The delicacy and insight of a cat with its head stuck in a box

A Little Knowledge
by Emma Newman

This is the fourth book in the Split Worlds, a fantasy series that Newman started in 2013 with Between Two Thorns. This review may contain spoilers for the previous three books.

The story still centres on Cathy – one of the “fae-touched” humans, whose life is controlled by the Fae – and Max, whose job is to protect innocent humans from magical misdeeds, such as being disappeared. Cathy must now live in the Nether, a magical reflection of the human world, known as Mundanus. Though she theoretically inhabits a powerful position in fae-touched society, she is frustrated by the confines of an extremely patriarchal system. Her experience in Mundanus exposed her to feminism and women’s rights – thoroughly foreign concepts in the Nether. But the resistance to her proposed changes is so extreme that she wonders if something else is going on.

“It didn’t help that at social events she just wanted to sneak off and read a book, like she had as a child. Although Cathy understood that wasn’t possible anymore, it was too much of a leap to suddenly acquire all the social delicacy and insight now required of her. Cathy had the delicacy and insight of a cat with its head stuck in a box moving backwards to try and escape it, and she knew it.”

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Do not allow your mind to be imprisoned by majority thinking

Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers who Changed the World
by Rachel Ignotofsky

We tend to think that until the latter half of the 20th century, science was done by men. The history books and allocation of awards such as Nobel prizes strongly support that view. But in recent years a slew of books have begun to challenge that version of history. This is the first I’ve read but I’m keen to follow it up with Hidden Figures, The Glass Universe and others.

Ignotofsky both wrote and illustrated this beautiful book, profiling women scientists in a design-heavy layout that simply and effectively tells their stories.

From Hypatia (approx 350–415 AD) to Maryam Mirzakhani (1979–present), this book devotes a double-page spread each to women who have made significant advances in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). In each, the left-hand page is an illustration of the woman herself, with a few key facts floating around, while the right-hand page contains a bio of the woman and a few small, light-hearted illustrations. In every case there is a quote either by or about the woman, and these often reference being a woman in a man’s world.

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For what is lightness but inconsequence

aurora leighAurora Leigh
by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Yes, I read an epic poem, or novel in verse, and it wasn’t just to tick something off my Classics Club list. I really like Browning and had been meaning to read this for years.

Aurora Leigh is born in Italy but when her beloved parents die she is sent to England to be raised by her aunt. At every step she chooses her own way in a manner that to a modern reader might appear progressive and feminist. She is self-taught (aside from a few years when she is taught by her aunt) and chooses her career over a man; she argues for the contributions of women to the arts, and poetry in particular. From the day Aurora declines a marriage proposal because her suitor denigrates her chosen career and her gender, I was in love with her.

“We get no good / By being ungenerous, even to a book, / And calculating profits – so much help / By so much reading. It is rather when / We gloriously forget ourselves and plunge / Soul-forward, headlong, into a book’s profound, / Impassioned for its beauty and salt of truth – / ‘Tis then we get the right good from a book.”

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Our ideas of gender have not evolved very much

we should all be feministsWe Should All Be Feminists
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This is Adichie’s TEDx speech in book form, so it has a lot in common with the Rowling book I reviewed last week. Again it’s short (about 50 pages) and can easily be read in half an hour. Again, I found my enjoyment of it was helped by trying to read it “aloud in my head” to semi-recreate the original format. And again I thought it an important, moving work but have some minor reservations.

Adichie describes herself as “a Happy African Feminist Who Does Not Hate Men And Who Likes To Wear Lip Gloss And High Heels For Herself And Not For Men”, which I think says something about her but a lot more about the resistance she has encountered to the label “feminist”. That resistance will be familiar to a lot of readers. In calm, reasonable and approachable style, she explains that the goal of equality has not yet been achieved, despite widespread claims to the contrary.

