Archive for the ‘Things I'm Reading Thursday’ Category

A 2016 To Read list

Wednesday, December 30th, 2015

april is national poetry month

OK, so I am really bad for talking about my “To Read list,” without actually having a To Read list. A smart person will recommend a book, and I’ll say, “I’ll add it to the list!” Then I don’t. I forget about it. I wander around with this idea that there are loads of books I’d like to read… but no idea what they are. So this year, I AM ACTUALLY MAKING THE LIST. That way, when I get to my Almost All The Books I Read list, I’ll hopefully be able to cross everything off! I love the crossing-off-of-lists.

Books I’ve already bought that have been on my shelf for ages and I really should read…

Frog - Mo Yan
I bought this for Lovely Boyfriend’s birthday in 2015 and have been waiting for him to read it, as it’s only polite. But if he hasn’t read it by his birthday this year (end of January) I’m ditching the politeness and getting in there.

Yes Please - Amy Poehler
I wanted to watch some Parks & Rec before I read this, and I’ve been working through a bunch of other TV shows first. I’m now into P&R, but also less into Amy Poehler than I was when I bought the book. But I really should read it, I’m sure it’s fun.

Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn
This is one of those that I actually thought I had read because everyone’s talked about it so much and I basically know the whole plot. But then I realised recently that I haven’t, and probably ought to.

We Are Not Ourselves - Matthew Thomas
This was a ‘find a third one to complete the 3-for-2′ job. I wasn’t super enthused, but I was mildly interested. It’s sat on the shelf for months. Time to see if it’s any good!

Being Mortal - Atul Gawande
I was excited to read this… then my grandfather died, and I wasn’t sure if I could handle it. It’s been nearly a year now since that happened, so let’s see.


Books that have been out there for years, and I should have read by now…

The Shipping News - Annie Proulx (BOUGHT IT!)
Embarrassing admittance: I didn’t realise how ace Annie Proulx was until 2015, when I read Close Range. Now I need to get on with it and read through her entire back-catalogue!

The Dark Road - Ma Jian
Lovely Boyfriend has this, has read it, and really rates it. He keeps telling me to read it. I really should.

The Singer’s Gun - Emily St John Mandel
In 2015 I fell in love with ESJM via Station Eleven. Now I need to read more of her, and this one looks most ‘me’.

Miss Wyoming - Douglas Coupland
Again, I discovered DC in 2015 with Hey Nostradamus!, and I want to read more. All his novels sound ace, but this one in particular piqued my interest…


2015 books I didn’t get round to in 2015 because I am bad at being a proper book geek

The First Bad Man - Miranda July
When everyone’s salivating over an author, I find it hard to read them. That’s weird, isn’t it? I mean, this book looks great and everyone loves her. What’s the matter with me?

Almost Famous Women - Megan Mayhew Bergman
I want to read more short fic, and this one came recommended by The Millions.

Watch Me Go - Mark Wisniewski
I cannot remember why, but at the beginning of 2015 I made a note in my diary to seek this book out. It was in a list of a few, the rest of which follow. I must have read a review of it and thought it sounded good. I’ve only just found that note again, and now I’m quite looking forward to discovering why I wrote it down, along with these others…

Find Me - Laura Van Den Berg
I have a vague feeling it’s a post-apocalyptic novel. I love those.

The Dead Lands - Benjamin Percy
Yep, this was noted down in the diary too. Also post-apocalyptic, maybe? I’m guessing, from the title only. No memory of this one either.

Girls Will Be Girls - Emer O’Toole
And another one from the diary. Maybe it’s feminist-y?

The Book of Aron - Jim Shepard
Last mystery book from this little clump of notes.

Hammerhead: The Making of a Carpenter - Nina McLaughlin
This looks so great, and I’m annoyed I didn’t get round to it in 2015!

Undermajordomo Minor - Patrick deWitt
He was in Edinburgh this autumn, presumably promoting this, and I couldn’t go and see him. Sadface! Better read the book, ’cause I love him. (And I’m not one of these Sisters Brothers johnny-come-latelies either… I’ve loved him since I read an advance copy of Ablutions way back when I worked for the James Tait Black Prize. Proper hipster fangirl over here.)

The Well - Catherine Chanter
At the EIBF event I went to with Emily St John Mandel, Catherine Chanter was the other author. I swooned so much over ESJM at the time that I sort of forgot to go buy the other book. I really ought to though, because it sounds very interesting.

Fishnet - Kirsten Innes
Yeah, I know. I ought to read this.

A Brief History of Seven Killings - Marlon James (READ IT!)
I was given this for Christmas! Hooray!

The Heart Goes Last - Margaret Atwood
I wanted to read this in time for her event in Edinburgh this autumn. Not only did I not do that, I didn’t get to the event. It looks great though, and I always appreciate a new fix of Atwood.


Books coming in 2016 that I am super looking forward to…

Gold Fame Citrus - Claire Vaye Watkins
This might already be out in USA? If so, no spoilers please. It’s another post-apocalyptic novel, so just my kind of thing.

The Girls: A Novel - Emma Cline
How great does this look?

Zero K - Don Delillo
OMG HE WROTE A NEW NOVEL!!!!!!!!1!!1!!


Poetry books I would like to read in 2016…

Settle - Theresa Munoz
I don’t know when this is appearing or who’s publishing but I want to be at the front of the queue to buy a copy!

Wild Nights - Kim Addonizio (BOUGHT IT!)

Dog Songs - Mary Oliver
See above.

The Bonniest Companie - Kathleen Jamie (BOUGHT IT!)
As you may have noticed, whatever Dave rates this highly, I want to read.

The Terrible - Daniel Sluman
Did this only just come out, or did I only just hear of it?!

Hannah Lowe - Chan
It’s not out til June! No faaaaair!

Helen Farish - The Dog of Memory
‘What if everyone who ever lived here had left one thing behind?’ is the loose theme of this, apparently. SOUNDS GREAT.

Nine Arches Press’ forthcoming anthology of UK Disability Poetry / Crip Poetics
It’s a groundbreaking concept (though it shouldn’t be) and it’s edited by a trio of absolute superstars. I am really excited about this.


A poetry collection I am sick of looking at but which you might like to read in 2016…

My book!

This changes things - Claire Askew
Yes, it’s me! You can find out all about this particular collection, and order yourself a copy, right here. (Thanks!)


I wrote a book of poems! It’s called This changes things, and you can order it here!

You can now get more content from me — and help me pay the bills! — by supporting my Patreon. Get a monthly writing support pack for just $5 a month! It’s like buying me a pint.
You can also support me by checking out the many sweet and sparkly things at Edinburgh Vintage, my Etsy-based store for jewellery and small antiques.
If you just want to say hi, you can find me on Twitter, or email me via claire[at] You’ll get a fairly good sense of the kind of person I am by checking out my Tumblr.

Almost all the books I read in 2015 and the things I thought about them

Monday, December 28th, 2015

Yep, I’m doing this again! Gird your loins…

JUST finished reading "Life After Life" by Kate Atkinson. Holy was incredible! 5 out of 5.
(Photo credit)

MR Carey: The Girl With All The Gifts

This book is like crack. I read it really, really fast and couldn’t stop! Then I heard that the main character (a badass middle aged black woman) is being played by Gemma Arterton in the movie adaptation, and now I feel angry whenever I think about it.

Kate Atkinson: Life After Life
This woman’s books really don’t deserve the soppy covers they get. I was put off reading her for years because the covers of all her books made me think they’d be saccharine. Then I finally read this and loved it and wished I’d thought of the idea (a really smart take on “what if you could go back in time and kill Hitler?”, essentially) first. It’s great.

Amber Benson: The Witches of Echo Park
I seem to remember that this author is also an actress who was in Buffy, or something. I didn’t know that when I bought it. I bought it because the idea sounded awesome (a coven of witches in contemporary LA, HELLO). I ditched it about thirty pages in because the writing was about the worst I’d ever seen in a published book. Seriously, it was like having my fingernails pulled out. I now show it to my Write Like A Grrrl! students as an example of How Not To Write Sentences.

Chris Banks: Bonfires

Things I can remember about this book: I think the poet is Canadian. I think I thought it was OK at the time. I seem to remember it has a weird cover. Make of all that what you will.

Tracey S Rosenberg: The Naming of Cancer
Ooh, this one’s easy! I reviewed it here!

Francine Prose: Reading Like A Writer
She’s quite pompous: there are some fairly rude retorts written at her in the margins of my copy. BUT her advice is genuinely really useful. The Dialogue and Sentence chapters are especially good.


Norman Nicholson pilgrimage

Sandra Newman: The Country of Ice Cream Star

I absolutely loved this when I read it, because I thought that the writer was a woman of colour. Then I found out that she’s white, and she’s said some mildly clueless things about the book’s approach to race. Now I just have all the feels about it. All of them.

