Three Things… March 2019

As ever, borrowed from Paula at Book Jotter.

Reading

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The Language of Kindness is Christie Watson’s memoir of her twenty years as a nurse, working across a range of specialisms that included resuscitation, paediatrics and mental health. I totally agree with Watson’s emphasis on the importance of nursing care, and how, as a female-dominated profession, it is systematically overlooked and undervalued. A number of my close family members are nurses and the work they do is so important. So why did this memoir irritate me consistently? Partly, I think, it’s Watson’s voice – there’s a lack of the kind of soul-searching and self-doubt that I’ve encountered in junior doctors’ memoirs such as Rachel Clarke’s Your Life in My Hands, or in other professional memoirs such as barrister Sarah Langford’s In Your Defence (both highly recommended!) and so Watson comes across as far too complacent.

It’s difficult for me to review this fairly, I think, because once you lose trust in the narrator of a memoir like this, that’s it – you keep on finding fault. For me, this happened pretty early on. I’ve encountered a recent spate of horror stories about the way parents are treated by nurses in PICU, Paediatric Intensive Care Unit, and SCBU, Special Care Baby Unit (search ‘Mumsnet SCBU/NNU/PICU’ for some of these). Watson has nothing but praise for the nurses in these units, and I’m sure many of them are doing a very good job under extremely tough circumstances. However, the judgmental and misogynistic expectations placed on mothers in these units come through even in Watson’s positive account:  ‘The nurses do everything they can to treat mother and baby as one unit… In maternity units in some private hospitals, babies are taken from the mum directly after birth to be cared for in the nursery’. But what about the mother’s needs, which are separate from those of her infant? The fact that it’s relatively new practice to refuse to part mothers and babies after birth, even if the mother is recovering from an emergency C-section and can’t safely take care of her baby? Accounts from mothers also indicate that they were judged harshly for not being by their baby’s side night and day in PICU/SCBU – even if they had other children to care for at home.

This section is typical of the book as a whole. Apart from a brief paragraph that admits that a few nurses are not very good at their jobs, Watson permits no criticism – and most doctors get short shrift, dropping in from on high to deliver a diagnosis then leaving the nurses with the real work. While I’m in no doubt this is how some consultants behave, it’s evident from the accounts of junior doctors that this is a misrepresentation of their work. This interesting review on Goodreads also points out that Watson is in the habit of minimising the significance of other professions as well – in this case, translators. She also has little to say about other hospital workers who are not part of a ‘profession’ but are nonetheless vital, such as healthcare assistants and porters. Ultimately, this came off as a rather sugar-coated account of life as a nurse.

Watching

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I went to see Rafiki at the Tyneside Cinema last night, directed by Kenyan filmmaker Wanuri Kahiru. Rafiki (Swahili for ‘friend’) is currently banned in Kenya, where homosexuality is illegal, because it depicts a lesbian relationship too positively. Kahiru was asked by the Kenya Film Classification Board to change the hopeful ending, but she refused. From my perspective, Rafiki is more of a significant political statement about LGBT rights in Kenya than a groundbreaking piece of art. The story it tells, about two girls who discover their sexuality together and then are brutally torn apart, is very familiar. The evocation of Nairobi is colourful and vivid, and both protagonists give great performances. However, it made me think about how incredibly limited the stories we tell about bisexual and lesbian women are, and how lesbianism tends to be shallowly explored, if it features at all, in Western fiction and film as well (compare the recent Disobedience, which deletes the novel’s complexity, and both versions of The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which are uplifting, but have little interesting to say). However, this is not to criticise Rafiki, which is doing a very important job. You can watch the trailer for Rafiki here.

Thinking

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Not the novel discussed below, which many people liked more than I did!

A while back, I wrote a fairly negative review of a writer’s second novel. I was especially cross about this particular book because it felt lazy and rushed. I posted the review on my blog and on Goodreads, but didn’t tag the author anywhere. Despite this, the writer in question took the time to seek me out on Twitter and block me – even though this was a platform where we’d had no interaction at all. So, this led me to think about why I write critical book reviews.

I disagree with much of what is said in this provocative article on book reviews in Harper’s, ‘Like This Or Die’, not least its eager dismissal of anything that doesn’t fall into the category of ‘literary fiction’ and its weird hostility to television. However, I think it has a point about the relentless push towards solely positive coverage of books in the mainstream media and on social media. This is (perhaps unsurprisingly) promoted by authors themselves, whom I often see tweeting things like this:

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[I love James Smythe’s work so feel bad picking on him here – it’s just the latest example of the trend I could find!]

This kind of statement is often extended to book bloggers and reviewers as well, or, more threateningly, to aspiring writers, who are told that if they want to get published themselves, they should spread positivity at all times [again, this link is to a blog that I generally like!]

