Book Review: Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg

It was hard to miss the buzz around the release of Lean In last year. In 2013 Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, released her autobiographical business book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. The book was inspired by Sheryl’s TED talk in 2012 on the role of women in the workplace, which you can view above. Lean In was an immediate critical hit, with reviews and discussion around the book quickly springing up in print and online, and Lean In was shortlisted for the FT and Goldman Sachs business book of the year.

Lean In is a business and self help book that focuses on the lack of women in leadership roles, the causes of this, and what we- particularly as women- can do about it. Sheryl discusses the reasons for the lack of women at the top in business despite the equal number of women starting out in entry level and graduate roles. One aspect of women in work she does not deal with the history of the patriarchal structures of women in work, but does at least make this clear in the introduction that the book will not discuss this. Including this would have made a great addition to the book but it would have made the text a lot longer.

Instead, Lean In discusses the mindset of working women of today, and to a lesser extent men, and how that mindset contributes to holding women back at work. Lean In just stops short of stating, but certainly implies, the idea that women have internalized sexist ideas of women in work. Sheryl aims to change that, and to inspire and motivate women to succeed at work, through encouraging ambition at all stages of life, women mentoring other women, and the advantages of building partnerships with the men in your life. Sheryl has meticulous attention to detail and backs up her claims of sexism in the workplace with well-researched statistics, such as the gender pay gap and the number of women on the boards of FTSE 100 companies.

One of the strengths of Lean In is that Sheryl makes use of the confessional technique popular today: occasionally relaying personal experiences to further illustrate her points. These anecdotes help her to seem relatable despite her privilege, and in turn strengthens the message of the book by implying that she is akin to the reader; your average ambitious woman. Sheryl also makes use of her own experiences to give concrete illustrations of prejudices and preconceptions she has faced as a female in a leadership role at the head of two tech giants; Google and Facebook.

Lean In is far from perfect and has been heavily criticised by many, including feminists and socialists, particularly on the grounds of intersectionality. Intersectionality in feminism focuses on the experiences of lower class women and women of colour, and the importance of recognising their experiences and giving them a platform equal to that of upper middle class white women. There is huge variety of women in work, e.g. working class women with two jobs, single mums, the difficulties those with disabilities or caring responsibilities face, or the plight of the many women being leaned on in order for other women to succeed at work (e.g. often non-white, underpaid nannies). Sheryl has been criticised for not addressing the experiences of both these groups, and that her advice in Lean In only addresses and is useful in the battle to resolve the problems middle class white women like herself, face in the workplace, and that her advice could actually adversely affect women who don’t fall into this category. These concerns are extremely valid and should be recognised, and put me off reading the book in the first place.

Lean In fails to address the experiences of single working mums, women working two jobs to support their families, divorced mums and ‘deadbeat dads’, the widowed, career changers, the pressures of supporting aging parents and a young family, mums of children with disabilities, or those facing prejudice as a working woman with a disability. However, we shouldn’t expect one book to address every aspect of the working woman’s life and be all things to all women. I would argue that if, in fact, we do expect this from Lean In, then this attitude is part of the problem successful women face. Women should be allowed to be individuals and be treated as such- a person with personality and flaws, not an object and symbol.

A further criticism of Lean In is that it sells the American dream that anyone can get to the top and that the success or failure of this rides on individual ambition. I briefly touched on this above when I mentioned the failure of Lean In to discuss the history of patriarchal structures of the workplace and how these can be deconstructed in order to achieve parity for all.

It is debatable, but I think unlikely, that a book like this could have come out of anywhere but America. Add together the American dream, the trend for self help books, a struggling economy and the leader of a social media giant and you get this book.

Despite these problems I really enjoyed Lean In; it was well researched and it was interesting reading Sandberg’s personal experiences at Facebook and Google. I do think Lean In raises some pertinent points; such as how both men and women can both fail to recognise our own gender based prejudices despite recognising it in other people, and how as women we often mentally leave work before we physically leave our jobs. If you’re interested in feminism, equality at work, or a women looking to succeed in business, I would really recommend this book. It won’t solve all your problems but it might make you think. Overall I would definitely recommend Lean In to people interested in increasing the amount of women in leadership roles in the workplace. I’d also recommend it to ambitious women in work, particularly those in entry level / graduate roles, job seekers, career changers and leaders, looking to find productive ways to assert their value in the workplace.

