10 Books of Summer, #9 and #10: The Sleeping Beauties and The Wild Laughter

9781529010558

After reading Suzanne O’Sullivan’s recent article in the Guardian on ‘mystery illnesses’, I knew I wanted to seek out the book in which she explores these ideas further, Sleeping Beauties, though I found it patchier then its précis version. It worked best for me when O’Sullivan used a case study to link together wider issues, as she does in the opening chapter on ‘resignation syndrome’ among refugee children in Sweden, and in the final chapter on how Western medical labels are as open to question as indigenous explanations for illness; less well when she got too bogged down in the minutae of a single example, which was the case in most of the other chapters. The thread that links all of the outbreaks that O’Sullivan explores is the idea of a ‘functional neurological disorder’: in these disorders, patients experience nervous symptoms that are genuine but not linked to any observable physical problem. O’Sullivan understands why people resist being told that their debilitating experience of illness is ‘psychosomatic’, and emphasises that this diagnosis in no way suggests that their suffering is not real, or that they are making up their symptoms. Drawing on a biopsychosocial model of health, she suggests that the causes of these disorders arise from the interaction between body, mind and environment, and that all three of these things can be equally important in understanding certain conditions. Overall, I found this argument very interesting, and there are sections here I’ll definitely return to, but the book becomes a bit repetitive, and I felt that a couple of the chapters could have been cut.

Thanks to Rebecca from Bookish Beck for kindly passing on her proof copy of this book to me.

51zKYrwV9BL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_

Caoilinn Hughes’ The Wild Laughter is a smart, short novel with a brilliant, utterly convincing narrative voice; unfortunately, I found it hard to inhabit rather than simply admire. Hart is the younger of a pair of Irish brothers who are watching their father slowly dying after the economic crash in Ireland leaves him bankrupt. His voice initially reminded me of Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies (with perhaps a bit of Edward Docx’s Let Go My Hand thrown in), but Hughes’s dense prose, which needs to be read and digested line by line, is closer to Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. And while I adored the two former novels, I also found myself at arm’s length from McBride’s book, recognising her skill but not able to quite connect. Hughes is fond of complicated, poetic similes that are all wonderful in their own right but kept catching me off-balance when I tried to sink into the flow of this book, because I had to work out what they meant. At an agricultural show, ‘peach udders drooped everywhere like the rear end of a birthday party.’ The ‘restless landscape’ is ‘sporadically moonlamped, as if the night was giving sign to a dangerous reef up ahead.’ A hairstyle is ‘a bun like a hare’s tail, but rained on.’ Alongside this, Hughes comes up with many more arresting lines – but they feel buried in the rest of the prose. For me, the writing got in the way of the story she was telling.

Thanks to Rebecca from Bookish Beck for kindly passing on her proof copy of this book to me.

This concludes my 10 Books of Summer! How did you do with your summer reading?

Wolfson History Prize Blog Tour: Survivors

I was delighted to be invited to take part in the blog tour for the Wolfson History Prize for the third year running. The Prize celebrates historical writing which ‘combines excellence in research with readability’ and you can see the full 2021 shortlist here.

The winner of the Prize will be announced on 9th June 2021.

Today, I’m reviewing one of the shortlisted titles: Rebecca Clifford’s Survivors: Children’s Lives After The Holocaust. Clifford is an Associate Professor in History at Swansea University and specialises in twentieth-century European history, oral history, Holocaust history, and memory studies. You can see her full academic profile here.

Survivors Cover Art

Felice Z., alongside her parents and older sister, was deported from Baden to the internment camp of Gurs in the south of France in October 1940, when she was just one year old. In early 1941, she and her sister were rescued from Gurs by the Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants (OSE), and Felice was hidden with a French Catholic family until the Liberation. Her parents were killed in Auschwitz. Despite these wartime experiences, Felice remembered being criticised and belittled by adult survivors of the Holocaust when she attended the first American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors in 1983, saying:

I questioned whether I should go because I’d never been in a camp… I used to want to have a number [tattooed on my arm] so I could show people the pain… They used to say ‘You were a child, what do you know? You don’t remember.’

This reflected earlier ideas of who counted as a ‘Holocaust survivor’ – originally, ‘survivors’ were considered to be concentration camp survivors – but also the general exclusion of child survivors of the Holocaust from the category, even if they had been in a camp. In the immediate post-war period, child survivors were called ‘unaccompanied children’ or ‘Jewish war orphans’ instead. Recently, Clifford writes, child survivors have taken on more of the familiar public roles we might associate with a ‘Holocaust survivor’ – giving talks, speaking to school students, and volunteering at Holocaust museums – but ‘there is a clear rationale behind the shift: they are the only ones left’.

Survivors focuses on child survivors of the Holocaust who were born between 1935 and 1944, making them ten years old or younger at liberation in 1945. This deliberate choice by Clifford shows how things we think we know about the experience of Holocaust survivors changes when young children are placed at the centre of the story. For example, she argues, for child survivors, who experienced a certain amount of stability during wartime, the end of the war could often be a more difficult period. Maurits C., who spent the war in hiding in the Netherlands, recalled that ‘My war began in 1945… When I learned that my father and mother would not come back, and my brothers, then the war started.’ Counter-claims on Jewish child survivors after the end of the war added to this uncertainty. Jewish organisations were determined to reclaim children whom they thought had been taken by Christian families, while countries such as America, Canada, Australia and Britain were keen to care for ‘Jewish war orphans’ – but only if they were very young, ideally female, and full orphans, which many child survivors were not. Child survivors did not always want to be reunited with families they could not remember. Felice was forced to leave the Catholic family who had cared for her during wartime, which she remembered as traumatic: ‘I think they [the OSE] might have said… “you have to start being Jewish.” But I couldn’t understand what being Jewish meant’. 