“If we do something over and over again, it becomes normal. If we see the same thing over and over again, it becomes normal. If only boys are made class monitor, then at some point we will all think, even if unconsciously, that the class monitor has to be a boy. If we keep seeing only men as heads of corporations, it starts to seem ‘normal’ that only men should be heads of corporations.”

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Female superheroes

When Tim went to our local comic shop a few weeks ago, he brought home issue 1 of several new (or recently started) series, no less than five of them new Marvel series with female leads. Which is a pretty big step to redressing the gender imbalance that has tended to exist in superhero universes. I’ve only read this selection of first issues (plus last year’s new series Captain Marvel and Ms Marvel) but they’re all kickass heroines who promise plenty for the future.

Bearing in my mind that these are single issues, so I’ve only had 20 or so pages of each story, here are my thoughts on these new series.

****Spoiler warning****
Tim has pointed that, because these characters are not new, my reviews do contain spoilers for previous series featuring these ladies, so if you’re a little behind in the Marvel universes, you have been warned!

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Sunday Salon: International Women’s Day

The Sunday SalonHappy International Women’s Day, folks! While I can only remember hearing about it for the past couple of years, this day was created in 1909 as a national day in the US and went international in 1911. There’s all sorts of fun facts about this day on the official website, but my favourite one is that International Women’s Day is now an official holiday in Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, China (for women only), Cuba, Georgia, Guinea-Bissau, Eritrea, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Madagascar (for women only), Moldova, Mongolia, Montenegro, Nepal (for women only), Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uganda, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Vietnam and Zambia.

I am mostly celebrating by listening to 6 Music, which seems to have dedicated its whole day of programming to International Women’s Day, but when I do find some time to read I’ll be continuing my way through Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Her birthday was 6 March and to celebrate I wrote a piece for the Redhead Reads micro newsletter. Aurora Leigh is an appropriate read for today not only because it was written by a woman but also because it’s about a woman trying to break free of the social constraints placed on her by her sex. And it’s really good.

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The broken branch was a symbol of my too-much

clever girl

Clever Girl
by Tessa Hadley

I bought this book for two reasons – it’s set in Bristol and it was a staff recommendation at the very lovely Mr B’s Reading Emporium in Bath. Why buy one of the hundreds of books on my wishlist when I can pick up something new and random?

Stella tells us her life story, from working-class single-parent 1950s origins, to gaining a stepfather and moving to a fancy new estate and fancy new school in the 1960s. Stella is smart and suddenly she has the opportunity to do something with her abilities. But a life that could have been predictable is made unpredictable by choices she makes when she is 17.

“He broke off a whole branch of wet, scented apple blossom and gave it to me. It was a criminal thing; bees were still dangling, desirous, around the flowers’ stamen and stigma and their bulges of ovary which would never now grow into apples. The broken branch was a symbol of my too-much; it seemed more lordly not to refuse such bounty if offered. What it was impossible to have without harm was also most to be desired.”

For a lot of the book, Stella is a window into the youth cultures of the time, from the late 1960s on through the 70s and 80s. She is attracted to the political and the alternative, but somehow the book is never about politics itself, only about political ideologies. Stella is never wholly happy or satisfied or confident in herself, which makes her a sympathetic, if occasionally frustrating, character. She certainly doesn’t let her lack of direction stop her from living a varied and interesting life.

“I tried to prolong this happiness, or find a code I could store it in, so that it meant something even when I wasn’t feeling it. I imagined it as resembling the filmy skin of a bubble enclosing its sphere of ordinary air; impermanent yet also, for as long as it existed, flexible and resilient – real, a revelation.”

In some ways, this book could have been set anywhere, or at least in any British city outside London, but on the other hand, Bristol does have a certain mix of people and neighbourhoods that allows Stella to see and meet all sorts without ever living anywhere else. For those familiar with Bristol, you can nod along when Hadley mentions a specific area, knowing what relevance it has, but Hadley gives enough information for non-Bristolians to get it too (e.g. Totterdown in the 1970s = working class; Totterdown in the 2000s = working and middle class, arty types and professionals – I can attest to this one!). I don’t know any other city as well as Bristol but I can firmly believe in this story happening here. I can believe in people getting lost in politics/drugs/ideals while all around them friends and family plod on with boring ordinary lives.

