In the Media, November 2015, Part Two

In the media is a fortnightly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous fortnight and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

There have been a number of powerful pieces published over the last fortnight by women about women reading books by white men and trying to please an establishment that loves white male writers. Rebecca Solnit wrote, ‘80 Books No Woman Should Read‘ on Literary Hub and Sigal Samuel responded with ‘What Women Can Learn From Reading Sexist Male Writers‘ on Electric Literature. Jennifer Weiner wrote, ‘If you enjoyed a good book and you’re a woman, the critics think you’re wrong‘ in The Guardian but the big one was Clare Vaye Watkins ‘On Pandering‘ published on the Tin House blog. On Flavorwire, Alison Herman published a response titled, ‘Claire Vaye Watkins’ “On Pandering” Describes a Specific Experience of Writing and Gender, But Has the Power to Start a Broader Conversation‘ and it did. Nichole Perkins wrote ‘A Response to “On Pandering” in the LA Times; Aya de Leon wrote, ‘In Gratitude for Claire Vaye Watkins and my own Fatherlessness as a Woman Writer‘ on her blog; Marie Phillips wrote, ‘Writers: we need to stop pandering to the white, male status quo‘ on The Pool; Katy Waldman argued, ‘Claire Vaye Watkins’ Tin House Essay “On Pandering” Has a Very Limited Definition of “Male Writers”‘ on Slate

The woman with the most publicity is Patricia Highsmith. The film of her novel The Price of Salt, renamed Carol was released on Friday (in the UK). In the New Yorker, Margaret Talbot writes ‘Forbidden Love: The Passions Behind Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt‘; there’s an interview with Phyllis Nagy, screenwriter and Highsmith’s friend on Bookanista; Frank Rich wrote, ‘Loving Carol‘ on Vulture

The Irish Book Awards were announced this week, including wins for Anne Enright, Louise O’Neill, Susan Jane White, Jane Casey, Sinead Moriarty,Sara Baume and The Long Gaze Back anthology edited by Sinéad Gleeson. While in London, the Costa Book Awards shortlists were announced.

The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

Personal essays/memoir:


Society and Politics:

Film, Television, Music, Art and Fashion:

The interviews:

The regular columnists:

Books of the Year 2014 (Part 1)

I’m being cheeky this year and splitting my books of the year into two posts. Tomorrow will be books published in 2014; today’s it’s books I’ve read this year and loved but that were published prior to 2014. I’ve decided to do it this way because (at the time of writing) I’ve read 131 books so far this year and there are 24 that I think deserve highlighting. That needs splitting into two, so this seemed like the fairest/easiest/most sensible way to do it. So, the books I loved this year that were published before 2014 were (click on the titles to see the original reviews):


Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

It’s not often as an adult that you read a book which changes your world view. Adichie uses her main characters Ifemelu and Obinze to explore race in America and the UK and love in Nigeria. It’s thought-provoking and compelling. A potential future classic.



The Lowland – Jhumpa Lahiri

A book that I nearly gave up on and ended up so pleased I didn’t. It begins as the story of two brothers, Subhash and Udayan, growing up in Calcutta, one involved in political protests, the other studious and well-behaved, but it becomes the story of Gauri, transported to America after Udayan’s death. Sparse prose and a woman in a situation she doesn’t know how to deal with. Superb.



All the Birds, Singing – Evie Wyld

Jake’s a sheep farmer on a remote island. She chooses to cut herself off from the locals but something’s killing her sheep. As her present day story is told, alternate chapters reveal why she left Australia – in reverse chronology. Inventive, tense and told in sharp prose. Deserves every award it won.



The Awakening – Kate Chopin 

A feminist classic, republished this year by Canongate. Edna Pontellier, treated as an object by her husband, begins to reject motherhood and decides to break from society’s expectations of her. Powerful and still relevant.



The Story of a New Name – Elena Ferrante (translated by Ann Goldstein)

2014 was the year of #FerranteFever. Fuelled seemingly equally by the compelling story of Elena and Lena in The Neapolitan Novels and her desire to protect her anonymity. The Story of a New Name is my favourite book of the series so far. Ferrante is superb at depicting the type of love/jealousy filled friendship that only women seem to have. The novels are brutal, both in terms of the relationship between the two women but also because of the backdrop of Naples and poverty. I intend to spend some of 2015 reading the rest of her back catalogue.


The Woman Upstairs – Claire Messud

Nora Eldridge is angry. She’s spent years as the woman upstairs, the one who’s well-behaved, who no one pays any attention to because she’s single without any children. She meets the Shahid family and life changes for a time but is Nora really being seen? I loved this book and if you don’t agree, well ‘fuck you all’!



Woman on the Edge of Time – Marge Piercy

Another feminist classic. Connie Ramos is committed to a psychiatric unit by her niece Dolly’s pimp after she attacks him in self-defence and he – and Dolly – tell the medics that she’s violent. But Connie discovers she can visit the future, a future where there’s no gendered pronouns, babies are all bred mixed heritage/race and have three parents, and people contribute equally to society. Inspiring and depressing in equal measure – how far have we come in 38 years?