Rating: 4/5 Buy the book: Paperback / Kindle. Follow me: Goodreads / Twitter / Bloglovin

Movie review: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green #TFIOS SPOILER FREE

the fault in our stars john green

“I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.”

The weekend of 21st June 2014 was the UK opening weekend of The Fault in our Stars, an independent, low-budget film based on the best selling YA novel by YouTuber John Green. Since John is a super successful internet celebrity (technical term) you could barely move online for the buzz surrounding the film. I’ve read one John Green novel before, the co-authored Will Grayson, Will Grayson, but I’ve only read the first chapter of TFIOS, so this review will focus on the movie only, won’t discuss how the film compares to the book.

TFIOS is a teenage cancer love story (new genre alert), narrated by Hazel, who is suffering from lung cancer. In all other ways she is a typical teen; she texts, watches movies and reality TV shows, reads and is sarcastic and smart about life. In a cancer support group she meets Gus, a confident cancer survivor, who is romantically interested in her straight away, and the two soon develop a mutual attraction- a love story, with interludes of trips to the hospital and doctor’s appointments. The plot is primarily a coming-of-age story, focussing on Hazel mentally growing up and gaining knowledge of life through her experiences, including tropes such as the wise old man, which Hazel is desperate to see in her favourite author, a stereotype which is nicely, if not turned on its head then sidestepped at the end of the film (although this is told slightly different in the book). My favourite moments in the film were the scenes with the argument at the author’s house (watch Gus closely during this, rather than Hazel- his reaction is telling), the scene where the teenagers egg the car (surprisingly hilarious), and Hazel and Gus’ final conversation on the Funky Bones sculpture.

Where the film soars is in its ability to imagine terminally ill teenagers complexly. Hazel is cynical, quick witted, funny, yet not too much of these personality types to make her movie-star perfect, and unbelievable. Gus, comparatively, despite his cancer, does come off as too perfect, and this is one failing of the movie adaption. Until the end, and barely even then, we don’t see the insecure, vulnerable side to Gus, which every teenager, and indeed every person, has. The TFIOS film portrays him as a perfect, handsome, physically good looking, confident older teen. As a viewer in their mid twenties I found it difficult to understand why Hazel would fall for Gus’ obvious posturing (the cigarette metaphor? A real teen would have rolled their eyes) and longed for her to call him out on his desperate attempts to cover himself with meaning and make his memory last, above and beyond all other peoples- which she only does, moderately, at the end of the film.

My least favourite part in the movie was a scene that has been criticised by many, from the mainstream press to booktubers. The two teenagers share a kiss in the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam (where Justin Bieber was famously criticised for inappropriate behaviour), which goes on for far too long, and is applauded by members of the public. At this point I think the director forgot that they were making an independent movie, and one which Hazel clearly states in the opening scene, is not going to be a Hollywood fairytale, and is in fact going to be ‘real life’.

A further criticism of the story is that in the film Hazel has no female friends, which, unfortunately, is part of a wider problem in YA lit. She is seen as different, special, and not like other girls (as Gus tells us). This is a trap that many other YA novels with Strong Female Characters ™ fall into- the clique, and untruth, that a female character can only be independent minded IF she is different to and does not have close relationships with, other women, particularly of her own age. This is a pretty bad message to be sending young women as at worst it creates isolation and disregard for others opinions, and at best, arrogance and a superiority complex.

Despite this, TFIOS is a valuable addition to the YA canon. Its humanising of terminally ill teenagers is an important step in bringing into the mainstream recognition of the prejudices many people with disabilities face around attitudes towards their disability. Hazel and Gus are brought together due to their respective illnesses but they love each other with the intensity of anyone who fell in love as a teenager.

The cashier at the desk at the cinema warned us- with a smile- to bring tissues, and she was not wrong. If you’re not a teenager anymore, throw away your cynicism realism before you go and see this movie. If you are a teenager, put your ironic detachment to one side. Hazel and Gus are just like you. If you go in with an open mind, this movie will hit you where it hurts.

Rating: 4/5. Buy the book: Paperback / Kindle. Follow me: Goodreads / Twitter / Bloglovin

Reading round-up: May

   

This month was a really busy month. At the start of the month I was in London for two weeks working at a publishing company and the following week I was in Leuven, Belgium. I didn’t have much time for reading but I finally finished The Three Musketeers! It’s very long, but the last third of the book was really gripping. I also read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the first volume in Maya Angelou’s autobiographies in the last week in May, shortly before she passed away.

