Forty Great Books By Women About Women

Last week my friend sent me a link to a list of 40 Books Every Woman Should Read in Red magazine. It seemed such an odd, eclectic list that it has tempted me to write my own. But without bullying modal verbs. Below are 40 books written by women in the 20th or 21st century that have something to say about being a woman, and I think they are all very good books. Please feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments (my list isn’t especially diverse, for instance); I’d love to hear about your favourites too.

1. The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt. Brilliant account of the plight of the woman artist.

2. A Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Hard to believe this meditation on women’s ability to take on responsibility to the point of overwhelm is fifty years old. It’s still so pertinent.

3. Cheri by Colette. Surely one of the best novels ever about a woman growing too old for love.

4. Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. Pulitzer prize winner about a disgraced woman’s uneasy return to her social tribe.

5. Ghosting by Jennie Erdall. A beautiful piece of creative non-fiction about the art of ghostwriting.

6. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. A portrait of tense but fierce female friendship.

7. The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter. The inimitable Carter’s take on classic fairy tales.

8. Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott. Poignant memoir of life with a newborn.

9. Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter by Simone de Beauvoir. So much I could have picked by Beauvoir, but in the end I opted for her first volume of memoirs: mapping the creation of a female genius.

10. The Pastor’s Wife by Elizabeth von Arnim. The funny, bittersweet story of an ordinary marriage with all its trials and tribulations (and bad childbirth experiences).

11. Lying by Lauren Slater. Controversial memoir about epilepsy and the author’s tendency to fabulate.

12. Women of Algiers in their Apartment by Assia Djebar. This actually isn’t my favourite Djebar but she’s hard to get hold of in translation. She’s a brilliant writer on Algerian women’s experience.

13. How To Be Both by Ali Smith. A truly joyous novel about love and art.

14. The Orchard by Drusilla Modjeska. I’m always trying to persuade people to read this. It’s an entirely original piece of creative non-fiction, not to be summed up in a sentence!

15. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. I’m not a big reader of children’s books as an adult, but this one really transcends its boundaries. The story of a young girl who hunts the galaxy for her lost father.

16. A Lost Lady by Willa Cather. The American Madame Bovary.

17. This Is Not About Me by Janice Galloway. Hilarious account of a gruelling Scottish childhood.

18. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. Powerful and disturbing story of an abused foster child in the Depression Era.

19. Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie. How many novels can you think of that feature as their heroine a brilliant elderly lady who knits? Watch Miss Marple wipe the floor with Inspector Slack.

20. Reading Women by Stephanie Staal. The author audits a class on feminist texts in the early stages of her marriage and new motherhood. It’s beautifully done.

21. Sherazade by Leïla Sebbar. A teenage Algerian runaway in Paris on a search for her identity.

22. Martha Quest by Doris Lessing. Coming of age in South Africa with a hated mother and a burning desire to write (yup, pretty autobiographical, Doris).

23. The Silent Woman by Janet Malcolm. Brilliant account of Sylvia Plath that teases out the hidden agendas in those who witnessed and wrote about her.

24. The Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann. Modern classic novel about women struggling to make it in Hollywood. Harlequin Romance meets Emile Zola.

25. Bilgewater by Jane Gardam. Beautiful coming of age novel.

26. The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson. One of the most original and extraordinary accounts of motherhood you’ll ever read.

27. Excellent Women by Barbara Pym. One of my all-time favourite novels about Little England in which spinster, Mildred, watches the machinations of her attractive, trendy neighbours.

28. My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout. A recent edition to my personal greats. A novel about mothers and daughters and dysfunctional families.

29. The Group by Mary McCarthy. Following the lives of a group of friends post-Vassar in 1930s America. Was a scandalous success back in the day, still a great novel.

30. How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff. Teenagers abandoned home alone cope with World War 3. I’m not sure I’ve ever read anything else quite so visceral.

31. The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell. The story of a woman abandoned in a psychiatric institute for her entire life, for not behaving in the ways her family thought fit.

32. The Good Wife by Sue Miller. Can mothers have sex lives? Sue Miller’s gripping, ferocious novel about why they can’t.

33. Desirada by Maryse Condé. Classic novel about a woman’s journey of redemption from Guadeloupe to France to the United States, away from a neglectful mother and in search of her father.

34. The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard. A slice of beautifully written social history in this saga of a middle-class family during World War Two.

