Book 12of25 Men Explain Things to Me #ReadWithRD

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men explain thingsThe book I read that was ‘written by a journalist’ was “Men Explain Things to Me” by Rebecca Solnit. She’s written a clutch of books around human rights and environmental issues alongside being a regular contributor for the Guardian newspaper, political blog TomDispatch and LitHub.

The book is a collection of essays which starts with the most well known one, describing a dinner party instance when a pompous man describes her own book to her, and refuses to believe she can possibly have written it. This is the essay which is credited with the origins of the word ‘mansplaining’, although Solnit herself says that she did not create it and it is never written in that essay.

Screen Shot 2018-07-10 at 10.16.00That essay was first published in April 2008 on TomDispatch, and to be honest, it felt like the feminism journey had carried on from here and it was now out of date. Yes, men still explain things to me and others. Yes, some people are not aware of it but the conversation has moved on since then – which is a great thing. It read more as a marker in time rather than a rallying cry, which is the innate problem with the written and published text.  As soon as it’s printed, it’s out of date.

SuffrageddonIn a world where a suffragette musical is being made and has been crowdfunded by 250%, as Suffrageddon: The Musical, a place where there are Women’s Marches, international support to repeal the 8th amendment in Ireland and so much more support for women, it’s clearly a precursor, an historical anecdote about that conversation in which it was recognised that this bloke was rude and ignorant.  You can read more on Suffrageddon here, by the way. It’s going to be at Latitude for all of you who are going this weekend!

As a collection of essays, the topics covered range from Virginia Woolf to equal marriage. All of these were interesting to read, possibly the most interesting being the equal marriage one and the ‘threat’ when we allow same sex marriage to exist. This was a nicely argued point – that same sex marriages are by definition, equal in that two men are seen as equal where a man and a woman may not be, in the eyes of the law. Therefore, for same sex marriages to exist and be equal by definition, that follows that marriage between a self identified man and woman are also equal. Solnit words it better than I do!

It’s such a slim collection that I read it in an afternoon, sitting in the garden in the sunshine. It’s thought provoking and the essay which mentions Woolf reminded me that I have never read anything by her – perhaps it’s time to start! Any recommendations?

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The graphic novel one 11of25 #ReadWithRD

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This post is the ‘book that is a graphic novel’ one. I actually read a few from different comics because it felt like a bit of a cheat to read one issue as a whole book – it doesn’t take very long to read!

The two I read were ‘Saga’ and ‘The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Volume 1’. I haven’t read a lot of graphic novels and I tend to stay away from the ones with thousands of issues – it seems to be too hard to keep up, too easy to get confused about what’s going where and who’s doing what and to be honest, also too expensive.  I have a weakness for notebooks, fancy water bottles and running shoes already – adding ‘five issues of various new comic book series per week’ to that list is a stretch too far.  I have read graphic novels though – the standalone ones which tend to have a strong political slant. Maus, From Hell and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (maybe the last one isn’t too political but then again, maybe it is!).

Thanks as always to the ever brilliant Mr Charming for pointing me to Saga.  Aside from being excellent in lots of other ways, he is also an employee of the equally excellent library service in Norwich. For those of you who don’t know and are local, not only is there an extensive graphic novel collection in the main city library but there is also a wealth of knowledge in the staff who are more than happy to help out and recommend/reserve/purchase books if you need them. If you aren’t local, it’s worth asking your local library or even popping down to see what they have to offer, if you haven’t already!

SagaSaga is the love story across enemy lines – a couple from two sides fall in love as they realise they don’t have their hearts in the war they’re fighting in. In the first few pages, Alana is in labour and has a baby. She, Marko and their newborn then have to flee from their respective armies as they are both deserters – traitors. It’s written by Brian K Vaughan and illustrated by Fiona Staples.

