In the Media: 19th October 2014

In the media is a weekly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous week 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. Also, just a note to make it clear that I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely.

Two things seem to have dominated this week: essays and people not being very nice to each other. Let’s start with the former:

Essays have been a talking point although most of the pieces I link to aren’t new. The resurgence of interest seems to have come from Is This a Golden Age for Women Essayists? which ran in the The New York Times a couple of weeks ago. The difference in opinions between Cheryl Strayed and Benjamin Moser is fascinating. Meghan Daum’s about to publish her second essay collection. There’s a great interview with her on her website (and how much do I want to read Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed?). One of this year’s most talked about essay collections is Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, the final essay of which ‘Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain‘ is available to read on VRQ Online. Amongst others, the essay discusses Lucy Grearly. If you’re new to her (as I am), there’s an essay on her in New York Magazine by Ann Patchett. I can’t mention essays without mentioning Roxane Gay, here’s a piece in The New Inquiry by Patricia A. Matthew on why Gay’s a new feminist icon.

Not being very nice to each other then. Well, this very odd piece by Katherine Hale ran in The Guardian yesterday, in which she admits to ‘stalking’ a book blogger who gave her a bad review on Goodreads. Bibliodaze posted this response to the article. Kate McDonough on Salon was the latest person to defend Lena Dunham, this time against Kevin D. Williamson of the National Review who questioned whether Dunham is telling the truth about a sexual assault which she writes about in her book. Emily Gould wrote on Buzzfeed about her experience of online trolls and why we should fight them, while Helen Lewis in the New Statesman talked about more experiences high profile women have had of trolls and what can be done to try and stop them. Caitlin Moran in The Times (paywalled) asked ‘Should We All Quit Twitter?‘ and how it’s easy to think it’s not real, thoughts prompted by her viewing the leaked Jennifer Lawrence photographs.

Other overtly feminist piece this week are Chris Kraus’ essay ‘The New Universal‘ – on feminism and publishing in The Sydney Review of Books; ‘Women as Supporting Characters Is a Problem‘, Alison Herman reports from Comic Con for Flavorwire; Johann Thorsson tells us ‘2 Things I Learned Reading Only Books by Women for a Month‘; Jacqueline Rose, ‘We Need a Bold Scandalous Feminism‘ in The Guardian; Lorraine Berry and Martha Nichols, ‘ “Women and Power”: How Much Clout do Female Writers Have‘ in the New York Times, and philly.com asks ‘Where are the women?‘ on the National Book Awards list (which all sounds very familiar).

And Sali Hughes, writer of ‘Pretty Honest’, is the woman with the most press this week, she’s interviewed in Standard Issue and on the Boden blog and there’s an new extract (audio, this time) from the book on the 4th Estate website.

Other noteworthy essays/articles:

And the interviews:

On translation:

If you’d like some fiction to read/listen to:

Or some non-fiction:

This week’s lists:

And my favourite pieces this week:

Animals – Emma Jane Unsworth

Animals is the story of Laura and Tyler. Laura’s 32, works in a call centre, is an aspiring writer and is engaged to Jim, a concert pianist. Tyler, 29, works in a coffee shop. Both of them like…well, read the opening of the novel and you’ll get the picture:

You know how it is. Saturday afternoon. You wake up and you can’t move.

I blinked and the floaters on my eyeballs shifted to reveal Tyler in her ratty old kimono over in the doorway. ‘Way I see it,’ she said, glass in one hand, lit cigarette in the other, ‘girls are tied to beds for two reasons: sex and exorcisms. So, which was it with you?’

We’d been out. Holy fuck, had we been out. A montage of images spooled through the brainfug. Fizzy wine, flat wine, city streets, cubicles, highly experimental burlesque moves on bar stools…

They like a good time and their good times involve booze, drugs and often (although more on Tyler’s part than Laura’s) sex. Much of the novel is based around Laura and Tyler’s escapades, which are absolutely hilarious; I could quote more, there’s a funny line or incident on practically every page and I cried laughing twice, but part of the joy of reading the novel is coming to those lines fresh.

