along the way, which would then be written into my book journal.

To begin with, I have decided to go with a book on my library TBR – Caitlin Doughty’s Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematorium.  I will be copying the blurb for each book as we go along.  Without further ado, let us begin!

Our starting point…
9781782111054Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematorium by Caitlin Doughty
‘From her first day at Westwind Cremation & Burial, twenty-three-year-old Caitlin Doughty threw herself into her curious new profession. Coming face-to-face with the very thing we go to great lengths to avoid thinking about she started to wonder about the lives of those she cremated and the mourning families they left behind, and found herself confounded by people’s erratic reactions to death. Exploring our death rituals – and those of other cultures – she pleads the case for healthier attitudes around death and dying. Full of bizarre encounters, gallows humour and vivid characters (both living and very dead), this illuminating account makes this otherwise terrifying subject inviting and fascinating.’

 

This leads to book number two…
Everywhere I Look by Helen Garner 9781925355369
‘Spanning fifteen years of work, Everywhere I Look is a book full of unexpected moments, sudden shafts of light, piercing intuition, flashes of anger and incidental humour. It takes us from backstage at the ballet to the trial of a woman for the murder of her newborn baby. It moves effortlessly from the significance of moving house to the pleasure of re-reading Pride and Prejudice. Everywhere I Look includes Garner’s famous and controversial essay on the insults of age, her deeply moving tribute to her mother and extracts from her diaries, which have been part of her working life for as long as she has been a writer. Everywhere I Look glows with insight. It is filled with the wisdom of life.’

 

And three is not far behind…
9781922147165Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers by Janet Malcolm
‘In Forty-one False Starts one of the world’s great writers of literary non-fiction brings together for the first time essays published over several decades. The pieces, many of which first appeared in the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, reflect Malcolm’s preoccupation with artists and their work. Her subjects are painters, photographers, writers, and critics. She delves beneath the ‘onyx surface’ of Edith Wharton’s fiction, appreciates the black comedy of the Gossip Girl novels, and confronts the false starts of her own autobiography.’

 

And the fourth…
The Myth of Sisyphus 
by Albert Camus 9780141023991
‘Inspired by the myth of a man condemned to ceaselessly push a rock up a mountain and watch it roll back to the valley below, The Myth of Sisyphus transformed twentieth-century philosophy with its impassioned argument for the value of life in a world without religious meaning.’

 

Onto the fifth…
9780241970065The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton
The Art of Travel is Alain de Botton’s travel guide with a difference. Few activities seem to promise us as much happiness as going travelling: taking off for somewhere else, somewhere far from home, a place with more interesting weather, customs and landscapes. But although we are inundated with advice on where to travel to, we seldom ask why we go and how we might become more fulfilled by doing so. With the help of a selection of writers, artists and thinkers – including Flaubert, Edward Hopper, Wordsworth and Van Gogh – Alain de Botton’s bestselling The Art of Travel provides invaluable insights into everything from holiday romance to hotel mini-bars, airports to sight-seeing. The perfect antidote to those guides that tell us what to do when we get there, The Art of Travel tries to explain why we really went in the first place – and helpfully suggests how we might be happier on our journeys.’

 

The sixth is a book which I have read several times and heartily admire…
Nineteen Eighty Four
 by George Orwell 9780141187761
‘Hidden away in the Record Department of the sprawling Ministry of Truth, Winston Smith skilfully rewrites the past to suit the needs of the Party. Yet he inwardly rebels against the totalitarian world he lives in, which demands absolute obedience and controls him through the all-seeing telescreens and the watchful eye of Big Brother, symbolic head of the Party. In his longing for truth and liberty, Smith begins a secret love affair with a fellow-worker Julia, but soon discovers the true price of freedom is betrayal. George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four is perhaps the most pervasively influential book of the twentieth century.’

