A blog for everything bookish

Monday, 28 October 2013

Ten contemporary female writers everyone should read

Hot on the heels of Eleanor Catton’s recent MAN Booker prize success, I’ve been thinking a lot about great female writers. It’s no secret that the UK press lead up to the prize really ticked me off. With a shortlist of 4 female and 2 male novelists, a disproportionate amount of press time and headlines were given over to debating which of the two men would win, and dismissing the female shortlistees. So when Catton’s win was announced, it was one in the eye for the ‘established’ UK press and their powers of discernment and prediction. Of course, I know that is very unfair on Crace and Tóibín, both of whom would have made worthy winners. But perhaps the established commentators might have a little rethink post prize, and not be so swift to count the ladies out. Interestingly, Catton herself has spoken out against the inherent sexism in the publishing industry, which you can read here.

There are so great female writers out there. It’s a shame that so many people are so quick to dismiss them, to say that what they produce en masse is no good. History is dominated by male writers, predominantly because access to education, to literacy, has been denied to women in most places until relatively recently. In some countries, access to literacy along with other seemingly fundamental human rights, is still denied to women. But in countries where women are routinely educated the idea that women somehow still need to ‘catch up’ to male standards of literature seems bizarre. As though the male writers already carry within them the experience and merit of the work of other men that have gone before, as though the ability to write well is etched into their DNA. That’s just silly. Gender, in the literate West, just doesn’t come into it. Or shouldn’t, anyway. 

That being said, of course I am now going to tell you why you should be adding some contemporary female writers to your reading list. I don’t think it’s wrong to say this. There is a tendency in the world of literature to accept that women can be successful (e.g. J. K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, E. L. James) but not good, and if you want to read good quality fiction you really need to turn to the men. But that’s not really true. There is a range of fiction being produced and the idea that all the men are at the quality end of the scale, and the women at the production line end is a fallacy. Because they are so many writers that are really very good, and a good proportion of these are women. I think you should know about a few. So, without further ado, here is my list of ten contemporary female writers that you really, really ought to read.

In no particular order.

Hilary Mantel
Twice winner of the MAN Booker Prize with her historical novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, examining the Tudor era through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, advisor to King Henry VIII. What’s brilliant about Mantel’s novels, here, are how present and real she makes the characters seem, and how she spins Cromwell out of virtually nothing. Yes, anyone who knows the history knows how it’s going to end, but I, for one, can’t wait to read the final part of the trilogy.

Aside from Wolf Hall, Mantel has a fascinating back catalogue of equally excellent fiction of a diverse range. Pick one up today. I dare you.

Barbara Kingsolver
Barbara Kingsolver is a powerhouse, there’s no other word for it. Her books are dense, beautifully written, complex and intelligent. My first encounter with Kingsolver was when I received a review copy of The Lacuna, the story of a homosexual boy who finds himself working in the home of Frida Kahlo and Diego Riviera. What ensues is a stunningly complex novel combining historical events and a very lonely, human perspective. Simply wonderful. The Poisonwood Bible is equally stunning, with a quite different perspective. If you enjoy books that make you think, Kingsolver is definitely for you.

Jeannette Winterson
Jeanette Winterson is, perhaps, most famous for her ‘coming out’ story Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Needless to say, Oranges is not the only Winterson. Winterson is a tour de force, a writer who writes with freedom. She is funny, crude. She is adventurous. Her stories are rich and stunning, often short but with diamond clarity. When I was reading the Canongate myths series, Winterson’s novel ‘Weight’ a story of Atlas and Heracles was one of the stand-out pieces. Jammed with ideas, beautifully conveyed it is a story I could read again and again.

Helen DeWitt
I’ve blogged about the marvellous Lightning Rods, one of the two amazing books DeWitt has produced. The other, The Last Samurai, is even more awesome. It is singularly funny, clever (enormously clever), odd, crazy, linguistically fascinating and brilliant. A story of an almost unnaturally intelligent boy searching for a father, or a father figure, and finding it, strangely, in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. A brief explanation which doesn’t prepare you for its brilliance. Who says women can’t write books based around ideas? Read it. Read it now.