Their limited memories of the war hampered child survivors throughout their adult lives, calling the validity of their ‘testimony’ into question, especially after the rise of Holocaust denialism, when there was a greater emphasis on survivors’ accounts being fixed and factually accurate. This was often impossible for child survivors. They were marked out in other ways: the West Germany Federal Indemnification Law of 1953 was meant to allow financial compensation for survivors from West Germany, but it was difficult for even adult survivors, let alone children, to supply the kind of ‘proof’ that was required. They could also be further severed from the Jewish community. Esther T. was in Auschwitz as a child, but as an adult, she found she needed her parents’ birth certificate to marry in an Orthodox synagogue: ‘you have to prove you’re Jewish to get married in a shul, and I couldn’t prove it!’

As a historian of childhood, what I found most brilliant about this book was the way in which it integrates histories of childhood into the kind of bigger historical narrative where children are usually absent or only included in a tokenistic or stereotyped way. Clifford shows how changing ideas of childhood and trauma immediately following the Second World War conditioned reactions to child survivors and forced them into unhelpful binaries: either they were seen as unaffected by the trauma they had endured because they would not remember it, or the separation from their mothers they had endured at an early age was believed to have left them permanently damaged. Neither of these narratives were helpful for child survivors, whom, in retrospective interviews, often felt they had to ‘prove’ they weren’t forever ‘maladjusted’: Denny M., who was interviewed in 1977, said ‘compared with so many messed-up adults that I’ve seen, I think I’m reasonably normal’. 

Even at the time, child survivors could be pathologised for being either ‘too bad’ or ‘too good’. The Buchenwald boys were a group of boys, ranging in age from 8 to 18, who were liberated from Buchenwald concentration camp in April 1945 and sent to an OSE-run reception centre in Normandy. On the way there, ‘they destroyed property, stole and assaulted civilians; there is some evidence that they raped German girls as an act of revenge’. Rather than seeing this behaviour as relating to what they had been through, the OSE’s chief psychiatrist suggested that they had survived precisely because of their ‘insensitivity and indifference‘. However – reflecting new psychological post-war ideas about middle childhood as an innately gregarious and energetic period – a welfare officer in the Jewish DP camps located in the US zone of occupation in Germany worried in 1948 that the children in these camps were too obedient and not ‘mischievous, high-spirited and imaginative’ enough.

Children themselves were aware of adult expectations about trauma and played into these; as Clifford puts it, these ‘wary children’ had good reason to distrust adults in authority and so ‘fabricated suitable pasts’. Two children who were placed in a children’s home in Surrey, Weir Courtney, learnt how to exhibit the correct emotions and tell the right stories. Fritz F. was bullied in the home, and was found crying by the matron who tucked him in at night: ‘I told her I was thinking about my mother. I wasn’t’. Unlike some post-war settings, Weir Courtney prided itself on being a place where children could be open about the past, but children may have been forced to talk about things they would rather not have discussed to play into the psychoanalytical narrative that disclosure was cathartic. We can speculate that this might have led to some false stories. Mina R. told the matron that she had seen her mother shot through the head in front of her, and the matron was pleased with the subsequent change in the girl, who had, she wrote, been ‘much quieter and clearer since‘. However, it was later discovered that Mina’s mother was still alive.

This is a really excellent book, intelligent, thoughtful and empathetic; I would be delighted to see it win the Wolfson History Prize.

Make sure to check out the other stops on the first week of the Wolfson History Prize blog tour:

WHP 2021 Blog Tour Banner Week 1

 

Feminisms: A Global History by Lucy Delap

9780241398142

Lucy Delap’s accessible and compelling Feminisms: A Global History does not attempt the impossible task of writing a complete global history of feminism, but instead, picks up on a series of themes in feminist history, ranging from ‘dreams’ to ‘dress’ to ‘actions’, and draws from modern feminist activists and movements to explore how feminist thought and action was shaped internationally. Delap deliberately uses the term ‘feminisms’ rather than feminism to emphasise the multiplicity of women’s movements across the globe, and also frames this as ‘mosaic feminism’ – women may have been using some of the same inherited pieces, but they formed different patterns. And indeed, the very first chapter emphasises that one big problem for contemporary feminism might be the inability to accommodate disagreement, citing feminist philosopher Iris Marion Young: ‘we need to wake up to the challenge of understanding across difference rather than keep on dreaming about common dreams’. Not all the activists Delap writes about would even have called themselves feminists, but they still contributed to a wider history of political action that centred women’s needs.