Beauty Tips for Girls by Margaret Montgomery
This author is an absolutely lovely lady — I have it on good authority from many people who have met her. The book is not my personal cup of tea, but I was happy for her when it was published, and when so many other folk seemed to like it.

Marie Howe: The Kingdom of Ordinary Time

I didn’t like it quite as much as What The Living Do, but that book is actually perfect. This one’s still pretty freaking amazing. I want to be Marie Howe when I grow up, including having her amazing hair.

Kayla Czaga: For Your Safety, Please Hold On
I am getting harder and harder to please when it comes to poetry. I liked this fine, but it didn’t set me on fire. Nice cover design, is the main thing I remember about this ten months on.

Kathleen Jones: Norman Nicholson, The Whispering Poet

I absolutely love Norman Nicholson and I absolutely love Kathleen Jones’ books, so this was a no brainer. It was great. It made me go on a NN pilgrimage, it was so great!


Mixing The Colours from Glasgow Women's Library

Annie Proulx: Close Range

Short fiction! I keep telling myself I need to read more short fic. God Annie Proulx is horribly talented. Every sentence is bloody perfect. Every story is totally gripping. I love her and hate her in equal measure, the talented cow.

Mixing The Colours: Women Speaking About Sectarianism, ed. Rachel Thain Gray
I followed the fortunes of this project all year, went to its launch, and met many of the cool ladies who contributed to this anthology. It’s thought-provoking, handmade, and gorgeous. Well done, GWL and Rachel!

The Collected Poems of Norman Nicholson

How to be inspired to write poetry: wait til spring, then go to Cumbria, stay there, and read nothing but Norman Nicholson for the best part of the month. I feel like I wrote the best part of my second-collection-in-progress in March, thanks to Norman!


Hallelujah for 50ft Women

Mary Oliver: Dream Work

Yes, again. Springtime means Mary Oliver. You just can’t get through spring without reaching for her.

Frances Leviston: Disinformation
Another effortlessly talented smartypants. I basically agree with the entirety of Dave’s review. Reading this made my brain hurt, but in a good way.

Hallelujah for 50ft Women: poems about women’s relationships with their bodies, ed. The Raving Beauties
Great poems, slightly cissexist introduction.

Mark Doty: Deep Lane
OH MY GOD OH MY GOD OH MY GOD. Just when you thought he couldn’t get any better, he went and got better. This book is perfect. PERFECT I TELL YOU. I wanted to eat it. I wanted to swim in it. I read it about once a week for six months… but the first time was the best. Buy it, read it, do it now.

Mark Doty: My Alexandria
Mark Doty: Sweet Machine

After I finished Deep Lane I was just in the grip of Doty fever. Addicted, I tell you! PS: Hey look! In April I read only poetry! Nice.


goverments should fear thir people and support literacy
(Photo credit. I love this pic of Jo Bell!)

Laura McBride: We Are Called To Rise

I got this ’cause I had two ‘three for two’ books in Waterstones and needed a third. It was a punt, but it turned out to be great. Holy crap it was good. Just good, strong, confident storytelling. And gripping. A little predictable at the end but I really didn’t care. Bonus: its structure helped me figure out how I wanted to structure my own novel. Yay!

Sophie Cabot Black: The Descent

This is a book with two (or three? I forget) sections, the poems in each of which seem to be lots of variations on the same theme. The first section, with poems all about travelling through wildernesses, is bloody great. It was weird how much I liked that section, only to massively dislike the section that was all love poems. It felt like two massively different poetry collections in one. But hey, it won a ton of awards, so what the hell do I know?

Patricia Young: Here Come The Moonbathers
Re-reading this for about the millionth time. Whenever I read this book I wish I was back where I was when I first read it: on the deck of the Vancouver-Victoria ferry with a beer, sailing towards a month-long Canadian roadtrip. Sigh.

Polly Clark: Kiss
I can remember absolutely nothing about this collection, six-or-so-months on, except that there was a naked lady on the cover. That’s not good, but I think the fault lies with me, not the book.

Jo Bell: Kith
I read this at the same time as the book above, and enjoyed the similarity of their titles. I remember lots about this one, though: mainly, the poems are all very short and a good number of them made me snort-laugh. I read them on a sunny long weekend in my aunty’s little Lake District cottage and they were perfect for that time and that place. There’s one amazing poem that really stuck with me, about Jo waking up in her narrowboat and realising that the canal had frozen overnight. Simple and gorgeous.

Helen Macdonald: H is for Hawk

Bored the pants off me. Got about… sixty pages in? If that? Then thought… next.

Malcolm Gladwell: Outliers
I was on holiday (see above) and wanted something totally un-taxing. This was a re-read, and I possibly enjoyed it even more second time around. It reinforced my opinion that people who hate on Malcolm Gladwell are suuuuper dull and rather joyless individuals.


Well hello there beautiful. Next on deck, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes & Other Lessons From The Crematory by Caitlin Doughty. "She breathes life into death."
(Photo credit)

Rufi Thorpe: The Girls of Corona Del Mar

Self-absorbed, messily written, totally unconvincing, and somehow also pretty dull. In my line of work, I meet young women who have real actual problems in their lives. This asshole narrator needed to get a grip, frankly. (Maybe she was supposed to be annoying and eventually got her comeuppance, but I’m afraid I ditched out early.)

Peter Carey: Amnesia
What an utterly odd book. It was totally not about what its blurb said it was about. But it was really rather funny (and much funnier, I’m sure, if you’re Australian and get all the in-jokes) and I enjoyed it. May seek out more Carey in future (recommendations of particular titles welcomed!).

The Dark Horse: 20th Anniversary Edition

I can’t say too much about this ’cause I’m featured in it (!!!) but I can say it also features folk like Alasdair Gray, Douglas Dunn and Vicki Feaver, so yaknow, that gives you a sense of things. (Also, it’s not just poetry, it’s a mix of genres, but I put it under poetry ’cause the poetry section includes Little Old Me!)

Caitlin Doughty: Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, and Other Lessons from the Crematorium
This is a memoir/rumination on death by a female funeral director, and it’s absolutely bloody brilliant. Very funny, very poignant — I read it on a very wet two-day work trip to Oban and it made my seven hours of train travel fly by. My only criticism would be, occasionally some of her controversial-y, non-PC-y humour felt like it was punching down, not up. See what you think.


(Photo credit)

Jennifer Egan: Look at Me

BRING OUT ANOTHER NOVEL ALREADY PLEASE JENNIFER. In order to worship at the altar of your absolutely perfect writing, I am having to re-re-re-re-re-read all your novels, and there aren’t enough of them. GET ON IT.

John Updike: The Witches of Eastwick
I decided to have a summer of re-reading some faves, hence the one above. You may be surprised to learn that a ranty intersectional feminist like myself counts an Updike novel among her all-time top ten, but I do. I mean, it’s HILARIOUS that whenever a person with breasts walks into a room, he needs to tell us (or indeed, remind us, if they’re a main character) exactly what size, shape, and colour that person’s breasts are (often with flower-related similes). But once you get used to just chortling at that and moving on, it’s all fine.

Karen Solie: The Living Option, New and Selected Poems

Oi Karen! You could also do with bringing out another book, please. You’re another one I keep having to re-re-re-re-read ’cause I want more of your writing magic! Get it together, ladies!

Mark Doty: Deep Lane
I wrote down in my book-reading diary that I’d re-read this one in July… but basically I never stopped reading it. I’ve dipped back into it so many times this year. But I think this re-read was to prepare me for MD’s reading at the EIBF, and for meeting him afterwards (!!!! he was so kind. So kind. I shall post more about our meeting in my year-end round-up post shortly!).

R. Swinburne Clymer: Nature’s Healing Agents
Michael Howard: The Witches Herbal

I bought these two books at the Boscastle Museum of Witchcraft, and they have proven totally invaluable… I’m writing a bunch of poems about witches and witchcraft to go in my second collection, you see. The Herbal book is particularly great, and surprisingly, I’ve been able to make use of it when foraging, too. I was sad to hear that its author died this year. He was very involved in the Museum of Witchcraft, aka one of my favourite places in the world.

Katherine Howe: The Penguin Book of Witches
See above. This is probably the most useful reference book you could ask for when writing about witches. So many original sources, presented and explained with handy notes. Also, it was fun reading it on the bus… no one wanted to sit next to me.


Act 1
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Blake Snyder: Save The Cat

It turns out everyone knew about this amazingly useful little book except me, ’cause I try to recommend it to writers now and they’re all like, “yeah, beat sheets. Use ‘em all the time!” Why did no one ever tell me about this oh-so-handy guide to plotting?! It says it’s for screenplays but it applies pretty well to novels. Helped me loads.

