Review: Here We Are edited by Kelly Jensen

here-we-areThe Premise: Kelly Jensen has collected together the work of 44 people on the subject of feminism, and their thoughts come in the form of (mostly) essays, cartoons, poems, letters to their former selves and conversations, among others. “Let’s get the feminist party started!” proclaims the back cover, which tells you something about the lack of poe-faced grandstanding to be found here.

Thoughts: I was approved to read this through NetGalley, but ended up buying my own copy because of the scrapbook-style of the book; visually, it’s rather lovely, with its jaunty orange colour scheme and beautifully scrawled fonts. It’s just one way in which the overall feminist message of Here We Are comes through a prism of positivity.

The book is divided into sections on topics like Relationships, Culture and Pop Culture, and Confidence and Ambition; it’s easily navigable and something a reader can happily dip in and out of – in fact, such an approach is probably preferable in terms of processing each individual contribution. Within the sections, regular FAQ pages pop up, considering such issues as “can men be feminists?” (the answer: yes, obviously) and “is it sexist to point out genders?” This pages are useful ways to highlight some of the key questions in 21st century feminism.

Some of the essays here will be familiar to certain readers; one piece, for example, comes from Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, while Mindy Kaling also contributes a chapter from her Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? Some of the contributors were familiar to me; Courtney Summers, the author of All the Rage, features both in essay form and in conversation with Laurie Halse Anderson, and the singer Matt Nathanson is one of only a couple of men to feature. On the whole, though, Here We Are, introduced me to a range of new and engaging voices, particularly in the case of Brandy Colbert’s pieces on the importance of black female friendships. I also really enjoyed the poetic contributions to the book, Shrinking Women by Lily Myers and  Somewhere in America by Zariya Allen, both of which eruditely expose important issues. The section entitled A Guide to Being a Teenage Superheroine is very funny and incisive too.

What I particularly liked about Here We Are was the way in which it makes feminism approachable and relevant, linking it to all aspects of a young girl’s life. It’s also clear in its message that everyone benefits when gender equality is achieved, and that this equality must also be intersectional. Here We Are is particularly powerful when covering the experience of trans people, people of colour and those with disabilities, and, even in encompassing so many diverse voices, never shifts from its message of inclusivity. The book really highlights that there’s no set version of feminism to which everyone must subscribe; I liked how so many of the writers used the phrase “my feminism” to refer to their own specific beliefs.

In Conclusion: Here We Are is one of those rare books which looks beautiful and packs a punch, and it’s obviously particularly relevant now; in many places, these concerns never went away, and the recent women’s marches show increasing concern about issues which perhaps have not seemed as pressing up to now. The book manages to educate and inspire thought without haranguing; the approach taken to the material is spot-on. I recommend it, and congratulate Kelly Jensen on putting together something so effective.

Top Ten Tuesday: Surprisingly Brilliant Books

This week’s TTT, hosted by the Broke and the Bookish, is about books we’ve either loved more or less than we expected. I’m not in the mood for slagging off ten poor, innocent books (except Norwegian Wood, which I am always happy to insult), so I’m going for ten books I liked more than I anticipated.

A Quiet Kind of Thunder by Sara Barnard
I didn’t love Beautiful Broken Things, but Barnard’s second novel, about a mute girl and a deaf boy, appealed to me far more. It was sweet without being sickly, and I felt like it was more realistic.

Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou
On opening this punctuation-free book, I thought, ‘there’s no way I can read this,’ but I’m glad I stuck with it because it was darkly humorous and very engaging.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
As a self-confessed book snob, I wasn’t going to read something that other people actually like. But it was £4 in Morrison’s, so I bought it and did enjoy it a bit, although I did guess the big reveal pretty much straightaway. This is very unusual for me. Review here.

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue
Another book I pre-judged because I wasn’t a huge fan of the author’s previous work, I found myself really enjoying this historical novel about a young Irish girl who claims not to have eaten in months. Review here.

Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall
I downloaded this in a Kindle sale and left it neglected for months, but when I finally read it, I was enthralled. I now want to do a PhD in geopolitics. Review here.

