Girl, Woman, Other Book Review
I read Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other after she had already jointly won the Booker Prize with Margaret Atwood for The Testaments. I’d been intrigued to know what text would merit being considered equal to The Testaments as I had expected Atwood to be the lone winner (don’t think there is any doubting that it would have been wrong to not acknowledge the exquisite accomplishment of Margaret Atwood’s fabulous sequel to the Handmaid’s Tale.) As Evaristo says herself in this interview, who better to share the Booker with than Atwood.
Anyway, Evaristo did not disappoint. Far from it. Why have I never read any of her other books? Rather, I was blown away by the prose. It isn’t a poetry in verse, not quite, but it is beautiful to listen to. Reading the text made me intrigued to know more about the author as I was staggered by the incredible insight she has into humanity. It sounds a bit pretentious, but her writing really is a tour de force (a phrase she mocks at one point in the book) and like no other I have discovered in recent years. Exploring the lives of four groups of women she addresses just about every ‘woman’s issue’ (I use the phrase deliberately ‘tongue in cheek’) I can think of. From motherhood to sexuality, to ambition to regret – it is all there. I don’t know if I should admit this, as it perhaps shows my incredible naiveity that I didn’t actually think about the centrality of race until I read Evaristo’s own comments on this.
The links within the groups of women are significant and the links between those groups exist in the same way that unlikely connections and correlations occur in life, simultaneously realistic and incredulous.
Bernadine Evaristo – the best writer to emerge since Doris Lessing
The text is profoundly modern in both content and style, yet at the same time to me it felt part of an established tradition of women writing about other women with incredible insight and expertise. Doris Lessing springs to mind as an author that Evaristo is worthy of comparison to. In my eyes that’s high praise indeed. I hope she would be flattered by the comparison.
Girl, Woman, Other as a Contemporary Text
The text in parts oozes satirical cynicism. There are passages galore that put different sectors of society firmly in its place. For example, page 408 made me smile, grimace and in part feel ashamed in equal quantities. It concisely describes lefty students selling out in their pursuit of over paid dodgy corporate jobs, becoming raging Tories, with no sense of community responsibility and refusing to pay their taxes in the name of philanthropic intention. You have to read it to see just how well Evaristo writes.
Yet at other times Evaristo is hopeful and demonstrates the potential of who we are and who we can be. The younger generation are probably portrayed more sympathetically than the rest, with Yazz and her rites of passage into adulthood being both comfortably similar to what we might know and at the same time disturbingly alien. Morgan’s exploration of who she is and her transition from Megan to Morgan perhaps being the story that touched me the most, perhaps because of its acknowledged contemporariness. Other stories are wonderful too and the complexities of who we are and from where we come are never taken for granted. The DNA profiling used to explore racism being a stroke of genius as a writing tool and a great finale to the book.
Book Club Questions about Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo
1) Evaristo says that she has no problem acknowledging herself as a Black British woman and writing from this perspective. Which fictional character in the book do you think has the most or least awareness of their own personal identity?
2) Which character in the text has the greatest sense of ‘entitlement’? Why do you think this?
3) Which relationship in the book do you find most credible and why? Which relationship do you find least credible and why?
4) What ‘social’ or ‘political’ issue did you feel you became more knowledgeable about after reading the book?
5) The stories of the women in the book frequently overlap, yet it is possible to read the different sections as mini-books in their own right. To what extent do you think the whole text needs to be read to truly understand the issues explored in it.
6) How sympathetically do you think men are portrayed in the novel? Do you have any comment about whether they are under represented in the text, which is a criticism that could be made about the book.
7) Shirley’s mother sleeps with her husband and is never found out? How did you respond to this betrayal?
8) There are many betrayals in the book. What, in your opinion do you think is the greatest betrayal and why?
9) If you could be friends with any character in the book who would you choose and why?
10) Would this book have won the Booker ten years ago? Why or why not?
Book Club Questions for the attendee who didn’t read the book!
