NY resolution: #readmorewomen
At some point during 2018 I realised I had only read books by female authors, so decided to keep it up for the whole year. There’s a #readmorewomen hashtag and @WomenRead account on twitter which highlights female authors - worth checking out. My New Year’s resolution is to continue to read as widely as possible.
I’m not great at making time for reading - it’s much easier to aimlessly scroll through Instagram than engage my brain with literature. Worryingly, I have actually noticed my attention span decreasing in the past year or so and I find when I want to read something I need to take more and more frequent breaks to be able to digest it (by breaks I mean little serotonin hits of social media).
A case in point is Eimear McBride’s ‘The Lesser Bohemians’ which has a nontraditional form. I tried to read it this summer and kept putting it down, unable to wrap my head round the stream-of-consciousness style. But I’m sure that it’s because I wasn’t in the right frame of mind, and I’m going to give it another go over the next few months.
The stack above is what I managed to get through this year, about one a month, which - for someone who has been unemployed or part-time most of the year - is pretty shit. This year, I want to read at least that, and I already have a stack to choose from. I’m on Goodreads and will try to update it as I go.
So, back to the books I read by women in 2018. Before this year, I hadn’t really read much memoir, but it has become one of my favourite genres. I think I was probably quite arrogant in thinking other people’s experiences had nothing to say to me, but the more memoir I read, the more I find them completely fascinating and illuminating - particularly ones which focus quite precisely on a specific time or experience. Memoirs I read in 2018:
Hunger, by Roxane Gay
To Throw Away Unopened, by Viv Albertine
The Argonauts, by Maggie Nelson
Animal, by Sara Pascoe
My absolute favourite was Viv Albertine’s and I’d hugely recommend it. She writes about growing up in a working class family in the 60s and dissects the influence her family dynamics had on her personality and how she lived her life (influential punk musician, artist). She is captivatingly honest about herself, her parents, Englishness, class and patriarchal expectations. She doesn’t hide any of the sharp edges of her personality. It’s wonderful and I will be re-reading it for sure. This is a good interview with her discussing it.
Another incredibly honest read was Roxane Gay’s ‘Hunger’. A devastating account of using food as protection. Reading her words about the way she moves through the world, how people see her, her trauma and self-loathing was so uncomfortable, I was squirming in my seat. It’s not a “here is my journey and how I conquered my demons” book, it’s more of a “this is my current experience, in all its messiness and contradictions.” This is a nice piece about her.
Okay, so I really wanted to ‘get’ Maggie Nelson’s memoir-cum-queer theory analysis ‘The Argonauts’ but it soared well above my head. It intrigued me enough to want to read it again (maybe with a computer nearby to look up all the theorists and philosophers she quotes) and so many people have waxed lyrical about it that I think it deserves more of my attention. A review.
Finally, last of all in the memoir section, ‘Animal’, by Sara Pascoe. Stupidly, I didn’t realise this was a book about Sara Pascoe until I started reading it - I thought it was a fictional ‘Autobiography of a Female Body’ which is its subheading. I suppose I was expecting a humorous science book, rather than an autobiography with science. It’s got a lot of interesting points about hormones and biology, filtered through Sara’s experiences in life and relationships, but I think it’s aimed at someone younger. Here’s a nice piece about her and the book.
Seamlessly seguing into non-fiction: for a comprehensive book about the female body, ‘The Wonder Down Under’ is good primer on female anatomy. Again, some of it was squarely aimed at a younger audience, but there’s a lot in it about hormone cycles, pregnancy and menopause to make it relevant to anyone interested in vulvas and wombs. Read a bit about it here.
Now for the fiction:
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman
Conversations with Friends, by Sally Rooney
Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng
The Power, by Naomi Alderman
Motherhood, by Sheila Heti
Lullaby, by Leila Slimani
Let’s start with the worst. Two million copies of ‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ have been sold. It has won awards, is going to be a film and was all over book clubs, social media, etc etc. Hailed as ‘up-lit’ (uplifting literature). I didn’t like it and didn’t find it particularly uplifting, either. Here’s a review that captures why so many loved it.
Conversely, Sally Rooney’s ‘Conversations with Friends’ lived up to its hype and then some. Initially I was rolling my eyes at the premise (two Irish female uni students - former lovers and performance poets - meet older bourgeois couple) but I couldn’t put it down, the dialogue was perfect. Rooney has had tonnes of accolades (“Salinger of the snapchat generation,” “The first great millennial novelist”) and I cannot wait to read her next novel, ‘Normal People,’ when it’s out in paperback in May. This is an interesting interview with her.
‘Motherhood’ by Sheila Heti is a fictionalised memoir/diary/artwork about the narrator’s decision whether or not to have children. I found a few passages so insightful that I was folding down the pages to come back to, and I loved the premise of her flipping coins to interrogate the universe, but when we started to get into the ‘Soul of Time’ I checked out a bit. It examines society’s conception of motherhood really well, but focuses completely on artists (making art vs having a family) which felt a bit imperious to me, not being an artist and all. This is a great review of it by Sally Rooney.
I heard good things about Celeste Ng’s latest novel ‘Little Fires Everywhere’ and spotted her debut ‘Everything I Never Told You’ on sale for a couple of quid. It’s a great read about a middle class American family, the weight of cultural, familial and racial expectations and how we hide parts of ourselves from those closest to us. It’s one of those lovely omniscient narrator books where you get inside every character’s head. Reviewed here.
I enjoyed ‘The Power’ by Naomi Alderman. Quite pulpy in places, it imagines a world where teenage girls have the ability to electrocute through their fingers. She satirises evolutionary biology and gender dynamics through back-and-forth letters set in the far future before getting into the main body of the story and following four characters as they live through the awakening of women’s power. Here’s a review.
‘Lullaby’ by Leila Slimani was great. She explores race, class, ambivalent motherhood, gender and the murky relationship and compromises of having an employee who is so intimately tied to your family life. I would love to read it in French one day as I think the Parisian context and French ideas of motherhood are key. Reviewed here.
So, to 2019 and making time to read lots more brilliant women!