 

Our penultimate choice…
9780141035796Ways of Seeing
 by John Berger
‘”Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.” “But, there is also another sense in which seeing comes before words. It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but word can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.” John Berger’s “Ways of Seeing” is one of the most stimulating and influential books on art in any language. ‘

 

And the final book!…
The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
 by Walter Benjamin 9780141036199
‘One of the most important works of cultural theory ever written, Walter Benjamin’s groundbreaking essay explores how the age of mass media means audiences can listen to or see a work of art repeatedly – and what the troubling social and political implications of this are. Throughout history, some books have changed the world. They have transformed the way we see ourselves – and each other. They have inspired debate, dissent, war and revolution. They have enlightened, outraged, provoked and comforted. They have enriched lives – and destroyed them. Now Penguin brings you the works of the great thinkers, pioneers, radicals and visionaries whose ideas shook civilization and helped make us who we are.’

 

I had great fun making this post; it has added books I had not encountered before to the (ever-growing) TBR list, and has made me rather eager to find some new essay collections to boot!  This is my first foray into such a post, so I hope it has an enjoyment level for you too!  Please let me know what you think of it.  Do you have another starting point which you think would be good for me to use?

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‘The Women’s Room’ by Marilyn French ***

When you run a book club with a feminist best friend, it is perhaps inevitable that seminal “girl power” texts such as Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room will creep onto your reading list.  This was a book which had been selected for our original list when we excitedly created it last year, and the sole choice which was carried across to our revised reading schedule.  Added bonuses came along with The Women’s Room: the copy pictured, which I was gifted for Christmas, is both a Virago and an entry upon the Virago Modern Classics list (number 437, no less), and the book also formed part of my Project Read My Own Books list.  Win win.

Let us begin with the high praise which The Women’s Room has garnered since its publication in 1977 (the USA) and 1978 (the UK).  Fay Weldon deems it ‘the kind of book that changes lives’; Linda Grant says ‘what an earthquake this book was.  It wasn’t the story of my generation of feminists, but it was the story of the generation that made everything possible for us’; and The Observer writes that ‘The Women’s Room took the lid off a seething mass of women’s frustrations, resentments and furies; it was about the need to change things from top to bottom; it was a declaration of independence’.9781860492822

Virago have printed an introduction by the author herself, which was written in 2006, three years before her death.  In it, she discusses the publication of The Women’s Room, and its effect upon readers: ‘reviewers responded in outrage.  That the book is now considered a classic, a given -known, digested, assimilated, no longer threatening – suggests that conditions have changed for women since 1977.  And this is true…  educated women in western countries can now choose their own lives; they are not forced into dependency on a man, as they had been for millennia.  In other parts of the glove, however, women’s situation has worsened’.

The novel opens in 1968, in a public bathroom at Harvard University, where we immediately meet one of our protagonists: ‘Mira was hiding in the ladies’ room.  She called it that, even though someone had scratched out the word ladies in the sign on the door, and written women’s underneath…  Here she was at the age of thirty-eight huddled for safety in a ticket booth in the basement of Sever Hall, gazing at, no, studying that word and others of the same genre, scrawled on the grey enameled door and walls’.  French immediately places emphasis on the male-dominated sphere in which Mira finds herself: ‘The school had been planned for men, and there were places, she had been told, where women were simply not permitted to go.  It was odd.  Why? she wondered.  Women were so unimportant anyway.  Why would anyone bother to keep them out?’

French-Marilyn

Marilyn French

The structure of The Women’s Room works incredibly well with the plot.  Each long chapter has been split into small bursts, many of which deal solely with a particular character, or a set scene.  There are character interactions, of course, but the only conversations of intelligence seem to occur only between women.  The male characters are shadowy at times, and the children are largely like bit-part actors; we know of them, but we only really get to know about them through their mothers.  It is rare that they are given a voice to do anything with but whinge.

The narrator of the piece was with Mira ‘and the others’ at Harvard in the aforementioned year.  In her particular present, she teaches at a ‘third-rate community college’ in Maine, where she feels ‘terribly alone.  I have enough room, but it’s empty’.  The plot circles around Mira; through her, we meet friends from her past, her husband, and her children.  Learning about the histories of each woman who has been given a place in the novel was interesting, and I felt as though French’s piecing together of pasts was the real strength here.  The Women’s Room references Mira’s past situation as akin to an ‘afternoon soap opera’; really, it is just like that.  So many things happen between different characters – some of them unrealistic, let’s face it – but even with the most terrible occurrences, there is a distinct lack of emotion.