35. Sexing the Cherry by Jeanette Winterson. Funniest historical fiction ever about a giantess.

36. I Capture the Castle by Dodi Smith. Gorgeous coming of age novel about two sisters seeking love and money.

37. Fierce Attachments by Vivien Gornick. A wonderful memoir about never being able to cut loose from a Jewish mother.

38. Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood. Murder and madness in this historical novel. Was young servant girl, Grace Marks, a cold-hearted killer or a vulnerable child just trying to survive?

39. Orlando by Virginia Woolf. Gender-bending, cross-dressing historical romp by the one and only Woolf.

40. Aftermath by Rachel Cusk. This was a very controversial memoir about divorce when it first appeared. Hopefully now the furore has died down it can be read for the beautiful, expressive book that it is.

 

Shiny 11 is out!

Yes, a new edition of Shiny is always a cause for celebration, so, pop your slippers on, get into a comfy chair with snacks to hand and turn your mobile off. The palace of bookish delights awaits you!

SNB-logoClearly, I am in a frivolous mood today.

Okay, so I wrote quite a few reviews for this edition, so let me give you a guiding hand towards a selection of them:

A novel about the sort of topic I might usually avoid as not being ‘my thing’, but which went straight onto my best of the year list.

A brand new heroine of cozy crime, the widow of an Archdeacon, who offers the utmost discretion to her clients in a wonderfully redolent Victorian setting.

The long-withheld novel by a properly famous American cookery writer that has now been published posthumously.

A debut author whose completely gripping novel is set in a Hopperish 60s America and is based on a true story.

A charming, thoughtful, clever novel translated from the German about the friendship between Charlie Chaplin and Winston Churchill.

A memoir that won the National Book Critics’ Circle award this year about a life spent as part of the black Chicago elite in the 1950s.

We had a lot of fun with our latest ‘Eds Discuss….’ piece, this time thinking about the books we’d read by European authors.

And finally, I put together a Brexit reading list, covering all sorts of fiction and non-fiction that sheds a little light on our current situation.

 

Hope very much you enjoy!

 

 

Recovery

A week on from our various disasters and Mr Litlove is pretty much healed. Now the only actions that bother his shoulder occur in front of the computer, when too much mouse-work can make his arm sore. It was a revelation, watching his recovery process, however. He simply stopped, until the aches and pains from his trapped nerve had gone away, and then he gradually started moving again, easy household tasks to begin with – January’s been a washout work-wise but we’ve done a lot of de-cluttering – and then starting to exercise and return to his workshop. I am forced to realise I have never been that patient and accepting of my lot in my life. As for me, the optician was delighted with how much my eye had improved, and I don’t need to go back unless it flares up again. But ever since, I’ve had gritty, uncomfortable eyes, made worse by reading and looking at the computer screen. I’m typing quite fast here, hoping I can get through a post before the discomfort kicks in. I should be more like Mr Litlove, I suppose, content to stop until the problem has gone away, but I am not like him, alas.

the outrunBut the topic of recovery has been in my mind since reading Amy Liptrot’s memoir of alcohol addiction and tentative recovery, The Outrun. This is an exquisitely written first book that marries degradation and disgrace in London with a growing love of nature and its healing powers in Orkney. Liptrot comes from Orkney originally, where her mismatched parents went in search of a good life. Her father is a manic-depressive, her mother, since their divorce, a born-again Christian. Liptrot wanted nothing more than to escape the islands when she grew up, and moved south to London to pursue a university degree and a career in journalism. But the demon drink got a hold of her too. A self-confessed sensation-seeker, she fell so easily into the ready excesses of life in an isolating city, and her unflinching memoir gives a clear account of the humiliations consequent to too much booze. She loses the man she loves – which gives her even more reason to drink – gets chucked out of many a house share, is nearly raped by a stranger one drunken night, can’t hold down a job. London can do that to you, I think; the combination of opportunity and loneliness is a difficult one to negotiate.

If London can be a place of downfall, then the obvious thing to do is find a place of healing. After a course in rehab, Amy heads home, not for any better reason that she has nothing much else to do, and staying sober is hard, treacherous work. The cravings of the alcoholic never really go away, no matter how much damage is done to the self, and so the fight for sobriety is one that has to be fought daily. But the Orkney islands turn out to offer more solace than she at first imagines. She finds a job with the RSPB tracking the remaining corncrakes on Orkney – a tiny brown bird with a distinctive call that has almost become extinct due to modern farming practices. And this proves such an improving thing to do that she takes on a tiny cottage in the small island of Papa Westray for the winter. One thing about the Orkney islands: they are very windy. On one of her walks, Amy describes how: ‘I ascend the hill in a crouched position, probably watched by amused islanders in the houses below.  I lie forward into the wind, like a mattress of air: it takes my breath and exhausts me –  a full-body experience. It’s loud enough to hide in.’ She describes another windy day – one noted in Orkney history no less, when ‘tethered cows had been flying in the air like kites.’ It seems clear that this sort of wildness is congruent with Liptrot’s inner wildness, one that could not be appeased by alcohol, although it looked like it would suit the task, but can be calmed in a weather system that’s powerfully bigger than she is.