The artwork is nice to look at but, in my extremely humble opinion, nothing special. Some of the panels are a bit graphic for me, if I’m completely honest. One of the bounty hunters is a female/spider hybrid who is terrifying and beautiful, but it’s an unnecessary image to have her topless as well. I’m not very far into the narrative but what I have read is interesting – the characters are strong and I especially like The Will, another bounty hunter who acquires a small child to look after within the early stages, alongside his cat, Lying. It’s special talent is pointing out a lie by pronouncing “LYING” at the person doing the lying, which is pretty funny and has already proven to be awkwardly timed.

I will keep reading it – I’ve only read Volume One so far and I know there are lots more of them so I will carry on. I also picked up Volumes 2 and 3 at the same time so I have no excuses not to!

squirrel girlThanks to an amazing friend,Weedy, for gifting me ‘Squirrel Girl’ for my birthday. I had heard a bit about her in the past but never really got around to picking it up. She’s part of the Marvel universe and is pretty kickass, actually.  i don’t think it’s technically a spoiler to say that she defeats Victor Von Doom AND Thanos pretty much single handed, as that’s the blurb on the front of the comic. IN the first four issues, she goes to college in a bid to be a more ‘normal’ girl and get some education before getting a pardner, who she hopes will be Iron Man. Her best friend and sidekick is Tippy Toes the squirrel, who has an excellent pink ribbon round her neck. His neck? I’m not sure it ever says but to be honest, I thought he was more of  he. She also gains a roommate, a crush and  runs into some ultimate bad guys along the way. It’s created by Ryan North and Erica Henderson.

I like her character – her cheerfulness, her enthusiasm and her willingness to see the best of people are refreshing and not quite what we have been used to in the MCU in the cinema, at least. I think that the upcoming “Antman and the Wasp” film might have some of the quippiness that Squirrel Girl has, and maybe the crossover – I don’t know. It’s lighthearted and fun and I will probably read the next issue – I can’t help thinking that it would make a great film though, or a Netflix standalone TV series as an anecdote to the ‘dark and scary’ Defenders endless parade we have at the moment.

As far as graphic novels go –  I don’t think its that different from reading a book, Although judging by the facial expressions on the wait staff where I had dinner and read one night last week, they were surprised to see me reading a comic book.  I would say that I want to read series which are beautifully drawn – that’s part of the point, for me. Secondly, I find it difficult to remember to look at the panels and not just read the text, which comes from me not being used to reading them. I think that would become easier with time.

The Possible World Book 10of25 #ReadWithRD

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My ‘book that you got for free’ is “The Possible World” by Liese O’Halloran Schwarz. Thanks to the publisher, Random House UK, and Netgalley for providing me with a digital copy.

First off, I am not going to go into too much detail with the plot of this book because one of the reasons  I loved it was the way it unfolded and knitted together. For me, a book which is cared for and thought about and written beautifully is a joy to read, and this one was. I don’t want to ruin it by spilling too much though!

possible worldThe first chapter is told first person through Ben – a little boy, small for his age and nervous about going to a birthday party with other kids, bigger and meaner than he is. His Mum assures him it’ll be fine and she’ll pick him up in a few hours. The scene is so real, so natural, between the small boys, that I was in the basement with them. As predicted, one of the boys is mean and Ben is so nervous that he goes to the bathroom for something to do. When he comes out, his life is changed forever. (Sorry, cryptic!)

In the meantime, we follow Clare, a centegenerian in a care home who is faintly exasperated with the ‘young ‘uns’ coming in at 70 years old. She only wants to sleep and read, and definitely does not want to make any kind of new friend or relationship at this time of her life. She’s too busy trying to forget the other relationships, at any rate.

Thirdly, we get to be a part of Lucy’s life as she navigates through residency and ‘death month’ – a month of night shifts which means balancing enough sleep in the daylight hours with just enough socialising so that your life is not all work/sleep/enough food to keep you alive. In this section it really becomes clear that O’Halloran Schwarz has a detailed knowledge of medicine and the ER – everything was clearly described and vivid, I could see it all.

As each person’s story unfolds it allows us to see the similarities, and in some cases there are crossovers. Characters pop up in multiple stories as the narrative is knitted together. The themes come out strong and clear: regret, shame, humanity. We are all striving for the same thing – no matter where we live or what we do or how our lives begin and end. Comfort, closeness from other human beings (or cats). Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t – we need to keep moving forward to get to the next section of our journeys.