What I found so valuable about Delap’s approach to writing about global feminisms was that non-Western feminisms are not treated simply as an ‘add-on’ to more familiar Western histories – we aren’t simply told that there were also feminist activists and organisations elsewhere. Instead, Delap illuminates how African, Latin American and Asian feminists transformed feminist thought and challenged Western priorities. The Bengali writer Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain published her utopian text Sultana’s Dream in 1905, which depicted ‘Ladyland’, a world where women and men could interact as equals through ‘sacred’ relations that had no sexual connotations; this envisaged women’s liberation through ‘the abandonment of sexual links to men’, a vision that we might more commonly associate with ‘political lesbianism’ in Britain and the USA in the 1970s. In the early twentieth century, there was also an active Chinese feminist movement, with women in some Chinese provinces gaining the vote by 1912, well ahead of many Western counterparts, and the word nannü starting to be used to indicate a ‘sexed system of social organisation’, or something like what we might call patriarchy. Meanwhile, the Egyptian activist Huda Sha’arawi organised women in the 1919 protests against British rule; her decision to unveil in public in 1923 was celebrated by Europeans, but Sha’arawi herself did not see this as particularly important, and, in fact, mocked ‘the veil of ignorance’ that Western women wore, unable to see Egyptian women clearly because of orientalist stereotypes.

Delap also shows how ideas were exchanged, translated and repurposed in global contexts. The famous US second-wave feminist text Our Bodies, Ourselves (1970), which encouraged women to look after their health and celebrate their sexuality, was reproduced and reworked in different settings. In Bulgaria, it was retitled Our Body, Ourselves, to emphasise individualism after the fall of the communist state, whereas in Latin America the text was framed with more of a focus on traditional community settings. The phrase ‘the personal is political’, coined by US feminist Carol Hanisch, was influenced both by the Black Power practice of ‘telling it like it is’ and Hanisch’s reading of French feminist Claudie Broyelle’s Half the Sky (1973), which stressed the autonomy of women in Communist China to voice and act on their emotions through the Maoist idea of ‘speaking bitterness’. (Broyelle wrote a follow-up to this work in 1980, admitting it had been a ‘day-dream’ as reports of the violent oppression of women in China continued to emerge.) However, Feminisms does not just trace the histories of familiar Western touchstones but introduces new ones, such as the memorable phrase used by Japanese activist Kishida Toshiko in 1883, who publicly spoke of her anger at how women had to live their lives in close confinement, saying that raising daughters in such an environment was like ‘trying to grow flowers in salt’.

Feminisms is primarily concerned with the intersections of gender, race and class rather than sexuality or gender identity, although it does touch on the issues faced by lesbians and trans women who tried to engage with second-wave feminism in the 1970s and 1980s. Delap writes briefly about how sex and gender might have been understood more fluidly in certain African countries before colonialist binaries were imposed, citing the work of Ifi Amadiume and Oyèrónké Oyěwùmí. Amadiume has argued that age hierarchies were more important than gender hierarchies in the organisation of some African societies, allowing women to adopt more powerful roles such as ‘female husband’. However, it is obviously impossible to cover everything in a single book, and I had the sense that Delap had been led by the priorities of many of the activists she considers, who, especially in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, were often focused on colonial or class oppression. In 1975, Bolivian tin miner’s wife Domitila Barrios de Chúngara confronted the US feminist Betty Friedan at a meeting in Mexico City, which revealed the perceived gulf between their ideas of feminism: Barrios de Chúngara was an experienced union activist who worked alongside men, and thought gringa feminism was ‘a lesbian-dominated war against men’. (Friedan had actually been instrumental in banning lesbians from the US National Organisation for Women’s New York chapter in 1970, so likely shared this hostility).

Obviously, a book like this can never be more than a starting-point for the huge histories it touches upon, but this is an incredibly thought-provoking take on some of the questions we should be asking when we think about global histories of feminism.

I received a free proof copy of this book from the publisher for review.

Guest Blog Post on Teenage Girls and British Second-Wave Feminism

ShockingPink

This blog has been quiet so far this year! I have been reading, but I don’t seem to have that much headspace for writing reviews, perhaps because I’m trying to knock out a thousand words a day on my Antarctic novel. I will be back soon, probably rounding up my thoughts on recent ARCs I’ve read.

In the meantime, I wrote this blog post on my historical research over at the Changing Childhoods blog: Spare Rib, Shocking Pink and the Politics of Age in 1980s Feminism.

It’s about how teenage girls were ignored and belittled in the pages of adult-led second-wave British feminist magazine Spare Rib, and so went off and started their own collective. Enjoy!

2021 Reading Plans

Well, we all know that 2020 was a terrible year, so there’s not much need to explore why! While very fortunate in being financially stable and healthy during the pandemic, I have also obviously experienced the same restrictions and frustrations as everyone else, and have also felt sad because I don’t fit into the traditional ‘nuclear family’ model (with access to car!) that UK government policies seem to be targeted towards. After a very successful 2019, it’s been difficult coming to terms with the fact that I haven’t really been able to achieve anything ‘external’ this year: no publications, no conferences (after March), no visible progress towards a deal for my novel, no travel, no chance to really get to know colleagues at my new job. Even my roller derby has been cancelled indefinitely….

Snaps of a strange year. Peanut butter brownies by post in the spring; working on my time travel novel in the park in summer, thrilled to be allowed to sit (rather than just exercise) outside again; attending a Zoom cocktail party in December.