However, Laura and Tyler’s nights out become something of a problem with Jim who’s given up drinking. Physically absent for large periods of the book because he’s on tour, there are numerous occasions when Laura’s supposed to meet Jim – most often at his place but once in Stockholm – where she promises herself she’ll leave early/not take any drugs/only have a few. Yeah, right. And it’s this tension between the three of them that drives the narrative forward.

But to suggest that’s all the book’s about would be to leave the core of it unacknowledged, a core that considers and makes astute comments about friendship, relationships and those choices that plague women in particular (ugh, society) in their late 20s/early 30s.

Laura and Jim are supposed to be planning their wedding but this creates tension with Tyler who feels that Laura’s deserting their friendship:

‘I’m not ruining your life! There’s more to life than me! And I’m marrying Jim because I love him, I do, and this feels like…’ I couldn’t say ‘adventure’. ‘…progress.’

She smacked her forehead with her hand. ‘Progress?’ What about our hard-earned system? Have you forgotten about that? Isn’t marriage just another example of everything we’ve always fought against, as in the shit people do because they think they should rather than because they want to?’

And then there’s Tyler’s opinion on her younger, wilder than all of them, sister having a baby:

‘You know what the “Baby Club” is? The Baby Club is one of those godawful discos in Leicester Square: starkly lit, tacky and full of tourists. The décor is dated and you can’t get a decent drink, and every time someone walks through the door everyone who’s in there smiles manically with this huge relief because they’re just so glad someone else walked into their shitty club after they paid twenty quid and can’t leave.’

And then there’s Laura’s take on the love we feel for our friends and lovers (repeated several times throughout the book with regards to different people):

I loved her. I did. Sometimes.

The writing in Animals fizzes; it’s fiery, sharp and perceptive. When I wasn’t laughing raucously, I was nodding in agreement. It’s the bastard lovechild of Withnail and I, Bridesmaids and Girls; it’s the novel that covers all the things I was thinking and feeling in my early 30s; it’s the novel that should firmly establish Emma Jane Unsworth as a shining star of British contemporary literature.

 

Thanks to Canongate for the review copy.

Ones to Read in 2014

For the last few weeks, I’ve been engrossed in some of the new releases coming our way in 2014. Here’s my pick of the ones I’ve most enjoyed. (Publication information is for the UK. Publication dates may change.)

A Song for Issy Bradley – Carys Bray

It’s been widely reported that Bray received a six-figure advance for her debut novel (her previous publication was a book of short stories Sweet Home which won the Scott Prize) and once you’ve read it it’s obvious why. A Song for Issy Bradley follows the Bradley family in the wake of the youngest child’s death. The Bradleys are Mormons – the father, Ian, is the local bishop; mum, Claire, married into the faith and questions it following Issy’s death. She crawls into Issy’s bunk bed and refuses to get out. Of the three remaining children, the teenagers, Alma and Zippy, struggle with usual teenage worries, being Mormons and the death of their sister, while Jacob, the youngest, tries to bring Issy back. As dark a subject as this is, Bray has an eye for humour in even the blackest situations and the book is an absolute joy from beginning to end.
Published: 19th June by Hutchinson

With 2014 being the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War, there are a number of books set in this era published next year. Here are two great WWI novels and a WWII one:

Wake – Anna Hope

Another brilliant debut. Wake follows three women – Hettie, a dancer at the Hammersmith Palais, whose brother Fred has been left traumatised by the war; Evelyn, a clerk in the army pensions and benefits office whose brother Ed was an army captain, and Ada, whose son Michael was killed in the war, although she’s never been told how. These women’s stories are told over the four days in 1920 that it takes to bring the body of the Unknown Warrior from France to London. This is a powerful novel, cleverly structured. It left me feeling broken.
Published: 16th January by Doubleday

 

The Lie – Helen Dunmore

One of my favourite novelists returns with the story of Daniel, a young private in the war who has returned to the small Cornish coastal town in which he grew up. Haunted by the death of his best friend, Frederick, he acquires a smallholding and, besides visits to Frederick’s sister Felicia, isolates himself. But in order to maintain his detachment, Daniel tells a lie that will be his undoing. Dunmore successfully portrays a young man involved in horrific events and wracked with guilt over one event in particular.
Published: 16th January by Hutchinson