The Notebook – Agota Kristof (translated by Alan Sheridan)

Twin brothers who are taken to live with a cruel grandmother, surrounded by other cruel people. A dark, twisted alternative take on fairytales and the nature vs nurture question. Brutal, stark and compelling. I’ll be reading the rest of the trilogy in 2015.



Thanks to Fourth Estate, Evie Wyld, Canongate and Europa Editions for review copies.

The Woman Upstairs – Claire Messud

How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.

I’m a good girl, I’m a nice girl, I’m a straight-A, strait-laced, good daughter, good career girl, and I never stole anybody’s boyfriend and I never ran out on a girlfriend, and I put up with my parents’ shit and my brother’s shit, and I’m not a girl anyhow, I’m over fucking forty years old, and I’m good at my job and I’m great with kids and I held my mother’s hand when she died, after four years of holding her hand while she was dying, and I speak to my father every day on the telephone – every day, mind you, and what kind of weather do you have on your side of the river, because here it is pretty gray and a bit muggy too? It was supposed to say ‘Great Artist’ on my tombstone, but if I died right now it would say ‘such a good teacher/daughter/friend’ instead; and what I really want to shout, and want in big letters on that grave, too, is FUCK YOU ALL.

I think that’s possibly my favourite ever opening to a novel. Nora Marie Eldridge, 42, Elementary School teacher, goes on to say ‘Don’t all women feel the same?’ To which I reply, ‘Fuck, yes!’ If you haven’t already worked it out, I LOVED this book. More on that later.

Nora is pissed off because by the time her third grade students get to her:

…they’re full of Lady Gaga and Katy Perry and French manicures and cute outfits and they care how their hair looks!…How did all that revolutionary talk of the seventies land us in a place where being female means playing dumb and good looking? Even worse on your tombstone than ‘dutiful daughter’ is ‘looked good’; everyone used to know that. But we’re lost in a world of appearances now.

Nora compares life in modern day America to the Fun House at the fair – doors that seem to be exits but never lead outside into real life. This is compounded by her being at that age when women become ‘invisible’. She is ‘the woman upstairs’, the one who lives alone, quietly, at the end of the third floor, who lives a life ‘of quiet desperation…We’re completely invisible’. Her wish was that she would be an artist with several children by forty, instead she has a teaching job and a second bedroom that she uses as a studio. Nora is angry at her failure:

The hubris of it, thinking I could be a decent human being and a valuable member of family and society, and still create! Absurd. How strong did I think I was?

No, obviously what strength was all along was the ability to say ‘Fuck off’ to the lot of it, to turn your back on all the suffering and contemplate, unmolested, your own desires above all. Men have generations of practice at this.

But, for a short time, things change for Nora.

It all started with the boy. With Reza…He walked into my classroom late, on the first day of school, grave and uncertain, his gray eyes wide, their millipedic lashes aflutter in spite of his visible effort to control them, not to blink, and above all not to cry.

Within a week, all the staff have ‘fallen in love with him, a bit’, this ‘exceptional’ child.

Reza’s mother is Sirena Shahid, an artist. She’s Italian. Her husband and Reza’s father is Skandar Shahid, a visiting lecturer at Harvard. He’s from Beirut. Nora meets Sirena when Reza is attacked at school and called ‘a terrorist’. The following evening Sirena telephones Nora at home to discuss the boys who’ve attacked her son and Reza himself. She suggests they meet for coffee and they organise it for two days later. Thus begins a relationship between Nora and the Shahids which allows Nora to feel as though she’s seen.

The inclusion of the Shahids also allows Messud to discuss race in America – or at least one facet of it. Skandar in particular, in one excellent scene, discusses the way you’re seen, the way assumptions are made about you, if you come from a particular country and how that differs – is whitewashed – if you study at university in America.

When The Woman Upstairs was published a number of reviews referred to Nora as ‘unlikeable’. Claire Messud gave a fantastic response in an interview with Publishers Weekly when the interviewer said she wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora. Well, you know what? I would want to be friends with Nora because if she’s unlikeable, so am I and so are most of the women I consider to be my friends.

Why is Nora considered in these terms by some people? For me, the answer is in her loneliness and her desire to be seen. Everyone wants to be seen by someone, to not feel alone but we’re not allowed to admit that. I see myself in Nora – I was the woman upstairs for ten years and I was angry – I still am often, especially when the discussion concerns inequality. (I was also a schoolteacher. There was a point when I was reading the book when I wondered whether Messud had been stalking me a few years ago.) There is an incident in the novel that could be used to support someone’s dislike of Nora, however, if the behaviour she exhibits was performed by a man it would barely be commented on. Nora is deemed unlikeable because she is a woman but her loneliness and her desire for attention is not a female trait, it is a human one.

The Woman Upstairs is a superb novel and Nora is a fantastic character. And if the novel has one of the best openings ever, it also has one of the best endings; as with so many moments in the book, I found myself exclaiming ‘Fuck, yes!’