1) The ‘older generation’ are often excused for not understanding transgender issues and labels such as ‘binary’. Is this an acceptable position to hold?
2) Carole failed to thank her teacher for helping her ‘get ahead’ in life. Is there a teacher who you should have thanked and didn’t in your life? What did they do to help you?
3) Dominique spends many years berating herself for ‘staying in an abusive relationship’ with another woman. Why do women, (if they do, and if you don’t think they do let’s explore this) still blame themselves for the abuse imposed on them.
4) Evaristo talks about her writing style as a fusion of prose and poetry. She is free and easy in her use of capitalisation and punctuation. To what extent are you a traditionalist regarding spelling, grammar and punctuation?
5) Can the claim that a text is a book for a female audience or a book for a black female audience ever be a legitimate one?
Girl, Woman and Other as a Five Star Text
An original writer and a super ‘reader’ of people and the relations between them. I unreservedly recommend this book as a 5 star text.
Empty Nesters – Do you take a Mr or Mrs Bennett Approach?
Sleep Deprived Empty Nesters
I’m lying here in bed at 3.35 a.m. listening to the rain outside wondering whether Annie got home ok from her night out yesterday. I’m not too worried as I know she was travelling with her friend Alfie, but I question whether it is raining over in Spain too and if not whether it is cold. I hope that she has remembered to wear a proper coat. I know she won’t have put gloves on or even taken any to Salamanca with her. I check my phone to see if she has messaged but I am not expecting anything. It is her third year at university and I have slowly weaned myself off from asking her check in every ten minutes. I often manage up to an hour now! (Only half joking!)
Mick is in Bangkok and will probably be just getting up, I bet the dog is barking for attention. Betsy is in York and has messaged earlier to say that she is safely home from her evening out. There is no one to disturb if I switch on my very loud coffee machine so I get up and make myself a drink. It’s ok, but I know that Mick would scorn the inferior ‘bargain basement’ coffee beans. Only two weeks until half term when I see him. This makes me smile. I breathe out. For the first time this week my anxiety levels are within acceptable levels. Relax
I pick up Lucy Worsley’s Jane Austen At Home which I’m about half way through. I adore Jane Austen, (particularly Pride and Prejudice) and admire Lucy Worsley but I’m soon sleepy. I lay the book aside. I have planned to blog in the morning about ‘Empty Nesters’ and I drift off wondering what type of empty nesters Mr and Mrs Bennet were. ....
Empty Nesters – Are you a Mr Bennet or a Mrs Bennet?
Signs that you are a Mr Bennet
• Mr Bennet sat alone in his study bereft at the idea of losing Elizabeth to that cold hearted Mr Darcy. Little did he know! You sit alone on your kid’s bed cuddling their childhood teddies resenting the cold hearted university institution which has stolen your child away from you!
• Mr Bennet knew that marrying Mr Darcy gave Elizabeth a sound start in her adult life, but still didn’t think he was quite good enough for her. This was despite his excellent principles and immense wealth. You think that your child’s university is extremely lucky to have them.
• Mr Bennet reluctantly accepts that Elizabeth has to leave home and gives his permission to go on the understanding that she is happy. His goodbye is understated. You let your child go, she has worked hard to pass those exams and is excited to get on with her life, but the departure is very bitter-sweet and is amidst many jokes that she can always come home if she doesn’t settle.
• Mr Bennet has not carefully managed his finances and feels somewhat ashamed about this. He feels a sense of regret, but this is nothing in comparison to the sense of loss he feels about losing Elizabeth and Jane. You also wish you’d started planning financially for university earlier but it isn’t money that your heart is aching about.
• Mr Bennet knows that Elizabeth will frequently invite him to Pemberley so stoically gets on with his life. You do the same, but it is a slow process and your kids are constantly in your thoughts.
Signs that you are a Mrs Bennet.