Ali Smith
Ali Smith is a real virtuoso in experimental fiction. Don’t expect a traditional narrative, but do expect to be drawn in by her expressively poetic language and fascinating sense of perspective. If you like neatly sewn up stories which leave you with nothing to figure out for yourself, Smith is not for you. I find her wonderful. I recommend There But For The, a story of a man who goes to a dinner party and locks himself in the bedroom and won’t come out, or Like which is a story of two halves which fit together and don’t. Intrigued? You should be.

Joyce Carol Oates
Joyce Carol Oates is famed for the scale of her output, an almost production line-like quantity. But don’t think that just because she’s prolific, this means she’s rubbish. It is definitely not the case. With a tendency to lean towards feminist works, Oates doesn’t shy from the difficult story, having tackled the life of Marilynn Monroe with Blonde and small town America gang rape, in the sadly prescient Rape: A Love Story. Unflinching, and yet startlingly poetic, Oates is an admirable writer whose work stands toe to toe with America’s greats (but somehow never gets mentioned. Why, I wonder?).

Marilynne Robinson
Marilynne Robinson’s output is small, a mere three books, but what she has produced is powerful. Housekeeping I have reviewed on this site; it is a stunningly brief and tenuous novel which remains with you, like a beautifully disturbing dream. Home is a poignant story of a prodigal son, a story of disappointment and unfulfilled potential, the ways in which we draw sadness upon each other without even trying. Gilead, a love story from a dying man to his son showing the kind of reverence for the world that would make religion palatable to even the staunchest atheist. Three novels I’m proud to have on my shelves, and ones to return to often.

Doris Lessing
Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize for Literature no less (with, perhaps, the best reaction to discovering her success ever (oh Christ!). I am not sure if she is still writing, but still alive and really more people should read Lessing than do. Doris Lessing is indomitable. She is fiercely intelligent, fearless. In those theoretical dinners at which you can invite four people from any point at any time in history, she would be at my table and I would be quietly in awe. Famous for her novel The Golden Notebook, largely pegged as feminist (which it is) but also a fascinating exploration of craziness, Lessing is not the sum of one book. She’s ventured into science fiction, dystopia, she’s written about South Africa and what it means to be a women restrained by social expectations and ideals. Her book The Fifth Child, the story of a strange and unlovable child, is one of the most disturbing books I’ve ever read, the natural parent of Shriver’s rightly lauded We Need to Talk About Kevin. I think it would be hard not to find something you enjoy in Lessing’s catalogue.  

A M Holmes
I’ve only read one book by Holmes, but immediately went out and bought another two for myself and another one for a friend. She is a writer to share. This Book Will Change Your Life is a wonderful exploration of a lonely man learning to make connections in the world. It is happy and sad, quirky and wonderful. I’ve never been to Los Angeles, but I felt like I’d been there after I read that book. It made me want to hug someone. It made me want to eat doughnuts. It made me want to be kind. It is a funny, warm, humane book about finding yourself in the world. It is a hard blend for a writer, I think, to explore the sadness in life with a positive eye without making it mawkish or overly sentimental. This book was neither of those things. It is simply marvellous. It’ll make you smile if you read it. Go on. No really: go on.

Nicola Barker
Okay, Barker is my wildcard here. I’ve only read one of her novels, Darkmans, and it made an impression. It was odd, very odd. Very long, complex, weird, unsettling and impossible to define. Which is why I’m including Barker here. No one, no one, writes like Barker. She’s probably one of those Marmite writers, but I loved her. And for some strange reason every now and again the word Darkmansss pops into my head, in a evilly, whispery kind of voice that sends a shudder down my spine. Not to everyone’s taste, but another example of a female writer getting out there and pushing the boundaries, not writing ‘safely’. Dangerously. Fearlessly. Admirably.  

I’m aware that in formulating this list, I’ve taken a very narrow perspective on female writing. I’ve excluded, for example, any factual or scientific writing, and there are no women writing to a particular genre. I’ve excluded female writers who are no longer living, though arguably there’s an even richer range if you include them: George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Mary Shelley, the Bronte sisters, Simone de Beauvoir, to name a mere few. Which, in a roundabout way, means that there are lots and lots more amazing female writers out there.

