Top 2017 reads so far

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Hello! It’s me, the worst blogger in the world!! Hope you’re doing well! Readingwise, 2017 has been a good year for me, and I thought I’d pop in and share some of my favourite books of the year so far. Which I guess is nearly over anyway (and thank goodness for that – I’m ready for Christmas and I’m ready for new things in 2018).

Anyway, here are my top picks, in no particular order. I’ll try not to be too spoilery.

 

Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the art of life by Samantha Ellis

As a big fan of biographies (especially those of the historic female kind), I adored this one about Anne, the forgotten Brontë sister. Samantha Ellis does a wonderful job of piecing together the story of her life and framing it around her relationships with others. This is a much-needed update and revision of previous work on the elusive Anne (which is often dismissive and sometimes harsh), and it strikes a nice balance between being academic and actually enjoyable. It’s definitely got me keen to delve into Anne’s novels as well, which I hadn’t really considered before as I didn’t know much about them.

 

The Power by Naomi Alderman

In Alderman’s universe, teenage girls are suddenly gifted with the power to hurt and even kill anyone who touches them. Almost overnight, human society undergoes a complete reversal as women are suddenly the ones with the power. It’s a fascinating story that had me cheering on the downtrodden female characters finally freed from oppression – until about halfway through, when things start to turn sour and we (re)learn that, inevitably, power corrupts whoever is wielding it. The book could probably be shorter – it gets a little slow in the middle – but it’s definitely worth trudging through to get to the killer ending. There’s a really interesting summary and interview with the author here too.

 

Girls will be Girls by Emer O’Toole

This is gender studies 101! If you’re finding yourself a bit confused by the different perspectives on gender and femininity you’re suddenly seeing online, this is the perfect book to get back to basics. Emer O’Toole does a really good job of breaking it down in an accessible way, and I love how she provides practical (and sometimes, dare I say it – fun) suggestions on exploring the way we perform gender. I think it’s critical we bring topics such as this one “down” from high-level academic theory and make them accessible without oversimplifying them, and this is something Emer O’Toole does very successfully. Read this one to learn, re-evaluate AND be entertained.

 

The Invisible Woman by Claire Tomalin

Another historic biography – of sorts. This is the fascinating story of Nelly Ternan, Charles Dickens’ mistress and sort-of-homewrecker. It’s one of the most interesting biographies I’ve read, because absolutely nothing written by Nelly herself has actually survived until the present day  (read: everything written by Nelly herself was destroyed before the present day). Claire Tomalin manages to trace the outline of her life through sources from others, and yet she herself remains a mysterious silhouette. She lived a life that was so shaped by circumstance, in which her own choices were so drastically limited, that it’s really very difficult to get a view of who she really was. I ripped through this one in a couple of days – it’s a fascinating study of history’s erasure of women, and it provides a very different perspective on Dickens himself as well.

 


So these are my top four. I’d love to hear what you loved reading in 2017! Leave a comment and let’s talk books!

The politics of princesses

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I finally got around to seeing Moana a few weeks ago, and I have to say I really enjoyed it (how good was that David Bowie disco crab?). I’ll always love a good Disney princess film – not for the humour or the songs or the magic, but for the politics.

In my mind, Disney princess movies are the perfect tool for measuring our progress in areas like representation and feminism. Because they’re mainstream, commercial and child-friendly, they provide a kind of overview of what’s considered acceptable in wider Western society at their particular time of production. We know that Disney doesn’t take risks. They’re not an indie film company looking to challenge our perceptions or tell the stories of those on the margins. They’re not going to make a film that might risk offending even the whitest of white bread families. What people let their children see is a pretty good indicator of what they think is ‘normal’ and ‘ok’ – so we can use this as a sort of yardstick to measure mainstream social progress.

If you look back at all the Disney princesses over the past few years (let’s say since 2009), you can really see the changing attitudes slowly, painstakingly coming into view (usually about 30 years after they were accepted by ‘alternative’ literature and cinema – as I mentioned in my post about reading women, Hollywood is possibly the most resistant industry to any kind of change). We start getting princesses of colour (Tiana from The Princess and the Frog),  heroines with agency (TangledBrave), female-centric narratives (also Brave), sensitive representation of different cultures (Moana), and a shift away from the focus on idealised romantic love and towards friendship and familial love (Maleficent, Frozen, Moana).

This brings me back to why I enjoyed Moana so much (spoilers, obviously): the heroine was played by an actual Polynesian woman and was three-dimensional, brave, and active in seeking out her own destiny; there was no love story whatsoever; and historians, linguists and leaders from a number of Islander nations were heavily involved in the film’s production. And let’s not forget that disco crab.

It isn’t perfect, but it shows that we’re (slowly) getting somewhere. And if nothing else, at least this generation of girls has more than a princess who does nothing but sleep for 100 years to admire.

The quiet rebellion of reading women

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While organising (and gloating over) the piles of to-read books by my bed the other day, I noticed something interesting: every single one of them was written by a woman.

It wasn’t by any design. While I’ve always been preoccupied with reading about the lives of women, I never actively set out to reject male authors. And yet all 13 of those stories waiting by my bed (I know, I know) were told by women – and all but one had a female protagonist. A closer look at my entire bookshelf confirmed the trend: I could count the male authors on one hand.

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This got me thinking about why I’ve always had a fascination with the female experience and the lives of women through history. Maybe it’s because, really, there’s still not enough of that sort of thing around. Maybe it’s because I could never understand myself through Shakespeare, Dickens, F. Scott Fitzgerald and J. D. Salinger – the headliners of my high school lit reading list. Maybe it’s because, frequently, men still insist on telling our stories for us – in art and in life. While literature has done a lot better than some other forms of media (looking at you, Hollywood), there’s still a long way to go.

I am proud that I read so many women. I may not have power or influence and I can’t put right the misogyny in the world, but I can make this small choice. I can read the stories of women – migrants, misfits, poets, artists, women of colour, Muslim women, LBQT+ women, rebels, game-changers, survivors. I can make a conscious effort to listen to the voices that the world tries to silence or ignore. Maybe it’s not much, but it’s my personal act of quiet rebellion.

 

(PS – I hope to post some reading lists for intersectional feminism/women in various genres at some point so look out for that.)

(PPS – feel free to add me on Goodreads! I love being nosy about what everyone else is reading…)