• Mrs Bennet shows how she feels in a demonstrative, loud and melodramatic manner. When she feels warmly towards Darcy and Bingley she prepares lavishly for their visits. You are the same about university. You have bought every kitchen appliance invented for your child to take (though they won’t touch half of them), know more about freshers fair than they do and have had to be warned off from making a parent ‘facebook’ group and meeting her flatmates’ parents for coffee.
• Mrs Bennet is fickle and when she feels disdain for Bingley and Darcy she shows it. She doesn’t bother to search out the truth and jumps to conclusions. You know implicitly that any teething problems your son or daughter has settling into university are not of their making but must be the fault of the university!
• Mrs Bennet ‘takes to her bed’ when upset, yet recovers quickly if a ball or other social event is in the offing. You cry loudly and lengthily when your daughter leaves, insisting on leaving everything in their room untouched for their return. By the end of Term 1, however, you’ve turned yourself around, got a whole new social life, started new hobbies and have moved to a smaller house without telling your kids (ok, maybe not the last part!)
• Although an acquired taste Mrs Bennet is impulsive and fun. She encourages her kids to enjoy themselves and take every opportunity offered to be social and extract gossip from the neighbouring community. This turns out to be very detrimental to Lydia’s well being but ‘c’est la vie’. You are the same - spending lavishly and wildly on your daughter’s fresher’s events and living surreptitiously through your child’s partying. After all it’s important to belong.
• I imagine Mrs Bennet frequently visiting Jane and Elizabeth. She will overstay her welcome and drive the family to distraction, though Jane and Bingley, will be especially patient with her. You will turn up and surprise your child unexpectedly, embarrass them in front of their friends, share inappropriate childhood stories whilst constantly reassuring yourself that you’re being a great parent and it is for their good that you are refusing to leave town.
Obviously I’m being a bit flippant but being an empty nester isn’t easy. I was expecting to come down far more heavily as a Mr Bennet type than a Mrs Bennet type, though I think I’m actually a bit of both. Nostalgic and melancholic one minute, then excited for the girls the next. I’m definitely not above a touch of ‘wow I’m free to do what I like now’ feeling!
Austen, having turned down marriage proposals herself, continually shows in her writing how restricted and limited opportunities for women to live independently were in her time. I think she would wholeheartedly approve of the circumstances in today’s society leading to mums and dads sadness about being empty nesters. She’d probably tell us to ‘suck it up’ and be thankful for such great opportunities for our kids. I can almost hear her advising the girls about their futures. 'Don’t settle for what you don’t want and if you do go to university choose a Darcy not a Wickham'. She’s right of course (especially about choosing a Darcy!). It would be so easy to describe this transitional ‘empty-nesting’ time as one of ‘loss’ and ‘sadness’ and I do feel those things a bit, but I’ve decided it is far more productive to describe this as a time of ‘opportunity’, ‘growth’ and ‘adventure’ for the whole family.
Empty nesters, the world awaits us! That’s not to say you won’t find me sitting in the girls bedrooms occasionally with a soft toy or item of clothing in my arms .. just having a quiet moment!
The Testaments - Worth the Wait?
I blogged earlier in the week about reading Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale in preparation of Atwood's The Testaments. I wanted to thoroughly prepare for the new release and make sure that I could remember who was who, why they mattered and so on.. Was it the right thing to do? Yes. If you haven't read either book, then definitely read The Handmaid's Tale first. Was it worth the wait? Yes. It was a superb sequel. Having said that it is definitely possible to enjoy The Testaments with no prior knowledge of Gilead and the characters in it. Atwood is a clever old stick!
The Testaments Review
Exquisitely plotted, The Testaments was a fabulous read that I really didn't want to put down. (That's not ideal when you are visiting your husband for a very short time only and shouldn't be spending all your time reading!). However, with more twists and turns than a meandering country lane (approached in the Boxster S of course), this sequel had a great storyline that held together meticulously well. I think with the passing of so much time and the nature of the dystopian society set up in Handmaid, the plot really did have to hold together superbly, so thank goodness that it did. The structure was fantastic with not a flaw and the characters overall were very well drawn too. Very little not to like with Aunt Lydia's testament being particularly strong.. Incidentally, I also loved her backstory. The ambience of Gilead was created, probably, or at least possibly, even more effectively than in Handmaid and most of the questions that I had were answered. I had blogged that I didn't want the book to waste too much time on what happened in Offred's 'love life', but I've let myself down as I would have liked to have one or two loose ends tied up that weren't, but I can hardly complain. There have been few books I've anticipated more excitedly than this one, and I am glad to say it didn't let me down.