The novel is filled to the veritable brim with domesticity.  Whilst this is clearly an important part of the plot, to demonstrate the ways in which women were “shackled” to their husbands, home, and offspring, and going hand in hand as it does with the overriding female feeling of being enslaved, it serves only to saturate the whole.  I feel as though French has certainly overdone it, and after a while it becomes rather trudging and repetitive.

Some of the quotes which I have pulled out and written in my book journal are powerful; this, for instance: ‘Women are capable of anything.  It doesn’t really matter.  Wife or what, women are the most scorned class in America.  You may hate niggers and PRs and geeks, but you’re a little frightened of them.  Women don’t get even the respect of fear’.  Despite this, I could not warm to French’s inclination to make broad, sweeping statements, some of which felt as though they could not possibly be true, or believed by the majority of her readers.  Chapter eleven, for instance, begins: ‘Young men like to say that young women want to be raped’.  Who are the young men?  When did they say this?  Where is the contextual evidence?  In the next paragraph, one of the characters, Val, describes the way in which she believes it is impossible for a woman to reach her ‘utmost in desire’ until her thirties.  Again, where is this substantiated?

The Women’s Room, as one might perhaps expect, holds some extremely negative views; it is a product of its time, certainly, but its particular brand of ardent feminism and the feeling of its treading down of every single male who has ever existed felt radical to me, and was consequently quite difficult to stomach: ‘And there are so much easier ways to destroy a woman.  You don’t have to rape or kill her; you don’t even have to beat her.  You can just marry her.  You don’t even have to do that.  You can just let her work in your office for thirty-five dollars a week’.

Throughout, I felt as though there was an overriding distancing with regard to all of the characters; French had placed some of her women on pedestals, and described them in detail, but there was still no depth to it in places.  Perhaps too much is said about them at times; their inner and outer conflicts are pressing, and I understand that, but I wish I had been able to make that emotional connection with either character or plot at least once during my reading.  No empathy was felt on my behalf, aside from at a couple of points to those characters on the periphery who were being unfairly put down by one or other of the female protagonists.  Many of the problems which French describes within the still heavily patriarchal society seem to be brought on, in part, by the women themselves; they were rarely blameless.  None of the women were likeable either, which should not be important in a work of fiction such as this, but probably would have helped to garner some compassion on my behalf.

Whilst The Women’s Room was rather interesting, and sometimes immersive, I cannot say that I particularly enjoyed French’s prose style.  Nothing in her descriptions really stood out to me, and some sections felt stodgy, underwhelming and lacklustre in consequence.  I am afraid to say that the novel did not have much of an impact upon me.  Perhaps if I had been younger and more impressionable, or had been reading it at a different time of life, or in a different decade, my feelings may have been different.

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2

Ten From the Wishlist

I keep four notebooks which are practically crammed with the titles of books which I want to read.  As ever, I have the best of intentions in reading books from my lists, but – as with many readers, I’m sure – I am often sidetracked by shiny bookshops and bookish websites, and always take into account what they think I should be reading.  That said, here are ten books – both fiction and non- – from my current wishlist.  All are new publications.

1. So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson 9780330492294
‘For the past three years, Jon Ronson has travelled the world meeting recipients of high-profile public shamings. The shamed are people like us – people who, say, made a joke on social media that came out badly, or made a mistake at work. Once their transgression is revealed, collective outrage circles with the force of a hurricane and the next thing they know they’re being torn apart by an angry mob, jeered at, demonized, sometimes even fired from their job. A great renaissance of public shaming is sweeping our land. Justice has been democratized. The silent majority are getting a voice. But what are we doing with our voice? We are mercilessly finding people’s faults. We are defining the boundaries of normality by ruining the lives of those outside it. We are using shame as a form of social control. Simultaneously powerful and hilarious in the way only Jon Ronson can be, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is a deeply honest book about modern life, full of eye-opening truths about the escalating war on human flaws – and the very scary part we all play in it.’

