FICTION//Gather the Daughters- Jennie Melamed*

Gather the Daughters (May):  Sometimes, a book seems to just capture the mood and Gather the Daughters feels like one of those books. It’s a book that’s unnerving and hard to pin down, but one that feels relevant right now- a gripping cross between The Handmaid’s Tale and Lord of the Flies, but with elements of the paranoia of The Hunger Games too.

A religious society lives on an isolated island, controlled by a group of men known as wanderers; these men are the only ones allowed to leave the island, to visit a place known as the wastelands- a place destroyed by war, disease and environmental disaster. Cut off from the world, the women on the island suffer a hard life as secondary subjects, brought up to be obedient from birth, pliant and available as wives, as taught by the ‘ancestors’, using biblical rhetoric to control the small population.

People are only allowed to have two children and are  Children are allowed to run feral in the summer and young women marry at the end of their ‘summer of fruition’, after their period. This way of life remains largely unchallenged until one of the girls witnesses a catastrophic event as her summer comes to a close, which leads ultimately to large scale rebellion.

The novel is told through the eyes of various women on the island: Amanda, a young woman pregnant with her first child; Vanessa, the intelligent daughter of one of the wanderers; Caitlin, an abused daughter of one of the few families to migrate to the island in recent times; and Janey, a rebel against the restrictive life prescribed to her. Through these narrations, we become aware of the disturbing lives these young women lead (at one point, it dawned on me that the girls are expected to do something pretty horrifying from a young age- it kind of creeps up on you.) It’s a claustrophobic atmosphere that not only shows horrendous oppression but also the enormous strength women can have in such situations- and the amazing defiance of young girls.

I found the novel quite similar to Station Eleven, even down to its ambiguous ending (how I would love to read a sequel!) but it’s also one that has stayed with me. Although not clear when the novel is set, it has the feeling of a dystopia that’s all the more scary for feeling quite possible.

NON-FICTION//Animal- Sara Pascoe

Animal: The Autobiography of a Female Body (May):  I like Sara Pascoe, but I’ve been a bit wary of this kind of book- there seems to have been a trend started by Caitlin Moran and it’s one that can be a bit hit and miss. However, a few people had recommended this to me, so I duly reserved it from the library.

This is a book that’s part memoir, part feminist manifesto and part scientific exploration of what it’s like to live in a female body. The book is split into three parts: love, body and consent, and Pascoe deals with each in a funny, frank way. One friend told me that she found the audiobook difficult and I can see this- there are lots of asides and footnotes that probably don’t translate well off the page. On the page, however, these mostly work well, although sometimes it did feel a little like overkill.

I found the science fascinating; Pascoe describes how our modern behaviour has evolved from essentially needing a mate and protection in the early evolution of humans and how this has been manipulated to essentially suit the needs of men. She also skillfully weaves in stories from her life- the breakup of her parents, an abortion on her 17th birthday, how she reacts in relationships. Rather than feeling heavy handed or easily dismissed, they make sense within the structure of the book. Throughout Pascoe is likeable and chatty- as if you’re having a conversation with a mate down a pub (albeit a mate who likes to burst into impromptu sketches every now and then.)

 

FEMINISM//Dear Ijeawele, or a feminist manifesto in fifteen suggestions- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Dear Ijeawele: Or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions (May):  It’s no secret that I’m a huge Adichie fan and I was very pleased when Benn took my hints and bought this for me for my birthday. It’s a slim book, but it offers many things.

Asked by a friend for advice about how to raise her newborn daughter as a feminist, Adichie wrote her a long, detailed letter that became this book. It’s a funny, honest little book which shines with a love for girls and women and the desire that they soar in a world that can seem harsh and dangerous. I found myself nodding along as I devoured the whole thing in an afternoon- there is so much good sense in it.

Although there’s humour and grace, it contains some deep messages. Some we’ll be familiar with- let girls choose what they like at the toy shop, regardless of whether it’s marketed at boys or girls; teach them to value themselves and be careful of the language we use when talking about genders. Adichie also touches on race and what it is to be a Nigerian woman in the modern world.

This is a book that has good advice for all of us, not just mothers (and not just mothers of girls.) We could start changing the world by reading more books like this.

ESSAYS//Nasty Women- A collection of essays and accounts on what it is to be a women in the 21st century

Nasty Women by 404 Ink (Editor) | A Collection of Essays + Accounts On What It Is To Be A Woman In The 21st Century:  I was so excited when this collection was announced; I think I pledged to the Kickstarter campaign within the first two days (and I’m not going to lie,  it is quite thrilling to see your name in the back of a book with people that you know and authors you admire.) A collection of essays that explores different areas of feminism and life as a woman, this is one of those books that felt sorely needed  in the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump and the uncertainty of the impact of Brexit.

The collection of essays is pretty varied and I would say that most women will identify with at least something in the collection. For me, it was Laura Waddell’s essay about working class girls and their representation, which spoke to me about my very working class childhood and adolescence (and the prejudice I still experience today because of the sound of my voice or the after-effects of my northern, working class background- even at the age of 33), or Becca Inglis’ ‘Love in the Time of Melancholia’, which explores the legacy of one of my teenage idols, Courtney Love.

But my eyes were opened up, too, to the issues facing the LGBTQ community and women of colour, of the limbo in which society places those considered ‘other’ or ‘different’, and how this is currently going through a period of change, and often not a positive one. It is important, this book is saying, that we work together and embrace each other if we want to affect change in a scary world.

One of my favourite essays were Laura Lam’s exploration of the generations of women in her family and the trauma that echoes through the years, which she and her mother are working to heal. Another, Zeba Talkhani’s ‘The Difficulty of Being Good’, explores the way in which she has navigated societal expectations of Muslim women in different countries and how this has helped her discover her own sense of self and acceptance of who she is. Both are beautiful essays touching on very different subjects; both made me feel that I had read something profoundly moving and important.