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

I was inspired to read this when I watched the BBC TV series starring Luke Pasqualino of Skins fame as D’Artagnan and Peter Capaldi, the new Doctor Who, as the Cardinal. The Three Musketeers is set in Paris, and the main characters are three of the king’s musketeers, Atos, Portos and Aramis, and D’Artagnan, a younger Gascon who is keen to join them. The book follows D’Artagnan and the musketeers on their adventures as they face opposition from the Cardinal, who abhors their street fighting and the king’s poor leadership. The Musketeers is a ripping boy’s adventure; D’Artagnan leaves the provinces for the big city to seek his fortune and find adventure, friendship and love. The men constantly tease each other, very much like ‘banter’ today, and yet surprisingly perhaps, more innocent in content (there are a limited number of sexual / profane jokes). One of the central characters is the archetypal femme fatale, Milady, who is a fantastic character; an incredibly smart and skilled woman, and is so central to the plot/action she has several chapters dedicated to only her at the close of the book. I was struck with how funny and accessible the book is and how much it would make a great school play. The story is based in history, featuring King Louis XIII, Anne of Austria, the Duke of Buckingham and his assassin, Felton (not of dog-walking fame ;) ). It was interesting, when I was visiting the National Portrait Gallery in London, to see paintings of the characters, and have the historicity of some events confirmed. I would recommend this book to those interested in historical fiction, but for those who are only interested in a ripping story, I would suggest an abridged version.

Something for the Weekend by Terry Wogan

I picked this up at work and read it while travelling this month. It’s a collection of Terry Wogan’s weekend columns for The Sunday Telegraph over the past ten years (2004 – 2014). It was a different kind of book for me, but was good to dip in and out of when on trains, as each column averages only two pages. Whenever I opened the book the subject matter of the column it fell upon seemed to match my activity at that time, for example, when on the Eurostar, I read the column on the difficulties of checked baggage when travelling, and on Eurovision weekend, I read the article on a past year’s contest, as Wogan used to commentate Eurovision for many years. Something for the Weekend fairly accurately sums up British feeling on certain social changes / events over the past ten years, but with a slightly right wing / old school mindset (the columns were published in the Telegraph). I would recommend it to prior fans of Wogans and the hardback edition would make a good Christmas gift, as a book that anyone can pick up and have a quick read.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

This was my favourite book of the month by a long way. It also happened to be the month in which Maya Angelou passed away. She has accomplished so much in her life, and her autobiographies, of which this is the first one, are an illuminating and interesting read. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, upon its release in 1969, was an defining text in increasing the visibility of African American female his(her)tory. Maya uses her education, both academic and pastoral, combined with a child’s natural curiosity, to bring to the reader a revealing, insightful and intelligent description and analysis of life, and how circumstance and history shape it. In Caged Bird, Maya describes her childhood growing up in Arkansaw and later San Francisco, detailing her life up to the age of 17 and the birth of her first son. The content can at times be disturbing, particularly her rape as an eight year old, which is told from a child’s perspective. The book’s themes include racism, identity, language, and rape, and the language is poetic and sentence structure beautifully constructed. That’s it for this month. To browse more of my monthly reading round-ups, click here.

Reading round-up: April

      

April was an average month in terms of reading. I read a lot of extracts and free first chapters of books- Kindle is great for this- but the following four are the only books I finished. Here’s April’s belated reading round-up.

Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier

Jamaica Inn is a Gothic tale set on the ragged coasts of Cornwall and is a fun, quick read akin to a modern day thriller. The narrator is Mary Yellen, who is sent to live with her aunt and uncle at the notorious, barren and inhospitable Jamaica Inn. Mary finds her Aunt Patience a battered woman living under the violent thumb of her husband Joss Merlyn. Jamaica never hosts travellers, and Mary is suspicious as to how the Merlyns survive with no custom, but she soon discovers the reason why – Jamaica Inn is the centre of a smuggling ring. Mary struggles with her morality and who to trust. She confides in two men, the first being the local vicar and the second Joss’s brother, Jem, who she is attracted to despite herself. The novel comes to a violent conclusion, beginning with a drunken confession of Joss’s: the smugglers are, in fact, wreckers. I was interested to read this novel as the BBC released a mini TV series of this over the Easter weekend. I really enjoyed both watching the series and reading the novel, and would definitely recommend both. I would really recommend Jamaica Inn to most readers, particularly fans of thrillers and the gothic. I’d also recommend the novel to teens, both boys and girls, as the language is understandable and there is a lot to be taken away from the novel. I think it sets up some interesting discussions on morality, the roles of men and women, bravery and redemption. You can read my full review of Jamaica Inn here.

Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg

Written by the COO of Facebook, Lean In was bound to be dissected on social media, and I was initially put off reading it due to the criticisms of the book written around the time of its release last year. Lean In is a business and self help book that focuses on the lack of women in leadership roles, the causes of this, and what we as women can do about it. One criticism of the book is that it does not discuss the history of the patriarchal structures that effects women in work. The book just stops short of stating, but implies, the idea that women have internalized sexist ideas of women in work, and focuses on motivating them to succeed and lead in the workplace. An additional criticism is that Sandberg ignores intersectionality; she does not give recognition to the fact that there is huge variety of women in work, or the plight of the many women being leaned on in order for other women to succeed at work (e.g. often non-white, underpaid nannies). Despite these problems I enjoyed the book; it was well researched and it was interesting reading Sandberg’s personal experiences at Facebook and Google. I do think Lean In raises some pertinent points; such as how both men and women can both fail to recognise our own gender based prejudices despite recognising it in other people, and how as women we often mentally leave our workplace before we physically leave our jobs. If you’re interested in feminism, equality at work, or a women looking to succeed in business, I would really recommend this book. It won’t solve all your problems but it might make you think.

When Nights Were Cold by Susanne Collins

When Nights Were Cold was recommended by Blair on her excellent blog, and I picked it up for 99p in the Kindle sale. It’s short and is nicely edited to form a well-paced story. At the turn of the century in Victorian London, Grace Farrington is living with an overbearing father and meek mother, both of whom insist their daughters must stay at home until they marry, despite Grace’s passion for mountaineering. Mountains, particularly the Mattahorn, are at the heart of this novel as much as Grace is. Grace (or Farrington as she becomes known) obsesses over the latest expeditions of the time and forms a mountaineering club at her female college with four other girls. The club plan mountaineering expeditions, and slowly, cracks begin to form in the girls’ friendships, culminating in a fatal trip to the Alps. We are told some details of the tragedy at the beginning of the story, but the more we read on, the more we realise it might not have happened as Farrington encouraged us to believe. I’d really recommend this book to everyone as it was a smart, interesting, quick read.

A Winter Book by Tove Jansson

A Winter Book is a collection of short stories for adults written by Finnish writer Tove Jansson, known as the creator of the Moomins. It’s a beautifully produced book, with textured paper and a soft dust jacket and accompanying photographs of Jansson in her native Finland. The collection of stories are on the theme of winter, and are deceptively simple, the first set of stories being told from a child’s perspective, and the latter from an adults. The stories focus on incidents in Jansson’s life, most seemingly innocuous, but when examined a little closer, reveal universal concerns about nature, life, art, hope and ageing. My favourite story in the collection is ‘Parties’. It is a telling perspective into a child’s understanding of adult parties (“I know a lot that I don’t talk about”), complete with music, hangovers and fry-ups. A Winter Book is a mixed bag of stories, and not always coherent in narrative and theme, but is a nice addition for fans of Jansson’s work. It would make a lovely gift for those who are a fan of short stories, stories of the sea, or stories told from a child’s perspective. You can read my full review of A Winter Book here.

That’s it for this month. To browse more of my monthly reading round-ups, click here.

Book Review: Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier

No human being could live in this wasted country, thought Mary, and remain like other people; the very children would be born twisted, like the blackened shrubs of broom, bent by the force of a wind that never ceased, blow as it would from east and west, from north and south. Their minds would be twisted, too, their thoughts evil, dwelling as they must amidst marshland and granite, harsh heather and crumbling stone. They would be born of strange stock who slept with this earth as a pillow, beneath this black sky.