However, to be honest, I have found unexpected upsides during certain periods of the pandemic. Again, I recognise this is because of the sort of person I am and what I happen to be good at, rather than suggesting I have any kind of special resilience. My sister and I lived in rural Wiltshire during the second half of our childhoods, and often spent weeks seeing nobody other than our parents and each other, so I guess I have some experience in drawing on my own resources. Being forced to come to a halt in March made me realise how close to burnout I was with all my work and social commitments. I now can’t imagine going straight back to the life I used to lead, and I think that will be good for me long-term, however hard things are now.

One benefit of having to focus on internal validation, rather than external achievements, is that this has been potentially the best writing year I’ve ever had. (The only competition it has is the academic year 2004-5, when I was in my last year of sixth form and adopted a committed, daily writing-and-meditation routine that led to me producing two-thirds of my first serious novel, but it’s hard to compare the two, as then I was really inventing myself as a writer for the first time). This year, I’ve rewritten my time travel novel in response to my agent’s feedback to the point where it’s ready to submit to publishers, completely rewritten and restructured the first serious novel I mentioned above (cutting 40k words so it’s now a sensible length!), which is set in late nineteenth-century England, and knocked out 50k terrible words of my brand new Antarctic novel. (I imagine blog readers are either writers themselves, and so might care about my WIPs, or don’t care at all, but in case anyone wants to know more, I have brief summaries of each of these up on my Fiction page. I tend to refer to them as ‘nineteenth-century novel’, ‘time travel novel’ and ‘Antarctic novel’, but their proper working titles are, respectively, Of Others And Elizabeth, The Forest That Eats Bone and Old Ice.

Anyway, onto the books…

A couple of caveats: I have collected a LOT of 2021 proofs and e-ARCS that I’m super excited about, but I don’t like to include books I already own in this list. So don’t think that I’m not excited about Fiona Mozley’s Hot Stew, Lisa McInerney’s The Rules of Revelation, Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom, Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Malibu Rising, Natasha Pulley’s The Kingdoms, Francis Spufford’s Light PerpetualTahmima Anam’s The Startup Wife, Zakiya Dalila Harris’s The Other Black Girl, and Megha Majumdar’s A Burning (among others), because I definitely am!

In this post, I’ve picked twelve 2021 releases that I am particularly looking forward to – almost all from the first half of the year, for obvious reasons – then, as always, added a further eighteen books that I want to read in 2021, whether they are new this year or not. There are a few I didn’t read from my 2020 list that I’m still keen to get to, so those are included in the last eighteen.

91RmVwAyYpL

Anna North, Outlawed (January 2021). Anna North’s The Life and Death of Sophie Stark was one of my top ten books of the last decade, so unsurprisingly I’m excited about her next novel, even though it sounds totally different. This follows a teenage girl who becomes an outlaw in the 1890s Wild West. The only reason I’m a little hesitant is because the last time I was super excited about one of my favourite authors unexpectedly writing a ‘feminist Western’, it didn’t quite work for me (Tea Obreht’s Inland). But I’m still very keen!

hbg-title-9781473680869-22

Erin Kelly, Watch Her Fall (March 2021). My usual Erin disclaimer: Erin tutored me on the Curtis Brown Creative novel-writing course I took in 2015-16, and has been so supportive of my writing ever since. However, fortunately I don’t have to be at all tactful when I talk about Erin’s books, because I genuinely love them. Her last novel, We Know You Know (previously published as Stone Mothers) was one of the best thrillers I’d read in a long time, and I can’t wait to read Watch Her Fall, which focuses on a ballerina who has somebody watching her from the wings…

615ybPv5HiL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_

Angeline Boulley, Firekeeper’s Daughter (March 2021). It’s very unusual for me to include a YA novel in this part of the list, but I’m so intrigued by Boulley’s debut, which focuses on an Ojibwe teenage girl who’s caught up in a covert FBI operation on her reservation. And what a stunning cover!

56234424._SY475_

TL Huchu, The Library of the Dead (March 2021). I mean, this just has everything: a Zimbabwean teenager goes ghost-hunting in Edinburgh after a child goes missing, and discovers an occult library along the way. I sometimes find ghost stories ponderous, but this sounds like it will be offset by our protagonist’s cynical voice. First in a new series.

cover_9781787702806__id1329_w600_t1599553503__1x

Maki Kashimada trans. Haydn Trowell, Touring The Land Of The Dead (April 2021). Kashimada is a well-established Japanese writer who won the Akutagawa Prize for this novella in 2012. This focuses on a wife who takes her damaged husband away to a luxury spa where her mother went when she was little. This Europa edition also includes a second novella by Kashimada, Ninety-Nine Kisses, about a younger sister obsessed with her three older sisters, which I think sounds even more interesting.

9781787332973

Rachel Kushner, The Hard Crowd (April 2021). I have an uneven track record with Kushner as a novelist; I was impressed by The Mars Room but struggled with The FlamethrowersThis collection of essays promises a selection of Kushner’s non-fiction over the past twenty years, including an essay on her experience competing in the notorious Mexican motorbike race, Cabo 1000. As a fictionalised description of this race was far and away my favourite part of The Flamethrowers, this grabbed my attention.

