Book Review: Saints and Adventurers by Frances Gapper

saints and adventurers by frances gapper

On the day my brother died, when I was fourteen, a grey, wet, windy day in late August, my grandmother drowned the cat.

This is another one of the Women’s Press books that I’ve managed to get my hands on. It’s a story of grief, madness and menstruation; a work full of transformations. In many ways, it was very much of its time. And then again, the book was just full of characters that I recognised – people from my life who had snuck into the pages and were waving out at me.

It’s told by Jenny, who is growing up after her brother’s death. Her mother will not talk about her feelings, is a tightly controlled and deeply angry woman. And her grandmother is the opposite in so many ways; a Corsican wise-woman plying her trade in Surbiton. It’s a dizzying portrait of adolescence, of all the different ways to go mad. There are angels that turn up and cats that die and a father who simply has no idea and spends all his time writing a book about butterflies and emerging only when the tea runs out.

There are many moments when I laughed out loud. And many when I cried. Jenny’s best friend, Alicia, is starving herself and recites poetry backwards. Her mother retreats into a world she can control. Her grandmother drowns cats and fixes electrics and talks about blood and death and magic. Jenny’ sort-of boyfriend is endearing, in a hopeless way; his parents are Freudian psychoanalysts and tried to raise him to be normal (it backfired). And Jenny is lost and wandering, trying to grow up and not knowing how or what it means.

It’s a rich, rich work that spoke to me very deeply. It didn’t offer solutions or even take clear sides. Here was a family being a family, which is a much more complicated endeavour than most people think. There’s religion and sex and all the strange things that get thrown up during adolescence and a wry sense of humour that will suddenly turn in on itself, laughing at the notion of the book. Spirits and ghosts and humans. Basically, I really really enjoyed this book but it’s very hard to review!

Rating: read this book. Climb a hill and scream.

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International Women’s Day – Day Without a Woman

Happy International Women’s Day!

I don’t have enough money to be able to afford to go on strike today (sadly), so here are just a few little things that I am doing:

  • Wearing RED in solidarity with striking women.
  • Also wearing BLACK in solidarity with strike4repeal.
  • Heading to a local women’s day event later.
  • Donating sanitary towels to homeless shelters via The Homeless Period.

It doesn’t feel like nearly enough in all honesty, but I cannot do everything.

Sending out big love to my all my fellow women, enbies and allies.

Book Review: Gaining Ground by Joan Barfoot

Photo on 2016-06-07 at 19.08 #2

My name is Abra.

On the one hand, this book was incredibly easy to read. Then again on the other hand, it was terrifyingly difficult. Gaining Ground is the story of Abra, a woman who left her family and everything she knew in order to live utterly alone and whose daughter Katie has now tracked her down to confront her.

Abra has no explanations to offer, no way of making Katie understand what she has done. Katie’s very presence draws Abra into memories that she thought she had left, swamping her at times. It is a fascinating study of mother-daughter relationships and of extremes.

Gaining Ground was easy to read because of the sparse simplicity – Joan Barfoot’s style is lucid and curt with an underlying warmth to it. The story is simple, at least on the surface. There are few narrative complexities, no unnecessary flourishes.

And then, it was also difficult to read. I recognised so much of myself in Katie and Abra – it was like watching my own internal conflicts played out by strangers. I understood, far more than I wanted to, Abra’s struggle to feel and to relate and to function. And I have often felt the desire to simply leave bubble up from somewhere deep inside me. And yet… I felt for Katie, I understood her rage and her pain and her abandonment, her inability to comprehend. That is a voice that I also have, on the inside.

This book, I think, is important. For anyone who has ever needed to be alone, and for anyone who has been left. It is a strange tale, and at times reality seemed to melt and memory failed. But it is also simple and therein lies the strength; simple like the edge of an axe, and cutting like one.

Having finished this book, I find myself oddly peaceful yet also full of an odd yearning for something that I cannot name but that I recognised in Abra’s cabin. An interesting, disturbing read.

Note: I promise we will get back to fantasy reviews! Eventually…

Book Review: Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

Reading Lolita in Tehran

In the fall of 1995, after resigning from my last academic post, I decided to indulge myself and fulfill a dream.

