September reading round up

Is it just that ‘events’ seem to be happening so fast or did September just fly by? We’re into autumn proper now and the season change is my favourite time of year. It helps being a September baby, I guess. Anyway, here’s my reading round up for the month – a bumper crop.

A Thousand Ships – Natalie Haynes

I read Madeline Miller’s books last year and loved them so immediately rushed out to buy more myth retellings and obviously they then sat on the shelf for months. With Haynes’ new book published this month, I decided to wade through some of them – as so many of the myths are linked and interwoven it actually makes sense to try an immersive approach (or so I thought). A Thousand Ships is, as you might have imagined, the story of the Trojan War, from the point of view of the women involved. It is told in a series of ‘books’ to echo the old poetic form, each of them concerned with a different woman involved in the war, and returning again and again to the defeated Trojan queen Hecabe and her daughters. Haynes’ main thread throughout is the idea that war is not just about fighting but that the actions of the women who don’t necessarily fight (though one chapter is about the Amazon queen Penthislea who is slain on the battlefield) are as obviously brave and heroic as the actions of the men. The impact of war is as devastating on women as it is on men. An obvious point, you might think, but sat within the masculine tradition, not one that has always been considered. I liked this v much.

Mother of Invention – Katrine Marcal

In between the myths, I tried to vary it a little. Marcal’s last book was ‘Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?’, which explored the impact of unpaid work on the economy and how much of that unpaid work is done by women. This book is about innovation and more specifically, about how much more slowly innovative ideas take hold if women’s point of view is ignored. Her early examples are about how wheeled suitcases and electric cars took years to be adopted because they were regarded as too feminine to be any use. In some places it’s a difficult argument to pull off, but she comes into her own more when discussing statistics – only 3% of venture capital is invested in women’s companies and ideas, for example, which means that risks cannot be taken as much by those companies. There are more of these examples, and essentially she shows that we are systemically ignoring a huge subsection of workers and ideas, despite those workers having had proof of producing excellent work (space suits for the moon landings were made by women who usually made underwired bras, the first decent mobility aids for disabled people were put together by a Swedish woman and so on). Answers for all sorts of issues, most pressingly climate change, are potentially being ignored because we’re held back by a system built for the male point of view. It’s a frustrating read and although some of the solutions are obvious, it did lead me to shout, “Why are we like this?” at the top of my voice. If you were designing a society today, I’m pretty certain you wouldn’t structure it like this. What’s more telling is that the blurb quotes by people who have read the book are all from women who are already aware of issues like this (Caroline Criado Perez, for example.) We really need to push this into the hands of others.

Ariadne – Jennifer Saint

Back to the classics and another in the flurry of female retellings. I don’t know if it’s just because we’re used to hearing about the myths across different art forms and watching somewhat sanitised film versions or perhaps because we’re used to the fragments of stories but you do forget how incredibly brutal they are. No chance of forgetting that in this book. Ariadne is famous for helping Theseus get out of the Labyrinth, but there was so much more here. I was unaware of the details of the whole story and how again, it all interconnects with other myths. The theme behind this one is about retelling stories, and about the clash of gods and mortals, and finally of course about the impact of the incredibly toxic masculinity of the society on its women. This took me about 50 pages or so to get into but once I was in, I thought it was good. Very detailed.

Nothing But Blue Sky – Jennifer Mahon

I can’t do brutal myth retellings at bedtime so pulled this from the shelves. I think this was longlisted for the Women’s Prize and came to my attention through that. It’s a story of a marriage, narrated by the husband after his wife dies in a plane crash. His wife is called Mary Rose which made it hard for me to read as every time I saw her name I thought of the rhyme (Mary Rose sat on a pin, Mary Rose) and he’s also a fairly low-key unlikeable person. What I mean is, he’s not an abuser or violent or anything, but as he tells us more and more it’s hard to like him. He seems to have very little in common with his wife, wants very different things to her and is also anti-social so his grieving process is difficult for him. Mary Rose is also described as such a bland saintlike character that I’d also question his narrative accuracy.