The Testaments and The Handmaid's Tale - Questions Raised
As I read these were the main things that I ended up thinking about:
Althoug these two titles were intricately linked the writing style of the Testaments didn't tightly imitate Handmaid. In addtiion, the structure was completely different. Rather than a single narrator, Offred in Handmaid, we are shown the inside and outside of Gilead from three different narrators' perspectives as they recount their part of the story, roughly in turn. I don't think this matters but what do you think?
The Testaments has a greater variety of age and lifestyle of narrator and thus enables the reader to have far more breadth of understanding of Gilead and what happened. I got to thinking whether the book would have been as effective if we had continued with only one narrator?
Atwood places The Testaments in a more 'real' setting often referring to parts of neighbouring Canada. I wondered if this made the threat of this dystopia more or less frightening? I think Atwood says that she has only written about what she has known has happened in different places in our current world. I didn't hear the whole interview but I'm really curious about what she referred to. I need a class of kids to really get a good chat going about links to our current world.
Finally, sisterhood in all sense of the word, completely dominates the text. It is particularly poignant at the end. Sisterhood is a big term. I noticed in the Fortunately podcast the presenters use it in reference to each other. Not sure how I feel about that (!) and I need to reflect on what sisterhood really means to me.
Reading back these would only need a little bit of adapting to become book club questions. Hmmm... I wonder if that's the way to go in my blogging? In the meantime though I think it is time to read a new book. Mick has just finished Pat Barker's The Silence of the Girls I haven't read any of her books for years so maybe that's the way to go, unless anyone has any other suggestions?
I do enjoy a good book!
Frasier as Prologue
There’s an episode of Frasier which explores his need for tranquility and solitude after Martin, his father, moves in with him. This is illustrated by an elaborate display of him plumping the cushions, pouring himself a glass of sherry and playing gentle classical music as he prepares to read his book alone. However, Frasier’s enjoyment is stymied by interruptions from Eddie the dog, the doorbell, the phone, and so on… if I’m not mistaken the same episode, or a further one on the same theme, concludes with Frasier throwing his father’s chair out a high window into the street below in a Freudian accident! It’s very funny if you haven’t seen it - one of the great Frasier farces. However, this isn’t a post about Frasier, but I did feel something akin to his frustration whilst trying to prepare to read Margaret Atwood’s highly acclaimed and much anticipated The Testaments by first re-reading The Handmaid’s Tale. How hard can it be to simply read a book?!
Frustrations only a Lover of Reading will Understand
There were many obstructions to reading The Handmaid’s Tale. Firstly, I had to dice with death to reach it from my bookshelf in preparation for my reading it on my plane journey to Bangkok. Alphabetized of course so ‘A’ for Atwood was at the very top! Secondly, my reading was prevented by irritating and irritated passengers on the plane. These included a nobby-know-it-all man who was sure I was in the wrong seat (I wasn’t); a very posh lady who, with her XXL sized makeup bag and abundance of Gucci hand luggage, considerably over-spilled into my area, (the irony being that she had been moved after complaining about her own oversized and overspilling neighbour); and an intemperate non-English speaking man across the aisle whose gesticulations and rants clearly demonstrated that my reading by my iphone torch light (oh, the overhead lighting had been too bright for the aforementioned (now in need of beauty sleep) passengers) was disturbing him. In the end I gave up trying to read The Handmaid’s Tale on the plane and instead satisfied myself by watching a couple of episodes of the eight Prime Time Emmy Awards winning series adapted by Hulu. (This, by the way, was excellent, but all good scholars know that the reading must precede the viewing whenever possible!)