 

The Railwayman’s Wife – Ashley Hay

Ani Lachlan lives on the Australian coast with her husband, Mac, and their daughter, Isabel. Mac works on the railway, a job that’s meant he avoided serving in the war. Roy McKinnon’s returned from the war and has found that the poetry he was able to write during the event now evades him. When Mac is killed in an accident on the railway, Ani is offered a job running the town’s library. Perhaps the power of words can help heal both her and Roy McKinnon. Quietly affecting.
Published: 2nd January by Allen & Unwin (Already available on Kindle for the price of a chocolate bar at the time of writing.)

Still Life with Bread Crumbs – Anna Quindlen

Rebecca Winter, once a famous photographer – everyone had that poster (the one with the same title as the novel) – rents out her New York apartment and moves into a cottage upstate in the hope that the cheaper rent will help her cover ever increasing bills. Rebecca’s unprepared for country living but Sarah, who runs the local tearoom, and the makeshift crosses that Rebecca keeps finding on the hill outside her cottage might help her see a different sort of life. I loved it.
Published: 30th January by Hutchinson

 

The One Plus One – Jojo Moyes

Jess Thomas, single mum to two kids – Tanzie, a gifted mathematician and Nicky, her stepson who’s bullied for being different – works two jobs to make ends meet. Her husband, Marty, has left them to live with his mum and get himself together; he sends them no financial support and when Tanzie’s offered a 90% scholarship to the local private school, he refuses to help with the rest of the fees, forsaking Tanzie’s dream. Ed Nicholls, suspended from his own company for insider trading, finds himself lying low in his holiday home – one of Jess’ cleaning jobs. When they meet sparks fly – and not in a good way – which leads to one unusual road trip. As brilliant as we’ve come to expect from Jojo Moyes.
Published: 27th February by Penguin

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler

Rosemary Cooke tells us her story; the story of her family – her sister, Fern, who was taken away when she was five; her brother, Lowell, who is missing, wanted for domestic terrorism, and her parents and the lifestyle they led when she was growing up – and the story of her time in college, specifically her friendship with the drama student (and drama queen) Harlow Fielding. Told in a forceful first person narrative with a fragmented structure, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves looks at human behaviour and finds us wanting. Highly quotable.
Published: 6th March by Serpent’s Tail

The Night Guest – Fiona McFarlane

Ruth Field, 75, is widowed and lives alone on the New South Wales coast, Australia. At night, she thinks she hears a tiger in her living room, although she is aware that it’s probably her imagination. A stranger, Frieda Young, arrives at Ruth’s door and tells her that she’s been sent by the government to look after her. Frieda reminds Ruth of her time in Fiji as a young girl, so while her sons rarely visit, she allows Frieda into her life with some devastating consequences. Terrifying.
Published: 16th January by Sceptre

Fallout – Sadie Jones

1960s London. Luke Kanowski escapes Seston, Nottinghamshire, contacts Paul Driscoll, a man he’s met once, and embarks on fulfilling both their dreams of working in the theatre. Nina Hollings is following in her mother’s footsteps by training to be an actress. But dreams are limited by cages created by family and society and the lives of the protagonists will be jaded by them. Fallout takes Jones’ writing to a new level, ambitious and mature.
Published: 1st May by Chatto & Windus

The Dead Wife’s Handbook – Hannah Beckerman

Rachel has died, aged 36, of undiagnosed arrhythmia. She narrates the novel from the place she’s currently in – one which allows her some access to watch over her widowed husband, Max, and their seven-year-old daughter, Ellie. Rachel doesn’t like seeing their grief but when her best friend, Harriet, suggests Max starts dating again, Rachel has to start to come to terms with letting him go. This could have been schmaltzy but it’s far from it. Had me reading late and sobbing.
Published: 13th February by Penguin but you can read the first two chapters here.