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet
I didn’t expect to like this, but read it anyway as I was on a mission to read everything on the Booker shortlist in 2016. It turned out to be my favourite from the list; I liked the unusual story-telling style and the many plot surprises. It was delightfully dark.

A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallero
I was apprehensive about this Sherlock Holmes retelling because I hadn’t seen much chat about it in the usual places, but I liked it a lot; the teen descendants of Holmes and Watson have an enjoyably snarky relationship and the book makes clever use of the original stories. Review here.

The Fireman by Joe Hill
This book is 747 pages long. I assumed it would be a slog. It wasn’t. Review here.

Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis
I think I mention this book every ten minutes. I don’t even like dogs, so how did a book about them end up being one of my favourites of 2016? Review here.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Shamefully, the first time I sat down to read this, I couldn’t get into it. Oddly, I blame the fact that I was reading it on my Kindle. Once I got a paperback, I completely loved it and it was one of those rare books that I didn’t actually want to end.

Have you read any of these books? Let me know if you have, or if I’ve tempted you to pick them up.

Review: Somebody To Love: The Life, Death and Legacy of Freddie Mercury by Matt Richards and Mark Langthorne

somebody-to-loveThe Premise: Freddie Mercury was, as most people will know, the charismatic and, ultimately, tragic lead singer with Queen. This biography takes us from Freddie’s birth as Farrokh Bulsara, through the entirety of his time as one of the world’s biggest rock stars, all the way to his untimely death from AIDS in 1991.

Thoughts: Freddie Mercury was probably the first rock star I could ever recognise. Brought up in a family for whom Queen soundtracked most car journeys, I remember singing Bohemian Rhapsody in full while my dad got us all lost in the mountains of Ibiza in the late 1980s. Mercury’s was certainly the first celebrity death I was aware of; I was almost 9 when he died in 1991, and I remember watching the the resulting tribute concert the following year. Queen’s music has stayed with me ever since; you can’t go to university in the UK and not hear Don’t Stop Me Now every time you venture out at night, and the band’s greatest hits have often roused me into awakeness on the drive to work. This book gave me an insight into the man behind most of these songs (as I learned from Somebody to Love, the members of Queen wrote individually and only shared writing credits on their final album).

Something that I found both clever and interesting in this book was the way in which the writers alternated between Mercury’s life and the development of the AIDS crisis. The book begins with a prologue that made me cry, starting with the end by describing Mercury’s last days, before moving on to the moment in 1908 when a hunter was bitten by a chimp in the Congolese jungle, thus transferring what would become the AIDS virus to humans. I knew very little about this, and the disease’s later spread through that region of Africa, to Haiti, to the USA and beyond, and, while harrowing, it was fascinating to learn about it.

I’ve read a lot of rock biographies and there is much here that is common to them all: the difficult first forays into playing live, the conflicts with record companies, the disagreements over money. Mercury’s status as a newcomer to Britain, having fled Zanzibar with his family, makes his story slightly different, while the contrast between his confident onstage persona and seemingly neurotic true character also gives the book something different to many of the similar books I’ve read. Obviously writing so long after Mercury’s death means that there’s little in the way of firsthand accounts here, and that makes it easy for the writers to show an element of bias; Mercury is certainly the hero of this book, even when his behaviour is appalling, and I felt that was an inconsistency in how the writers dealt with this, as opposed to the depiction of other key figures in the narrative.

Here are some of the other things that interested me in Somebody to Love. I was shocked to learn that pretty much every Queen album was panned by the music press. Although I know that homophobia, while not non-existent today, was a far bigger problem in the 1980s, but I was still quite shocked by the extent to which Mercury felt like he had to hide his bisexuality in order to protect the career of himself and his bandmates; it’s hardly surprising that he was such a tormented soul. I enjoyed reading about Live Aid too; I feel like I remember it because it’s such a pivotal piece of popular culture, but given that I was basically an infant at the time, I think my mum’s descriptions have given me a false memory. As a huge Bowie fan too, I enjoyed reading about the making of Under Pressure: a song that is now almost too poignant to listen to.