Determined to be philosophical and patient (even though The Testaments was burning a holy hole in my very core and I had a whole further book to get through first) I decided I’d read The Handmaid’s Tale on the way to Hua Hin instead. My marvellous Saint Mick of Thana (honestly, not to gush, but he is the best husband ever) had booked us into the Hilton for the long weekend. Things continued to go wrong delaying my reading. After a completely rubbish day at school and after being on the (what felt to me very late) late shift at a school event (I haven’t seen him for six weeks after all) Mick broke down on his way home. He had to leave the car under a dubious looking electricity transformer and an even more dubious Thai buzzing electric spaghetti of wiring on a flooded road in the middle of a thunderstorm and hope to not hear any fire-engines. Eventually the car was towed and once fixed the next morning we finally departed. However, after all the drama and having not seen Mick for six weeks, I felt the least I could do was actually chat with the old fella on the journey, so the reading was once again delayed.
Hua Hin, as always, doesn’t disappoint and the book at last – eureka - is read!
The Handmaid’s Tale – Nostalgia
As far as I know, Margaret Atwood is a pretty ‘out there’ author, offering inspiration and online writing advice. This would be great for IB students to tap into. I even think I read or heard on a radio interview somewhere that Atwood has a scheme where she ‘pair writes’ with a new author and acts as their mentor. If I haven't got that wrong (which I possibly have, how incredibly cool. She is one of those people that I’d invite to my dream dinner party, I’d probably be so star struck that I would just gawk in awe and say nothing whilst our elderly and incontinent dog Wizz, did her trick of wanton weeing beside the guests!
I first read The Handmaid’s Tale when I was about 18 or 19. I loved it then, but I love it even more now. If there was ever a book (and even better, a sequel) for a nostalgic 50 year old to revisit and reflect upon this is it. It is brilliant. I’d give almost anything to (just one last time) sit down with a group of students and study it together. Faces of students I’d taught jumped into my mind continually as I read – Elyse, Vic, Petra, Hanoi, Leonardo, Michael. We’d have an absolute ball soaking up the text and debating the themes within. Honestly, there is just so much to dissect and chat about, it’s absolutely a first-rate read which I’d highly recommend. If anything it feels even more relevant now than it did thirty years ago. It’s made me determined to revisit all of Atwood’s other books too and check out what I missed. Oryx and Crake, as well as being a love story, is of course such a great text for exploring environmental issues with. As a teacher, fiction can keep topics intensely personal whilst completely de-personalizing them and thus avoiding conflict in the classroom (does that even make sense?) As a Harry Potter fan it seems like Atwood is constantly ahead of her time - a much more relaible version of J.K Rowling’s Professor Trelawney, with the added extra of talent beyond belief thrown in for good measure.
Margaret Atwood’s Brilliance
Atwood keeps the ‘I’ at the centre of all her writing. It is through the minutae of the representation and portrayal of individual life that we are able to so successfully explore the global central themes of societal oppression, religious indoctrination and environmental concern. A real beauty of her writing is an unspoken acknowledgement by her characters, usually the protagonists, that this is the case. She demonstrates that rarely, probably never can a utilitarian society reflected in whatever type of dystopia portrayed, (or rebellion against the dystopia) suppress individual and personal want. For example, Offred guilitily rushes through her account of her affair with Nick.
I think what re-reading The Handmaid’s Tale reminded me of the most is how marvellous a tool fiction is to explore world issues and also how fiction (for me anyway), more than anything, else gets to the crux of exploring the human condition (whatever that means!) Her references to the misuse of Islam on which to blame all world problems; the dangers that having a little power brings; and the skills repressors have of using the oppressed to oppress further, gave me plenty of food for thought. I guess historians and sociologists would do the same by studying real-life societal issues (Brexit perhaps!), but for me it is only by escaping society that I can start to understand it. Let’s face it, it is also good to escape, though having said that reading Atwood is not a passive activity.