Michael O’Byrne: The Crime Writer’s Guide to Police Practice and Procedure
I am writing a crime novel. Or actually, I prefer Emily St John Mandel’s version, which she referred to when I saw her at the EIBF this year (more on that later): “a novel with a crime in it.” Therefore, I felt this book was worth its weight in gold… and it came at a very good time for me, when I was getting tons of writing done and (as you can see) not reading much else.


Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie © Beowulf Sheehan/PEN American Center
(Photo credit)

Susan Hill: The Boy Who Taught The Beekeeper To Read

Did you know that the lady who wrote The Woman In Black, and other terrifying creepy things, also writes lovely, whimsical short fiction? It’s true. I bought this collection waaaay back when I was about fifteen and the brilliant writing blew my tiny mind. I needed to teach a seminar on Modes of Narration in September and immediately reached for this book (and the title story in particular) ’cause she’s so brilliant at Free Indirect Speech.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The Thing Round Your Neck
This was for the same Modes of Narration seminar. Best use of second person since Italo Calvino.

Naomi Shihab Nye: Tender Spot

I saw her at EIBF, reading alongside Mark Doty (can I just say DREAM TEAM?), and then bought the book from her afterwards. I’ve been reading it super slowly ever since (still not done), trying to savour it like a really expensive box of chocolates. Needless to say, it’s great.

NB: I should say that from here on in, things get very sparse. The reason is, I got my job as Creative Writing Fellow for Tyne and Esk Writers. I work 17.5 hours a week in that job, and on some weeks, as many as ten of those hours are reserved for reading the writing of T&E members in order to offer critique. So I’ve been reading loads this winter! Loads and loads of exciting, as-yet-unpublished novel manuscripts and poetry collections and single poems and short stories… I just can’t write about them here. Yet! Wait for it! Some of them are coming soon to a bookstore shelf near you!


Thanks to everyone who attended the #litsyndicate's heated discussion of Philip Hoare's THE SEA INSIDE! Our next meeting will take place on Tuesday, July 28th, when we'll be discussing the mother of all #smartsummerreads, Emily St. John Mandel's STATION E
(Photo credit)

Greta Stoddart: Salvation Jane

I picked this up in a second hand bookstore in Whitby, to have a quick flick through. Ten minutes later my brother came searching for me to find out what I’d got so engrossed in.

Claudia Rankine: Citizen
Again… what Dave said.


Douglas Coupland: Hey Nostradamus!

Someone told me a while back that I ought to read this book, because elements of it are similar to the novel I am currently writing. I can’t remember who that person was, but THANK YOU SO MUCH. You totally get my taste in books! This was my fiction discovery of the year, though it faced strong competition, especially from Station Eleven (see below). It was just gob-smackingly brilliant. I thought I knew what I was getting into when I started reading, and it just kept surprising me and surprising me and surprising me, right down to the absolutely stunning, beautiful, gorgeous, poignant, heart-stopping ending, which had me weeping buckets. I read this in two sittings: it was one of those books where you just go screw it, I’m not doing anything else today, I just have to read this til I am done. Douglas Coupland, where have you been all my life?! Miss Wyoming next…


Emily St John Mandel: Station Eleven

Yes, I fiiiiinally got around to reading it. I bought it way back in the year: remember me saying I was buying 3-for-2 books back in May? It was one of those three. In June I booked a ticket to go and see ESJM at EIBF and told myself that’d spur me on to read it. Then the event, which was ace, came and went in August. I find it hard sometimes to get myself psyched up to read the book everyone’s raving about, you know? And then usually I kick myself when I finally do read it, as I did with this one. Holy wow. It’s every bit as good as everyone says, and more. Just don’t do what I did and read it when you’re feeling flu-y. Oh, and if you get chance to go and see ESJM speak/read? Go. Her EIBF event was so great. She’s very eloquent, whip-smart, very funny, and I could listen to her lovely Canadian accent all day. But don’t do what I did… read the book before you go.

A few final stats:

Total books read: 45 (down on last year’s 51. OMG SO LOW RIGHT? Meh. You know how every book blogger is telling you they read three books a week for the whole year right now? Unless they sat on the panel for a major book prize, or worked as a reviewer for a big publication, it’s likely they’re fibbing. PS: if you’re measuring the worth of your life by how many books you’re reading per year, you need to get a grip, and also remember that the ability to read at all is a massive privilege and bragging is vulgar. Here endeth the lesson.)

Total fiction: 16 (down on last year’s 17)
Total poetry: 19 (20 if you count reading Deep Lane twice. Waaaay down on last year’s 32)
Total non-fiction: 10 (way up on last year’s 2! Hooray!)

Books by men: 13 (down on last year’s 16)
Books by women: 30 (down on last year’s 35)
Books by multiple authors, or by an author whose gender I don’t know: 2


I wrote a book of poems! It’s called This changes things, and you can order it here!

You can now get more content from me — and help me pay the bills! — by supporting my Patreon. Get a monthly writing support pack for just $5 a month! It’s like buying me a pint.
You can also support me by checking out the many sweet and sparkly things at Edinburgh Vintage, my Etsy-based store for jewellery and small antiques.
If you just want to say hi, you can find me on Twitter, or email me via claire[at] You’ll get a fairly good sense of the kind of person I am by checking out my Tumblr.

Almost all the books I read in 2014 and the things I thought about them.

Tuesday, December 30th, 2014

So, for the first year ever, I actually kept a book journal, and wrote down in it almost every book I read throughout the year. I say almost, because towards the end I got really bogged down in — and vexed by, as you’ll see — DeLillo’s Underworld, and forgot to document some of the poetry books I read. But this is about 98% of what I read this year, along with some often-bitchy miniature reviews. Hooray, books!

#58 of 365
(Photo credit)


Patrick deWitt The Sisters Brothers
(Didn’t expect to like this. Loved it. But then, I loved Ablutions, so…)
Terry Pratchett Soul Music
(Re-read for about the one millionth time. This book is like an old friend.)

Mary Oliver West Wind: Poems and Prose Poems
Rebecca Elson A Responsibility To Awe

Gossip from The Forest - Sara Maitland
(Photo credit)


Patricia Pogson The Holding
Patricia Pogson A Crackle From The Larder

Non fiction
Sara Maitland Gossip From The Forest
(I abandoned this halfway through. I feel guilty, but sorry, I found it a bit dull.)

93/365 American Wife
(Photo credit)


Curtis Sittenfeld American Wife
Christos Tsolkias The Slap
(I abandoned this because it is a book that seems to be entirely about men walking around objectifying women and getting angry erections. Literally the most misogynist book I have ever read… and the few women characters who are allowed to have any kind of meaningful narrative are so badly written it’s painful. I actually dumped this book on a train. I didn’t want the charity shop folks to even know I had read it.)

Mary Oliver Thirst
Dorianne Laux Smoke
Kathryn Simmons The Visitations
Kerry Hardie Selected Poems
(Re-reading. I am a mega Kerry fangirl.)
Patricia Young More Watery Still

wild geese
(Photo credit)


Michael Conley Aquarium
(I also reviewed it!)
Mary Oliver Wild Geese
Patricia Young Summertime Swamp Love
(OK, I love this woman. I have read everything she’s ever written. I was so excited that she had a new collection out, pre-ordered it, waited impatiently to get it from Canada… and was so utterly disappointed. It’s a book where every poem is about the sex life of a different animal… and you can tell she got really caught up in the gimmicky concept and let the writing slip a bit. Or in places, a lot. Sad times!)
Karen Solie The Living Option
(Thank goodness for Karen Solie! The best poetry book I have read for years. Everyone, go out and get it and read it and marvel. She’s amazing.)

Copies of The Luminaries being prepared.
(Photo credit)


Roxane Gay An Untamed State
(Beautifully spare, very harrowing, utterly amazing. Read it.)
Nina de la Mer Layla
(Most inventive use of second person I have ever seen, but… let’s just say I’m curious to know what real sex workers make of this book.)
Eleanor Catton The Luminaries
(Ugh. She’s so talented it’s obscene.)

#100HappyDays Day 148: Enjoyed hearing Eimear McBride talk, upon winning the Bailey Prize, about how this should be a wake-up call to publishers to take more risks after receiving years of rejections not because they didn't like it but because they didn't
(Photo credit)


Curtis Sittenfeld Sisterland
(Yeah, I love Curtis.)
Eimear McBride A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing
(I hated this. I’m afraid I ditched it halfway through. Am I broken?)
Hilary Mantel Beyond Black
(My first foray into the world of Mantel! I liked it! Though it could have been 150 pages shorter.)

Talye Selasi, Author of Ghana Must Go
(Photo credit. Taiye Selasi is stunning.)


Paul Auster Man In The Dark
(Meh. Auster is Austerish.)
Taiye Selasi Ghana Must Go
(I was ready to hate on this with all the hate I could summon… this woman was helped to publication by her personal friends Toni Morrison and Andrew Wylie, but it turns out? Not nepotism. She actually deserved the hype! Mind you, I agree with the reviewers who said it didn’t really hit its stride til Part 2.)