2. Girl Through Glass by Sari Wilson
‘In the roiling heat of the summer of 1977, eleven-year-old Mira enters the high-stakes world of New York City ballet, a fiercely competitive world of struggle, obsession, passion for beauty and something sinister that will challenge her, protect her, and ultimately take her innocence.After her parents divorce and a childhood spent between her father s tony Upper East Side dwelling and her mother s disordered Brooklyn habitat, young Mira becomes fascinated with the perfectionism, power, and promise of glory that ballet offers. Over the course of four years, she hones her talent, becoming a dancer for Balanchine one of Mr. B s girls eventually attracting the attention of forty-seven-year-old Maurice, a reclusive, charismatic balletomane who haunts the city s dance studios and takes the young girl under his wing. As Mira plunges deeper into the ballet world, her relationship with Maurice intensifies, isolating her and taking her to darker and darker places within herself.In the present day, Kate, a professor of dance at a midwestern college, embarks on a risky affair with a student that threatens to obliterate her career and upend the life she has painstakingly created for her reinvented self. When she receives a letter from a man she has long thought dead, Kate is hurled back to the dramas of a past she thought she had left behind.This enthralling literary debut is told in interweaving narratives that move between past and present, illuminating the costs and privileges of ambition and excellence and whether the sacrifices we make for an ideal destroy us or save us.’

97815946348883. Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty by Ramona Ausubel
‘From the award-winning author of “No One Is Here Except All of Us,” an imaginative novel about a wealthy New England family in the 1960s and ’70s that suddenly loses its fortune and its bearings. Labor Day, 1976, Martha’s Vineyard. Summering at the family beach house along this moneyed coast of New England, Fern and Edgar married with three children are happily preparing for a family birthday celebration when they learn that the unimaginable has occurred: There is no more money. More specifically, there’s no more money in the estate of Fern’s recently deceased parents, which, as the sole source of Fern and Edgar’s income, had allowed them to live this beautiful, comfortable life despite their professed anti-money ideals. Quickly, the once-charmed family unravels. In distress and confusion, Fern and Edgar are each tempted away on separate adventures: she on a road trip with a stranger, he on an ill-advised sailing voyage with another woman. The three children are left for days with no guardian whatsoever, in an improvised Neverland helmed by the tender, witty, and resourceful Cricket, age nine. Brimming with humanity and wisdom, humor and bite, and imbued with both the whimsical and the profound, “Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty “is a story of American wealth, class, family, and mobility, approached by award-winner Ramona Ausubel with a breadth of imagination and understanding that is fresh, surprising, and exciting.’

4. Fine. Fine. Fine. Fine. Fine by Diane Williams
‘The very short stories of Diane Williams have been aptly called “folk tales that hammer like a nail gun,” and these 39 new ones are sharper than ever. They are unsettling, yes, frequently revelatory, and more often than not downright funny—even though within these covers a mother dies, an illicit love affair is revealed, a ghost pays a visit, and police are called to the scene.  Not a single moment here is what you might expect. While there is immense pleasure to be found in Williamss spot-on observations about how we behave in our highest and lowest moments, the heart of the drama beats in the language of American short fictions grand master, whose originality, precision, and power bring the familiar into startling and enchanted relief.’

5. The Unfinished World by Amber Sparks 51ikdorqgrl-_sx332_bo1204203200_
‘In the weird and wonderful tradition of Kelly Link and Karen Russell, Amber Sparks’s dazzling new collection bursts forth with stories that render the apocalyptic and otherworldly hauntingly familiar. In “The Cemetery for Lost Faces,” two orphans translate their grief into taxidermy, artfully arresting the passage of time. The anchoring novella, “The Unfinished World,” unfurls a surprising love story between a free and adventurous young woman and a dashing filmmaker burdened by a mysterious family. Sparks’s stories — populated with sculptors, librarians, astronauts, and warriors — form a veritable cabinet of curiosities. Mythical, bizarre, and deeply moving, heralds the arrival of a major writer and illuminates the search for a brief encounter with the extraordinary.’