Who are your favourites? Please share.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Confessions...just confessions

Forgive me internet, for I have sinned. Yes, I have bought a book. In actual fact I have bought eleven books (eleven!) since resolving to stop, stop, stop buying books. I am a bad, book-buying person. There is a story, of course, isn’t there always? And perhaps once you’ve heard the story, you’ll understand why this one, slightly excessive, book purchase was in actual fact actually necessary.

So, a couple of weeks back I was in the supermarket doing the weekly shop, and my daughter came with me. I was pottering around the aisles when my daughter asked me if she could go and look at the stationery (there is a bit novelty eraser trend going on in her school right now) which I said was fine. So I carried on. I bought meat and cheese, I bought bread, I bought milk. I bought everything I needed and was ready to pay, but there was no sign of my daughter. Now as someone who is almost as addicted to stationery as she is to books, spending something in the region of thirty minutes in the stationery aisle isn’t really that odd, but all the same I was ready to go so I sought her out. And I found her, standing in the book section with a shiny new book in her hand and a hopeful little smile on her face. The conversation went something like this:

Me: what’s that you’ve got.

Her: (excitedly) it’s the new ‘How to Train Your Dragon Book’.

(context – since they watched a trailer for How to Train Your Dragon 2 at school, she’s been slightly obsessed with the whole series. My son had the first book and she read it in super-fast time. I think it’s the first book I’ve encountered her devouring...kind of like I do actually.)

Me: oh, interesting.

Her: can I have it? PLeeaaaase? (winsome smile)

Me: (inward dilemma. I am not buying books, not buying books for anybody. Not even gifts, that’s what I said. I am not buying books. I am not.)

And so we left the supermarket with a shiny new copy of the latest How to Train Your Dragon book, costing all of £3.50, in my ecstatic daughter’s hands.

That was the first one.

Then she devoured that one, and came to see me with the pleady eyes begging for the second book in the series, ‘How to Be a Pirate’. ‘No’, I thought. ‘I can’t get back into the terrible habit,’ and to my credit the first thing I did was check the book’s availability at the library. I would rather go to the library and I do love taking the kids there. No luck. Whilst there are copies, none were available and there were even reservations against them. I am able to wait, but for a nine year old waiting is never going to be a key strength. So I had a little look around the various bookshops and there are, of course, plenty of copies there and whilst I was browsing I came across a marvellous set which included the first 10 (ten!) books in the series at the meagre price of £30.

So that’s how I bought eleven books.

Encountering across a series of books that one of my kids was really interested in was an event I was not expecting. I have always had an unspoken rule that whilst I would balk at buying them toys or games or sweets, if they want a particular book they can have it. They rarely ask for books, it is not a daily occurrence but engendering a love of reading is something that I have always wanted to share with my children. It is a companion that walks with you through life, enriching it. I could have said no to my daughter, but there is a fine balance, I think, a tipping point which makes you a reader or not reader. I am always afraid of tipping the balance the wrong way, saying no at the wrong time. Whilst my principle of not buying books is a really good one, in this case it just felt wrong. My daughter is thoroughly enjoying the world of Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III, she is enthused and entranced by it. I have sinned, I broke my promise to the world, but in this case it was worth it to see her tucked up in bed at night destroying her eyesight with a good, good book.

So perhaps, dear world, I need to amend my vow and promise that I will not buy any books for myself. Which I haven’t, regardless of the temptation. Oh yes, I am desperate to read The Luminaries, and when The Goldfish, Donna Tartt’s new book, is released I will be itching to get my hands on a copy. If I do, it will come from the library. That part of my promise, I am keeping.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Confessions of a compulsive book hoarder...appreciating what you’ve got

I think I might have mentioned it, but halting my persistent quest for new books has had a few unexpected, and pleasant, side effects. I’ve rediscovered the wonder of the library, I’ve found a core of discipline and patience in me that I didn’t expect. And then, what would you know? In addition to all the wonderful things I’d already discovered there was still something new waiting to surprise me (and it wasn’t a book, honestly).

