Reading Diary: Mar. 11-Mar. 17

61nyh599hzl-_sx325_bo1204203200_My favourite way to celebrate International Women’s Day, as with all celebrations, is to read something apt, and there is no book apter than Joanna Russ’s tour de force, The Female Man. (Note the deliberate not-use of the word “masterpiece”.) The plot of the book, such as it is, is fairly simple: there are four female characters, Jeannine, Joanna, Janet, and Jael. Each is from a different time period, and/or world: Jeannine from a world like ours, but where the Great Depression never ended and women’s lib never began; Joanna from the era contemporaneous to the book’s writing (1975), in the world as we know it; Janet from a place called Whileaway, where there simply aren’t any men; and Jael from a future where men and women are, quite literally, at war. (She has metal teeth.) The book is mostly comprised of their interactions with each other, and the ways in which these reveal each world’s priorities with regards to women and their place. Though the plot isn’t complicated, Russ’s writing is extremely in-your-face; she often jumps from one point of view to the next, frequently mid-scene, none of which is signposted. Her chapters can be six pages, or a paragraph, or a sentence. (It’s a very Vonnegut-esque approach to structure.) I’ve also read critiques of The Female Man that say, essentially, one of two things: either that society has moved on since the 1970s, and therefore Russ’s exposé of male hypocrisy and female oppression is no longer relevant, or that literature has moved on since the 1970s, and therefore that other people have since said the same things, but better. I disagree on both counts: on the first, society really hasn’t moved that far on since the 1970s (#MeToo, Weinstein, Gamergate, Trump, I can’t even be arsed to keep trotting out these examples, it’s so boring). On the second, few writers of any age have been as uncompromising as Joanna Russ is in The Female Man—she’s like Angela Carter on steroids and without any of the whimsy—and for a young feminist not to have read any of her work is for that young feminist to be missing a key part of history. “As my mother once said: the boys throw stones at the frogs in jest. But the frogs die in earnest.”

48398Renée Fleming is, as my friend Jon would say, a genuine goddamn treasure. Quite apart from her voice—which is a great big “quite apart from”; have you seen this? Or this? Or, good Jesus, the first nine seconds of this?—she projects this huge, warm, charming, utterly authentic personality. She wrote this book fifteen years ago as a resource for other young singers, remembering that, when she was just starting out, she devoured the biographies of famous sopranos but couldn’t find anything on what it actually felt like to build and train a voice, let alone create and maintain one’s own brand, develop a character, and all the other minutiae of an opera singer’s life. She’s so delightfully honest about being a people-pleaser from a young age, about her long years of failing to win competitions or auditions, and about not being considered particularly beautiful or stylish (although her “big face” was at least seen as an asset; she’d be visible from the upper circle.) I also love the way she writes about singing as work, both physical and mental, and the down-to-earth-ness of her love for her daughters and the life of her family. This would be an invaluable book for a young singer, but just as much fun to read as a regular opera-goer, or even just as someone who would like to know what all the fuss is about.

cover2The first book in my Women’s Prize longlist reading was Kit de Waal’s The Trick to Time; it’s also the first of de Waal’s books that I’ve read, having missed My Name Is Leon. Having no idea what to expect, it’s nice to be able to report that I enjoyed it very much. Partly set in 1970s Birmingham, and partly set in the present day, it follows the love story of Mona and William, two Irish migrants to England. After their marriage, Mona falls pregnant quickly, and the future seems bright – until tragedy strikes. In the present-day storyline, Mona is living in a small seaside village, making dolls and providing an initially unspecified service for bereaved mothers, while also fielding the attentions of Karl, a mysteriously aristocratic European living in town, and maintaining a curious relationship with a man known only as the carpenter, who provides the raw material for her dolls. The way that de Waal interweaves the two timelines, and slowly reveals the relevance of Mona’s past life to her present, is masterful: every revelation is perfectly timed, the prose is always completely controlled. Particularly impressive is de Waal’s ability to unflinchingly draw out the reader’s emotional engagement. Karl, in particular, seemed too good to be true, and when the truth about his circumstances becomes clear, it is in a scene so excruciating and yet so convincing, so alive with shame, that I read it with heart pounding. The book should probably come with a content warning, if only because the nature of the tragedy that strikes Mona and William’s marriage is potentially triggering. So far, though, the Women’s Prize longlist is off to a flying start.