6. Cities I’ve Never Lived In by Sara Majka
‘In subtle, sensuous prose, the stories in Sara Majka’s debut collection explore distance in all its forms: the emotional spaces that open up between family members, friends, and lovers; the gaps that emerge between who we were and who we are; the gulf between our private and public selves. At the center of the collection is a series of stories narrated by a young American woman in the wake of a divorce; wry and shy but never less than open to the world, she recalls the places and people she has been close to, the dreams she has pursued and those she has left unfulfilled. Interspersed with these intimate first-person stories are stand-alone pieces where the tight focus on the narrator’s life gives way to closely observed accounts of the lives of others. A book about belonging, and how much of yourself to give up in the pursuit of that, “Cities I’ve Never Lived In “offers stories that reveal, with great sadness and great humor, the ways we are most of all citizens of the places where we cannot be.”Cities I’ve Never Lived In” is the second book in Graywolf’s collaboration with the literary magazine “A Public Space.”‘

97814767850597. What Comes Next and How to Like It: A Memoir by Abigail Thomas
‘In her bestselling and beloved memoir “A Three Dog Life,” Abigail Thomas wrote about the tragic loss of her husband. In “What Comes Next and How to Like It,” she writes about aging, family, creativity, tragedy, friendship, and the richness of life. And it is exhilarating. What comes next? What comes after the devastating loss of a spouse? What form does a lifelong friendship take after deepest betrayal? How does a mother cope with her child s dire illness? Or the death of a cherished dog? And how to like it? How to accept, appreciate, enjoy? How to find solace and pleasure? How to sustain and be sustained by our most trusted, valuable companions? Exquisitely observed, lush with sentences you will underline and reread, “What Comes Next and How to Like It” is an extraordinarily moving memoir about many of life s greatest challenges and inimitable rewards. It is also the story of the friendship between Abigail Thomas and a man she met thirty-five years ago. Through marriages, child raising, and the vicissitudes and tragedies that befall them both, this rich bond has helped her face whatever comes next with courage, exuberance, and grace.’

8. The Lightkeepers by Abby Geni
‘In The Lightkeepers, we follow Miranda, a nature photographer who travels to the Farallon Islands, an exotic and dangerous archipelago off the coast of California, for a one-year residency capturing the landscape. Her only companions are the scientists studying there, odd and quirky refugees from the mainland living in rustic conditions; they document the fish populations around the island, the bold trio of sharks called the Sisters that hunt the surrounding waters, and the overwhelming bird population who, at times, create the need to wear hard hats as protection from their attacks. Shortly after her arrival, Miranda is assaulted by one of the inhabitants of the islands. A few days later, her assailant is found dead, perhaps the result of an accident. As the novel unfolds, Miranda gives witness to the natural wonders of this special place as she grapples with what has happened to her and deepens her connection (and her suspicions) to her companions, while falling under the thrall of the legends of the place nicknamed “the Islands of the Dead.” And when more violence occurs, each member of this strange community falls under suspicion. The Lightkeepers upends the traditional structure of a mystery novel –an isolated environment, a limited group of characters who might not be trustworthy, a death that may or may not have been accidental, a balance of discovery and action –while also exploring wider themes of the natural world, the power of loss, and the nature of recovery. It is a luminous debut novel from a talented and provocative new writer.’

9. Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer 91p3hbjn4-l
‘How do we fulfill our conflicting duties as father, husband, and son; wife and mother; child and adult? Jew and American? How can we claim our own identities when our lives are linked so closely to others’? These are the questions at the heart of Jonathan Safran Foer’s first novel in eleven years—a work of extraordinary scope and heartbreaking intimacy.   Unfolding over four tumultuous weeks, in present-day Washington, D.C., Here I Am is the story of a fracturing family in a moment of crisis. As Jacob and Julia and their three sons are forced to confront the distances between the lives they think they want and the lives they are living, a catastrophic earthquake sets in motion a quickly escalating conflict in the Middle East. At stake is the very meaning of home—and the fundamental question of how much life one can bear.   Showcasing the same high-energy inventiveness, hilarious irreverence, and emotional urgency that readers and critics loved in his earlier work, Here I Am is Foer’s most searching, hard-hitting, and grandly entertaining novel yet. It not only confirms Foer’s stature as a dazzling literary talent but reveals a mature novelist who has fully come into his own as one of the most important writers of his generation.’