I really loved this book. I think for a lot of books, your current state of mind makes a difference and I know that I am in exactly the right place, mentally, for this right now. Very rarely do I clamour to keep reading a book and this was the first one in a long time that I couldn’t wait to read at night, at lunch, whenever I could. I even put down my phone for long enough to mean I got some decent reading time before bed! I wholeheartedly recommend it if you’re a fan of time changes, flashbacks, stories with people in the middle of them – Kate Atkinson or Audrey Niffenegger.

Lastly, thank you to Liese O’Halloran Schwarz for writing this with her heart and soul.

I’m with the band: Confessions of a groupie 9of25 #READWITHRD

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with the band cover“I’m with the band: Confessions of a groupie” by Pamela des Barres is my ‘book that is a memoir’. In 1960s California, in the height of the Summer of Love and free spirits, Pamela tells all of the tales on the people she met, the things she got to see and do.

She describes herself as a groupie but acknowledges that the word has been corrupted in the interim decades. I admit I read this with some trepidation and a few misgivings – a woman following some musician blokes around in order to have sex with them doesn’t seem to be a fantastically equal opportunity, even if it was 5 decades ago.

Nevertheless, I was interested to read her story – what a time to be around and involved in music, with Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones rubbing shoulders (and other parts) with ‘normal’ people! Any google search will tell you about Pamela’s relationships with lots of famous rock musicians, so I’m not going to go into those in detail.

GTOsWhat I found fascinating was her drive and determination – she wanted to meet the Beatles, so she did. She wanted to be in a band and so she got into the GTOs, under Frank Zappa’s wing and with lots of other strong women who were doing what they wanted to do. Sometimes these were considered to be outrageous acts – not wearing many (or any) clothes, overindulging in alcohol or drug taking, but there was nothing really shocking. From a feminist perspective, I found it to be aligned with the basic principles – she did what she wanted for reasons of her own. She loved the music and musicians – creative, handsome souls – and wanted to get close to them. She made her own clothes, paid her own way and lived  her own life while recognising that she has needs to be attended to.

The other aspect I enjoyed was her inner monologue – her diaries are endearing and show her to be much less confident than she would have appeared, despite her young age. She describes her parents with such love and is generally such a positive person, it is easy to like her.

One thing which started to grate slightly towards the end was that ‘present day’ Pamela would describe the situation or story, before inserting a section from ‘past Pamela’ and her diary which repeated many of the same points in slightly different language. It may have been that I read it in minimal sittings so noticed the repetition more. Secondly, the last third of the book seemed to consist of PS, addendum and updates as it was re-released to commemorate anniversaries etc, which included obituaries and sad endings for many of the people in the book. This made it all a bit sad, really.

Nevertheless, I did enjoy it and I have had my interest in that part of history piqued – she’s written a few more books so maybe I’ll read those too!

H is for Hawk 8of25 #ReadwithRD

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H is for Hawk – written by Helen Macdonald as a memoir. I know, I’m about 4 years behind with this one! I think that when it came out in 2014/2015, I was probably a bit put off by the description, to be quite honest and also the fact that everyone was reading it.  It couldn’t be that good, could it? I dismissed it not just because of the cover, but also the story. Birds? Hunting? Pah. No thanks, not for me.

H is for HawkI picked this up because I was looking for a book which is near where I live, and this is set in East Anglia. I thought I’d read the first few pages, just to see, and then take it from there. Actually, what happened was that I devoured it faster than any book I’ve read in a long time (barring those read on journeys where you can’t do anything but read)

The basic premise is that a woman called Helen (H is for….Helen?) Macdonald, a college professor in Cambridgeshire, gets a goshawk to train. She does it because she is grieving, at least in part. Her Dad dies suddenly and she feels un-anchored. She starts thinking about her childhood and her passion for falconry, and this is woven into a tapestry which incorporates old hawking manuals, TH White’s biography and training Mabel. Mabel, the hawk.