I have, you might not be surprised to learn, a fairly extensive library. I’ve spent a long time building up my book collection, and part of the reason for pausing the purchases was that my current bookcases are fairly bursting at the seams. I have three bookcases in total. One is built into a convenient alcove upstairs and that one houses most of my classics, my books of philosophy, my husband’s sci-fi collection (yes, he is permitted a little space) and a few children’s books I’ve held onto in the vain hope that one day my kids might read them (seriously, everyone should read The Dark is Rising Sequence. Everyone). Of course that is really the book case for the books no one actually wants to read (though now and again I will pop out a classic, just for fun). Then downstairs I have two book cases: one which is filled with the books I have read along with my ‘collections’, and the other stuffed with books I haven’t quite managed to read yet. They are both double stacked (inner row, outer row per shelf). I must have something in the region of 1,000 books packed in there.

It’s an awful lot of books, and yet for so long I have wanted more and more. Looking back, it seems strange that I was so desperate to acquire new books when I had so many fantastic ones already waiting to be read. Looking at my bookcases with these new eyes, the first thing I noticed was that in my ‘to read’ pile there are some amazing books. I finally got around to reading Gilead by Marilynne Robinson and it was beautiful. I read The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, which a friend bought as a present for me, and it was marvellously sad. Discovering these hidden gems in my collection has made me excited to read more of them. I have War and Peace and Anna Karenina, A Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin, Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver, October Light by John Gardner, about 12 books by Don DeLillo and a handful by J M Coetzee. I have books by Jeanette Winterson, Helen Oyeyemi, A. M. Holmes, The Wonderland Quartet by Joyce Carol Oates and a sampling of the wonderful books published by Persephone all neat in their classy grey and white coats. I have Shanameh (The Persian Book of Kings), Herodotus, The Mahabrhata, The Thousand Nights and One Night, Icelandic sagas. That’s just a sampling of the treasures sitting there waiting for me to read. It is surprising, thinking about all that is there, that I ever thought it necessary to read anything else.

And that’s not the end of it. Because alongside my ‘to be read’ shelf sits the shelf of ‘already have read and when the heck are you going to get around to reading us again’. Within my collection, my already read books, I have so many that I would love to read again: The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson, everything by Helen DeWitt (though that is only 2), Ghostwritten and Number9Dream by David Mitchell, The Wall by Marlen Haushofer, Hunger by Knut Hamsun, Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, Mao II by Don DeLillo (I’m not completely obsessed, but close). It got me thinking about re-reading, and how I’d fallen out of the habit. As a child I used to read and re-read almost obsessively. It wasn’t necessarily due to lack of availability of new books, I used to go to the library every week. No, it was something else. Re-reading a book brings something out of it that the first read doesn’t. Something of the depth of it, the bits that you missed first time around. Then there’s even more to it. Re-reading a book, delving into it over and over, etches something of the story inside you, it becomes almost a part of you. There is something wonderful in being so familiar with a character, with a world, with an idea even that it becomes like a close friend, or family. You can return to it over again and it remain unchanged and yet, perhaps, you appreciate it differently because you have changed. In this way a story can show us, in ways few other things can, how we have evolved. At the same time, the story’s familiarity is comforting. It can connect us to the person that we were the first, second or even twelfth time we read it. It reminds me that only through practice do we become really good at things, and I think there are worse things to be than an artisan of Kristen Lavransdatter or The Tale of Genji, that there is no shame in repeating and repeating the reading of a book that you love. I think in this world of relentless newness, in which we are constantly encouraged to consume and move on, that the value of a deep, repeat reading is underestimated. It is something I know I have lost touch with. And yet I know that it is enriching, that a deep understanding of a particular work of fiction can provide a hidden, unexpected backbone to your life.