10. The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
‘An intrepid voyage out to the frontiers of the latest thinking about love, language and family Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts is a genre-bending memoir, a work of ‘autotheory’ offering fresh, fierce and timely thinking about desire, identity and the limitations and possibilities of love and language. At its centre is a romance: the story of the author’s relationship with the artist Harry Dodge. This story, which includes the author’s account of falling in love with Dodge, who is fluidly gendered, as well as her journey to and through a pregnancy, is an intimate portrayal of the complexities and joys of (queer) family making. Writing in the spirit of public intellectuals such as Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes, Nelson binds her personal experience to a rigorous exploration of what iconic theorists have said about sexuality, gender, and the vexed institutions of marriage and child-rearing. Nelson’s insistence on radical individual freedom and the value of caretaking becomes the rallying cry for this thoughtful, unabashed, uncompromising book.’

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which would you recommend that I track down first?

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3

Reading the World: Belgium

My Reading the World series brings us to the lovely country Belgium.  I first visited whilst still rather a small child, for the purposes of visiting Centre Parcs, and have been back many times since.  Despite this, whilst scouring my shelves, I realised that I haven’t actually read much fiction or non-fiction set there.  Despite this, I have four books to recommend to you, and will happily take any of your recommendations to the library catalogue with me!

1. Marcel by Erwin Mortier 9781782270188
‘The debut novel by the great Flemish writer Erwin Mortier, Marcel vividly describes the history of a family in a Flemish village, bowed by the weight of history. Written from the point of view of a ten-year-old boy, Marcel is a striking debut novel describing the vivid history of a family in a Flemish village. The mysterious death of Marcel, the family favourite, has always haunted the young boy. With the help of his schoolteacher, he starts to discover the secrets of Marcel’s ‘black’ past. The story of his death on the Eastern Front, fighting with the SS for the sake of Flanders, and the shame this brought upon his family gradually become clear. Erwin Mortier unravels this shameful family tale in wonderfully sensitive and evocative manner.’

2. The Book of Proper Names by Amelie Nothomb
‘From France’s ‘literary lioness’ (Elle), The Book of Proper Names is the story of the hapless orphan girl, Plectrude. Raised by her aunt, and unaware of the dark secret behind her past, she is a troubled but dreamy child who is both blessed and cursed by her intoxicating eyes. Discovered to have enormous gifts as a dancer, she is accepted at Paris’s most prestigious ballet school where she devotes herself to artistic perfection, until her body can take no more. In a brilliantly succinct story of haunted adolescence and lost mothers, Nothomb propels the narrative forward until Plectrude is forced to take command of her own fate.’

97803072682113. The Professor by Charlotte Bronte
The Professor is Charlotte Brontes first novel, in which she audaciously inhabits the voice and consciousness of a man, William Crimsworth. Like Jane Eyre he is parentless; like Lucy Snowe in Villette he leaves the certainties of England to forge a life in Brussels. But as a man, William has freedom of action, and as a writer Bronte is correspondingly liberated, exploring the relationship between power and sexual desire. William’s first person narration reveals his attraction to the dominating directress of the girls’ school where he teaches, played out in the school’s ‘secret garden’. Balanced against this is his more temperate relationship with one of his pupils, Frances Henri, in which mastery and submission interplay. The Professor was published only after Charlotte Bronte’s death; today it gives us a fascinating insight into the first stirrings of her supreme creative imagination.’

4. Villette by Charlotte Bronte
‘Based on Charlotte Bronte’s personal experience as a teacher in Brussels, Villette is a moving tale of repressed feelings and subjection to cruel circumstance and position, borne with heroic fortitude. Rising above the frustrations of confinement within a rigid social order, it is also the story of a woman’s right to love and be loved.’

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