It sounds like it would be cumbersome and unwieldy, but I really enjoyed the rhythm and the way Macdonald brought it all together, deftly managing the various strands into one coherent and passionate novel/memoir.

I also didn’t expect for it to be funny – and it is. Training Mabel is tense and I learned far more than I ever thought I would know about training falcons (jesses and hoods, twitches and beaters) and also found it fascinating. The explanation is never patronising or too technical and it’s always put into practice on Mabel so we, the readers, can see where Helen was taking us. The comedy is in the little things – the playtime between trainer and wild bird, the ludicrousness of doing so at a time where everything is up in the air.

 

If you haven’t read it yet (and you might be one of the last on the planet) I would highly recommend it.

Norse Mythology 7of25 #ReadWithRD

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This has been a bit of a slow month for books after a pretty steady start for the first quarter of 2018.

Princess Diarist Carrie Fisher

I did read a book though (hooray) but only after reading about of half of The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher and a few other books too, but not managing to get into them.

A mini review of the Fisher: I do love Carrie Fisher. All I’ve read and seen of her, she seems like she was an inspirational and strong willed woman, albeit a bit difficult at times. I suspect that this is due to all the stuff she was managing and struggling with, to be honest – celebrity parents, a huge amount of fame at a really young age, a role which set her in stone the rest of her whole life, despite being a talented script and novel writer. She wrote Postcards from the Edge, and lent her skills to loads of other films she was in, usually uncredited. These reportedly include Hook and Lethal Weapon 3.  Thanks Slashfilm for the article.

The non-fiction book includes a relatively long section from Carrie, talking about her introduction to Star Wars and what she was doing – a real insight into her life at the time, forty years ago. The next section tips into transcript of her diaries from that time – poems and paragraphs, most of them about her relationship with Harrison Ford. Perhaps I wasn’t in the right frame of mind, but I felt that these sections were just too sad to enjoy. Nineteen year old Carrie is  so raw and exposed, as expected in a diary, of course, but with the benefit of  hindsight we know that it didn’t end in a wedding for Han and Leia, in real life, at least.

Something I am still learning to do is to put down a book I’m not enjoying, and pick up one that I do! It’s amazing how it’s easy to forget that, isn’t it?

I decided to ditch the ‘memoir’ book and cover the ‘a book based on a fairytale’. I’m assuming myths count as fairytales!

Norse Mythology coverI chose Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman. I have to confess, I’ve never read any Neil Gaiman. It’s not that I don’t want to, I’ve just never got around to it! After this though, I will be hunting down some more Gaiman.

The book starts at the beginning, which is a pretty good place to start. I did find all of the names and places to be a bit overwhelming, especially as I tried to remember them all! It would have been a bit more relaxing if Neil had popped in to say – “don’t worry, when I refer to these cats later on, I tell you who and what they are and where they live”, which makes it loads easier.

It’s made up of a series of short stories with a loose start-middle-end/Ragnarok narrative, telling stories of the children of the gods as well as life in Asgard and in the surrounding worlds. There are beautiful giants and ugly dwarves, daring feats of strength and cunning which usually centre around Thor and Loki (strong and clever, respectively). The tales have been re-imagined and I found that while reading it I had an odd ‘double layer’ in my brain where I was thinking about the Marvel world of Asgard and it’s inhabitants, but also recalling reading all of the stories a looooooooong time ago, so that in many of the stories I remembered what happened 2/3 of the way through. That sounds like it was annoying, but it was actually pretty cool, keeping up with my memories. I have no recollection of actually reading them but I was pretty keen on fables and myths as a child so that’s probably where I read up on those.

One thing that struck me about the Norse gods is that they all have a job, a thing they are in charge of. Thor is clearly god of Thunder, and there are others who make sure the weather is just right for crops, who make mountains and control the waves in the sea.  It’s an interesting concept to have a bunch of deities who actually have something to do, instead of sitting around eating grapes and drinking mead or watching the people of the world from a cloud in the sky.