35148165The Parentations has received the same treatment as The Wicked Cometh – pretty cover, lots of accolades – and unfortunately it suffers from similar problems. The story, which concerns an Icelandic spring whose waters convey eternal life, and the attempt to protect a child from evil Danes who would kill him in their efforts to discover the secrets of immortality, is a good one, reminiscent of a grownup Tuck Everlasting. But it is, first of all, too long. This is not a structural problem, but a question of paragraphs having been allowed to remain in the manuscript that are not pulling their weight, or indeed any weight. Despite being over 400 pages, I read it in two days, because so much of it is not actually advancing anything that it can be skimmed. Secondly, and perhaps in part because of its length, there are some odd gaps in logic and characterisation. We learn nothing about the Danish family that is supposedly so evil: they are straw man villains, and although the book spends time in nearly every major character’s head, we never see through their eyes or even get a particularly strong sense of their motivation. Equally opaque is the novel’s real villain, Clovis Fowler, who descends swiftly into oversexed femme-fatality and never recovers. (We’re meant to believe that she’s a perfectly poised and flawless criminal mind, but some of the decisions that she makes seem wasteful and gratuitous, neither one of which bespeaks true ice-cool evil.) Is it a page-turner? Absolutely. Is it, as its publisher has said in the Bookseller, some of the most extraordinary literary prose encountered in a thirty-year career? If so, that publisher hasn’t been reading widely enough.

9780008264239Oh, man. I so badly wanted House of Beauty, by Melba Escobar, to be good. A crime novel revolving around a Bogotá beauty salon, featuring the murder of a schoolgirl and a coverup by corrupt officials involved in massive healthcare fraud? The idea of a salon as a place where women go to tell each other things and feel safe, where the world of men cannot—for a brief while—intrude? Yes please. And Fourth Estate is publishing it, so I got a NetGalley proof, trusting. I was wrong to trust.

Part of the problem—and I don’t speak Spanish, but I understand a little—is, I think, the translation. Dialogue sounds stilted, motivation is explained with cartoonish specificity. Worst of all, it’s just confusing. The book is being told from the perspective of two women, Claire and Lucía, who are upper-middle-class Bogotáns, after the events have already played out; but there’s nothing to mark their points of view apart, so I was frequently startled by hearing Claire apparently refer to herself, then realise that Lucía was now speaking. We also get third-person chapters from the perspective of Karen, a beautician at the eponymous salon; from Sabrina Guzmán, the girl who dies; and from Sabrina’s mother, Consuelo. But none of them really move us towards an understanding of the crime: we arrive at that understanding only because we get to see into everyone’s heads, which characters in the book cannot do, so their deductions are unearned. The ending, meanwhile, had me staring at my phone in baffled rage, wanting to throw the thing against a wall—not because it’s incomplete, but because it suddenly partakes of the grossest stereotype. I think this is meant to make us feel differently about one of the narrators—which it sure did—but again, it felt unearned. In between the disorienting points of view and the leaps in plot, there are some interesting and upsetting things being said in House of Beauty about contemporary Colombian society, and the place of women (especially dark-skinned women) within it, but there’s just too much getting in the reader’s way.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: A great start, a disappointing end. I’m glad to have started the Women’s Prize reading and am now on my next book for that project, Nicola Barker’s H(A)PPY.

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Two Utopias: Thoughts on Walkaway and Naondel

These two books are, on the surface of it, about as different as you can imagine. Walkaway, by Cory Doctorow, is resolutely for adults (with a lot of graphic sex); Naondel, Maria Turtschaninoff’s follow-up to last year’s Maresi, is, despite its girth, a middle-grade YA novel. Walkaway believes in the power of technology to save us; Naondel places its faith in earth magic and the maternal life force. Walkaway is profoundly, almost giddily, optimistic about human nature; Naondel shows us a humanity that is near uniform in its brutality. And yet for all these polarities – sci fi vs. fantasy; adults vs. kids; positivity vs. cynicism – the two books have some striking similarities, and even their differences are illuminating.

9780765392763Both are about the drive, and the overwhelming need, to create utopias. Doctorow opens his book by introducing us to three characters: Hubert “Etcetera” Espinoza, so called because he has nineteen first names; Seth, Hubert’s slightly fratty but basically harmless friend; and Natalie, the scion of a minor branch of Toronto’s wealthy Redwater family. Hubert and Seth meet Natalie at a party (in one of the book’s many delightful coinings, it is a “Communist party”, where enterprising youths use 3D printing and microbial biology to create free dance floors, free speakers, and—crucially—free beer out of “feedstock”, useless industrial leftovers in an abandoned warehouse). At the end of chapter one, the party is crashed by drones directed by the forces of “default” society; one of Natalie’s friends, Billiam, falls fatally from a catwalk; Hubert, Seth and Natalie end up in the house of Natalie’s father, uber-capitalist Jacob Redwater; and the three of them, fueled by Natalie’s disgust over her family’s privileged arrogance and Hubert’s knowledge of other options, choose to “go walkaway”. Apparently, eighty years in the future, this will be a possibility: to join huge communal groups of people who don’t want to live in the wage slavery of late capitalism (where the rulers are not the 1%, but the .001%), and who use advances in 3D printing, network programming, and genetic modification to build lives for themselves.