I wonder how often it is that we do not want what we think we want. I wonder how often we live in circumstances that do us damage in the long-run because we can’t think beyond our immediate solutions, and lack the courage or the motivation to try something else. I remember reading somewhere that humans tend to shy away from change because it’s so hard to do, and unless we’re really up against it, we’ll bumble on as we are.

The book has two rhythms. The first half is a rapid, forceful descent into the darkness of alcoholism, and it’s immensely gripping. The second part is a much more languid and dilatory affair, with chapters exploring different aspects of life on Orkney and Amy’s slow rehabilitation. It makes for a slightly uneven book, but I actually appreciated the honesty of this. Recovery does not happen in linear fashion. It goes back and forth, picks up new hitches and secondary issues, returns us time and again to things we thought we were done with. ‘I still have nervousness around other people,’ Liptrot writes. ‘When you’ve spent so long messing up, covering up and apologising, it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’ve done something wrong and default to the secretive and even sneaky behaviour that addiction involves. I often have a flickering sense that I must have said or done something terribly misjudged.’ Although Amy Liptrot is, in theory, not my kind of person at all – an extrovert, a sensation-seeker, a louder-than-life person, I found myself relating effortlessly to her situation, her determination to recover and her courageous honesty. Only the truth will save us, they say, and that’s about right. This is a very truthful book, searingly so, and all the better for it. I wanted to tell her at the end: stay sober, Amy, so you can keep writing.

And in the hope of furthering my own recovery, I’ve signed up for an online course with the Optimum Health Clinic, the specialist chronic fatigue centre. ‘Conscious Transformation’ it’s called, and is about finding the right mindset to get through the illness and out the other side. I know what a long, slow process recovery can be, and I do hope that this will make a difference. It starts in February and I don’t doubt I’ll tell you about it as I go through the tasks.

 

A P.S. – I love your comments and appreciate them so much, but staying away from computer screens has put me behind in replying. I will catch up as soon as possible.

Eat, Pray, Love

eat pray loveI have so many books in the queue to review that I must try and get through some of them by the end of the year, maybe with shorter reviews than usual. At least when it comes to Eat, Pray, Love, I don’t need to describe the book in any great detail, given I must be one of the last people on the planet to read it. What a strange, hybrid book it is, not in content, I suppose, as Elizabeth Gilbert spends four healing months in each of three different places: Italy, learning the language and eating, India, strengthening her spirit at an ashram and Bali, falling madly in love. No, it’s more the spirit itself that is oddly divided, the subtext that runs through her metaphysical and literal journeys. On the one hand, it’s an uplifting and encouraging book, testimony to the reassuring belief that you can improve your own life with willpower and a bit of luck, and on the other it’s like the worst round robin Christmas letter you ever got, a subtle but powerful piece of competitive achievement-listing, garnished with some implausible self-depreciation. I have no idea how Gilbert managed this, but it’s sort of inspirational and sick-making all at once.

So, where we begin is on the bathroom floor in the middle of the night with Liz having a meltdown because her husband wants children and she doesn’t. This is going to lead to a very unpleasant divorce and, running alongside it, a doomed affair of the kind that is fiercely compulsive but bad for all concerned. Which does indeed sound like a lot of unfortunate events all coming together. However, even on the bathroom floor, Liz finds she has a quiet inner voice of helpful pragmatism that is a kind of outsourcing of everyday divine wisdom. I think that Gilbert doesn’t want to bore us with her suffering – which is admirable of her, I’m sure. I think she doesn’t want her readers to worry about the extent to which we can all lose it magnificently in bad times. She wants to take those readers on a voyage of self-discovery that is essentially positive. But she does keep on plucking herself away from the precipice every time she nears it; she keep rescuing herself one way or another. And so it’s hard to get a clear idea of how bad her bad times have been, and how much is at stake in her decision to devote a year to sorting herself out. I understand that she wants us to know her pain but not to suffer it, but it muddies the water a bit.