One thing I feel compelled to draw attention to: while the writing in the book is solid, there is one little quirk which, once I noticed it, I couldn’t help but find irritating. As Mercury’s story progresses, more and more chapters end with a portentous sentence like “But Freddie wouldn’t have three more years” or “but time was running out.” To refer again to my childhood, we used to watch a terrible programme called 999 Lifesavers, in which Michael Burke would dramatically intone things like “but the tide was coming in” to add terror to situations like people being stranded at sea or trapped in a mine or something. This became something of an era-defining joke in my house and, slightly distractingly, it meant I started to hear Burke’s voice as I came to these sentences. So make sure you don’t do that.

In Conclusion: Somebody to Love is a really interesting and engaging book. For me, the main advantage a biography has over an autobiography is the potential to examine an artist’s cultural impact and legacy, and Richards and Langthorne certainly do that. The parts of the book that deal with Mercury’s last days, particularly the way he was hounded by the press, are quite upsetting, but the book also manages to entertain, as is only fitting given its showman subject.

Review: Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins

gold-fame-citrusThe Premise: In a weird, post-apocalyptic-looking, drought-stricken California, Luz and Ray are just about surviving by scavenging and squatting in an starlet’s mansion when they find themselves caring for a little girl and everything changes. Suddenly desperate to move on and find safety, they set out for a better life and things get really weird.

Thoughts: I’d had this on my shelves since receiving it as a Christmas present in 2015, and read it as part of my drive to actually read all the books I have acquired in recent years rather than just treating them as papery ornaments. To start with, I found myself wishing I’d left it where it was; rather than the panic and carnage I expect when I choose something set in the aftermath of a massive environmental disaster, the first few chapters seem to deal with the ennui of the end of the world. Luz hangs around her adopted home, trying on the starlet’s dresses and messing around with prairie dogs, while her boyfriend, Ray, tries to turn the swimming pool into a skate park. Initially, I found the writing, in its dreamlike style, quite difficult to get into; it felt too unreal to get into, like I was literally watching someone’s dream. Soon, however, I began to appreciate Claire Vaye Watkins’ style as rather beautiful; while it’s sometimes hard to tell what’s “real” within the context of the story, I found this immersive rather than alienating, almost as if I too was suffering from dehydration and heatstroke and it was messing with my head. I don’t know what it says about me that this is what made me enjoy the book…

The characters of Gold Fame Citrus are all quite difficult to like; Luz is an impetuous child in a woman’s body, while everyone she meets seems deeply sinister. It’s a characterisation device I recognise from every post-apocalyptic book, film or TV show ever; from The Walking Dead, to Adrian Barnes’ Nod, to Meg Elison’s The Book of th Unnamed Midwife, if there’s one thing we learn from these stories, it’s that trust of other humans is the first thing you have to cast aside at the end of the world. I’ll be fine; I distrust everyone anyway. Having set out for pastures (or, more accurately, sand dunes) new, Luz and Ray encounter some incredibly weird characters, and the cultish feel of the latter part of the book is unsettling (not least because of the reasonably graphic and peculiar sex scenes, which I would like to have zapped from my brain, please). The characterisation is clever though; often in these kinds of stories, you want to shout at the protagonist, “OBVIOUSLY YOU CAN’T TRUST THIS DUDE” but the creepiness of Vaye Watkins’ characters is more insidious.

Gold Fame Citrus reminded me of the environmental focus of my beloved Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and the rest of the Maddaddam trilogy, while the weirdness of the encroaching sand dune gave me flashbacks to Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. These are huge compliments to Vaye Watkins; I love those two trilogies.  As Luz, Ray and baby Ig travel away from California, with Ray pointing out that the state’s original settlers were after the three things that make up the novel’s title, I also thought of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath; there’s a similar hopelessness as the characters seek a better situation in a world where such a thing seems impossible.

In Conclusion: I found Gold Fame Citrus really interesting, and I don’t mean that in a euphemistic way. It’s quite a challenging read and I don’t suppose the style will appeal to everyone, but I thought it was clever and intriguing, because of rather than in spite of its general oddness.