The other way of living, in this world—the “default” way—is exactly like how we live now, but worse: go into deep hock to acquire degrees that are all but meaningless; reach age sixty-five without ever shaking the word “assistant” from your job title; live in constant terror of eviction or joblessness. Domestic servants in the Redwater household are hired on an ad hoc basis through an app—much in the way that catering and hospitality agencies provide workers now—meaning that the maid or the gardener is rarely the same person twice. It’s not the sort of world that values anyone, other than absolute zillionaires. The appeal of rejecting it is obvious.

34035652Naondel, meanwhile, is set in a country that clearly doesn’t belong to our world but which, judging from linguistics and economy, seems to be an amalgam of Arabic and Japanese culture. (This is a problem in itself, opening the novel up to charges of both exoticising and demonising Eastern cultures and their attitudes towards women. The Big Bad character is a brutal poisoner and rapist named Iskan ak Honta-che, which made me think of nothing so much as the rapey desert warlord in Game of Thrones.) In Karenokoi, very few people are both good and powerful. Power, by definition, corrupts. Turtschaninoff shows us a world where it’s not just the men who are evil, either; Izani, Iskan’s mother, is cold and cruel to her grandsons, while Lehan, the younger sister of a main character, is so infatuated with Iskan that she actually—albeit unknowingly—helps him to victimise another woman.

The whole novel is the foundation story of the Red Abbey on the island of Menos, where the first book, Maresi, was set. In Maresi we saw that kind of utopian, matriarchal society in action, and cheered as it destroyed a threat from outside. In Naondel we see why it’s necessary: the only place for women in Karenokoi is a subservient one. Interestingly, though, Turtschaninoff’s attempts at creating diversity among her characters cause a continuity problem. Several of the women who eventually escape from the dairahesi (harem) of Ohaddin Palace are from other cultures: there’s a woman from a nomadic tribe with strong spiritual connections to the earth, another from a tree-dwelling people who has the power to control others’ dreams. When they escape—as we always know they will—why don’t they make for one of these lands, where women and their powers are revered or at least respected? One suspects that it’s because the mechanics of Turtschaninoff’s plot demand otherwise. They have to settle the island of Menos and establish the Red Abbey; we knew from the moment we opened the book that it would end this way. To make that happen, we get a bit of authorial hand-waving that acknowledges the problem without digging into it, which limits the book’s success.

Anyway. Both of these countries, clearly, are ruled by total bastards. The establishment of a utopia is the only way out of their uncompromising and dehumanising systems. But here Doctorow and Turtschaninoff part ways again. Doctorow’s bastards are, by definition, a minority, and a tiny minority at that. Pretty much everyone whom our hero/-ines meet in walkaway is compassionate, sensible, and positive about their ability to make a difference. They collectively embody the covered-dish principle, which Doctorow explains within the book itself: after a catastrophe, do you go over to your neighbour’s house with a covered dish of food, or a shotgun? If you choose the dish, even a neighbour who chose the shotgun is more likely to put it down and offer you some food in return. If you choose the shotgun, it’s very unlikely that things will end well for anyone. Walkaway is about people who believe fiercely that taking a covered dish is the right thing to do, and who make the right choice most of the time. When an aggressive inhabitant of a walkaway community tries to create a formal hierarchy, he’s stymied because people there simply abandon the place, rather than live under someone again. When police besiege another community near the end of the novel, they’re defeated in part by their own innate goodness: those who are trapped mobilise the Internet to find relatives of the policemen who are also walkaways, then broadcast appeals from police’s siblings, parents, and children, targeted at individual cops. Without fail, this causes them to drop their weapons. You may find this beautiful, or unbelievable, or – as I did – both; but there’s no doubt that it gave me more hope, post-election, post-Brexit, post-Westminster and Stockholm and Syrian gas attack, than anything more overtly political I’ve read in the past year.