This book left me speechless. I rarely read non-fiction, but this memoir grabbed me by the heart and refused to let go. I must admit that, somewhere in the back of my mind, I have always thought of book-groups as being cozy (I’ve never been to one, although I have eavesdropped on a few in cafés). This memoir, related through the various forbidden texts read by Azar Nafisi’s students in Iran, is anything but.

It has a precise painfulness to it, even during the moments of joy (and there are many of those). The women that we meet are sharp, intelligent women with differing opinions and backgrounds. Women who are risking imprisonment or worse just to read, and to be in a space where they can have opinions. Where they can laugh. Where they can reveal that they paint their nails and that they have strong feelings about Nabokov.

I must admit to knowing very little about the revolution in Iran, or about Ayatollah Khomeini or the Shahs. In fact, I knew so little that I didn’t really have any preconceptions about Iranian women. If I had, they would surely have been shredded by Azar Nafisi’s honest and biting prose.

What was striking about this memoir was that the people were just that: people. They worried about love and children and rent, and they also worried about being bombed or arrested for immorality. The weight of the regime was present everywhere, and it was a weight that is hard for me to comprehend, and yet these women fight back in snatched moments – coffee drunk with a man to whom they are not related; poetry recited in prison cells; classic novels read in secret.

It was heartrending. I had to keep taking breaks because I felt claustrophobic. I realise that I am making this memoir sound appallingly depressing, which it is not. Yes, it is painful and hard, but there is hope. Hope, and resistance. And that is really the centre of this memoir: a group of ordinary people, who wish to do ordinary things and who are made rebels by circumstance.

Certainly worth reading, although I advise having tea and tissues to hand.

My reviews seem to be getting shorter and shorter at the moment! I hope that they are still enjoyable and useful.

Book Review: The Wanderground by Sally Miller Gearheart

 The Wanderground

Jacqua stood above the Eastern Esconcement gazing across the high meadow.

I recently inherited a number of excitingly feminist ’70s and ’80s works, among them this title, and have pretty much vanished from the world of human interaction since. I imagine there will be a few reviews of them up here, but I may well make a recommendation list just in case I don’t get around to all of them – they’re very good.

The Wanderground is an odd yet loveable book. I rarely read Utopian fiction, and I’m not 100% certain that it is the right classification for this work, but it’s how I would label it. This book is unique in many ways; for a start, it does not have a traditional plot structure. There is a conflict that requires resolution, but the book is more a palimpsest of experiences that layer over each other, only creating the finished picture when all is complete.

There are no main characters – many people recur throughout the book. Sometimes I lost track of them, and at first this worried me. Eventually I just relaxed into reading and trusted that I would remember anything that needed remembering. It was a bit like having water fall over my head.

The Wanderground is a strange vision of the world, a world in which the earth and the animals have risen up against patriarchy, and men can no longer survive outside cities. Women, those of them who are free, live out in the hills. They are rebuilding what it means to be women, to be human, to love and to live and it is fascinating. The time flickers back and forth, diving into memory at times. Everything seems malleable – reality itself is being reinvented. Everything from the way the women think to the way they travel is new and different, in a state of change and harmony with the surrounding world.

It’s a hard book to review, because I don’t think I’ve read anything quite like it before. There are so many ideas in it that interested me that I feel in danger of pontification. So I will just say that The Wanderground was slow, painful and joyful at turns. I was never quite sure what I thought of it, but I read it through to the end and felt it was time well spent. Some of the ideas feel dated now, however in a time when much fiction seems obsessed with increasingly dystopian worlds, it was refreshing to visit something more utopian and hopeful. A distinct, outlandish work that nevertheless succeeds both in its worldbuilding and its storytelling.

PS I could not find a good cover image, and so had to make do with a photo of my copy instead.

On Female Emancipation

Note: this is (obviously) not a book review, and to those people who read my blog for book reviews please do not worry: I will continue reviewing books and of course you do not have to read this post. This is a piece of writing about equality, a subject that I am very passionate about. The rest is self explanatory. It is quite a lengthy piece, and for those who prefer there is a link to a spoken word version at the bottom of the page.

