My friend Ian recently complained that I don’t update this blog enough.* ‘I’m waiting to write something new or read something somewhere,’ I replied, referring to my short stories. He said he thought that by ‘reading’ I would be ‘writing about what you’ve read – the papers and stuff’. He was joking, of course.
But as I recently contributed to For Books’ Sake’s book of the year feature I had to think about what I’ve read this year, and although I still feel a bit guilty that I haven’t delved into a 1000-word history of the military, or something slender on fiscal policy, I haven’t done badly.
When thinking about what I wanted to choose as my favourite book I felt that I should honour the ethos of For Books’ Sake by at least picking something by a woman (even though the novel that’s had the biggest effect on me this year was written by a man**). Likewise, my friend and fellow For Books’ Sake contributor, Amanda, said: ‘I feel like I should choose something by a woman, but my favourite book by a woman this year was a cookery book. That seems a little anti-feminist.’ Then she remembered that she’d read and loved Tina Fey’s autobiography, so she picked that. What she had in store for her accompanying photo still makes me laugh. I hope she gets round to it.
I recently had a conversation with a male friend about how few women authors we read in general and when I tried to list mine for the year I stalled at 5. But a memory less addled with the Norwegian beer that fuelled our conversation reveals that I’ve actually done much better than that, and For Books’ Sake gently jogged my memory:
Aside from Patti Smith’s amazing Just Kids, which I chose for my book of the year, here they are, neurotically and obsessively in order of reading:
Alice Munro: Too Much Happiness.The most recent collection of short stories from one of the modern greats. She writes efficiently and with insight, whether from the point of view of old age or youth, men or women. Some of her stories span decades in the lives of characters in just a few pages, and she is able to tell you who someone is, what they are now, and how they got that way, in witty, moving and incisive prose. One of the stories in particular (Child’s Play; terribly unsubtle title for a beautifully subtle piece of work) affected me on many levels, not least because I’m always fascinated by how the acts we perform or witness as children haunt our adult lives, and this resonates in my own writing.
Sylvia Plath: Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams and Selected Journal Entries. Not a cohesive collection by any means, but there are a couple of stand-out stories, and the journal entries give some fascinating insight into Plath’s mindset. She wasn’t always that cheerful, it seems…
Kate Atkinson: Started Early, Took My Dog. Great title for the 4th Jackson Brodie novel. Not as gripping or heartbreaking as When Will There Be Good News? but still a great read. Atkinson makes a seemingly implausible premise plausible by building a strong central character in the independent heroine, Tracy.
Tina Fey: Bossypants. Very funny, of course, because Fey is the writer behind 30 Rock (sample line: ‘When will science find a cure for a woman’s mouth?’). Surprisingly moving. But she fudges the working mother issue in a way that surprised me. And the cover makes me feel slightly ill.
Lorrie Moore: Anagrams and Selected Stories. Anagrams consists of four stories, each of which takes the same characters in different directions, and it’s an interesting and mostly successful literary game. The Selected Stories are pretty mesmerising. She doesn’t affect me in quite the same way as Munro, but Moore still knows how to cut into contemporary American life to show what it looks like up close. Reading her smart and knowing dissections of relationships at Athens airport in April inspired me to start the story that became ‘Cos You’re Mine.
Margaret Atwood: The Blind Assassin. I can’t believe I only discovered this book this year. A bible-sized chunk of a novel, the kind of thing that makes you go to bed at 9pm, just so you can read for several hours before sleep. And this I did. I also read it on the train, I read it in the bath, I read it instead of watching my Catch-up TV quota. That’s how much I couldn’t put it down. If I could have read it during office hours I would have done that too. But it’s frowned upon where I work. They prefer you to do your job.
Ali Smith: There But For The. At Clerkenwell Tales in Exmouth Market, Sophie Mayer interviewed Smith, who read from There But For The, before getting Sophie to read some of her own poems. After Sophie introduced me to Smith as ‘a fabulous short story writer’ (still dining out on that one) and Smith asked me what I was reading, we got onto the subject of Margaret Atwood (I’d just read The Blind Assassin). ‘If they have her short stories in this shop now I’ll buy them for you,’ Smith said. I tried to be bashful (‘Oh no, don’t be silly, you don’t have to do that…’). But while I said this I glanced casually over Smith’s shoulder towards the shelf of authors beginning with A. No Atwood short stories. So I didn’t get a free book, but I did buy There But For The, got it signed and had an inspiring conversation with the author. As for the book itself: great. Sparked off by events at a middle-class dinner party when a guest locks himself in a bedroom and refuses to leave, the book is a funny, smart and perceptive mediation on class, memory, history and time. And Smith knows how to wrangle several different voices at once without losing the reader: everyone will bang on about the dinner party scene itself (rightly so) but I found myself bewitched by Anna and Brooke and the way their personalities and experiences are woven into the main story arc. Just lovely.
Muriel Spark: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Never seen the film, but knew the gist. Unexpectedly moving and dark and funny. Has more insightful stuff to say about a certain kind of ‘being a woman’ than Caitlin Moran (see below). Thanks Dom, for the recommendation (and the loan).
Caitlin Moran: How to be a Woman. I borrowed this from my friend Lucy for something to read by the pool in Puerta de la Cruz. My own choice (Brave New World) had too much maths in its opening pages and I wanted something lighter. Reading this reminded me of how annoying I used to find Moran when I read her in the music press in the early 1990s. This book made me splutter with indignation and occasional fury at the inconsistency of her arguments, but it did have moments that made me laugh (baby gap, heh heh). Her ‘burlesque is better than stripping’ debate was a naive attempt to explain why it’s ok to enjoy watching women shake their nipple tassles for the boys in some situations but not others (it’s still the dirty mac, brigade, love; it’s just that the macs worn by the burlesque audience are Burberry), and her justification for hiring a female cleaner was asinine (surely it’s ok just to say ‘I have a job. I have two kids. When I’m not working at my job or my kids I don’t have the time or the inclination to clean the toilet. And, more importantly, I’m giving a woman a job’?). But it was refreshing to see someone write so honestly and openly about abortion, masturbation and female pubic hair. No, really, it was. What was missing for me was any indication of how she made the apparently enormous leap from poverty-stricken Wolverhampton child to successful teenage music journalist. She skirts over that, and it might be inspirational to any teenage girl reading the book to know how Moran got where she did from where she came.
Anne Enright: The Gathering. I wanted to like this. I thought I would love it. Instead I found the story predictable, the characters unengaging and the writing uninspiring. That is all.
Diane Middlebrook: Her Husband. I’m ending the year with some non-fiction: an account of the marriage of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. It’s too early to say what my overall view will be, but so far it’s pretty interesting and manages to steer clear of too much dry academia. There are analyses of the poems that help to shed light on the work and lives of Plath and Hughes, and help to create an argument around the nature of their marriage.
No women authors lined up for next year as yet. Maybe that’s someone’s way of telling me to stop reading and start writing. Or something.
* This is probably just as well, seeing as how I keep finding grammatical errors in my posts. I think they’ve all been corrected but I assure you I feel nothing but shame. The worst (from November’s Are You Sitting Comfortably?) has now been corrected. I tend to spot them when I see that someone has read a post. I read it again, gasp with horror, think about contacting my friends (because after all, it’s bound to be someone I know) to tell them it’s fixed now, and sigh with relief that I’ve disabled the comments boxes….
** E. L. Doctorow’s Homer and Langley. I’m recommending this to so many people, he should give me a cut of the royalties.