51xarlnLhvL

Jessie Greengrass, The High House (April 2021). I loved Greengrass’s autofictional Sightwhich remains one of the best musings on motherhood I’ve ever read. The blurb of The High House wouldn’t appeal to me if it was written by somebody else: it looks at a family building an ark in a holiday home against the threat of climate change. I tend to avoid these kinds of stories simply because I’ve read so many of them, but if anyone can make this fresh again, it’s Greengrass.

4675

Arifa Akbar, Consumed (June 2021). This memoir recounts the sudden death of Akbar’s sister from TB, and how Akbar later travelled to the places that she and her sister had explored, from Rome to Pakistan. There’s still too little written about the grief you feel for a death of a sibling, and although happily my only sibling is alive and well, it’s a subject that interests me because my time-travel novel is about the loss of a sister. No cover yet.

91KMGe-yLfL

Becky Chambers, A Psalm For The Wild-Built (July 2021). I’m a big fan of Becky Chambers, so it’s great to see she has two new SF books out this year; the novel that concludes her Wayfarers Quartet, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within (my review coming soon!) ,and this book, which starts a new series about robots living in the wilderness of Earth.

lGR2m8QZ_400x400

Nina Mingya Powles, Small Bodies of Water (August 2021) Powles, who is Malaysian-Chinese, won the inaugural Nan Shepherd Prize, which aimed to highlight the work of writers currently under-represented in nature-writing, for this book. I love the blurb: ‘From the rainforest waterfalls of Borneo to the wild coastline of New Zealand and the Ladies’ Pond in Hampstead Heath, this book explores migration, food, family and the bodies of water that separate and connect us.’ I’m keen to read more nature-writing that’s not by white people; I’m also very excited about Rahawa Haile’s In Open Countrywhich is about her experiences as a black woman walking the Appalachian trail, but I can’t work out when it’s getting published. No cover for Powles yet, either.

FictionQA-LaurenGroff

Lauren Groff, Matrix (September 2021). OK, this is the book that I’m most excited about this year. Just when I was saying I wanted to read a good novel about nuns, THIS came along, with the best blurb: ‘[in the twelfth century] seventeen-year-old Marie de France is sent to England to be the new prioress of an impoverished abbey… at first taken aback by the severity of her new life, Marie finds focus and love in collective life with her singular and mercurial sisters. In this crucible, Marie steadily supplants her desire for family, for her homeland, for the passions of her youth with something new to her: devotion to her sisters, and a conviction in her own divine visions.’ I’m so keen to read a book that explores how entering convents could help medieval women gain more autonomy, and books about all-female communities in general. My usual concern with a book like this would be that it would be overwritten and too weighty, but Groff’s sharp, contemporary prose should be the perfect match. No cover yet.

51lh6ojyZZL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_

Bridget Collins et al. The Haunting Season (October 2021). I can’t get over how good the line-up in this collection of new ghost stories is: including Bridget Collins, Imogen Hermes Gowar, Kiran Millwood Hargrave, Elizabeth Macneal and Natasha Pulley! (I’m assuming because of Covid-19 they didn’t actually get together in person to discuss this book, but how much would I love to hang out with these people collectively). There are also a couple of writers I’m keen to try: Sara Collins and Jess Kidd. And as for Andrew Michael Hurley and Laura Purcell, who I haven’t had the best of luck with so far, perhaps they’ll pull it together for this anthology as well. No proper cover yet.

The Rest Of The List

Miriam Cohen, Adults and Other Children 

Derek Owusu ed., Safe: 20 Ways To Be A Black Man In Britain Today

Kristen Schilt, Just One Of The Guys?: Transgender Men And The Persistence of Gender Inequality

Bruce Holsinger, The Gifted School OR Tracy Dobmeier and Wendy Katzman, Girls With Bright Futures (February 2021) [I want to read one book about pushy parents and school admissions, but probably not two!]

Emily Bernard, Black Is The Body

Martha Wells, All Systems Red

Charles Yu, Sorry Please Thank You

Mark O’Connell, Notes From An Apocalypse

Ben Lerner, The Topeka School

Julianne Pachico, The Anthill

Harriet Alida Lye, Natural Killer

Regina Porter, The Travelers

Attica Locke, Heaven, My Home

Nisi Shawl, Everfair

Hao Jingfang trans. Ken Liu, Vagabonds

Namwali Serpell, Stranger Faces

Caoilinn Hughes, The Wild Laughter

Carmen Maria Machado, In The Dream House

 

 

2020 In Books: Commendations and Disappointments

As always, I won’t be posting my Top Ten Books of 2020 until the 31st December, but here are some books that almost made my top ten – and also my biggest disappointments of the year. Links are to my reviews. All books are first read by me in 2020, not necessarily first published in 2020.

Highly Commended

I was hugely impressed by Akala’s Natives, which interweaves his personal experience of growing up as a working-class black boy in Britain with the country’s history of racism and colonialism, and is particularly good on the way that schools oppress black children. The only thing it falls a bit short on is gender, but for that reason, it’s the perfect companion read to Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish), which was one of my top ten books of 2019.

Emily St John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel gradually crept up on me as I read it; it’s almost impossible to summarise, but essentially focuses on the fallout from a Ponzi scheme alongside the relationship between two estranged siblings. It’s very different from her hit pandemic novel Station Eleven, but is haunting in similar ways.

