NON-FICTION//Letters From the Suitcase- edited by Rosheen and Cal Finnigan*

Letters From The Suitcase (Jun) This is one of those books that I probably would never have picked up, but-oh!- I’m so grateful I was sent it. I always forget how much I enjoy collections of letters  and I enjoyed this collection very much.

Mary Moss and David Francis met in 1938 and fell in love almost instantly; the book is a collection of letters written by them to each other over the course of seven years. Two young people, from completely different backgrounds, desperate to be together but separated by war, poured their hearts out on paper. It’s a moving collection of letters that’s full of humour, frustration and utter, all-consuming love. I was also surprised at the modern tone of the letters- we tend to think of the 1930s/40s as being completely different to now, but here the couple write in a way that we would recognise: they call each other ‘honey’ and early on Mary hints at a pre-marriage pregnancy scare. Later, after their daughter Rosheen arrives, the parental pride is touching and the concerns that Mary has seem very similar to some of those I have for my own son now.

As war makes the separation deeper and longer, Mary’s descent into depression and David’s war work colours the letters. It’s a fascinating look at the way that war affected those working for the Allies (David works on high level projects and is posted to Africa and, later, India, where he would die of smallpox) and those left at home in a terrible limbo. The longing that permeates the pages is moving and heartbreaking. Little in-jokes, film reviews, the excitement over a Russian red winter coat, David asking Mary what he can send her as a treat- all these things help the reader see inside the marriage and feel sadness as it becomes apparent that the story does not have a happy ending.

After David’s death, Mary hid the correspondence in a suitcase in the attic, only to reveal to Rosheen that they were there. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to discover a cache of letters from a father you knew very little about- but I’m so glad that they have been published.

BIOGRAPHY//The Rival Queens- Nancy Goldstone

The Rival Queens: Catherine De' Medici, Her Daughter Marguerite De Valois, and the Betrayal That Ignited a Kingdom (May):

It’s a rare thing for me to read historical biographies these days, but once upon a time these were my bread and butter. So much, in fact, that I once wrote about how difficult I found reading novels. Thankfully, my reading diet is a bit more balanced these days- but I do still love a biography of scandalous and/or outrageous women from history.  And I’ve always enjoyed reading about the French court, an obsession that’s been fuelled by my unashamed obsession with Versailles. However,  the events in Rival Queens happen the century before the glory of the Sun King (I recommend Antonia Fraser’s excellent biography of him, by the way) and focuses on another colossal figure from French royal history- Catherine de’ Medici.

Catherine was ruthless, especially when it came to protecting her power and her favourite son. The mother of three kings of France, she was a complex woman and one who would stop at nothing to ensure she maintained her grip on the throne. Unfortunately, this involved regularly throwing her children, particularly Marguerite and Francois, under whatever the sixteenth century equivalent of a bus would have been. She was not a nice woman, but then maybe it’s wrong to expect that she would be. You have to make hard decisions when you’re in charge of a nation state, I guess. Goldstone examines Catherine’s life as it entwines with that of her children, especially her youngest daughter, the feisty and rather wonderful Marguerite de Navarre (who is now my new favourite person.)

After being forced into a marriage with a man she didn’t particularly like, who was of the wrong religion, who apparently smelled permanently of garlic and who made no secret of his mistresses, Marguerite not only saved his life THREE TIMES, she also became a force to be reckoned with in her own right. As queen of Navarre, she took on her formidable mother and spoilt elder brothers with aplomb. Despite tragedy, imprisonment, a loveless marriage and a quite frankly horrendous family background, Marguerite’s humour shines through in the memoirs she left behind and that are quoted from here.

This is a biography with humour and wit within in. It’s not a dusty, dry book at all (some of the footnotes are knowing and wry) and Goldstone allows Marguerite’s voice to shine through; her historical personality is one of a silly woman led mainly by love (a similar fate to that of her long-suffering, one-time sister-in-law, Mary, Queen of Scots) and there is a clear attempt here to rescue her from this representation. I’m not sure how Catherine can be rehabilitated; indeed, her reputation seems to be going backwards as her daughter’s moves forward. She comes across here as an indecisive, untrustworthy and manipulative woman in thrall only to power and her favourite sons.

The only gripe I have about this book is that the illustration plates were shockingly pixellated, which is not cool. I like to actually see the faces of the people I’m reading about. However, this is a minor issue and should not put you off reading one of the most readable and accessible biographies I’ve read in years.

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.

NATURE//Foxes Unearthed: A Tale of Love and Loathing in Modern Britain- Lucy Jones

Foxes Unearthed: A Story of Love and Loathing in Modern Britain (Apr):  I love foxes; I always have. I think is especially because I grew up in inner city Leeds and, alongside the magpies, starlings and sparrows, they were often the only ‘natural’ thing I came into contact with as a kid. Inner city kids tend to have a distrust of anything to do with nature, but I was interested in animals and flowers at an early-ish age, even if I didn’t know what to do or how to do it. I just knew I liked foxes. Even now I wear a silver fox pendant everyday. I’m disappointed by the fact that, even though I live (literally) on the edge of the woods, I’ve only ever seen one mangy fox in our garden in the three years we’ve been here.

Of course I was drawn to this book- not only was it on a topic dear to me, but LOOK AT IT. Isn’t it beautiful? I’d love a print of this fox on my wall.

The book is an exploration of foxes in British life- how historically they’ve been viewed by us, right through to their redemption via Fantastic Mr Fox and Springwatch and then through vilification by tabloids (‘Foxes bit my baby!’) and the pro-hunting lobby. As a result, Jones speaks to a variety of people from all sides of the debate; Chris Packham is entertaining.

I was fascinated by the way Jones was treated by the different factions- welcomed by hunt saboteurs, shunned by the hunters (despite being from a family with hunting connections) and accompanying a city pest controller. She manages to present all of these differing views in a fair, balanced way- although I came away depressed that what with politics as they are, we’re probably very likely to see a re-introduction to legal hunts; I’m pretty sure there are illegal hunts and, even though in this book there are stats that show that evidence that hunts help farmers is somewhat sketchy. I was also interested in the idea that if we were to eradicate foxes, we’d have a bigger problem with rats and mice, so it’s kind of swings and roundabouts.

The overriding message, though, is one of fascination and-maybe- even love. Yes, they’re a pain sometimes, but foxes are remarkable animals; Britain’s last large predator and one of its most adaptable native species, it seems like the fox is here for the time being at least.

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.