Mary Oliver West Wind: Poems and Prose Poems
(Yep, re-read it in the same year.)

& Sons
(Photo credit)


Janet Fitch White Oleander
(Re-reading for about the fifth time, because I just love this book.)
David Gilbert & Sons
(I expected this to be really macho… and it is, but in a brilliant, self-aware way. One of my favourite novels of the year.)

Jean Sprackland Sleeping Keys
Colin McGuire As I Sit Quietly, I Begin To Smell Burning
(I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: McGuire is Scotland’s most underrated poet. Read it. Read it now.)

Gone Fission
(Photo credit)


Jennifer Egan The Keep
(She is the writer I would like to be. That said, this was not quite as sublime as Look at Me or Visit from the Goon Squad.)
Don DeLillo Underworld
(Holy crap this thing is a slog. Notice how I only got round to one other novel all year after this?! And sorry not sorry: it is so not worth it. It’s like Infinite Jest. The length of it is just male posturing (as is the dudebroish waxing lyrical about how this or Infinite Jest is like the totes best evar. So you read a long, smartypants book. Big whoop). Male GANs (Great American Novelists) have an obsession with size which just isn’t healthy. Stop it DeLillo, DFW, Franzen! You’re just showing off, dammit! My advice? Skip this one and read Cosmopolis. It’s the stunning DeLillo prose without the bullshit.)

Katherine Larson Radial Symmetry

Reading Blue Horses by Mary Oliver
(Photo credit)


Austin Smith Almanac
(A poetry collection all about farms. Shouldn’t be good. Is amazing.)
Nancy Kuhn The Wife of the Left Hand
(This was less accessible/more abstract than I usually like, but this collection actually made me think differently about poetry. Gobsmacking!)
Mary Oliver Blue Horses
(New collection! And it’s delightfully “IDGAF” in tone. Mary Oliver, be my surrogate auntie?)
Matthew Dickman Mayakovsky’s Revolver
(Hipstery poems about Portland! Read it while drinking artisan espresso and twirling your moustache!)
Dionisio Martinez Bad Alchemy
(This dude has the best name ever.)

(Photo credit)


Michael Chabon Wonder Boys
(If you hate the fact that male novelists dominate the world of SRS LITERATURE and are often pompous windbags, then this book is for you. It’s about one of them getting a series of hilarious come-uppances. I actually LOLed in public at this book.)

Thomas Lux Selected Poems
Kerry Hardie The Zebra Stood In The Night
(Another new collection I waited impatiently for… but this one did not disappoint.)
Alan Gillis Scapegoat
(I second what Dave said about this one.)
Leanne O’Sullivan Waiting for my Clothes
(I did Leanne O’Sullivan wrong. I had never heard of her and read The Mining Road, liked it well enough, but didn’t know til last month that in the early 2000s she’d been this 20 year old writing prodigy genius person. Holy wow.)

Marie Howe
(Photo credit. That’s Marie Howe, btw.)


Melissa Lee-Houghton Beautiful Girls
(Once upon a time, I published Melissa in my tiny, Xeroxed poetry zine Read This. I am so chuffed to see how far she’s come since then… she deserves all the praise, her poems are great.)
Marie Howe What The Living Do
Mary Oliver Dream Work
(I am an Oliver addict.)
Tiffany Atkinson So Many Moving Parts
Helen Dunmore Recovering A Body


Robert Boice How Writers Journey to Comfort and Fluency: A Psychological Adventure
(This is long-winded as hell, out of print and a hard copy will rush you at least £60. But holy wow, it’s very, very, very useful.)

A few final stats:

Total fiction: 17
Total poetry: 32
Total non-fiction: 2

Books by men: 16 (7 fiction, 8 poetry, 1 non fiction)
Books by women: 35 (10 fiction, 24 poetry, 1 non fiction)


What did YOU read this year?
(Related reading: my top 10 independent bookstores of 2014)


Like shiny things? Check out Edinburgh Vintage, a totally unrelated ’sister site’ full of jewels, treasures and trinkets. If you want to get in touch you can follow OneNightStanzas on Twitter, or email claire[at] I reply as swiftly as I can!

Things I’m Reading Thursday #33

Thursday, May 24th, 2012

Remembering What Is Found There



As you probably know, I am a huge fan of the great Adrienne Rich, and was truly saddened to hear of her death a few weeks ago. Last Wednesday would have been her 83rd birthday.

I’ve been writing about Rich’s ideas — specifically, her ideas about the lack of a literary tradition for female writers — in my PhD thesis, and so when I was given book vouchers for my recent birthday I decided to spend them, partly, on a Rich-penned collection of essays I’ve been wanting to read for ages:

What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics.

Thanks to my other reading of books by and about Rich, I already knew that she has the uncanny ability to take something you’ve never really thought about — because you thought you understood it — and to make you see it in such a new and different light that you feel your head might turn inside out. That happened so many times for me, with this book. Rich’s writing on the process of creating poetry is also among the best and truest I’ve ever seen from anyone — only Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating With The Dead can beat this book for sheer, “yes! That’s exactly what it’s like!” value. Rich is great at taking what you or I might see as guilty little writer’s habits — procrastination, self-doubt, unwillingness to start on a project if we’ve got other things on our minds — and legitimising them, saying “this thing is a necessary part of the writing process and we must embrace it.” From start to finish I was edified — this book made me so happy. It all felt so utterly relevant me, as a poet, as a teacher, as a politicised person. I found myself repeatedly folding over pages to return to later, grabbing my neon-pink highlighter to block-mark huge passages that just made so much sense.

Instead of gushing further, I’ll share just a few of those block-marked passages with you now, and you can see what you think…

On the invisibility of poetry
“Poetry itself, in our national life, is under house arrest, is officially “disappeared.” Like our past, our collective memory, it remains an unfathomed, a devalued, resource. The establishment of a national ‘Poet Laureateship’ notwithstanding, poetry has been set apart from the practical arts, from civic meaning. It is irrelevant to mass ‘entertainment’ and the accumulation of wealth — thus, out of sight, out of mind.” (p. 20)

On why poetry being invisible is a good thing
“And perhaps this is the hope: that poetry can keep its mechanical needs simple, its head clear of the fumes of how ’success’ is concocted in the capitals of promotion, marketing, consumerism, and in particular of the competition — taught in schools, abetted at home — that pushes the ’star’ at the expense of the culture as a whole, that makes people want stardom rather than participation, association, exchange and improvisation with others. Perhaps this is the hope: that poetry, by its nature, will never become leashed to profit, marketing, consumerism.” (p. 40)

On free time as a necessary ingredient in the making of great poetry
“Most of the poets I know, hearing of a sum of money, translate it not into possessions, but into time — that precious immaterial necessity of our lives. It’s true that a poem can be attempted in brief interstitial moments, pulled out of the pocket and worked on while waiting for a bus or riding a train or while children nap or while waiting for a new batch of clerical work or blood samples to come in. But only certain kinds of poems are amenable to these conditions. Sometimes the very knowledge of coming interruption dampens the flicker. [...] Most, if not all, of the names we know in North American poetry are the names of people who have had some access to freedom in time.” (p. 43)

On why the idea of poetry as ‘academic’ is a lie
“It’s a lie that poetry is only read by or ’speaks’ to people in the universities or elite intellectual circles; in many such places, poetry barely speaks at all. Poems are written and absorbed, silently and aloud, in prisons, prairie kitchens, urban basement workshops, branch libraries, battered women’s shelters, homeless shelters, offices, a public hospital for disabled people, an HIV support group. A poet can be born in a house with empty bookshelves. Sooner or later, s/he will need books. But books are not genes.” (p. 206-7)

On good poetry as a rejection of hatred and competitiveness
“To celebrate, to drive off evil, to nourish memory, to conjure the desired visitation. The revolutionary artist, the relayer of possibility, draws on such powers, in opposition to a technocratic society’s hatred of multiformity, hatred of the natural world, hatred of the body, hatred of women and darkness, hatred of disobedience. The revolutionary poet loves people, rivers, other creatures, stones, trees, inseparably from art, is not ashamed of these loves, and for them conjures a language that is public, intimate, inviting, terrifying, and beloved.” (p. 249-50)

Go buy this book.


You can also visit Read This Press for more poetry (and typewriter paraphernalia!). Alternatively, check out Edinburgh Vintage, our sister site. If you want to get in touch you can follow OneNightStanzas on Twitter, or email claire[at] I reply as swiftly as I can!

(Photo credit)

Things I’m Reading Thursday #32 / Things I Love Thursday #58

Thursday, April 26th, 2012

Vegan Noms (1)

Disclaimer: I am not this Claire Askew. That Claire Askew has been a vegan and vegan activist for many years, from what I can see. I am by no means trying to hijack her bandwagon, and I do intend to buy her book. You guys should, too.