Souvankham Thammavongsa’s debut short story collection How To Pronounce Knife, which focuses on the lives of Lao immigrants and their children in Canada, was so clever and insightful. Unlike most short story collections, it explores a range of disparate themes, showcasing Thammavongsa’s range. I was thrilled when it won Canada’s Scotiabank Giller Prize. I reviewed it here.

I usually struggle with historical fiction, but this year was an exception. Three standouts were, firstly, Emma Donoghue’s The Pull of the Stars, which immersed me so fully in the 1918 flu pandemic that I forgot to draw comparisons to Covid-19; I reviewed it here. Secondly, Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Mercies, set in the early seventeenth century on an isolated island off the Norwegian coast, managed to completely reinvent the rather familiar plot of false witchcraft accusations; I reviewed it here. Finally, Sally Magnusson’s The Ninth Child really cleverly pulled together a number of different, disparate stories, centring on an ambitious engineering project at a Scottish loch in the 1850s; I reviewed it here.

Science fiction and speculative fiction is probably the genre I’m loving the most at the moment, so there’s lots to choose from, but I wanted to highlight three very different books. Octavia E. Butler’s time-slip story Kindred doesn’t need any further introduction from me, but I admired how she made her protagonist’s journeys feel both so real and emotionally grounded, and how she used this conceit to ask questions about inheritance and culpability. I reviewed it here. Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! was a structural mess, but so utterly different and memorable; I don’t think I’ll ever forget the Bigtrees’s Floridian alligator-wrestling theme park. I reviewed it here. Finally, Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars, the first in an alternate-history trilogy about female astronauts in 1950s America, is still the novel I think everyone needs to survive the Covid-19 pandemic; I stand by my statement in my review that I’ve ‘never read a post-apocalyptic novel that is so comforting‘.

 

In crime and thriller, I was very taken with Hazel Barkworth’s Heatstroke, a novel that turns a good number of cliches about adolescence on their head while still being completely compelling; I reviewed it here. I’ve been disappointed by a string of Attica Locke’s novels, which for me haven’t lived up to their fantastic premises, but Bluebird, Bluebird, which follows a black Texas Ranger torn between duty to his community and his responsibility to his job, finally hit the sweet spot; I briefly reviewed it on Goodreads. Finally, Lottie Moggach’s Brixton Hill is a grim but gripping thriller that is centrally concerned with the way that prison wears inmates’ lives away; I reviewed it here.

Biggest Disappointments

By ‘biggest disappointments’ I don’t necessarily mean that these were my worst books of the year, but that they were books I’d been looking forward to, that had been hyped by publishers/reviewers/friends/all of the above, and which fell well short of my expectations.

I was disappointed by two boarding-school novels, a sub-genre that I’m obsessed with, that didn’t work for me for very different reasons. Clare Beams’ The Illness Lesson was beautifully written, but told an overly familiar story about female hysteria in the late nineteenth century. Meanwhile, Rachel Donohue’s The Temple House Vanishing was just not very good at all, totally failing to conjure atmosphere, and hampered by awkward dialogue. I reviewed both books here. (Fortunately, 2020 wasn’t a total write-off for campus novels: I loved Elisabeth Thomas’s Catherine House!)

I found Mary North’s debut collection of short stories, You Will Never Be Forgottenhugely frustrating, because it was full of original ideas but frequently undercut itself by spelling out the message of a story too clearly. I reviewed it here. Ivy Pochoda’s LA-set and cliched These Women was primarily disappointing because I thought her Visitation Street was so subtle and so good, but also didn’t really deliver on its promise to tell a story about a serial killer from the point of view of his victims. I reviewed it briefly on Goodreads. Finally, I’m a huge Garth Nix fan but his latest, The Left-Handed Booksellers of London, was just too silly for my liking.

I’ll be back tomorrow with my Top Ten Books of 2020!

The End of the Year Book Tag, 2020

Resurrecting this from last year!

I. Is there a book that you started that you still need to finish by the end of the year?

Hild-by-Nicola-Griffith-pub-Blackfriars-cover-by-Balbusso

NO, because I just finished it: Hild by Nicola Griffith. I’ve been reading it since September and had tried and failed to read it before in 2017 and 2018. Set in Britain in the seventh century and following the early life of Hilda of Whitby, it’s a massive undertaking akin to Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy (although I found its thicket of names and references even harder to navigate). Eventually, I tackled it in the same way I tackled The Mirror and the Light: reading a set number of pages a day and not caring if it took me months to finish. In this way, I found myself completely sinking into Hild’s world, which although led by men has an emphasis on the bonds between women that reminded me of Griffith’s earlier SF novel Ammonite. So expansive and beautiful.

II. Do you have an autumnal book to transition to the end of the year?

9781472127327

British nature-writing always feels autumnal to me, as it tends to run the full range of the seasons, and so I’m looking forward to Whitney Brown’s memoir of her time as a female dry stone-waller, Between Stone and Sky. Thanks to Rebecca for passing on her proof copy!