The paradox of the utter insignificance of the individual juxtaposed against the absolute significance of that same individual is never far from the surface of her books. This leaves the reader with their mind blown, their energy levels in overdrive and their desire to make every moment count; resolute, as for all of us life is transient and short. With this in mind, I was very saddened to see yesterday that Atwood’s long term partner died whilst Atwood had been in the UK promoting her new book The Testaments. Sad news indeed.
Anticipation of Atwood’s The Testaments
Back to the sun, sea and sand in Hua Hin. I am recovered from my journey, full from a very large breakfast and admiring the view. I am replete and ready to reverently open the pages of The Testaments. I hope that I don’t get my lovely new hardcopy spoiled by reading it on the beach, but if I do such is life! I have avoided all reviews and sincerely wish for the following: that I do in fact get to find out what happened to the central characters in The Handmaid’s Tale; that I learn how the utop/dsystop-ia fell (I know from the epilogue to Handmaid that it did indeed fail); and that the book doesn’t fall into anything as banal as an exploration of whether Offred chooses Luke (if he is alive) over Nick. That would be very disappointing. However… I shall see. I won’t be blogging again until I’ve read it.
I've been a little bit lazy with my blogging lately. I'm not sure why. I guess I'm not invested enough to do the background work to get my SEO rankings anything like respectable and I'm too poor, or too mean (not sure which!) to pay someone to do it for me. Also, more importantly I'm still not completely sure what type of blog I want to produce. It's a work in progress. If' you've stuck with me so far thank you very much.
All the advice I've read about being a successful blogger says to write what your audience wants to read. However, I think when I started this blooging malarkey I'd had a more 'write what you want to write' approach in mind. A kind of online diary I guess - the musings of a middle aged mum. Heaven fobid that I tell the whole truth! Sticking with this approach means, of course, I won't get lots of readers as the blog isn't focused enough, but it makes me happpy to share what I've been thinking about, so that's what I've decided to continue to do.
This week I've been spending time back in Broughton and just chilling with family. It isn't wild, but is very lovely. In the gaps I've managed to read the memoir, 'Somebody I Used to Know'. I came across it online as I follw Wendy Mitchell's blog, 'Which me am I today?' She is a woman who (or is it whom?) I hugely admire. Diagnosed with early onset Alzheimers, she has set about showing the nation that her illness is just like any other, something you live with and maange rather than a reason to give up on life.
Wendy is something of a force of nature. In all honesty, I bet she is a real 'go-getter' and would scare the pants off me. She gave an animated interview on Jenny Eclair's and Judith Holder's 'Older and Wider' podcast which I really enjoyed and inspired me to learn more about her (episode 20 I think). In her book she shares how she travels up and down the country, raising awareness about dementia and meeting both like minded people, and also people, who need educating. Significantly, she describes her emotions of living with the illness and how she manages the difficulties it imposes. She is very frank and honest, so consequently it is a really moving and powerful read.
I've actually recently reviewed the book on my goodreads acccount if you're interested. As an aside, if you haven't come across goodreads, I can't recommend it enough. It is a great way of keeping tabls on your own reading and getting recommendations from others. You can follow your favourite authors, share reviews and all kinds of book related things. I'm completely addicted to it - wild woman that I am!
I actually recently reviewed a different book, Sally Magnusson's Where Memories Go, also about dementia, on the goodreads site. Strangely they are the only two books I've given a five star rating this year. I guess it is because I think they so successfully fill the gap in the market for intelligent well-written social commentary on this emotional topic. Where Memories Go focused on sharing the author's story of how she helped care for her mum with dementia. It was a hugely insightful and inspiring text to read.
So, if you're not sure what to read this summer and you do like memoirs, these are two great reads on an under explored topic. If anyone else has any recommendaitons for other interesting summer reads I'd love to hear them. My next pick is going to be a novel I think. In the meantime, happy reading and happy summer holidays!