“The land’s fabric seemed dragged down and tearing under the sheer weight of the built environment, which never ended and could surely never be undone and wasn’t even thriving: the monster machine was stalling, it had poisoned itself and now it had fallen into enemy hands.”

Stella’s story is very readable and absorbing, with some gorgeous language, but somehow not quite what I hoped for. She’s smart and loves books, which is usually a winner for me, but the story doesn’t linger on her bookishness, lingering instead on the men in her life, who are admittedly key, but for a character who calls herself feminist I struggled with how much she is defined by her role or by her man and not by her self.

Published 2013 by Jonathan Cape.

Source: Mr B’s Reading Emporium, Bath.

I like it here precisely because it is dull

The Needle's Eye

The Needle’s Eye
by Margaret Drabble

I liked this book, but it was only while discussing it at book club that I realised how much. And why. It’s certainly the kind of book that benefits from taking time to think about it afterward.

Before this was suggested for book club I had never read any Margaret Drabble and had no particular plans to read her. I think I had an idea that her books would be old-fashioned and middle-of-the-road. Well this novel is certainly in many ways of its time, but that doesn’t stop it from being a great read with fascinating psychological complexity and insight.

The story – as far as there is one – begins at a London dinner party where unhappily married Simon Camish meets Rose Vassiliou, notorious for a scandal Simon can’t quite remember. They strike up an uneasy friendship, based on her asking Simon for gradually increasing favours, many of them related to the fact her ex-husband is sueing her for custody of their three children.

“He looked dreadful tonight, did Simon…She wondered whether he knew how miserable he looked – how offensively bored…it was pointless, worrying about someone like him, he would never tell anyone anything; in a way she rather resented the obduracy of his silence. Why didn’t he forget about it one day and just complain? Everyone else did.”

For a novel where not much happens, custody battle notwithstanding, there are lots of interesting ideas about feminism, class, charity, parenting; but most of all this novel has wonderfully complex characters. Simon and Rose in particular are sometimes lovable, sometimes dull, often frustrating and frequently contradictory – very realistically. However, this isn’t entirely a realistic novel. There’s a lot of symbolism and patterns of structure, not least references to the needle’s eye of the title.

“Impossible, really, to make one’s mind up about any other human person, even one’s own children, whose whole life had unrolled before one’s eyes, whose every influence was known: they were so contradictory, so inconstant, so confusing a mass of shifting characteristics.”

For instance, Simon and Rose’s lives have followed opposite trajectories. Born to a struggling working class family, Simon is the scholarship kid made good – he’s now a lawyer married to a rich woman, Julie – and he wears his background with both pride and shame. He wants to fit in and yet he despises the people he socialises with. Until Rose. She was born to a rich country estate and hit the headlines when she gave up her inheritance to marry a man her parents disapproved of, her ex-husband Christopher. She has a strong distaste for unearned money and so she chooses to live in a shabby working class neighbourhood, counting pennies to make ends meet and taking great pleasure in getting to know her genuinely poor neighbours. Yet it’s all a game of sorts, because she could easily earn more money, or get it from Christopher or her parents, and she has a second lump of inheritance due to her. Her poverty isn’t real and her reasons for choosing that life are stretched quite far from their honourable origin.

“I like it here precisely because it is dull…Oh, I know, people think it’s not real, they think it’s nonsense for me to sit here like I do, they think I’m playing. They tell me that everyone else round here is miserable…But they don’t know because they’ve never tried it.”