III. Is there a release you are still waiting for? 

26082916

I’m excited to read Ernest Cline’s sequel to his SF smash hit Ready Player One – of course, it’s called Ready Player Two – which is out on the 24th November. I loved the first book but never took it seriously, so my expectations are both very high and very low. From the blurb, it sounds like Kline has essentially written Ready Player One redux, which is exactly what I want.

IV. Name three books you want to read by the end of the year.

Going back to my mid-year freakout tag, I’m still keen to read New Suns, a collection of speculative fiction by writers of colour edited by Nisi Shawl. I received Bernardine Evaristo’s Mr Loverman for my birthday, and I’m looking forward to diving into this story of an elderly British-Antiguan man who has hidden his homosexuality for his entire life. Finally, I picked up a proof of Buki Papillon’s An Ordinary Wonder, a debut that focuses on an intersex protagonist growing up in Nigeria.

V. Is there a book that can still shock you and become your favourite of the year?

9780399588884

If I ever get round to reading it, I feel like I’m going to either love or hate Caite Dolan-Leach’s We Went To The Woods, which is about a young woman who gets kicked off a reality TV show and ends up on a 1960s-style commune.

VI. Have you already started making reading plans for 2021?

Yes! I have a stack of 2021 releases to read. Of those, I’m most excited about James Smythe’s The Edge, the long-awaited third installment in his Anomaly Quartet; Natasha Pulley’s new speculative historical novel The Kingdoms, which sounds like it’s about time travel; and Megha Majumdar’s A Burning, which is about three characters who get caught up in the aftermath of a terrorist attack in Kolkata.

Tagging everyone who wants to join in with this tag!

20 Books of Summer, #17 and #18: New Waves and The Fens

41830689

Kevin Nguyen’s debut New Waves was one of my most anticipated new releases of 2020, and it didn’t disappoint, even though the novel I read turned out to be a very different novel from the one the blurb led me to expect. New Waves was billed as fast-paced and satirical, featuring a black woman, Margo, and a Vietnamese man, Lucas, who team up to steal their New York tech start-up’s user database after being ignored and underpaid by the company for too long. While that’s certainly where the story starts, this hook doesn’t have much to do with where it goes after that. Nevertheless, as it turned out, New Waves fits right into a sub-genre that I’ve only just realised I love: literary fiction about fascinatingly opaque characters whom we learn about solely through the viewpoints of their friends and the technological or artistic remnants they leave behind (see also: Anna North’s The Life and Death of Sophie Stark and Nell Freudenberger’s Lost and Wanted). Which is to say that this novel is all about Margo, tech genius and science fiction short story writer, even though she dies in a random accident in its first few pages. Grieving the loss of his best friend, Lucas hunts through her laptop, and while he doesn’t exactly come across revelations that overturn everything he knows about Margo, he definitely finds things that switch that knowledge onto new tracks. New Waves is so smart about race and gender, but it also has a lot to say about how both people and programmes tend to add up data in a way that makes sense to them. Margo’s short stories are nihilistic, refusing to organise themselves in any way that allows a happy ending, but her actual presence in Lucas’s life was relentlessly optimistic. Because we never hear from her directly (other than in the typed and spoken material she left behind, which is more about her fiction than about her), we are left to make up our own minds about a lot of loose ends. What kind of person was she deep down? What did she really think about Lucas? This novel will probably drive some readers to distraction, but I loved it.

9781786692221

Francis Pryor is an archaeologist who specialises in the study of the British Bronze and Iron Ages. The Fens: Discovering England’s Ancient Depths traces the history of this particular English region from prehistoric times to the present day, interspersing Pryor’s personal experiences on particular digs and his memories of living in the fenland with an archaeologist’s view of how and why the fens have developed and changed. Unsurprisingly, given Pryor’s area of specialism, which I wasn’t aware of when I picked up this book, the bulk of the material is prehistoric; the medieval fens, which is the period I’m personally most interested in, barely get a look in, and what he does say about medieval power relationships is pretty simplistic from a historian’s point of view. Pryor is, when it comes down to it, more interested in the evolution of technologies, buildings and settlements than in social and political history, and fair enough if that’s your kind of thing. However, I did feel this would struggle to appeal beyond a relatively narrow audience. It’s very long, goes off on a lot of tangents, and Pryor’s writing is clear but no more than that. Certainly, the autobiographical elements of this book don’t add very much, although it promises to discuss a more emotional relationship with landscape. If you’ve lived in the fens, there will be something to interest you here, but it might not be enough to engage you for the whole 400+ pages; I read the first four chapters and then skipped to the chapters that particularly appealed to me.

I’ve made a second and final substitution in my 20 Books of Summer; unfortunately, my NetGalley copy of Gina Rippon’s The Gendered Brain was so badly formatted it was unreadable (not the first time), so I’ve subbed in Xuan Juliana Wang’s collection of short stories Home Remedies, which was on my list of books to read in 2020.