Jamaica Inn Daphne du Maurier

Jamaica Inn is one of the earlier novels written by Dame Daphne du Maurier, best known for her brilliant work Rebecca. Jamaica Inn is similar to Rebecca in its gothic sensibilities and is very evocative in terms of a sense of place. Where it differs is in size and tone; Jamaica Inn is shorter, and is more of a fun, quick read akin to a modern day thriller. It is a Gothic tale set on the ragged coasts and in the wild moors of Cornwall. The narrator is the orphan Mary Yellen, who is sent to live with her aunt and uncle at the notorious, barren and inhospitable Jamaica Inn (a real inn, now a hotel). Mary finds her Aunt Patience a battered woman living under the drunken, wild, and violent thumb of her husband Joss Merlyn. Jamaica Inn is situated in the midst of the bleak Cornish landscape, in the middle of nowhere, and never hosts any travellers at the inn. Mary is suspicious as to how the Merlyns survive with no custom, but she soon discovers the reason why. Jamaica’s true business comes at night, when men, under cover of darkness, ride wagons up to the inn loaded with goods. It soon becomes apparent that Jamaica Inn is the centre of a smuggling ring, which Mary finds completely reprehensible. She immediately struggles with her morality, torn between wanting her uncle to face the law and wanting to protect her aunt.

Jamaica Inn torments Mary from the moment she arrives, and tests her morals and loyalty in its every twist and turn. As Mary becomes more involved in life at Jamaica, she confides in two men, the first being the local vicar and the second Joss’s brother, Jem, a horse thief, who she is attracted to despite herself. Mary struggles with who to trust, as the smugglers operate with secrecy and a lie is on everyone’s lips. The novel comes to a terrible conclusion, beginning with a drunken confession of Joss’s: the smugglers are, in fact, wreckers. They lure ships to shore with false lights, watch the ships break against the rocks and collect the bounty. The terror comes when the survivors swim to shore, and Joss and his men hold the sailors under and beat them to death; men, women and children all.

I was interested to read this novel as the BBC released a mini TV series of this over the Easter weekend. There was some complaints from viewers about the audio levels and actors mumbling, but I watched it on-demand, and it was understandable, with some characters (Joss Merlyn in particular) harder to hear than others. I really enjoyed the series and would definitely recommend watching it if you are a fan of the book, with subtitles if it helps! The last episode with the wrecking is particularly impactful to watch, a wide-angle lens showing the breaking of the ship and the waves carrying the sailors to shore. Some aspects of the novel have been changed but nothing major, and mostly to give a visual representation of something conveyed in a different way in the novel. Another stand out scene is when Joss makes his confession to Mary. The emotional impact came across very effectively, and the directing was well done (e.g. the impact of having Mary sitting level with Joss, rather than on the floor).

Mary is a true strong female character- not comparable to the fake Strong Female Characters (™) we see in the media today. She is believable, honest, moral, sexual, romantic, curious, and flawed. She shows us that you can be both moral and sexual, and strong and stubborn in some ways but weak in others. She shows a firm and admirable moral compass, and bravery in standing up to her uncle when, as we see, many men are afraid to do so. However she also shows herself to be a young person who has much to learn- she is confused and afraid of her attraction to Joss’s brother Jem Merlyn, given his appearance to be at odds with her personal values, and struggles with how to express her feelings when she is around him. By the end of the novel she learns through her experience at Jamaica Inn to accept rather than run from her desires.

The novel has some faults; its villains are quite stereotypical, there is little guesswork involved in who the villains might be, and the motive of the vicar has been described as unclear or unconvincing by other readers. The novel also displays some problematic attitudes towards the role of women and there is racism in its description of the the albino vicar. Despite this, I would really recommend Jamaica Inn to most readers, particularly fans of thrillers and the gothic. I’d also recommend the novel to teens, both boys and girls, as the language is understandable and there is a lot to be taken away from the novel. I think it sets up some interesting discussions on morality, the roles of men and women, bravery and redemption.

Rating: 3/5. Buy the book: Paperback / Kindle. Follow me: Goodreads / Twitter / Bloglovin

Book Review: A Winter Book by Tove Jansson

“Last summer something unforgivable happened. I became afraid of the sea. Large waves were no longer connected with adventure, only anxiety and responsibility for the boat, and indeed all boats that ply the sea in bad weather. It wasn’t fair; even in my worst dreams the sea had always been an unfailing deliverance: the danger was after you, but you hopped in and sailed away and were safe and never returned. That fear felt like a betrayal- my own.”


– Tove Jansson, ‘Taking Leave’

A Winter Book is a collection of short stories for adults written by Finnish writer Tove Jansson, known as the creator of the Moomins. It’s a beautifully produced book, with textured paper and a soft dust jacket and accompanying photographs of Jansson in her native Finland. The collection of stories has been selected and introduced by Ali Smith, and are on the theme of winter. They are deceptively simple stories, the first half being told from a child’s perspective, and the latter from an adults. The collection is varied and comes to a close with correspondence from Jansson to fans of the Moomins.