The thing I’ve been loving a whole load this week is also something you can read. I LOVE IT WHEN THAT HAPPENS.

Isa Chandra Moskowitz
This lady is the thing I am loving, and I am loving her a whole, whole lot. As most of you probably know, I recently — and rather inexplicably — became vegan, and wrote a post about it right here. Some lovely folk came to comment on said post (and on my Facebook and Twitter), to give me words of encouragement, hints and tips. All of this was much appreciated, but a special shout-out must go to Regina Green. Not only did she give me a ton of feel-good encouragement, she also pointed me in the direction of Isa Chandra Moskowitz. AND I AM SO, SO GLAD that she did.

Ms Moskowitz — who you can learn about in this kick-ass interview from the New York Times — is a tattooed punk chef who believes in culinary activism and cupcakes for all. She’s written several extremely popular vegan cookbooks including one that’s all about pies, another that’s all about cookies, and for those of you for whom those are dirty words, there’s also a low fat book. When I hit the website, The Post Punk Kitchen, I really was spoilt for choice.

However, I eventually decided on Vegan Brunch. One of my all-time favourite things in life is breakfast, and one of the things I’ve missed most about becoming vegan is breakfast pastry. I thought I’d never eat a croissant ever again, until I came across the Gopal Deli in Barcelona and discovered that actually, vegan pastries are in fact possible. But although Edinburgh has plenty of places that’ll whip you up a lovely vegan lunch or dinner, the only place I know of that’ll make you a vegan breakfast or brunch is David Bann’s. (And they only do it at weekends. And yaknow, eating there twice every week is probably not good for my wallet.) Therefore, I was very happy to find a cookbook that would enable me to provide my own vegan breakfast goodies without too much fuss.

The book arrived last week and, as you can imagine, last weekend was a massive brunch-fest as a result. On Saturday morning, Lovely Boyfriend — even though he’d been off work sick for two days, bless him — got out of bed to make me Isa’s Perfect Pancakes, a vegan take on the traditional American fluffy pancake. While he was whipping up batter and manning the frying pan, I put together some of the cookbook’s Chocolate Drizzle to go on top. Both recipes were extremely simple, required a few cheap and easy-to-get ingredients, and were ready pretty quickly. The fact that I made enough Chocolate Drizzle for about ten people was the only real issue. Tip: if there’s just two of you, halve the ingredients suggested! The result of our labours is in the photo at the top of this post. It was one lush brunch, I can tell you. (Neither of the recipes are online, but Isa does have another pancake recipe, for super-fluffy cakes that look amazing, right here.)

Vegan Noms (9)

Next, I tried the recipe for Cinnamon Rolls. I am obsessed with anything cinnamon-filled, cinnamon-topped or cinnamon-scented, and I was beyond delighted to discover that the aforementioned Gopal also did a great line in huge swirly cinnamon buns. I never thought I’d be able to make such things myself, but of course, Isa proved me wrong. These were time-consuming, but easy to do — I am a very basics-only kind of cook, so if I can do it, anyone can — and a lot of the time was down-time, waiting for the dough to rise. The rather dark (sorry) photo above shows the rolls fresh out of the oven, before they were iced. Lovely Boyfriend and I tried one at this point and were worried it was too breadlike and not sweet enough. However, the next morning I iced them (and not heavily, either), and it made all the difference — suddenly they were sweet, sticky and perfect. You literally can’t tell the difference between these and their all-butter non-vegan cousins. The recipe for these isn’t online either, but it’s worth buying the book just for these babies! Excellent with a good cup of tea.

Vegan Noms (6)

Finally, on Sunday morning the loveliest Lovely Boyfriend decided to tackle Isa’s standard scrambled tofu, with with a Lovely Boyfriend twist. As well as Isa’s cumin and thyme spice mix — which sounds a bit curry-esque but actually works beautifully for breakfast — he also added some broken-up mushrooms, finely chopped onion and torn spinach. The end result was one of the best breakfasts I’ve had in my life, vegan or otherwise. The recipe calls for extra-firm silken tofu — we could only find the firm stuff, so as a result the pieces broke down quite small while cooking. However, the chunky mushrooms kept the consistency from being too bitty. On top of a wholemeal bagel it was utterly lush, I tell you. There are plenty of other uses for tofu in the Post Punk Kitchen, too.

So yes — I’m in love with this cookbook, and with its author. You can guarantee that I’ll be buying more of her books in the near future, and I cannot wait til next weekend when I can try out more brunches (look out, waistline…).

If anyone loves me or ONS enough to help keep me stocked with Things I’m Reading Thursday fodder, you can check out my Amazon Wishlist!

Honourable mentions:
Sunshine. It’s still disturbingly cold outside, but at least it looks pretty // Starry Rhymes — you can finally buy it in the Read This Press etsy store! As I was listing it, I was re-reading some of my favourite poems, and oh my goodness, it’s good // Thrifting with my mad and lovely sister. Morningside has all the best finds! If you’re a fellow thrifter, check out my vintage store, Edinburgh Vintage, for some pretty bargains // feeling busy and productive, but not stressed. This is a rare feeling — long may it last! // Lazing under my duvet and plotting for the future. So much stuff, so little time! // Netflix. We just got it. Goodbye, what spare time I formerly had… // The West Wing. We’ve been trawling through every episode ever in order and we’re nearing the end of Season Six. Only one more to go! I never want it to end!

What are you loving this week?


If you want to get in touch you can follow OneNightStanzas on Twitter, or email claire[at] I reply as swiftly as I can!

Call for submissions: an all-female anthology on “Truth” in honour of Adrienne Rich

Thursday, March 29th, 2012

Audre Lorde, Meridel Lesueur, Adrienne Rich 1980
(Adrienne Rich — right — with Meridel Leseur and Audre Lorde in 1980)

On 27th March 2012, modern poetry lost one of its true giants. Adrienne Rich — poet, essayist, feminist, activist, thinker — passed away at the age of 82 following a period of illness. Rich was one of America’s most decorated and celebrated poets, the winner of a MacArthur Fellowship, the Wallace Stevens Award and a Griffin Poetry Prize Lifetime Recognition Award, among many others. She was also one of the fiercest and bravest voices poetry has ever seen. Described as “a poet of towering rage,” she wrote for women’s rights, for gay rights and for human rights and confronted sometimes vicious challenges from the literary and political establishment. Her poetry is angry, graceful and timeless, and her writings on women artists and female literary tradition vital. I have no doubt that her work will continue to chime with writers — female or otherwise — for as long as it is read.

One of my all-time favourite essays of Rich’s is the pseudo-manifesto — which Rich referred to only as a series of “notes” — Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying (1975). In this piece, Rich observes just some of the many lies women have been told over the course of history; she notes that many lies have been so socialised into women that we become willing vessels for them ourselves. She points out the unnerving result of accepting and socialising these lies.

To lie habitually, as a way of life, is to lose contact with the unconscious. It is like taking sleeping pills, which confer sleep but blot out dreaming. The unconscious wants truth. [...] This is why the effort to speak honestly is so important. Lies are usually attempts to make everything simpler — for the liar — than it really is, or ought to be.

Rich believes that only women can possibly take hold of the key to this problem of socialised lies. They must pass through what Virginia Woolf called the “dark core”, and speak the truth — the ugly, difficult, freeing, empowering truth.

When a woman tells the truth she is creating the possibility for more truth around her.

That is what Read This Press is asking you to do. We want to create an anthology of writing by women — women of all ages, nationalities, and walks of life — on the theme of truth. Tell us a truth you’ve never told anyone. Describe what it feels like to tell a lie. Write anything you want on this theme, and send it to us. There are no rules beyond these:

1. You must be female-identified. (We recommend that anyone who finds the concept of an all-female creative space in any way upsetting move quickly away from this blog.)
2. Your piece must be in some way recogniseable as poetry or short fiction. (We don’t want to impose word-limits, but bear in mind, this’ll be a chapbook publication, so if you send us something very long we may ask if you’d be willing to excerpt it or work on cutting it down.)
3. Please write on the theme. (The theme is Truth. Interpret that however you like.)

The final chapbook will be entitled Creatrix: Women Writers on Truth (for Adrienne Rich). It will be published as a limited edition chapbook by Read This Press, and edited by Claire Askew. Contributors will each receive one free copy of the chapbook.

To submit, please:

1) Email up to five pieces to claire [at] onenightstanzas [dot] com
2) Do this before midnight GMT on 1st May 2012
3) Include a few sentences of biographical information about yourself
4) Point out if any of the poems you’re submitting have been submitted or published elswhere

Please note that there may be a public launch for this book, or some other kind of promotional reading (or there may not — we’ll see), and we might ask you to read. Just a heads-up.

You can also email claire [at] onenightstanzas [dot] com with any questions. Please do pass on this submissions call to anyone you think might be interested in submitting — and feel free to spread the word on your blog, Twitter, Facebook or anywhere else you fancy.