Random Late Summer Non-Fiction Reading

9138rK9YqDL

Perhaps I was always going to have unfair expectations of Gabrielle Moss’s Paperback Crush: The Totally Radical History of 80s and 90s Teen Fiction, which is a broad survey of a lot of the US middle grade and YA fiction published in these two decades. I don’t research children’s lit or YA at the moment (though watch this space for a super secret exciting project coming soon!!*), but I’ve read enough on the topic to know that there’s scholarly work on this that Moss doesn’t engage with. However, having said that, I think I would have been happy enough with a shallow analysis of publishing trends and genre history if Moss had really seemed to know and love the books that she’s writing about. And while there are exceptions – she’s clearly a big Christopher Pike fan and gives a welcome shout-out to The Midnight Club, also my favourite Pike – she doesn’t really manage to convey her enthusiasm. Here, Moss isn’t well served by the explosion of blogs and online articles that so intelligently and hilariously dissect 80s and 90s mass market paperbacks aimed at this age group. Why would you read Moss on Lurlene McDaniel when you could read Somewhere Between YA Lit and Death? Or on Sweet Valley High when we have 1bruce1 AND Double Love? On the Baby-Sitters’ Club when we have 3_foot_6’s recaps on bsc_snark? On Point Horror when we have Teenage Scream? Or on this era at all when we have Frankie Thomas’s YA of Yore series in The Paris Review? So as I say, a bit unfair – Moss clearly did not have the page space to be able to go into the same amount of depth – but I guess I think this would have worked better if it had focused on a handful of Moss’s own favourite series rather than trying to cover everything (which it can’t, and doesn’t, anyway). The book is worth it for the hilarious full-colour reproductions of 1980s and 1990s book covers alone, however. And for any other 90s kids, I’m sorry not sorry if I just sent you down a rabbit hole with any of those links.

*maybe temper your expectations, unless you are really into 90s/early 00s middle grade US SF

811mGaSmbwL

Recent Cambridge graduates Chelsea Kwakye and Ọrẹ Ogunbiyi wrote Taking Up Space: The Black Girl’s Manifesto for Change for other black girls like them trying to navigate the still very white spaces of the British university system. However, it’s an important read for anyone who is involved in education in any way, shape or form. The topics covered – institutional racism, white curriculums, mental health, dating – are not obviously different from a number of other books on race and gender in modern Britain, but Kwakye and Ogunbiyi’s specific perspectives as young black women are hugely valuable. Having taught black students at both Oxford and Cambridge, this book made me further reflect on my own practice, sometimes uncomfortably, especially when Kwakye and Ogunbiyi discuss how they felt at times that less was expected of them because they are black women. At a conscious level, I know that I don’t expect less of black female students, but, especially in the one-to-one and one-to-two supervision/tutorial contexts of Cambridge and Oxford, we as supervisors/tutors are constantly making judgment calls about how to interact with students. Do you aggressively press a counter-argument in the hope that this will inspire the student to defend their own case, or should you talk through other interpretations more collaboratively so you don’t make them feel attacked? For obvious reasons, I’ll tread more carefully if I feel that students, of whatever race or gender, seem under-confident or uncertain, but as I’ve reflected in the past, it’s hard to judge whether these snap judgments are influenced by unconscious bias. On the other hand, Kwakye and Ogunbiyi point out that authority figures and peers can go too far the other way, assuming that they are invulnerable because they are ‘strong black women’, and not allowing them space to care for their own wellbeing. This opposing trope reminds the reader that improving black women’s experience of education is a continuous and challenging process of attaining balance in the context of a racist society.

Blog Stats and Random Search Hits

I loved Rebecca’s and Annabel’s posts on their blog stats, and so have written a short one of my own!

My most popular posts, sadly, have nothing to do with the main purpose of this blog but are all related to the academic job market. My best-performing post of all time is Interviews, Part One: Junior Research Fellowships (JRFs) with a whopping 6559 views to date. I know that this post has been linked on a number of other blogs and academic careers resources.

If we exclude everything on academic careers, my top three posts of all time are:

  1. Laura Rereading: ‘I belong to him’. (1041 views) This post unpicks the romantic relationships in L.M. Montgomery’s classic Emily of New Moon trilogy and argues that both of Emily’s principal romantic entanglements, with Dean Priest and Teddy Kent, can be seen as dangerously obsessive. A LOT of people find my blog by searching things like ‘teddy kent vs dean priest’ so this is obviously still a live issue!
  2. ‘Because they could’. (925 views) My review of Naomi Alderman’s The Power sparked a lot of debate. It remains my only review that has received a comment from the author and I just discovered that it has been cited in an academic paper!
  3. Unravelling. (491 views) I was really proud of this review of Alys Fowler’s memoir Hidden Nature, which meant a great deal to me personally, so I’m pleased to see that it has had a decent number of hits.

I also had a look at the search terms people use to find my blog and have compiled some favourites:

Most recent search term: why is fiction important

Most bizarre search term: dr log splitter

Most satisfying search term: childhood newcastle university laura tisdall

Most frequent search terms: junior research fellowship interview questions; not getting shortlisted for lectureships; #100daysofwriting

Search terms where the searcher was most likely to be disappointed: uplifting pix for my families; nightwaking sex.com; why I dont like the handmaids tale

If you look at the books people are interested in, there are a few that come up again and again:

  • Golden Hill by Francis Spufford (usually people hunting for spoilers!)
  • Brixton Hill by Lottie Moggach
  • The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne
  • Katy by Jacqueline Wilson
  • The Demon Headmaster by Gillian Cross (including fab search terms such as ‘could the demon headmaster hypnotise a psychopath’)

What are your most popular blog posts? And has anyone used weird or brilliant search terms to find your blog?