The stories focus on incidents in Jansson’s life, most seemingly innocuous, but when examined a little closer, reveal universal concerns about nature, life, art, hope and aging. The stories are deceptively simple and focus on description, and hold back on any attempt to analyse their contents. The stories require the reader to search between the lines and think about what is not being said in order to gain a full analysis of the stories’ fullest depths.

The title of the collection is ‘A Winter Book’, and therefore many stories feature Finland in the colder months. It can be hard for a landlocked non-island dweller to relate to the Scandinavian island lifestyle portrayed in the collection. The sea as a feared and unpredictable danger is not portrayed as such in A Winter Book. In Jansson’s Finland the sea is as steadfast as land in that it is not just part of life, but it is life, and children playing on rafts and in boats is as usual as children walking to the park unaccompanied.

My favourite story in the collection was ‘Parties’. Despite its questionable gender roles, it is a telling perspective into a child’s understanding of adult parties (“I know a lot that I don’t talk about”), complete with music, hangovers and fry-ups, much in the tradition of Henry James’ ‘What Maisie Knew’. My least favourite story, though popular with many readers, was the longer story ‘The Squirrel’, featuring an older woman living alone on an island, who encounters a lone squirrel, a invasion that goes on to disturb her daily routine until the time of its departure. The woman becomes obsessed with the squirrel and by observing her thought process the reader can feel as if they are experiencing degeneration into madness brought on by loneliness and perhaps old age.

A Winter Book is a mixed bag of stories, and not always coherent in narrative and theme, but is a nice addition for fans of Jansson’s work. It would make a lovely gift for those who are a fan of short stories, stories of the sea, or stories told from a child’s perspective.

Rating: 3/5. Buy the book: Paperback. Follow me: Goodreads / Twitter / Bloglovin

The Book Lover’s Survey

Marilyn Monroe reading booksMarilyn Monroe reading books
Marilyn Monroe reading

I’ve posted a lot of book reviews on this blog, but not a lot about reading. I thought I’d start with the book lover’s survey as seen on Emily’s blog.

How did you develop a love for reading?

If there were anyone I were to thank for my love of reading it would probably be my mother (hi mum!). She taught me to read at three years old and it was pretty much what I spent my childhood doing. I was an advanced reader for my age and on occasion it led to me being excluded from activities with the other children in my class, and I have quite a few stories from my pre-teens on this topic. My favourite books around this time were often series. I’m a very character driven reader and once a character captures me I really enjoy being in their world and experiencing their life. Series that I remember loving as a pre-teen were Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea quartet, Robin Jarvis’ Deptford Mice trilogy, Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, The Hobbit / The Lord of the Rings, and of course Harry Potter.

Where do you usually read?

In bed, using the light on my kindle cover. I have this one, and while it’s not cheap, it’s excellent. It protects the kindle really well and is nice to hold. I also read on the bus/tram when travelling, which I enjoy as it’s calming and makes me look forward to the journey.

Do you prefer to read one book at a time or several at once?

I prefer to read one book at a time, but I always have more than one on the go.

What is your favourite genre?

Literary fiction.

Is there a genre you will not read?

As a hard and fast rule, no, as I find that pretty restricting. There are of course some genres I enjoy more than others. Genres I don’t particularly enjoy are chick lit, romance, thrillers / crime, horror, and biographies. Having said that there have been books in those genres that I own and really enjoyed.

Do you have a favourite book?

Lord of the Rings.

What is your least favourite book?

I think this is an interesting question. I very rarely don’t finish a book, and the books I have given up on I did for differing reasons. They have usually been too cliché, badly written or disturbing. Books that I didn’t enjoy at the time but would still recommend are What Maisie Knew by Henry James and Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee.

What is the longest book you have ever read?

Lord of the Rings read as a whole book is pretty long, which is how I first read it as a pre-teen. I initially thought The Wings of the Dove by Henry James was the longest, but apparently Steve Job’s biography by Walter Isaacson beats this. Unless you can count the Bible?

What was the last book you bought?

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (review here) and Death Comes to Pemberly by P.D. James, both in the Kindle sale.

Do you prefer library books or buying books?

I much prefer buying books. Owning my favourite books is really important to me, and worth doing as I’m a re-reader. Having said that I will always defend the importance of libraries and book lending in the community.

What are you currently reading?

An assortment. Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe and The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. To see more of what I’m reading you can add me as a friend on Goodreads here.