One Night Stanzas loves mail. Say hello via NB: I am physically unable to reply to non-urgent stuff unless I have a free afternoon and a cup of tea in my hand. Please be patient!

(Photo credit)

Things I’m Reading Thursday #31: The Whole Woman

Thursday, December 8th, 2011

germaine greer. the whole woman.
(Photo credit)

Funnily enough, the Flickr caption for the picture I decided to use for this post was, “so smart in some places, so stupid in others. a great, challenging book full of rage.” Had I been asked to summarize this in as few words, my response would have been pretty similar.

Confession of a bad feminist: though I practically inhale pop feminism books, and can get through four or five a month if the going’s good… I had never read any Germaine Greer until now. I bought a collection of her essays while on holiday over the summer, shipped it back from Canada (I bought about ten times my baggage weight in books and thus gave Canada Post a lot of very lucrative business), and then promptly forgot about it. I was, of course, aware of The Female Eunuch, as it’s cited — not always kindly — in just about every pop feminist book there is. In fact, annoyingly, no one seems able to say the dreaded f word without automatically getting Germaine on speed-dial. I think I’ve yet to see a TV panel debate or review of a new feminist book where she is not invoked, or at least mentioned. I’ve heard, seen and read a lot of the very silly things she’s said in the past (accusing JRR Tolkien of being a fascist sympathiser was, oddly enough, my least favourite piece of Germaine-snark, rather than any women’s issues comment), and I’ve heard, seen and read a lot of very uncharitable things said about her by other people — often people in the women’s movement who know what they’re on about. Needless to say, I did not have desperately high hopes for this book. I was expecting a hike in my blood pressure levels, at the very least.

So actually, I was pleasantly surprised. The Whole Woman is shockingly pleasant to read — well written, well structured, far far less academic and stuffy than say, Susan Faludi’s Backlash which, essential reading or not, sent me to sleep and got put back on the shelf after two chapters. And Germaine says a lot of very sensible stuff about a lot of things. Many times — at first in a kind of horrified way, then less so — I found myself nodding at her ‘this is the grim reality of what it’s like, sometimes, being a woman’ -type statements. The book is extremely well researched. For me, the most enlightening, shocking and educational sections were those on the state of women’s health, and the treatment of women by pharmaceutical companies and health providers; the sections that provided statistics and case-studies on “real” rape conviction rates, domestic violence, the ratio of caesarean sections to natural births, etc. Germaine isn’t messing around here. She knows her stuff and it shows. Since The Female Eunuch, which I hear is so polemical it practically spits on you as you read, she’s obviously learned well the old adage that the plural of anecdote is not data. This is a lesson a lot of pop feminist writers would do well to cotton on to.

However, Germaine does not always cite well. Although most things are meticulously backed up with facts and figures, there are a few points where she’s happy to let stereotype reign. Her mentions of the sexual activities and proclivities of gay men, which are only touched on, are horribly stereotyped (yep, you guessed it: all gay guys are horribly promiscuous and prefer public bathroom stalls to any other venue when it comes to romantic activity. SIGH.). When read alongside her well-articulated, skilfully-justified thoughts on heterosexual female sexuality (and, to some degree, lesbianism, although she spends less time on this), her reliance on tired stereotypes is really gobsmacking. A few times I found myself writing “cite?!” in the margins… on one or two occasions, my marginalia was less polite.

And there are other, major problems with this book. I disagree with big chunks of it, although weirdly, not whole chapters. The funny thing about Germaine is, she’ll start a train of thought and for about three quarters of the way, you’re totally with her: you’re nodding, you’re excited to see where this theory is going. And then all of a sudden she takes things into territory so alien that you’re running for cover. How did you ever agree with this woman?! you find yourself wondering by the time the paragraph is finished. It’s a bewildering experience. Just a few examples: she makes some very interesting points about FTM transsexuals and their treatment by cisgendered men, but she then goes on to be pretty damn hateful about MTF transsexuals, or ‘men in sheep’s clothing’, as she seems to see them, and their rapist-like desire to penetrate the few women-only spaces we have (yes really. What the hell, Germaine?!). Or her very sensible chat about women controlling their own reproductive systems from cradle to grave without any kind of help or suggestion from men: oh, except all women who use chemical contraception or have legal abortions or indeed campaign for legal abortions are all misguided schmucks (I’ve read the contraception bit several times and still fail to see how she can legitimately join the dots on that one). There are parts of the chapters on these issues where Germaine is just off in cloud cuckoo land, having a rant about something that no progressive in their right mind would be swayed by… but then, elsewhere in the same chapter, she’ll be saying something I’d never have thought of, something that actually opened my eyes to a brand new idea about the women’s movement (and let me tell you, with so many pop feminism books recycling and repackaging the same old soundbites, that is a big, big deal).

I think mainly, there are just times when Germaine forgets to check her privilege. She seems to think that the only privilege that exists (among white people at least), is male. Therefore, she fails to take into account that some women are just not capable of doing as she does and thinking as she thinks, simply as a result of their background or biology. She has never had to really think twice about her own gender identity, so she feels totally cool telling those whose gender identity renders them an outcast from the gender binary how they ought to behave. This is not OK, but Germaine seems to forget sometimes that being cisgender is also a privilege, even if you’re female; that being white is also a privilege, even if you’re female; so is being able, English-speaking, middle class, college educated, etc. I’m actually a big fan of this book, and a far bigger fan of Germaine than I was before. I even like some of her (less horrendous) runaway, borderline-offensive rants — it shows that just like the rest of us, she is capable of speaking, and writing, without thinking. This isn’t the goody-goody academic feminism I’ve read elsewhere. This is one woman having a good, long, reasonably well-informed, occasionally-privileged kvetch. I can relate to that.

What are you reading this week?

Things I’m Reading Thursday #30

Thursday, November 10th, 2011

Portnoy’s Complaint

Those of you who follow my feminangst blog, GirlPoems, will know that earlier this year I got a bit hot under the collar about the whole Philip-Roth-winning-the-International-Booker thing. Not particularly because Roth won it — rather, because of the treatment of Carmen Callil by a lot of asshole (male) journos after the final decision caused her to walk off the judging panel.

Robert McCrum (one of the journos in question) advocates that Roth is one of the greatest writers the world has ever seen… or at least, that he should win the Nobel Prize for Literature, which is essentially the same thing. Callil counters that essentially, if you’ve read one Roth novel, you’ve read ‘em all. Roth has his pet issues — Americanness, Jewishness, and the collision between the two; family, especially Jewish family, and of course, heterosexual sex and plenty of it — and he returns to these themes again and again and again in his many, many, many novels. Seriously, this guy is prolific. 27 novels, three short story collections and a dabbling of non-fiction to his name, all published in the last 53 years… that’s an average of 1.6 books a year, for goodness’ sakes. If there was a Nobel Prize for Dogged Literary Persistence, then yes, hands down, it was made for Roth and no one else.

But when the International Booker news broke, I found I could only side with Callil from a feminist, this-is-blatant-sexism-and-the-nastiest-kind-at-that point of view… because I’d never read a Philip Roth book. I’d heard plenty of folk, and not just ladies, say that his books tended in the direction of the coarse and misogynist (”no, no,” cry his fanboys, “he’s not a misogynist! He just writes about them! It just so happens that his protagonists in every single book are misogynists!”), but I couldn’t just take their word for it. I decided: if this guy is big enough and special enough to win all these awards; if he’s a big enough deal for a top hack like Robert McCrum to get all cave-dweller on people’s asses about, well then, I had better read one of his books and see for myself what the deal was.

I’d heard that Portnoy’s Complaint was the biggest, the best, and the most Roth-ish of them all… so when I found it in an Oxfam for three quid, it seemed like fate.

Warning: here be spoilers.

Surprisingly, I enjoyed the book. It’s formally very clever — delivered as the rambling monologue of protagonist Alex Portnoy to his therapist, the narrative is free to get up close and personal with the kind of psychological turmoil that is never normally spoken of. As Roth has noted himself, the therapist-patient set-up allowed him to write freely and filthily about topics like incest-fantasies and masturbation, providing a handy get-out-of-criticism-free card. After all, how could you believe in a character who held back information from his therapist for fear of being offensive?