I find this stance both repressive and bizarre. Firstly, there’s the suggestion that critical reviews (I think the terms ‘bad’ or ‘negative’ reviews are too loaded) are permissible, as long as they don’t come from other writers. Why? Secondly, there’s the hidden implication that actually nobody should be writing critical reviews at all – that if you don’t like a book, you shouldn’t say anything about it. I find this absurd for a number of reasons:

  • First and foremost, I don’t review books for the sake of their writers. I review them for other readers, as a reader. I don’t tag writers in critical book reviews, even if the criticism is very minor, so if they seek them out, that’s on them.
  • The idea that published writers are so fragile that they can’t deal with criticism from bloggers is a little strange to me. I tend to think that if you’ve demanded a reader’s time and attention by publishing a book, you need to be able to take polite feedback if you have sought it out (again, I don’t advocate sending bad reviews to writers, or being rude, and I assume here that writers with mental health conditions or specific personal circumstances will be able to avoid critical reviews).
  • I find this PARTICULARLY weird because all unpublished writers are essentially told to ‘just suck it up and get better’ when it comes to dealing with criticism of their work, whereas for published writers, there’s suddenly an attitude of ‘I don’t want to criticise something that someone’s put so much work into’ – so, in short, there’s a double standard in play that implies that unpublished writers’ work is less valuable and has required less labour.
  • Moreover, I think critical reviews can actually be helpful for other writers (i.e. the ones that didn’t write the book in question!) I’ve learnt a lot more about writing from reading intelligent, critical reviews than totally positive reviews.
  • It can also be impossible in practice, if you’re an honest reviewer, to avoid negative reviews if you are on a shadow panel, a blog tour, or have proof copies to review. If I really find a book unreadable I won’t review it, but this has only happened once or twice.
  • Finally, all this is off the table if a book is problematic and offensive, when suddenly everybody seems to agree that it needs to be ‘called out’, even if this jars with their usual stance on critical reviews.

My feeling is, that if I ever publish a novel, I may not seek out criticism from readers; but in the abstract, I could only be grateful to those who engage thoughtfully and critically with my work, especially if they aren’t paid to do so.

What are other people’s thoughts on writing critical reviews?

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Three Things: February 2019

As ever, borrowed from Paula at Book Jotter, and apologies for playing with the format a bit!

Reading

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The Binding, Bridget Collins’s first adult novel, is set in an alternative past where bookbinders bind people’s memories into individual volumes, allowing the choice to get rid of painful recollections – or, if you’re struggling to survive, the option of selling your happy or interesting memories for money. When Emmett is sent to train as a bookbinder under the elderly Seredith, he can’t work out why he seems to be in disgrace with his family, or why he reacts so violently to Lucian, an elite young gentleman he encounters, until he realises that he himself has been bound in the past. Collins’s world-building has something of the simple solidity of the wonderful YA writing I loved in my childhood – Monica Furlong and Robin McKinley came to mind. But there’s also a touch of Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith in the clever three-part structure, and in the way a private collection of books functions as both horror and revelation. Spoilers for The Binding follow.

As it turns out, Emmett and Lucian fell for each other before the opening of the novel, but when their respective families discovered their love affair, both were bound to hide the ‘shame’ of their sexuality. At the end of Part One, Emmett manages to burn the book that contains his memories, and so reclaims them. The much longer Part Two flashes back to let the reader see how Emmett and Lucian’s relationship developed, but when we’re back in the present in Part Three, we realise that only Emmett now knows the truth; Lucian’s book is still untouched. The climax of the novel sees Lucian torn between whether he should seek out his book – what if it contains evidence that he’s a murderer or a rapist? – or whether he should leave it be. Although Lucian doesn’t know why he was bound, this works pretty neatly as a metaphor for coming to terms with your own sexuality. How long can you lie to yourself about something you already know?

Collins’s background as a YA writer is put to effective use here. What I really liked about The Binding is the way in which it deconstructs what makes YA fiction work so well, but pairs it with stronger writing and a slower, more reflective pace. Readers of YA, especially queer YA, will know that it often pivots on that moment of realisation, that ‘and then he kissed him’, or ‘she kissed her’, though the latter is still unfortunately much harder to find than the former. The Binding lets this happen three times, when Lucian and Emmett first meet, and when they each respectively regain their memories. Moreover, like Fingersmith, it enjoys playing with power dynamics. The novel starts off with the traditional tale, with farm labourer Emmett seduced by the more sexually experienced Lucian, but once Emmett regains his memories and Lucian does not, the tables are amusingly turned. After their ‘first’ encounter, Lucian reflects ‘what he showed me wasn’t tenderness; it was experience. When he first kissed me I thought – in spite of everything – he was innocent. As if he’d never touched anyone else. But that’s absurd. No one fucks like that unless they’ve done it a lot.’ When both Lucian and Emmett learn the truth, their relationship is the more balanced for it. Totally absorbing, and great fun.

Watching Listening

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I don’t seem to have watched anything recently, but I’ve finally found a way to make some time for podcasts – I listen to them while doing repetitive Spanish exercises on Duolingo! Obviously, this requires podcasts that don’t need absolute concentration, but I find BookTube and other podcasts on reading and writing work well for this for me. I’ve been dipping into Savidge Reads and Insert Literary Pun Here‘s channels, as well as some of Tim Clare’s Death of 1000 Cuts podcasts.