If you think about it, everything we know is a kind of story. My life as I know it is a story, one that changes both in real terms as I move forward but also in my history which I invent and reinvent entirely unwittingly. I overlay my life with other stories: my husband’s, my son’s, my daughter’s, my step-son’s, my mother’s, my work colleagues’, my friends’, people I pass in the street and acknowledge or don’t. I believe in the fiction of other countries and the history of mine, and the lives of people hundreds of thousands of miles away who I will never know and never meet but who, unknowingly, my story may touch upon. And then there are the story-spinners, the ‘shapers’, who tell and retell the stories of others, of heroes and villains, lovers and haters, and everything in between. That their stories touch us isn’t such an odd thing, but it is only through reading and re-reading that we really let them in. I do believe that doing so enables us to learn something true, not only about the story but about ourselves. Perhaps it is one of the ways we learn true empathy, that by caring about a person who we know not to be real it helps us to care more about the ones that are, whose existence may be separated from our own by streets or villages, countries or even worlds. Who knows? It is possible.
One thing I have learned for sure, I am in no hurry at all to finish Proust. I have every story I could ever need already under my roof. I am looking forward to becoming more intimately acquainted with some of them.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Really Great Books by Japanese Writers

Those of you who have been following my blog may have noticed that books by Japanese writers crop up reasonably often. I have a bit of a penchant for Japanese writers. A while ago, when I was lost in a reading desert, I happened upon a book called Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami, and it reinvigorated my love of reading. I’ve since read the entire of Hurakami’s output and explored a bit further into the murky world of Japanese fiction. One of the things I love about Japanese fiction is how characters are never black-and-white, good or bad. Of course any decent writer should be creating deep and complex characters, but somehow the complexity, the shades-of-grey (and not in a E.M. James sort of way, which is exactly the opposite of what I’m talking about here) is more apparent in books by Japanese writers. They kind of ‘get it’, if you know what I mean.

There are fairly common themes in Japanese books, themes which seem to pervade the culture. Loneliness and isolation, disconnection: these themes appear regularly. The sense of duty against the rights, or desires, of the individual. Difficulties of love. Suffering. If you don’t like any of these themes then perhaps Japanese fiction is not for you, but somehow they always speak to me.

So if you’re interested in exploring Japanese writers, where do you start? Well, a great place to get a feel for what Japanese writers have to offer is the Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories, which includes the output of generations of the ‘best’ Japanese writers and gives you a flavour of what to expect if you do decide to explore further. Or, if you’re feeling brave, you could trust my list below and just leap in. In my explorations, the following represent my favourite (and by definition the best) Japanese books around.

The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu

You can’t start a list of the best Japanese books and not mention Genji. Considered by some to be the first novel, this sprawling tale casts a curious eye on the 12th Century Japanese court and the shenanigans of the ‘shining Genji’. And a tale that reminds us that whatever era you’re living in, life is never as good as it ‘used to be’. For a more complete review of Genji, read here:

Beauty and Sadness by Yasunari Kawabata

Kawabata is one of the cornerstones of the Japanese ‘canon’ (assuming there is such a thing, the idea of ‘canon’ always strikes me as peculiarly American and, perhaps, an inevitable fallout of the authority of Harold Bloom) and all of his novels are worth a read. Many people would mention here Snow Country, a story of beauty and decay. It is true that Snow Country is a marvellous novel, but for me Beauty and Sadness is my favourite of Kawabata’s work. This is a story of the terrible impact of young love, and how its breakdown can taint our lives resulting in catastrophic consequences.

The Kangaroo Notebook by Kobo Abe

Everything written by Abe is odd and surreal, but none more so than The Kangaroo Notebook. A nightmarish story of a man who wakes to find radish sprouts growing out of his legs, and then embarks of a Kafkaesque journey into a dark underworld in which the barrier between what is real and what is imagined breaks down. Like Lewis Carroll on sake and LSD, this is a peculiarly Japanese surrealism which would probably make the most disturbing anime movie that anyone had ever seen. If surrealist fiction is your thing, you’ll love Abe. Also check out The Woman in the Dunes and The Box Man. Creepy.

A Dark Night’s Passing by Naoya Shiga

A reflective and sad novel following a young man with a dark secret from his family’s past hanging over him. Throughout his life, his bachelorhood and then his marriage, he is unable to shake this spectre of the past. A very Japanese take on depression, conveyed with directness (and yet obscurely – the Japanese are very good at this), clarity and honesty. A beautiful if sad story.