And Alex Portnoy is offensive — self-serving, self-pitying and arrogant throughout, he wishes violent death upon his parents, waxes lyrical on the stupidity of Christians and all other non-Jews (whilst at the same time trumpeting, “I happen to believe in the rights of man, rights such as are extended in the Soviet Union to all people, regardless of race, religion or color”), and repeatedly uses and abuses women (seriously, avoid this book at all costs if you’re offended by the word “woman” being used interchangably with the words “c*nt” or “tw*t”). He is totally blind to his own despicable behaviour and the repurcussions it causes, as he moves through the world despising and blaming everyone else in it for his supposedly-all-encompassing, actually-rather-trivial personal problems. A teenage boy who worried that he’d given himself cancer from masturbating too much or panicked that he’d go blind when he accidentally ejaculated into his own eye, Portnoy grows up into a man who endlessly curses himself for being sexually attracted to a girl who doesn’t read books and cannot spell; a man who attempts to rape a woman he meets in Israel because she is Jewish, looks like his mother and tells him once and for all that he’s a pathetic, self-aggrandising moron. In short, this book is the garbled autobiography of an absolute and utter w**ker (and I mean that both literally and figuratively: I have never before read a book whose pages are so lovingly devoted to the act of masturbation).

However, Roth is kidding. I now realise that a lot of the THESE BOOKS ARE MISOGYNIST FILTH! brigade are a bit too quick to jump on the Roth’s-fiction-is-obviously-autobiographical bandwagon. It’s utterly, utterly clear from the obvious holes, double-backs and endless revisions Alex makes as he progresses through his own narrative that we’re supposed to think that he’s a dishonest, self-pitying, woman-hating shit. And it’s the fact that we’re laughing at him, not with him, that makes the book so riotously funny.
Come at it from the angle of yes, it’s obvious that this guy is a hateful little so-and-so, rather than someone we ought to be rooting for. Then, it’s possible to giggle at Alex’s total horror when, halfway through the book, he pauses in his jumbled recollections to announce to the therapist that he’s got it: he’s found the root of all his problems with women! The root, it turns out, is the fact that his mother — his own mother! I mean, ew! — touched his penis while potty-training him. From then on, Alex is convinced. He ditches his first serious girlfriend because she says that, in the event of their entirely hypothetical engagement, she would refuse to convert to Judaism on account of the fact that Alex himself is an atheist. He ditches his second serious girlfriend because she refuses to give him head and then, when she finally does after months of bullying on his part, she’s a bit rubbish at it. And he leaves his all-time fantasy woman threatening to commit suicide mid-holiday in Europe because after their menage-a-trois with a prostitute, she felt a bit seedy and used. Of course, all these romantic disasters are nothing to do with him — they’re because of his hideous Oedipal potty-training! It all makes sense!

So yep, it’s a funny book. It’s a fun read, too — written in a messy stream-of-conciousness that appears random and arbitrary, it reflects the jangled nature of human thought and memory while at the same time reading smoothly and effortlessly, a stylistic sleight-of-hand that does give me a glimpse into the reasoning behind the OMG! I Heart Philip Roth 4EvAR! brigade. Most fun of all was reading it on the bus: my favourite moment was the realisation that I was sitting next to an elderly Scottish wifey, blithely making my way down a page that had the words WHACKING OFF written in large block capitals in a big empty space near the bottom. Apparently, the book caused outrage when it was published in 1969. I can tell you, it still has the power to move a Scottish wifey from her seat nearly half a century later.

However — and this is where I’ll make myself super unpopular — I don’t think Roth deserves to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Sure, I should probably read some more of his gazillion books before I say for sure, and that’s why I’m being a bit tentative. BUT: this is widely spoken of as His Very Best Book, and if this is the best he can do then no, he aint no Nobel Laureate. I have only read one Don DeLillo book, too (so far), and that was Cosmopolis, which a lot of the DeLillo fanclub don’t really rate that much. And yet, Cosmopolis had me thinking,”wow, OK… I can totally see why people are rabid about this guy. I can totally see why people say he should win the Nobel.” Perhaps most importantly, I came away from my first ever DeLillo experience thinking, “I have got to read more of this guy’s books!” With Roth, I’m thinking, “that was better than I expected,” and also “hey, some people have got him really wrong.” But I’m also thinking, “I kind of don’t really get where the rabid fanboys are coming from,” and also, “I can see why women really hate his stuff”, and also, “yeah, not so fussed about reading any more of Roth’s work any time soon.”
All of which leads me to conclude: give the Nobel (and the International Booker, for that matter) to some of the far more deserving North American writers (DeLillo, Atwood, McCarthy) first… then maybe we’ll talk.

What are you reading this week?

(Photo via Bloomsbury Auctions)

Things I’m Reading Thursday #29: Company Magazine, October issue

Thursday, October 6th, 2011

Darya Ganj Kabadi Book Bazar
This article is cross-posted at Girl Poems.

I am going to be writing a formal essay on women’s magazines in the not-too-distant future, so I decided to buy some — three, in fact — as research. I haven’t read any women’s magazines for about three years, since I started properly reading and thinking about feminism and taking on board the seriousness of the problem that is western women’s magazine publishing. I’ll admit, I was pretty damn shocked as I leafed through the October issue of Company magazine (owned by magazine giant NatMags). Although I’d actively stopped reading women’s magazines because I knew how harmful the messages they transmit can be, I hadn’t ever read one with a really critical eye.

As I went through the magazine, cover to cover, I stuck post-its on all the “problematic” content and made notes on each. Without even going into the content of any of the features/articles, let me just share some statistics with you, about this one issue of just one (very popular) women’s magazine.

The magazine has 188 pages, including the cover and back cover.
66 pages are advertising*. That’s 35%.

22 pages are advertising perfume and cosmetics.
12 pages are advertising hair products.
11 pages are advertising clothing and/or shoes.
5 pages are advertising female personal hygiene products.
11 pages are advertising miscellaneous other stuff**.

On 9 of the ads, I wrote “male gaze” on my post-its.
On 13 of the ads, I wrote “woman sexualised”.
On 1 of the ads, I wrote “women dehumanized (decapitated)”.
On 1 of the ads, I wrote “woman humiliated”.
On 1 of the ads, I wrote “woman likened to an animal.”
(That’s 15 of the 66 adverts — or 22% — that sexualise or demean women in some way.)

On two pages of the magazine I wrote “cultural appropriation.”

In the entire 188 pages of the magazine, there were 242 images of women***.
17 of these women were women of colour.
7 of these women of colour appeared in advertising.
Outside of the advertising, 5 of the images of women of colour appeared to be examples of tokenism.
Only 2 women of colour — athelete Jessica Ennis, and Jessica Abide, a finalist on Britain & Ireland’s Next Top Model — appear in main features****.

This is just the on-the-surface stuff. I also noted dozens of examples of more subtle problematic and negative messages throughout the magazine. Most obvious were totally unnecessary items and expenses being presented as “essential” or “must haves”. A close second were examples of the magazine presenting an image of or article about a highly successful woman — usually a celebrity — and coupling this with a section entitled “get her look”, or the like; the suggestion being that women should try to look, rather than be, like these role models. In a series of interviews with various celebrities talking about their predictions for the 2012 Olympics, men were asked about their heroes (”Brit icon?” asked of Nick Grimshaw), achievements (”Your gold medal moment?” asked of Ashley Banjo) and opinions on current affairs (”Britain in one word?” asked of Dappy). Women were asked about fashion (”trainers vs heels, who wins the race?” asked of Myleene Klass) and bitchiness (”commiserations to the losers?” asked of Kara Tointon). Women were set up to compete against one another throughout — an example? How about: “he was, in no uncertain terms, MINE NOW. [...] Boo bitches, no more posting on his wall, no more wondering if he is still on your scene, no more NOTHING, OK??” Then there were just your common-or-garden “everyone’s wearing…” (read: be like everyone else) messages, and the constant sexualisation of female activities (like “it’s all about doggy style” in reference to wearing white clothing with black spots — seriously). As well as being a total whitewash, the magazine also only features images of very thin, very young women, and it’s heteronormative as hell (I considered writing “h/n” on a post-it for every example, but I would have run out of post-its before I got twenty pages).

It’s utterly depressing, and this is just one issue of one magazine. If I suddenly stop posting here, you can just assume it’s because I have hoisted myself by my own petard in response to my research for this essay.

Now ladies, for pete’s sake, go and read a good book.

*When I say ‘advertising’, I mean independently-produced adverts. However, on pretty much every single page, products are named and plugged.

**2 pages of men’s aftershave, 2 pages of food, one ad for headache pills, one for fabric softener, one for a slimming aid, and four pages of classifieds — mostly related to beauty products or cosmetic surgery.

***some women appeared more than once. I only counted each woman, rather than each individual appearance.

****Abide appears on only one page, modelling clothing.

(Photo by Madpai)

Things I’m Reading Thursday #28: the trouble with “Outliers”

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011

Malcolm Gladwell at UofT

Is this really my first TiRT since May? I really need to get my head back in the blogging game, guys. I also apologise for the fact that ONS seems to be slowly seizing up — some of you have brought to my attention the fact that the site is taking an age to load. I am unsure exactly why this is, but have some theories. The 750,000+ spam comments (yes, really) sitting in my moderation queue probably aren’t helping. I’m onto it. Apologies.