If you’d like to do the survey, feel free to write your answers or leave a link to your blog post in the comments, as I’d love to give them a read.

Books: my to-read list for #readwomen2014

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton  The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood  I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou  Night and Day by Virginia WolfEvelina by Fanny Burney  Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe  Little Women by Louisa May Alcott  Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
 

I always have a large pile of books on my to-read list, and this month is no exception. I’m currently making a conscious effort to read books written by women as part of #readwomen2014, so here’s the ladies on my to-read list at the moment. The Blind Assassin will probably be the first of these I finish, as I have a newly acquired physical copy which I have marked for reading after I finish The Three Musketeers (Luke Pasqualino told me to!). I’ve also read several of Atwood’s novels before and thought they were excellent (particularly Cat’s Eye).

Shockingly, for a former literature student and classics lover, I haven’t read Little Women or Jane Eyre. This fact remained a secret until now, as it’s often amusing what conversations you can bluff your way through when people assume you have knowledge of [insert classic book here. As long as it’s not James Joyce’s Ulysees. No-one’s read that.]. I have seen the 2006 BBC mini series adaption of Jane Eyre, but that doesn’t make up for my lack of having read it. Little Women is the classic I’m most looking forward to reading, though. Joey’s experience of reading it in Friends always makes me laugh.

The next book on my list is Evelina, or the history of a young lady’s entrance into the world. I hadn’t heard of this novel until recently, and decided I had to give it a read. I’ve already read the preface and really enjoyed it. Fanny Burney is extremely funny and clever in a very British way, much like Jane Austen. I also decided I had to read it as I share the same name as the character of the title – Eve.

If you’ve read any of these I’d love to know what you thought of them, and which you would recommend. You can also see the books I’ve already read as part of #readwomen2014 here.

Book Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt  The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius
The Goldfinch is the long-awaited third novel from American writer Donna Tartt, published in October last year. Tartt’s first novel, The Secret History, is one of my favourite novels, making the top five in my list of favourite books of all time, so I was really looking forward to reading her latest offering. The plot of The Goldfinch centres around the life of Theo, a young boy of divorced parents growing up in New York. In a visit to a museum to view the painting of the title, Theo and his mother are the victims of a terrorist bombing. Theo survives, and secretly takes the painting with him when he leaves the museum. Throughout the novel we follow Theo as he grows up and we see how his post-traumatic stress disorder, his obsession with the painting, and the relationships he has affect his life and the choices he makes. Two of Theo’s primary relationships after the museum bombing are with antique dealer and restorer Hobie, who trains Theo to become a partner in the business, and Pippa, also a victim of the bombing, with whom Theo predictably becomes obsessed with. We also follow Theo for a brief but influential time living with his father in Las Vegas, where he meets a Russian boy Boris, who becomes a central character in the lives of Theo and of The Goldfinch painting. The Goldfinch has many similarities both to its predecessor The Secret History and to general American literary canon like The Catcher in the Rye in that the main character is a typical disaffected American middle-class white male youth. To Tartt’s credit, she writes Theo well and does a good job of getting inside his mindset and writes the reticence of men well. Theo is a post-modern ‘hero’ at a loss in society, alienated, and searching for the meaning of life in the wake of the museum bombing and the loss of his mother. An argument could be made for Theo as a tragic hero, as we do feel a certain sympathy for him, certainly at the start of the novel due to the bombing. As the novel continues, though, we see Theo continue to make bad decision after bad decision, from his continual abuse of drugs to his art dealings on the black market, and we start to loose sympathy for him. It’s important to note the lack of women and the stereotypes they fall under when they do appear in Tartt’s novels. The main characters of the novel are Theo, his best friend Boris, and Theo’s boss/partner in antiques, Hobie. The women in the novel- namely Theo’s love interests Pippa and Kitsey, are secondary characters, but as far as personality go they remain elusive. The men in the novel have distinct and different personalities, such as the quiet Hobie, nerdy Andy and reckless Boris. In contrast, the personalities of the women only exist in relation to how they impact the men in the novel. The women who do not serve as love interests are subject to the madonna / whore dichotomy; firstly in the character of Theo’s mother, who is killed, martyr-like, retaining her madonna status in an appearance in Theo’s dreams, and secondly in the wicked stepmother/whore figure in Theo’s father’s girlfriend in Vegas, Xandra, a bar worker with a drug addiction. Tartt, like her British counterpart Ian McEwan, is a very literary writer- you could say a writer’s writer- and peppers her novels with references to literary history. In The Secret History the references are predominantly Ancient Greek, whereas in The Goldfinch the references are based around the painting above- The Goldfinch by the Flemish artist Carel Fabritius, and the art of antique dealing, conservation and restoration- in short, our fascination and attachment to objects based on their perceived value. I love Tartt’s writing style but one feature of her writing really stood out for me. Tartt has a tendency to end a sentence that isn’t a question with a question mark. This really stood out as she uses very few other colloquialisms or dialect, with the exception of some questionable and narratively unrealistic Russian English. It could be argued that the use of the question mark illustrates the speech patterns of the character, however I found it failed to add anything to the narrative and was jarring to read. That minor fault aside, I found my main problem with the novel was that it has been badly edited. This is the fault of the publishers, rather than Tartt herself, but since Tartt’s novels are few and far between (it’s been eleven years since her last novel) I feel she is being treated with kid gloves somewhat. The last chapter was rambling, unfocussed and vague and added very little to the novel (and this is coming from a philosophy graduate). It should have been cut completely, and the novel should have ended with Hobies’ speech to Theo on our individual attachment to art at the end of Section 5.2. Overall I would really recommend the novel if you’re a fan of literary fiction, the American Catcher in the Rye novel tradition, coming of age novels, or long novels in general. I love long novels and and literary writing, and that’s usually enough for me to forgive sins of plot or character, both of which could be criticised here. Rating: 4/5. Buy the book: Paperback / Kindle. Follow me: Goodreads / Twitter / Bloglovin