Black Rain by Masuji Ibuse

Ibuse’s terrifying novel follows the fortunes of some survivors of the Hiroshima bombing. If you ever read any novel about the effects of atomic weaponry, this should be it. Conveying the horror of the bomb and its aftermath in graphic detail, Ibuse manages to remain non-judgemental simply showing what happened and how it affected people. It is a more powerful novel for it. It is worth reading this either before or after John Hershey’s journalistic exploration of the same incident, Hiroshima. It is hard, here, to convey how excellent and essential this book is. Not easy reading, but worthwhile.

Diary of a Mad Old Man by Junichiro Tanizaki

Tanizaki is known for this and its companion piece The Key (again, it’s worth reading these together), as well as the more conventional Makioka Sisters which I haven’t got around to reading yet. Using the diary form, Tanizaki explores the mind of an old, dying man obsessed with his daughter in law (and sex). Saucy and funny, yet kind of sad.

Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima

I’ll say it here, I’m not a fan of Mishima. I know he is considered one of Japan’s greatest writers, but on the whole he leaves me cold. Last year I embarked on the full Sea of Fertility tetralogy which begins with Spring Snow and over the course of three following books explores the karmic cycle of death and rebirth. Of all the books in the tetralogy, Spring Snow was the standout piece (although if you’re interested in the book which, practically, fortells Mishima’s end then Runaway Horses is the one to read). Telling the story of forbidden, impossible love and the lengths to which one man will go to fulfil the impossible. At times frustrating, but in other respects a beautiful read.

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

I think I mentioned this book before in my entry about books that are just plain nice. The Housekeeper and the Professor involves a woman who is housekeeper for the ‘professor’ a maths genius with a 45 minute short-term memory window. If you read it, I defy you not to end up with an unexpected interest in maths. I learned so much from this book about number theory, memory and relationships and it is, in short, a lovely read. An off-beat introduction to Ogawa whose usual fayre is dark, disturbing and may involve sexual violence. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.

Out by Natsuo Kirino

Speaking of dark, disturbing and sexual violence, Out by Natsuo Kirino is perhaps the pinnacle of what contemporary Japanese fiction does best. A downtrodden woman working in a factory offs her husband, and with the help of her equally downtrodden factory-worker friends they cover it up. But that’s just the start of their spiral into a darker, more forbidding world. Atmospheric, creepy and dark.

In the Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami

Staying on the same theme, a man who gives tours around Toyko’s sex district finds himself on a tour with a sadistic killer. Some really disturbing stuff in this one, if you don’t like graphic crime novels then give this one a miss. I am still emotionally scarred by two pages in this book. Just thinking about it makes me feel a little sick (I am a wimp though, bear that in mind). If you enjoy the dark, seedy underworld, death, gore and dodgy sex then Ryu Murakami is probably the author for you.

Underground by Haruki Murakami

From one Murakami to another. I have read basically everything by Haruki Murakami, and he has written some excellent books (personal favourites being Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle which equally has an extremely disturbing couple of pages that make you glad to still have custody of your own skin. Ugh) but as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to feel that Murakami, whilst good, is not a true great. His last novel 1Q84 had a great idea at its core, but it was flabby and overdone and his portrayal of the women in the book was sadly two dimensional, almost like a male fantasy of a woman (the main character spends a lot of time obsessing over her breasts and vagina). People have different views on what is Murakami’s best novel (I think this is undoubtedly Wind-Up Bird, but others would disagree) but of all his books the most affecting, the most compelling is this journalistic work of fact which centres around the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo underground. Murakami presents his interviews with the victims, family of victims and members of the Aum cult that carried out the attack. What comes from all these interviews is a chilling idea that given the same circumstances, most people would have done the same thing. It is terrifying, yet an honest portrayal of how people respond to authority.

And that concludes my list. I am sure there are some terrible omissions, writers that I myself haven’t yet gotten around to (I’m thinking Ooka, Soseki) and some deliberate (Taichi Yamada never did it for me, Banana Yoshimoto almost made the list but there’s something missing). What do you think? Have you encountered any truly great Japanese novels not mentioned on my list?