I’ve also been enjoying Double Love, a podcast that dissects the ridiculousness of the Sweet Valley High series, one book at a time. I was reading SVH in the late 90s and early 2000s, so I’m much more familiar with the books after #100 (Evil Twin!!!) or so, but it’s fun getting a glimpse at the very different world of the 80s titles.

Thinking

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Yes, yet another book-related one, but I’ve been thinking about what I’d like to see on the Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2019, which will be announced on March 4th. THIS IS NOT A PREDICTION, which is why some of the most obvious picks are missing, but rather the sixteen books I’d most like to see on the list. Links to my reviews, where they exist; I haven’t read Rooney, Toews, Griffiths, Serpell, Miller, Kwon, Hustvedt, Li or Forna, but I’m adding them because I’d like to read them.

Normal People: Sally Rooney

Milkman: Anna Burns

Old Baggage: Lissa Evans

Motherhood: Sheila Heti

Women Talking: Miriam Toews

So Lucky: Nicola Griffiths

The Old Drift: Namwali Serpell

Circe: Madeline Miller

Melmoth: Sarah Perry

The Western WindSamantha Harvey

The Incendaries: RO Kwon

Memories of the Future: Siri Hustvedt

Where Reasons End: Yiyun Li

The Night Tiger: Yangsze Choo

Ghost Wall: Sarah Moss [may be too short to qualify]

Happiness: Aminatta Forna

What would you like to see longlisted for the Women’s Prize?

 

Three Things… January 2019

Reading

Earlier this month, I read Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging for my book club; it’s basically the book I wanted Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race to be. It moves beyond simplistic journalism to ask interesting and nuanced questions about race in Britain today. Hirsch, the daughter of a Ghanian mother and European Jewish father, is very good on her own search for belonging in Britain and in Ghana, and how this points to wider issues; the invention of new racial ‘others’, such as Muslims and Poles; the sense that a light-skinned, middle-class, mixed-race woman is somehow unthreatening in a way that Hirsch’s husband, a dark-skinned working-class black man, can never be. Highly recommended, and useful reading for my modern British history undergraduates as well.

Rachel Kushner’s Booker-shortlisted The Mars Room was also a hit, and a pleasant surprise after I struggled somewhat with her previous novel, The Flamethrowers. It’s 2002, and Romy Hall has been condemned to two consecutive life sentences – plus an extra six years – in Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility. Darting between a range of narrators, and from first to third person, it’s Romy’s voice that holds the book together. The novel is inevitably reminiscent of Orange is the New Black, but although there are moments of black humour, it takes on the much more brutal side of life in maximum security, unlike the relatively relaxed regime of minimum-security Litchfield. Hugely disturbing, it ends on a carefully-judged moment of rebellion plus oppression.

I was less impressed by Sonia Velton’s derivative historical debut, Blackberry and Wild Rose, set among the Spitalfields community of exiled Huguenot silk weavers in the late eighteenth century, which joins the club of female-led historical fiction novels with gorgeous covers but overwritten narratives. More of my thoughts can be found on Goodreads. I’m now starting Chibundu Onuzo’s Welcome to Lagoswhich follows a group of five newcomers who want to start a new life in the Nigerian city that has perhaps featured in the largest number of novels, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Death By Black Holea collection of popular essays on astrophysics that I’m keen to get going on after my recent excursion into quantum mechanics.

Watching

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Knowing my love of fiction set in polar regions, my dad insisted that I try Fortitude, a Sky Atlantic drama set in a fictional Arctic town in Svalbard, when I was staying with him over New Year. At first, I was hesitant, but I was won over by its careful plotting and beautiful, if sometimes grim, landscapes. The town is headlined as somewhere where ‘no-one ever dies’ and where no violent crime is ever committed, so it’s not surprising when the series kicks off with two deaths: Billy Pettigrew (Tam Dean Burn), a geologist who may or may not have been eaten by a polar bear, and Charlie Stoddart (Christopher Eccleston), whose corpse is found bizarrely mutilated in his own home. Fortitude starts off on a solid crime-drama footing, as DCI Eugene Morton (Stanley Tucci) arrives from the mainland to investigate the second incident and is accordingly resented and obstructed by the local police force, especially Sheriff Dan Anderssen (Richard Dormer). However, it ends up in much weirder, gorier and more speculative places. Huge content warning for gore and violence on this one: I can’t watch that sort of thing, so I used the Guardian live-blog to warn me of what was up ahead when watching the first series, as the explicit scenes are intermittent enough that I didn’t miss too much. (My dad had already spoiled the central plot twist, so I didn’t really care!)

Thinking

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I’ve been rewriting the Fiction section of this blog to better reflect the projects I’m actually working on at the moment. You can find the update here. In short: a time-travel novel set in fourteenth-century and twenty-first century Cambridgeshire, and a retelling of Beauty and the Beast set in contemporary Antarctica. In other news, my academic monograph is now virtually ready for final submission to its publisher, Manchester University Press. Hooray!

Thanks again to Paula for the Three Things idea! What have you been reading, watching and thinking this month?