#readwomen2014 Donna Tartt, P.D. James, Edith Nesbit and Jane Austen

The Goldfinch by DOnna TarttNorthanger Abbey by Jane AustenDeath Comes to Pemberly by PD JamesThe Railway Children by Edith Nesbit

I first heard about #readwomen2014 on Twitter at the start of the year. It’s a campaign started by Joanna Walsh (you can read her original blog post here), which aims to increase the awareness of fiction written by women.

Equal representation of women in literature has always been a problem, from the pseudonym of George Eliot, to Joanne becoming “J.K.” Rowling, to the still persistent lack of female authors being critically reviewed in the mainstream press. This is doubly frustrating when you take into consideration the current thriving community of female authors sharing their knowledge and experience online. Contemporary fiction also has a huge community of female readers; the majority of Booktubers (book-reviewing YouTubers) and their viewers are women. All this adds up to an exciting and diverse community of female writers and readers, which is one of the reasons #readwomen2014 really resonated with me. As Joanne said in The Guardian, “Everyone wants equality but few are willing to take responsibility or do the hard work.” readwomen2014 holds you accountable- who will you read? What will you do? Which books by women will you recommend? I challenge you to take a look at your bookshelf (physical or virtual) and view the amount of authors that are male vs. those that are female. It’s against the odds that the majority on your shelf will be by women, but now can be the time you change that for the better.

I won’t pretend that all the books I’ve read this year have been by women. One of the major challenges for me so far this year has been the fact that my favourite genre is classics. Last year, despite my disinclination, I made a conscious effort to read more contemporary fiction. I discovered some gems and some duds, but I always return to the classics- and, of course, in the light of what has already been said- the majority of classics have historically been written by (dead, white) men. Keeping track of what I’m reading on Goodreads (you can follow me here) has held me accountable to the read women project though, and so far this year I’ve read:

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (review here)
Death Comes to Pemberly by P.D. James
Northhanger Abbey by Jane Austen (review here)
The Railway Children by Edith Nesbit
and I’m halfway through Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg.

I’m going to end this post with a (non comprehensive) list of female authors that I wholeheartedly recommend. Please feel free to recommend me female authors in return in the comments, or you can tweet me @evemariadust. I’m always looking for recommendations so I’d love to hear what you’re reading for #readwomen2014.

Margaret Atwood, Donna Tartt, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Jane Austen, Anne Rice, J.K. Rowling, Virginia Woolf, Edith Nesbit, Doris Lessing, Louisa May Alcott, Margaret Mitchell, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Anna Sewell, Mary Shelley, Emily Bronte, Charlotte Bronte, Maya Angelou, Sarah Walters, P.D. James, Hilary Mantel, Audrey Niffenegger, Zadie Smith, Phillipa Gregory, Suzanne Collins, Gillian Flynn, Ursula le Guin.