Off she goes to Italy, to learn the language and to make new friends, because that is something she does splendidly well (good for her), and the food in Italy is so delicious that it’s enough to get her off medication. Let’s just say that this is not a book I’d recommend for anyone who was actually in the throes of a depression. It’s a most unconventional route back to health. I think maybe she means that some sort of loving self-indulgence, an embrace of things that make you genuinely happy and being generous to yourself with them, is a good antidote for the times when fate has had your back to the wall for what feels like forever. I think?

Then to the ashram where she discovers –  someone who describes herself as bad at meditation – a great capacity for fabulous experiences with the divine. I mean, Liz Gilbert is often very funny at her own expense about the way she tries to avoid all the things she doesn’t enjoy at the ashram, and her descriptions of her spiritual experiences are very well done, very uplifting. I suppose it matters a great deal where you stand spiritually when you come to this section of the book. I tend to be with old Zizek (and Kafka, come to that) that there is a basic need for a Big Other – which might be God, or it might be a parent, or it might be an explanatory system, like science or literature – some major authority to give the appearance that there could be a meaning to life and it isn’t as much of a chaotic mess as it seems on the face of it. All conspiracy theories are essentially a belief in the Big Other, a conviction that someone is in charge and responsible, even though anyone who has worked in an office must surely know the reality of misinformation and total obliviousness that exists between all layers of an organization. Anyway, I digress. I come from a psychological angle, and am sure that after many hours spent in meditation, it is possible to reach new and intriguing states in the brain. Personally, I can’t quite bring myself to believe in any such entity as a god, though I would not for the world wish to offend anyone who did. For whatever reason, Liz leaves the ashram in pretty fine fettle, and the need for balance in life that she had assigned as her task in Bali looks somewhat redundant by now.

Bali is not a place that I want to visit.

It has been estimated that a typical Balinese woman spends one-third of her waking hours either preparing for a ceremony, participating in a ceremony or cleaning up after a ceremony. Life here is a constant cycle of offerings and rituals. You must perform them all, in the correct order and with the correct intention, or the entire universe will fall out of balance.’

Way too much responsibility! Gilbert is enchanted with Bali and wonderfully respectful of its ideology, whereas I wondered how it was possible for a whole island to raise OCD to the level of a religion. Gilbert talks about the charming spiritual beliefs the Balinese hold, like the fact you have four spiritual brothers who are there to keep your back at all times. I have a brother. We are very civilized now, but I remember our childhood, and I think one brother seems quite sufficient for me. I would have nightmares if I thought there were four of them behind my back, and I’ll bet they require a host of ceremonies too. Anyhow, none of this matters anyway as the point of Bali is Felipe, Gilbert’s great romance, and I really can’t be bothered to say anything about that.

No, it’s passages like this that tended to catch my eye:

Happiness is the consequence of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it. You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings. And once you have achieved a state of happiness, you must never become lax about maintaining it, you must make a mighty effort to keep swimming upward into that happiness forever, to stay afloat on top of it. If you don’t, you will leak away your innate contentment.’

I’m feeling exhausted already. Happiness, as a form of ultra-demanding work. I’m not sure that I need happiness to that extent. And I have this horrible feeling that bad things happen; they just do. Not because we didn’t work enough at it, or perform enough ceremonies with the correct intent. And I think that sometimes, however hard we try, we don’t master inner peace or find the answers we are looking for. These things are incredibly difficult to do; for most of us, we’ll need a lifetime to reach even a temporary resolution. For those of us with children, which I can understand Gilbert wanting to avoid, given her personal ideology, we just have these hostages to fortune, and there’s nothing to be done about it.

I am surprised at the extent to which this book is marketed as a women’s book, something you give your best friend. Well, if you want to send her the message that she’s been a bit grumpy lately and she should get off her backside and do something strenuous about it, I guess you do. But I would be hesitant to put this in someone’s  hands who had suffered a series of misfortunes, as it says, essentially, that grief,  mourning, re-grouping, life-changing development, all that is just a matter of putting your back into it! Well, ouch. If only it were.

And yet, Liz Gilbert seems to have proved to her own satisfaction that it is. And I do think she means terrifically well in her intentions to hand women back control over their misshapen, misguided lives. Seriously, it terrifies me, how determined she is that we all get back on track and find our personal nirvanas right here on earth. Given that I can’t even manage to write a short blog post when I intend to, I think I might not be the sort of disciple this book calls out for.