Posts Tagged ‘non fiction’

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
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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!

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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
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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)


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I wrote some stuff you might like to read.

Saturday, December 22nd, 2012

My review of Kerry Hardie

So, I mentioned last week that I wrote a review of Kerry Hardie’s most recent collection, The Oak & The Ash & The Wild Cherry Tree for The Edinburgh Review Issue 136. You can now buy the issue online! BUT, you can also read my review free and gratis — the folks at Gallery Press liked it so much that they put it on their website. Thanks folks!

The UFOlogists podcast

You may also remember me writing a few weeks ago about the launch of sci-fi poetry anthology Where Rockets Burn Through: Contemporary Science Fiction Poems From The UK? I was super-chuffed to have three poems in it, and I’m even more super-chuffed that the folks over at Nature picked one of them to go in their “Where Rockets Burn Through” podcast this week. Thanks again!


Aaaand this is a bit of a scary one, but I am proud of myself for writing it and chuffed that it was published at xoJane, which is rapidly becoming one of my all-time favourite sites. I’ve written here before (but then destroyed the link in post-publication-panic) about my teenage struggles with a rather extreme form of thanatophobia. It seemed pertinent to write about it in a rather more serious way, given the recent OBSESSIVE APOCALYPSE HYPE that I’m sure you’ve all noticed. Of course, the world didn’t end yesterday — hooray! But I wanted to draw attention to this anyway. And for the first time ever, I connected to a fellow thanatophobia sufferer (in the comments), so double hooray!

Happy holidays!


You can also visit Read This Press for 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!

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 #25: to read in 2011

Thursday, January 6th, 2011

Reminder / Scatter-brained [43/365]
Not stuff I am reading right now (because honestly, you just don’t want to know…), but stuff on my to-read list for 2011…


Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Suzanna Clarke
I really should have read this book before. It ticks all my usual boxes — I love magic realism, I love literary pastiche and I love anything that Neil Gaiman loves. However, this one kind of passed me by when it first appeared — I remember seeing it in the window of every Waterstones in the land, but I didn’t really pay attention. Happily, The Lovely Boyfriend not only informed me of its fabulousness, but was good enough to buy me a beautiful edition of it (black-edged pages, oh my goodness) for Christmas. I’m just trying to ignore the many times I’ve heard it referred to as “Harry Potter for grownups”.

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman
I’ve been excited to read this book since before it was published. No, I haven’t read the His Dark Materials books and yes, I know they’re freaking amazing and my life has been a waste thus far for not reading them. They too have been on the to-read list since forever, but… I just can’t get that wound up about them, to be honest. This book, on the other hand, is a totally different story. I waited very impatiently for it to come out in paperback (not that I don’t like hardbacks, you just can’t crease the spines as easily, and everyone knows I like a book to look lived in), and now I’m having to wait very impatiently to have the time to read it. If the bun-fight in this book’s Amazon reviews is anything to go by, it’s going to be very interesting indeed…

Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
If you’ve been here any length of time you’ll know that I am a massive Atwood fangirl, and have been for a long time (how big a fangirl I hear you ask? The other night I found myself defending the idea of, in the dim and distant future, potentially naming my first son Atwood. That big). I wrote my Higher English personal study paper on Lady Oracle, and my Advanced Higher English dissertation on The Blind Assassin. I am now writing a PhD thesis, the cornerstone of which is Atwood’s Negotiating With The Dead lectures. I really, really love me some Margaret Atwood. And I am a very lucky lady, because for Christmas this year I was gifted beautiful hardback editions of both these books — one of which was also signed and from a limited run of 1000 copies. Whether I can actually bring myself to pick these books up and sully their gorgeousness by reading them remains to be seen, but I have been wanting to read both for a very long time.


Hard Ground by Michael O’ Brien and Tom Waits
Cue more fangirling: there are not words for how much I love Tom Waits. When I heard he was bringing out a poetry collection, I immediately assumed it must be a lie — for years Waits has shunned the title “poet”, describing it as “a dangerous word” and refusing to acknowledge that tracks like the fantastic 9th and Hennepin are in fact, more spoken word than song. However, here it is — a book that contains poems written by Tom Waits. It’s not available until March, but naturally, my copy is already pre-ordered, and I am counting down the days. I’m very interested to see if the man is as much of a genius on paper as he is elsewhere…

Here Comes The Night by Alan Gillis
I had a really, really good Christmas on the books front, as you’ve probably already gathered. Also in my Christmas stocking this year was Alan Gillis’ latest collection, which looks even weirder and more wonderful than the last two. I’m possibly a tad biased here, because Alan is my PhD supervisor, but he’s also a fabulous poet and moreover, a fabulous bloke. His poems are genuinely unique — I have never come across anything quite like them. They’re also brilliant — so often reading Alan’s work I find myself thinking “I wish I’d thought of that first.” I’m a particular fan of his second collection, Hawks and Doves, which was shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize a couple of years back, so I’m very excited to read this follow-up.


Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women by Susan Faludi
Of late, I have become very, very interested in feminism. Writing a PhD about contemporary female writers will do that to you, it seems — I never wanted to write about feminist theory, but it kind of became necessary, and then after a while it became really, really interesting, and then before I knew it, it had kind of changed the entire direction of my thesis. I’m now an avid reader of numerous feminist blogs — which I generally prefer to books on the subject, as they’re more immediate and less absolute — including Shakesville (which you’ve doubtless seen me praise to the skies here before), Feminisnt and Tiger Beatdown (NB: all potentially NSFW), and it’s become a topic that I regularly trip out in order to bore people at house parties. Backlash is one of those books that’s still talked about and referred to constantly, in spite of its age — it really is a definitive text on the subject, it seems. I’ve managed to acquire a very beautiful shocking pink paperback edition and its violent pink and black cover yells at me every time I look at my bookshelf. Time to read it already, methinks.

Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism by Natasha Walter
A newer book, this, but one that’s already being touted as definitive and very important. Less a specifically feminist book and more a general social commentary (it seems), Walter is interested specifically in the way traditional female gender roles have been re-packaged in order to make women look empowered — the new ways in which women are pressured and pigeonholed and the repurcussions of this process on girls and young women. Having recently discovered and been blown away by Jean Kilbourne’s Killing Us Softly III: Advertising’s Image of Women lectures, I am very keen to read more on the subject. I know this book is hot property right now, so if anyone else has read it I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts!

What are you hoping to read in 2011?

(Photo by cathdrwg)

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