I can recommend the book as an enjoyable read – looking forward to reading more Gaiman and if you have any titles to steer me towards, feel free!

The Handmaid’s Tale 6 of 25 #ReadwithRD

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I first read The Handmaid’s Tale in high school, which makes it a good choice for my ‘book I read in high school’, arf.

Having watched the TV show last year and being both fascinated and a bit scared about the nearness of some of the experiences shown, I was a bit puzzled as I remembered very little of the characters in the book, as they are on the telly. I assumed that the production had changed a lot, added details, people etc from the book in order to make it more up to date, a bit closer to the bone. I read a couple of reviews where the assertion was, in fact, that the show was pretty close to the book, which told me pretty clearly that I should read it again!

handmaid's tale

This review will be talking about the book (besides that bit at the beginning). I will try to keep spoilers to a minimum.

Canadian born Margaret Atwood wrote the novel, which was published in 1985. It was a literary success from the outset, in that it won the 1985 Governor General’s Award,  1987 Arthur C Clarke Award and a runner up for the 1986 Booker Prize.  A quick look at Wikipedia shows a prolific array of over writing spanning a staggering seven decades and counting and covering everything from  short stories, anthology editing and graphic novels. I was lucky enough to see Atwood speak as part of her visiting writership at the UEA, 2013-14.  In the flesh she is as in her writing – insightful, clear and terrifying, at times.

For those of you who haven’t read this, or seen any of the adaptations, including the 1990 Natasha Redgrave starring film where Pinter wrote the script, a brief summary of the plot follows.

It’s the not too distant future, and Offred is a Handmaid in the state of Gilead. Her role is to be a surrogate in a high ranking family, although this surrogacy arrangement is not a consensual one, seemingly from all sides. In a world where Handmaids where red and the wives wear blue, the chosen sides may not be as clear cut as they may seem. Offred had a name of her own once, but we are never told it. She lives her days in the house, summoned on a monthly basis to the bedroom, where Serena Joy, the Commander’s wife, acts as a horrifying lap to cushion Offred while her husband, attempts to impregnate Offred in an act of rape which is dressed up in Biblical garments, in more ways than one.

Fertility rates have gone down and decreased to the point where babies are few and far between. A passage in the Bible seems to refer to the a handmaid of Rachel, Jacob’s wife, who is given to Jacob when Rachel fails to conceive.

Everything in the book is fluid and unreliable, which makes it fascinating to read. Offred’s whole account is completely unsubstantiated. The book is told from her point of view, of course, but if we are to believe her she has no access to pens, paper or any other recording equipment. How then, can she have committed her experiences to be remembered? She herself says on a number of occasions that her stories are reconstructions. In the most difficult scenarios – where she goes to the Commander’s room alone for the first time, on recounting her last trip with her husband, she tells it from a couple of different angles and with the details changed. For me, this is both intriguing and frustrating. What really happened?

 

Time is fluid too. With no way to count the days, she has no passage of time to track her life beyond the Ceremony, by the phases of the moon. This is echoed in the names of the chapters – nearly half of them are simply called ‘Night’, while the others are equally shortly named, including ‘Nap’, ‘Household’ and ‘Salvaging’. Stark, to the point. Long term, I struggled to understand where she was on her own timeline, but the wider one too. She was in the first wave of handmaids, according to the epilogue. If we can believe her account, this house was her second posting with two years at each one, so perhaps 3 years as a handmaid? The training might have been a year or two before that, of course.

Fundamentally, it’s human nature to try to pattern spot, to build a framework around something to try to comprehend it, but actually, I don’t think it matters.  We need to choose to take her word for it, or not.

This wasn’t an easy read, and it took a lot longer for me to finish than a book that size normally would. I think it’s because it’s a lot denser than it looks, and Offred’s voice is so strong that it does get to be oppressive  – she’s the woman in the supermarket who always has a sad tale to tell. It’s an important one though  – a caution at what happens when you let the bastards grind you down. Or maybe, when you let them in in the first place.