I was recently pointed in the direction of Matt Forney’s ‘The Case Against Female Self-Esteem’, and I was pretty disgusted by the opinions aired there, as well as being a little surprised; I wonder if Mr. Forney has skipped the last two hundred years of history? Quite a few of my friends told me not to bother dignifying Mr. Forney with a response, a point of view that I certainly understand. I in no way wish to legitimise Mr. Forney’s views.

However, his writing got me thinking about men and women and gender identity and freedom, and I find that I do want to say my piece in the hope that perhaps someone will identify with my words.

It is only comparatively recently that western women have achieved legal equality, and I say legal equality because being equal on paper and being equal in practice are very different things. For the vast majority of recorded history (several thousand years) women have been oppressed using both subtle and not so subtle means.

We have been treated as property, denied basic rights, denied autonomy over our own bodies, prevented from taking part in government, prevented from holding jobs, owning property, having bank accounts. In many instances we have been taught that our sole value lies in our worth as an ornament, and our bodies have been broken in pursuit of an ideal of beauty. We have been denied intellectual stimulation, and attempts have been made to control every aspect of our sexuality. This list goes on and on, and in many countries the things on it are still the norm. Anyone who looks at this and denies that it is oppression needs to sit down and seriously re-think their worldview.

So overall we’ve had a pretty shit time of it, and the thing about oppression is that it is insidious; it becomes internalised, familiar, comfortable even. As a wise man once said: “The greatest weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”

Several thousand years of oppression has a way of getting inside everyone’s thoughts. It is not enough to be finally handed a piece of paper that declares us free, though that is a good start; we have to create a freedom of thought in people’s minds so that we are no longer constrained by ideas of what ‘male’ and ‘female’ should be. We need to redefine all our ideas about gender identity, because if we don’t then we will just fall back into our familiar, comfortable notions of what men and women are, and that path leads us only backwards.

We need to learn to celebrate our differences without being separated by them. We need to stop thinking of people as female or male or trans and start thinking of everyone as humans, because as humans we have so much in common.

As humans we love, we hate, we forgive, we are enraged, we fight, we laugh, we cry, we despair, we hope. We feel joy and pain and lust. We are logical and emotive. We believe in things. We have a vast range of potential capabilities from selfless kindness through to absolute sadism. Any system, society, government, religion or person that tells us we can only be these few things because we are female, or these few things because we are male, or these few things because we are both or maybe neither, is inhuman because it is trying to make us less than whole. Unless we are able to engage fully both our intellect and our emotions, we can only be damaged. We can only be partly human.

Changing this is not an easy endeavour. We need to decide if we are strong enough to demand better than what we have had, and if we are prepared to fight for it. If we are willing to try building something new and to keep on building if we fail the first few times. To understand that we will be opposed because change is always frightening.

I want to be part of creating a future where the only requirement for being afforded human rights is that you are alive, where women are more than ornaments and men are more than protectors and no-one will raise an eyebrow if you are neither. I want to be part of creating a future where no-one has expectations of people based on their sex. I want to be part of creating a future where we move beyond our binary concept of gender and accept that humans are fantastic, complicated creatures that cannot be kept in neat categories. I want people to understand that just because someone does something one way, it doesn’t mean that that thing cannot be done in another.

We need to change minds. We need to help people understand that freeing women is not about oppressing men – it is about finding ways to meet as equals and with compassion and respect for each other. It is about opening an honest discussion that concerns moving onward rather than shifting blame.

We need to create a dialogue in which we can express the pain that we are feeling so that all the women out there who are waging war on their bodies and struggling to know how to be, and all the men who feel that they no longer know what their roles are and aren’t sure how to contribute, and all the people who don’t know if they are men or women, can express those thoughts and feelings without fear of ridicule or rejection. And if people are scared by these ideas then that should also be part of the discussion.

I want to be part of creating a future where our biological differences can be openly acknowledged without them having anything to do with status, where the only forms that require you to fill out your sex are medical forms, where discrimination based on sex, gender identity or sexuality are completely alien concepts.

I hope others will join me in this.

   And as a final rejoinder to Mr. Forney, I would like to point out that even if he and others like him did succeed in collectively leading all women back into the kitchen, we would still be in the room where all the sharp implements live. Something for him to mull over.