Anyway, I just finished reading Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell. I’ve had so many breathless, near-orgasmic statements foisted on me about this man’s books that I’m genuinely shocked that I never got around to reading him before. I remember my mad flatmate reading The Tipping Point when it came out and practically going into apoplexy about it over breakfast one morning. Five years on and a couple of weeks ago she gave me a book token, and the words “dude, have you still not read any Malcolm Gladwell?”

So, I trotted off to Word Power Books and, as commanded, bought Outliers, the Malcolm Gladwell book whose blurb had most piqued my interest when I nosed through his various titles. And yes, it is a damn fine book. I got through it so fast and so hungrily that it was more like inhaling a book than reading it. He’s a great, great writer — probably (I feel unqualified to really comment, having only read one of his books) deserving of all the praise heaped at his feet — “global phenomenon” (The Observer), “the best kind of writer” (The Times), “the world’s most influential thinker” (GQ), and so on. And the book itself is full of fascinating stuff — I was shocked, enlightened and inspired. Usually, nothing puts me off more than a soc-sci book with a ton of tables inset to illustrate points. This book is the exception to that rule — the tables and diagrams were almost always the book’s biggest “no way?!” moments.

However, as well as greatly enjoying the book, and coming out of it feeling like I’d learned heaps, I also felt deeply troubled by it. In chapter after chapter, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between Gladwell’s examples of “lucky” (as opposed to “gifted”) or “disadvantaged” people and scenarios, and my own experiences both as a student and a teacher in the UK education system. Gladwell points out perceptively and highly persuasively the ways in which seemingly minor idiosyncracies of a country’s bureaucratic policy or national psyche can make huge differences to the ways in which different people within that country behave and progress. And although he drew largely on examples from Canada, North America and Asia in his exploration of these concepts, I feel like Outliers might have a lot to tell us about the way we talk to, think about and educate our kids here in Scotland.

I daresay you’re raising a skeptical eyebrow right now, but hopefully you’re still with me.

Gladwell talks about Canadian all-star hockey players (I’ll try and chop the entire chapter he devotes to a phenomenon called relative age advantage down as much as possible). Basically, if you want to be a famous hockey player in Canada, you have to start as a kid and work your way up through various club leagues, and your eligibility for these is based on your age. All the recognised clubs set their age eligibility cut-off date at January 1st. Gladwell argues, examining various jaw-droppingly convincing studies as he goes, that this gives a huge advantage to players born at the start of the year. After all, he says, if you’re born in early January, you have the advantage of eleven months’ emotional and physical growth over your team mate who was born in December. And when you’re a six-year-old, that means a hell of a lot. The stronger and more mature kids get picked for extra coaching, and progress through the ranks and leagues. The effect is cumulative, and the result is that the vast majority of star adult hockey players in Canada were born between early January and late March.

It’s not a great leap, then, to the Scottish education system, whose age eligibility cut-off is the end of February, as opposed to the beginning of August or September in England. I began my primary school education in England. I was born on March 10th, and was among the younger kids in my class group. My sister Helen, who was born in late January, was two years below me and smack-bang in the middle of her class group. We both performed at a level best described as “OK” academically, but I did not get on at all well socially. Helen was a fabulous mover-and-shaker, loved by all. I was — and to an extent, still am — chronically terrible at forming platonic relationships.
When I was eight, my family moved to Scotland. Because of the change in eligibility cut-off date, I went from being one of the youngest in my class group to the very oldest. My sister went from being right in the middle of her year, age-wise, to being the very youngest. The cut-off date also meant that we ended up only one academic year apart from one another — we went from Year 3 and Year 1 respectively to Primary 4 and Primary 3.
And something weird happened: I shot to the top of my class. Suddenly, I was outperforming everyone else in my year group. Helen, meanwhile, began to suffer academically. Concerns were raised by some teachers about her “bad” spelling and daydreamy manner in classes. Within one academic year we went from being pretty similar in our academic performances to being at opposite ends of the scale.

People have offered various explanations for this. I’m a classic first child, Helen is a classic second child, for example. I’m more like my maternal family, the Robinsons — self-confident and unapologetic (so, successful but not very likeable) — while Helen is more like our paternal family, the Askews — quieter and more introspective. It’s even been suggested that it’s down to me being a Piscean and Helen being a Capricorn-Aquarius cusp child. However, reading Outliers has made me think: wait a second. Is this actually all about totally arbitrary school year eligibility start dates?

If it is, the implications are serious. It’s not just a case of “hey, that’s weird, isn’t it?” Follow Helen and I through the rest of our compulsory education: after my rocky first few years I stormed through school. At Standard Grade I got seven Grade 1s and one Grade 2 (Maths, which I hated with a passion). At Higher I got five As and as a result, unconditional offers to study English Literature at five of my six chosen universities, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Newcastle, Manchester and Liverpool. (The one who turned me down was York, but that may have had something to do with the fact that the course I applied for, English and Writing for Media, took only 20 students per academic year). Helen got a mixed bag of 1, 2 and 3 results in her Standard Grades, and at Higher her results were ABCCC. She originally applied to study Drama after school, but after getting called for some auditions, decided she couldn’t hack the snotty theatrical types. She ended up getting into Carlisle Institute of the Arts (now part of the University of Cumbria) to do a Foundation Degree in Fine Art via clearing.

Follow us even further, to the present day. I have a MA, a MSc that I won a scholarship to study, and I am about to graduate with a PhD at the age of 26. I work as a lecturer for the largest Further Education college in Edinburgh, as well as tutoring at my alma mater. I’m also a published writer.
Helen has completed a BTEC in Art and Design, a year out working in a kilt store and a hard-won BA in Graphic Design. She currently works part time in Paperchase.

Why am I writing this? Do I hate my sister and want to humiliate her, and have a good brag about my own abilities? Absolutely not. I’m one of those sickening people who thinks of their sibling as their best friend — she is the person who means the most to me in the whole world. Nope, I’m writing this because, as a result of reading Outliers, I’ve begun to think that maybe I am not as “academically gifted” as all my school reports would have had my parents and I believe, and that maybe Helen is not the “supermassive failure” she is sometimes wont to apologise for (don’t worry, I always tell her to shut the hell up).

The whole point of Gladwell’s book is to point out that actually, there is no such thing as “gifted”. There is only lucky versus unlucky. He talks at length about the cumulative nature of advantages — that once a person gains an advantage over their peers, they are thrown into the path of further advantages, while those same advantages slip further and further our of reach for the folk who didn’t get that first, minor boost. Helen and I are a great example of that. I genuinely believe that I am no more “smart” or “intelligent” or “gifted” than she is. She knows a hell of a lot about stuff that I’m clueless about. She can hold her own in a fierce intellectual debate much better than I can (I have a tendency to get cross). She is still far and away better at forming platonic relationships and handling social situations than I am. If anything, she is far more confident — she’s also a realist, where I’m a dreamer and a procrastinator. Her vocabulary is every bit as varied as mine. Helen and I had an identical start in life, outside of education, and I’ve often wondered why our paths have been so very different. Now I’m left wondering if getting bumped to the top of my year age-wise gave me the academic boost I needed to get good grades in high school, which in turn opened up better opportunities for me in the worlds of employment and post-compulsory education. Helen, meanwhile, seemingly took a step backward with the change in cut-off date — suddenly her supposedly “bad” spelling was being compared to the performance of kids almost twelve months her senior. At the age of just six years old, Helen was being given messages of “you’re not good enough” by her teachers. I’m no child psychologist, but what kind of snowball effect could that potentially set in motion?

Malcolm Gladwell points out that if there were two cut-off dates for kid hockey players, one in January and one in June, Canada would have twice the number of all-star adult hockey players; that, or the birth months of those who made it to the big leagues would be much more diverse. “Hey, how weird,” we say, and close the book and think about other things. It’s just hockey, after all (OK sorry, I know that’s blasphemy to a Canadian). But what about our education system? The principle is the same, and if my experiences are anything to go by, the result is the same too. Therefore, the way our education system is organised is instrinsically unfair. Yes, in Scotland parents have the opportunity to defer younger kids from starting school for a year if they feel they’re not ready, and yes, there’s always the opportunity for your child to repeat or “stay back” a year if their young age is seen to be a problem. But how often is age identified as the cause of a child’s difficulties? How often do parents and teachers alike just assume that the kid in question is “just a classic second child”, or “just more like their dad”, or “just a typical Aquarius” (gah!), or hey, “maybe they’re just Not That Bright”? Furthermore, what parent wouldn’t hesitate before keeping their kid back a year? What might that do to the socialisation of a child — after all, some of the fiercest friendships you ever see are between individuals under the age of ten?

I shudder to think about how many kids are potentially losing out on academic (and other) opportunities because of something as arbitrary as their birth date. Particularly when I think that my sister might be carrying the legacy of this bureaucratic quirk in the system around with her for her entire adult life. That is damn scary.

(Photo by hyfen)