As it is, I have already bought another copy of the book for a friend. She’s busy and doesn’t get to read much, so I’m hoping she can dip in and out of the essays as and when she has time. I hope she finds something of comfort and anger in there, too.

FEMINISM//Girls Will Be Girls- Emer O’Toole

Girls Will Be Girls (Mar):  Being a woman is a bit of a performance, isn’t it? Whether it’s debating how much makeup is acceptable for work, or pretending that you’re super confident as you walk home from work at night, keys tucked between fingers, there is a degree of ‘fake it til you make it’ in everyday life as a woman. It’s something we’ve been conditioned to and something that we talk to each other about.

Emer O’Toole is interested in this performance and what it means to us; her area of interest is the theatre and this book reads as part-memoir of growing up in Galway and part-exploration of how women are shaped by society. O’Toole writes about Halloween as an example. For years, she’d dressed up as ‘sexy’ characters, but one year decided to dress as a boy. She details how she felt physically and also how the men and women around her responded differently- women found her attractive, men found her threatening. It’s an interesting lesson on how our identity and the expectations of it are shaped by society.

Is there a lot new here? Maybe not. If you’re familiar with the work of Judith Butler and gender as performance, some of those ideas are challenged and expanded, but I think the book’s main selling point is as a coming-of-age story of O’Toole’s expanding feminism and acceptance of herself, her identity and her sexuality.

ESSAYS//The Good Immigrant- ed. Nikesh Shukla

The Good Immigrant (Mar): I’ve wanted to read this for ages and was very pleased when it finally arrived at the library. I love essays and I have been trying to expand my world-view in light of the recent political landscape. One of the ways I became acutely aware of how things were shifting was through the conversations I was having with my students. I am incredibly privileged to work with kids from a huge variety of backgrounds (in my school we have a noticeboard that shows all the languages spoken by the students- there are about 35 in total.) I listened to their fears and how they saw themselves being treated, first after Brexit (I teach in a town which voted to leave) and later, post-Trump.
This book really should be in every secondary school library. The stories contained within it are important and reflective of a society that we may not recognise initially- many of us do not have to go through life worrying about the way our hair or our skin colour or religion affects the way the world sees us. Sex, death, culture, femininity and masculinity, fashion,the importance of representation across all areas of life, as well as the importance of the language we use is all covered here and I devoured every page.
I loved Bim Adewunmi’s exploration of pop culture , ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Tokenism’ and Nish Kumar’s exploration of his feelings after he became a meme in ‘Is Nish Kumar a Confused Muslim?’ Another standout piece for me was ‘Cutting Through (On Black Barbershops and Masculinity)’, where poet Inua Ellams travels around Africa exploring what it means to be a man in different countries. Kieran Yates’ piece ‘On Going Home’ explores the culture shock- not only from country to country, but also city to city when she visits family in India.
Riz Ahmed’s piece about airport security and performance, ‘Airports and Auditions’, has rightly received a lot of attention for its humour and blistering anger and it is one of the best pieces in the book. I also enjoyed Selena Godden’s essay ‘Shade’, which explores being ‘other’ in a society that doesn’t quite know how to deal with those who might be seen as ‘outsiders’.
The essay that spoke to me the most, though, was Darren Chetty’s ‘You Can’t Say That! Stories Have To Be About White People.’ As a teacher, Chetty found that pupils wrote stories from the perspective of white characters, regardless of ethnicity. As I read this, I realised that this was often true of my own students. As a result, I have gone away and thought about how I can encourage my students to see themselves in the world and in their work. And then I hope they can change the world for the better.
Everyone should read this book. Everyone.

FICTION//The Power- Naomi Alderman

The Power (Hardback)

Imagine, if you will, that thanks to a biological anomaly, women discover they have the ability to produce electricity. At first it’s a novelty, something that fascinates society. But then it becomes scary; girls and women start using the power against men and boys and world order is freaked out and threatened. There are protests and laws passed in order to curb the women, but they keep getting stronger and stronger. Men feel threatened. The world is turned on its head and, eventually, women become the ‘stronger sex’.

This is the story told in The Power, a futuristic feminist dystopian novel in the tradition of books such as The Handmaid’s Tale and Only Ever Yours. The world is seen through the eyes of some of the women: a religious mystic, a gangster’s daughter, a politician and her daughter; as well as from the viewpoint of a young male reporter who has documented the rise of the power and the overthrow of centuries of cultural realities. And, like a patriarchal society, this new world order does have problems. Resentment breeds terrorism. People get out of control. One of the most shocking incidents in the book is a scene in which there are war crimes committed against the most vulnerable. There’s no way that the writer of Zombies, Run would allow her creation to be a Utopia.

I think I read this book at the right time: we’re living in an age where politicians are threatening to roll back hard-won rights for women and we have a president in the White House who is considering all kinds of problematic policies relating to reproductive rights. Women are marching and making their voices heard (albeit without using electric shocks). It’s tempting to think about what would happen if a woman was in the White House, if for whatever reason, patriarchal society was turned on its head. One of the things Naomi Alderman’s work does for me is that it makes me think very hard about what I would do in certain situations (I am still plotting how I would survive the zombie apocalypse and I haven’t played Zombies, Run in ages. My answer would be: I’d survive on nettles and other bits that grow near by; offer my knitting skills to make socks for those more equipped for fighting; loot other people’s houses/Waterstones for books at the first chance. I’d probably not survive long, to be honest.)

But what would I do if I suddenly came to possess a strange new power? Would it alienate me from my husband and son? Would I use it for good? I honestly don’t know. But I do know that I am watching the world with bated breath and I just can’t get this novel out of my head at all.