The Virgins – Pamela Erens

1979, Auburn Academy, an elite Jewish boarding school. The virgins are the couple Aviva Rossner and Seung Young whose classmates, ironically, think are shagging like clichéd rabbits. Narrated by their then classmate, Bruce Bennett-Jones, Erens explores the gap between appearance and reality and the consequences that gap can bring about. Tense and ultimately, shocking.
Published: 30th January by John Murray

The Last Boat Home – Dea Brovig

1974, a small Norwegian costal town. Else lives with her religious mother and fisherman father. They are poor, although this doesn’t prevent Else from sneaking around with the son of the richest man in town. Nonetheless, it is something else that will have far deeper consequences for Else: the arrival of a travelling circus. The echoes of those consequences are still being heard in the present-day sections that punctuate the book. Atmospheric and disturbing.
Published: 13th March 2014 by Hutchinson

There is also a handful of books I haven’t had the pleasure of being able to read yet but I’m eagerly anticipating.

Firstly, two young writers whose debuts – Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma and Hungry, The Stars and Everything, respectively – I loved and bought for numerous friends have second novels arriving this year:

Thirst – Kerry Hudson

The beginning of a relationship is usually all about getting to know one another, sharing stories far into the night, comparing experiences, triumphs and heartaches, until we know each other inside out.

Not so for Dave and Alena. He’s from London, she’s from Siberia. They meet in a sleek Bond Street department store in the frayed heat of high summer where she’s up to no good and it’s his job to catch her. So begins an unlikely relationship between two people with pasts, with secrets, they’ve no idea how to live with — or leave behind. But despite everything they don’t have in common, all the details they won’t and can’t reveal, they still find themselves fighting with all they’ve got for a future together.
Published: 17th July by Chatto & Windus

Animals – Emma Jane Unsworth

You know how it is. Saturday afternoon. You wake up and you can’t move.

I blinked and the floaters on my eyeballs shifted to reveal Tyler in her ratty old kimono over in the doorway. ‘Way I see it,’ she said, glass in one hand, lit cigarette in the other, ‘girls are tied to beds for two reasons: sex and exorcisms. So, which was it with you?’

Laura and Tyler are best friends who live together, angrily philosophising and leading each other astray in the pubs and flats of Manchester. But things are set to change. Laura is engaged to teetotal Jim, the wedding is just months away, and Tyler becomes hell-bent on sabotaging her friend’s plans for a different life.

Animals is a hilarious, moving and refreshingly honest tale of how a friendship can become the ultimate love story.
Published: 1st May 2014 by Canongate

And two established writers:

The Blazing World – Siri Hustvedt

Artist Harriet Burden, consumed by fury at the lack of recognition she has received from the New York art establishment, embarks on an experiment: she hides her identity behind three male fronts who exhibit her work as their own. And yet, even after she has unmasked herself, there are those who refuse to believe she is the woman behind the men.

Presented as a collection of texts compiled by a scholar years after Burden’s death, the story unfolds through extracts from her notebooks, reviews and articles, as well as testimonies from her children, her lover, a dear friend, and others more distantly connected to her. Each account is different, however, and the mysteries multiply. One thing is clear: Burden’s involvement with the last of her ‘masks’ turned into a dangerous psychological game that ended with the man’s bizarre death.
Published: 13th March by Sceptre

The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters

It is 1922, and London is tense. Ex-servicemen are disillusioned, the out-of-work and the hungry are demanding change. And in South London, in a genteel Camberwell villa, a large silent house now bereft of brothers, husband and even servants, life is about to be transformed, as impoverished widow Mrs Wray and her spinster daughter, Frances, are obliged to take in lodgers.

For with the arrival of Lilian and Leonard Barber, a modern young couple of the ‘clerk class’, the routines of the house will be shaken up in unexpected ways. And as passions mount and frustration gathers, no one can foresee just how far-reaching, and how devastating, the disturbances will be…
Published: 4th September by Virago

I hope that’s whetted your appetite for what’s to come. Full reviews will appear here on the week of publication for each novel.

Thanks to all the publishers for review copies.