The Silence of the Girls and The Women of Troy – Pat Barker

These are the first two in a trilogy (she likes books in threes, doesn’t she?) where Barker takes us back to the Iliad and retells it mostly through the eyes of Briseis, Achilles’ prize for fighting. Silence is a book of smells. She talks a lot about how people or places smell, mostly in a negative sense obviously, rats and blood and disease and the sea and sex. This was not as emotionally affecting as some of the other retellings, Briseis is a mostly dispassionate narrator, but it is very readable and if you’re not familiar with the story of the Iliad, you get a great version of it here. I wasn’t entirely sure why, in a mostly female retelling, she chose to have some chapters from Achilles’ point of view – these just appeared, halfway through the book and weren’t as effective as the others. However, I did enjoy the relationships built up by the women across the camps and how they supported each other in the face of constant male violence and disrespect. The Women of Troy continues with mainly Briseis but there were also more male-led chapters, this time from Pyrrhus’s point of view, and again, I found it an odd structure. The main issue with this book though, was that I didn’t think Briseis was a compelling character, she’s nice enough but really seems to be there as a foil to everything else going on so the whole time I did feel at arm’s length, rather than completely engaged. The other problem with The Women of Troy is that very little happens – it’s post-Trojan war and they’re all waiting to go home. These are interesting mainly as a basic way of telling the main events, but without reading the original poems. I’m not totally convinced that her retelling from a mainly female point of view gives us the depth and feeling that other writers have managed with the myths.

Lands End: A Walk Through Provincetown – Michael Cunningham

Another bedtime read and this is from a series where writers are asked to talk about a place. This reads as part travel writing, part social history and part something else entirely. Provincetown is one of the earliest towns settled on the East Coast of America and sounds incredibly beautiful – I wished for photographs while I was reading. It’s an old fishing town that is now famed for the writers and artists who lived or worked there for a time – Eugene O’Neill, Jackson Pollock, Mary Oliver and Cunningham himself among many others. It’s also a bohemian town, a smaller version of Brighton if you will, and this book is a fond guide and memorial.

How We Disappeared – Jing Jing Lee

This month’s reading group choice and if I was looking for a change after so many books about war and rape this month, this probably wasn’t the book to choose. It’s another from the Jubilee Reads list and is set in Singapore, in present day and during the Japanese occupation during the Second World War. The narrative has three strands – one is modern day Kevin whose grandmother whispers a secret to him on her deathbed and he has to solve the mystery; the other two are for the same person Wang Di but one is told in present day third person narrative and the other in first person during the war. Once I got my head around this (about 100 pages in) I then raced through it. It’s brutal in parts, but ultimately redeeming and so well written. Really very good indeed.

The End of the Day – Bill Clegg

A final bedtime book. I enjoyed Clegg’s earlier work ‘Did you Ever Have a Family’ which is a quiet, uneventful but rich in character look at a family and their (usually bad) choices. This is much the same but somehow didn’t work for me at all. I kept reading because I wanted to know what on earth had happened but my god, it took so long to get there! It was another book told from multiple points of view and I found it very confusing for most of the book to try and keep up with who the main characters were. In terms of style it was mostly tell, don’t show and though when done well, this can be good, I felt here perhaps it was a missed opportunity to do the whole thing better.

As you can see, my planned ‘immersion’ in classics retellings was only 4 books and I still have 3 more on the shelves. But combined with How We Disappeared and also the denouement of the Clegg (no spoilers) I couldn’t face any more appalling treatment of women this month.

Moments of Pleasure

I was pleasantly surprised and delighted to watch the Baymax animated series on Disney+, featuring the hero of Big Hero 6, Baymax, an inflatable medical robot. The tv series is 10-minute long episodes where Baymax goes to help someone and they’re all very sweet but the third episode, Sophia, is an inclusive joy. Sophia gets her first period at school just when she is about to appear in the talent show. Baymax goes off to buy sanitary products for her and asks for recommendations from local women (and a trans person) in the supermarket. It’s all so joyously easily inclusive designed to give confidence to girls about to start teenager-dom. As it happens I have one of those in the house. We thought this was terrific.

We also had a reading group trip to the theatre to see an actual play (I usually watch musicals). The Clothes They Stood Up In is an adaptation of an Alan Bennett short story currently at Nottingham Playhouse and was very good. I wasn’t sure what to expect, though Bennett always gives you uptight English people in silly situations and extracts the poignancy with such care – and that was the case here. Special shout out for Sophie Thompson’s performance which was superb.

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