Naondel, by contrast, doesn’t allow us to believe in the innate goodness of anyone other than our heroines. They are somewhat complicated, but their morally dubious acts are always implicitly justified: Kabira, the eldest, taunts her mother-in-law with breathtaking cruelty as the old woman lies dying, but she has endured decades of taunts in her turn, and has been denied access to her children. Orseola, the dreamweaver, is exiled from her home for a major social taboo, but her outburst stems from the fact that she is untrained in her craft, and frightened of her own power. Sulani, the warrior, murders people left, right and centre, but she is a warrior and—it’s implied—that’s just what warriors do. Outside of this circle, we actually see very few characters, and the minor ones—like the eunuch guards of the harem—are at best indifferent to the suffering of the women. At worst, they’re either mustache-twirlers (like Iskan, who all but cackles), or—as in the case of Iskan’s other concubines—vain and stupid.

This is largely down to the fact that Turtschaninoff’s gender politics are broad-brush. It makes a certain level of sense. She’s writing for middle school girls, who are just becoming aware of the fact that, yeah, people will judge you for literally anything, and, no, it doesn’t seem to be like that for boys. Unfairness is the engine that drives Naondel—at points I found myself becoming furious—and to be given a book that not only provokes anger, but legitimises it, is a big deal for a twelve-year-old girl. Doctorow’s utopia takes the opposite approach. It is almost post-gender. None of the major characters have long-lasting cishet relationships; they’re all either L, G, B, T, Q, or I, and relationship drama is kept at an absolute minimum. Crucially, cishet identities are most reinforced by people who oppose walkaway culture: by Jimmy, the guy who attempts to create hierarchy in a community by tearing down their best programmer for being female; and by Jacob Redwater, whose wife and daughter live in a world of gilded privilege but almost no real freedom.

I prefer Doctorow’s vision, probably appropriately: I’m an adult, and his gender politics are adult too. Naondel is still a book I’d recommend heartily to middle-grade kids and their parents; it has important things to say. I would just take care to balance it with something like Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet. For all her faults, Pierce at least recognised that women were capable not only of creating their own retreat from the world, but also of engaging with its injustices head on.

Thanks very much to Chrissy at Head of Zeus and Tabitha at Pushkin Press for the review copies. Walkaway will be published in the UK on 25 April; Naondel was published in the UK on 6 April.

 

Valley of the Dolls, by Jacqueline Susann

“You’ve got to climb Mount Everest to reach the Valley of the Dolls.”

dolls

Valley of the Dolls is 50 years old this year. It’s being republished by Virago Press, the imprint well known for championing women’s writing; they publish, among others, Angela Carter, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Pym, and Margaret Atwood. So there’s an obvious question, one that springs immediately to mind, regarding this reprint: is Valley of the Dolls a feminist book?

The short answer is: hell nope. The long answer is: sort of, maybe.

If you don’t know the plot already (and I didn’t, having neither previously read it nor seen the film, released in 1967 and starring Sharon Tate), it revolves around three young women in New York City just after WWII. There’s Anne Welles, a refugee from emotionally frigid New England small-town life, devastatingly beautiful and seeking an existence as an employed woman on her own terms. There’s her roommate, Neely O’Hara, a seventeen-year-old who’s already been a professional performer for a decade, and who finally gets her big break through Anne’s friendship. And there’s Jennifer North, an actress who cheerfully admits to having no talent, but whose body is her primary asset.

Over the course of twenty years, Anne, Neely, and Jennifer get comprehensively screwed. Anne falls in love with Lyon Burke, a theatrical agent who works for her boss; they eventually marry, but he has copious affairs. Neely becomes wildly successful as a Hollywood film actress, but becomes hooked on drugs, ends up in a psychiatric hospital, and begins an affair with Lyon upon release. Jennifer’s story is the worst of all: aborting a pregnancy in New York because the father of the child has a congenital neurological seizure disorder, she moves to France and becomes hooked on sleeping pills. Upon her return to the States, she meets and falls in love with a Republican Senator, who doesn’t want children but is obsessed with the perfection of her body (mostly her breasts). Just before her wedding, she’s diagnosed with breast cancer and is told she must have a mastectomy. Instead, she commits suicide.

So: here we have mental health and substance abuse issues of the highest order. We have women deeply, terribly damaged by the disregard of society–mostly of men–for their worth as individuals. We have relationship breakdown. We have Anne’s (at least initial) determination to be financially independent. We have extramarital sex, demanding parents, the fear of provincial oblivion. You can see why Valley of the Dolls is cited as a direct cultural forebear of Sex and the City.