Simon shares this slightly misguided belief in sticking to a principle. His legal speciality is trade unions and he steadfastly stands by the union every time, even when he can clearly see that the union is in the wrong. Like Rose, he cannot separate the theoretical black-and-white ideal from the shades of grey of real life. Similarly, he cannot see the world through anyone else’s eyes, and finds it hard to marry his assumption that everyone is as bored and depressed as he is with the evidence before him. Rose seems to be the first person who manages to at least begin to break through to him just how different people can be.

“He sat there…and wondered whose fault it was, that he should spend so much time like this, with people he really deeply disliked, talking about things that bored him rigid. It would have been better if he could have felt that the others were enjoying themselves, but from every soul there seemed to him to rise a cry of mute anguish and lonely fear.”

Inevitably Simon begins to fall in love with Rose, but this isn’t the story of a torrid affair. If anything, it is the story of a friendship that awakens two people to some, though certainly not all, of their faults.

First published 1972 by Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Source: Borrowed from the library.

See also: “10 reasons to love Margaret Drabble” on For Books’ Sake

The women writing pop science

Just a quick note to say that today you can read my thoughts about women writing popular science over at For Books’ Sake. Inspired by my 2014 Popular-Science Reading Challenge and the feminist focus of For Books’ Sake, I picked out my top five pop-sci books by women. Please do go take a look and leave a comment with your own favourites, or your thoughts on the ones I picked.

Bristol Old Vic Ferment Fortnight

Bristol Old Vic
(CC-BY NotFromUtrecht)

Bristol Ferment is the community of theatre-makers from Bristol and the South West that Bristol Old Vic supports and helps to develop exciting and adventurous new work. Twice a year, we can get a glimpse behind the scenes of the artistic process during Ferment Fortnight, when work in progress is performed and discussed directly with the audience.

The current Ferment Fortnight runs until 31 January, so there’s still time to check it out for yourself.

The Stillness of the Storm That Never Came at All
by Clerke and Joy
Bristol Old Vic, Friday 24 January 2014

I arrived in the Studio Theatre to the powerful smell of garam masala, coming from a large pool of it spread on the theatre floor. Josephine Joy created sound effects using a laptop, a microphone and an array of electrical goods, while Rachael Clerke delivered a monologue about an Indian girl who has just moved to Mumbai after studying abroad in London. The sounds were a combination of traffic, voices, weather and domestic appliances, occasionally ratcheted up so that they threatened to drown out the monologue. Combined with the spice smell this gave a powerful sense of place to the story, especially considering there were no visual cues to place it anywhere particular. The story is currently only a snippet but it was absorbing and well written, and I definitely felt that a whole character had been created in this brief snatch of a play.

After the performance we had a Q&A in which Clerke and Joy explained the roots of the show and where they hope to take it (as well as encouraging lots of feedback, which is after all the whole point of Ferment Fortnight). Their plan is to write three monologues for three actors, each set in a different city. They will have a musician or DJ on stage and do a lot of their scene-setting with soundscapes. They have themes they want to explore but no firm story as yet. (To be fair, I should mention that they have only been writing this for a few days, having not long been back in the UK after spending three weeks in Mumbai running theatre workshops and developing the concept for this show.) Their themes include weather, feminism, decline in industry, reclaimed land, migration and oral storytelling – which is quite an eclectic bag, yet I can see it working. All of those are already present to some extent and the choice of the other two cities (one of which is likely to be Belfast, but the third is completely unknown right now) will no doubt both be informed by and have an effect on that list of themes.

The monologue text came from the workshops and some other conversations that Clerke and Joy held in Mumbai. I thought they demonstrated a gift for picking out the thoughts and observations that got to the heart of what this one lonely girl’s experience of Mumbai would be like. This play has the potential to turn into a really fascinating glimpse of some very different locations and lives.

I loved this opportunity to see something so raw and new, something unformed but brimming with potential. I’ll definitely be checking out future Ferment performances.

Disclaimer: A free ticket was kindly supplied to me by the theatre in return for contributing a review to Theatre Bristol Writers.