The problem I have with calling it feminist is mostly this: feminism has moved on since 1966. All of the things I mention above probably did make it a feminist book (or at least feminism-flavoured) when it was first published. Sure, women had sex and breakdowns, but literature didn’t chronicle it very much, let alone validate that suffering. We like Anne; we feel sorry for Jennifer; we’re forced to admire Neely’s grit even if we find her behaviour shocking. These women are hustling for themselves, and there’s a lot of rage in their experiences. Helen Lawson, an aging stage actress, “crucifies” a younger actress, Terry King, who threatens her primacy in a show. She does it because she’s terrified. Throughout this book, women compete with and attempt to destroy one another because they are so goddamn scared: of the future, of aging, of the power of the men in their lives. The women are the artists and performers, but the men are the lawyers, the agents, the directors. The women sign the contracts, but the men draw them up.

Even the most determined of the women in this book are aiming, really, at one thing: marriage. Anne’s refusal to marry Allen Cooper at the beginning of the novel is admirable (she doesn’t love him and tells him so; he literally informs her that she will eventually; she shakes him off after a few months, but only by falling in love with someone else). But there is so much pressure to bag a man: Jennifer’s mother tells her on the phone, “In five years you’ll be thirty. I was twenty-nine when your father got tired of me.” Even Neely, at seventeen, doesn’t understand why anyone would want anything else. And when Anne falls for Lyon Burke, she demands to know when he’s marrying her… after four days of dating. Intersectionality, meanwhile, is hardly present: Jews and gay men are subject to depressingly off-hand nastiness, while women of colour don’t exist at all in this book’s universe, and working-class women are only ever ashamed of their origins. For me to even raise the issue, of course, is sort of pointless, insofar as Susann wasn’t writing during an age of intersectional feminism. She’s of the Gloria Steinem generation; their breakthrough was to get the world to notice that white, middle-class women cannot be expected to cope with constant domestic and professional misogyny.

The problem now is that we have realized that’s not enough. When you read about the terrible things that happened to women in the early years of film and stage celebrity–the stories of Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland spring to mind–you can’t help but be horrified, especially by the way in which contemporary culture fetishizes those same women. A similar phenomenon contributed to the legends, and the early deaths, of Princess Diana and Amy Winehouse. What we expect of public women is awful, and was awful. This is all true. But it’s also true that white, middle-class women have a long history of ignoring and erasing others who should be equal partners in the struggle for rights: women of colour, gay men, gay women, transgender women, poor women, fat women, disabled women. My generation does not venerate Gloria Steinem except for as a reminder of how far we’ve come. We’re looking to poets like Warsan Shire; to writers like Juno Dawson and Roxane Gay; to musicians like Anohni; to commentators like Jack Monroe.

So is Valley of the Dolls valuable? Certainly: as an artifact, a signpost, something historically significant. But if I worked for Virago, I would be a tiny bit concerned–privately, quietly, but nonetheless–about reissuing it. We are not these women anymore, or at least, we don’t have to be. Why are we looking back?

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

  1. It turns out that I am the kind of person who, when left alone for the weekend, mentally regresses into single student mode. When I did a load of washing on Friday night, I felt as though I’d be morally justified in taking a picture, uploading it to Instagram, and tagging it “#adulting”. (nb: I did not actually do this.) Also, the ONLY reason I did not eat cookies for three days was because I had been made to solemnly and specifically promise that I wouldn’t.
  2. Although going to see movies is not something I do regularly, I’m thinking I might have to go see Batman vs. Superman. Not because it’s good or anything, but because the Chaos is actually on the soundtrack. (He does session work for film scores, on and off.) That’s a good reason to blow £20 on tickets and popcorn, right?
  3. c2Most of the stuff on this site probably would not fit me, or would look like a stretched-out handkerchief on my body, but this Mulan skirt… I would turn up for this.
  4. A feminist Facebook group I’m part of, Cuntry Living (YUP), has been running a thread of “great female literary characters” recently and it’s so great. Meg Murray! Alanna of Trebond! Betsey Trotwood! Becky Sharp! Moll Flanders! Hester Prynne! Penelope! Lyra! Scarlett O’Hara! Sally Lockhart! Jean Brodie! Maggie Tulliver! Amy Dunne! Shug Avery! Scout Finch! Violet Baudelaire! I’m going to have to go back and do a lot of rereading. Or maybe a Kick-Ass Women Week?
  5. I’ve recently decided to start helping myself out when it comes to my TBR by breaking it up into little chunks: four books at a time go onto a pile on my dresser, to be read through in order. Then, once I’ve read those, I can pick my next chunk. It helps me to mix up books to be reviewed with books I may have borrowed, books from the Baileys Prize archive (an ongoing project), and long-owned books that deserve to be read before I forget I even have them. At present, I’m reading Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies; the rest of the small pile comprises A Wizard of Earthsea (borrowed from the Chaos), The Exclusives by Rebecca Thornton (to be reviewed), and Selected Poems of Sylvia Plath (bought in January, needs reading).