I have fallen behind on writing up my monthly reads what with all the good Summer weather, the weddings and general life getting in the way, so I’m going to dissect August’s Reads with maximum efficiency.
Dear Ijeawele, A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
If you’ve read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists, this is exactly the second helping you’ve been craving. I plan on giving this to everyone I know on the birth of a child – not just the mothers, the fathers too, and not just on the birth of a daughter, we really should all be feminists regardless of what reproductive organs we’re born with.
“Remember at primary school we learned that a verb was a ‘doing’ word? Well, a father is as much a verb as a mother.”
That a father should do “everything that biology allows” seems such a simple proposition and yet here we are in 2018 having to reassert the fact. There’s no doubt that society is making good progress but reading this suggestion I was reminded of a conversation I overheard in the park this summer. I was having lunch in one of the gardens at work and two mothers with their little ones had settled down for a picnic nearby. One mother, who had two adorable little girls, well-presented and full of laughter and mischief, was complaining to her friend that her other half wasn’t pulling his weight when it came to the kids – that he had never even brushed their hair (one of these children was at least three years old) and worse still, didn’t pay any attention to them. It broke my heart, not just for the mother, exhausted and pissed off, but also for the little girls who were being cheated of a parent. I know a little something of that and I know what effect it can have on a family to have one parent who despite their presence, has checked out emotionally or otherwise.
Adichie’s words of wisdom pierce through every papered-over excuse for sexism, or ‘Feminism Light’ as she calls it – the idea that “men are naturally superior but should be expected to ‘treat women well'” or that they need to imagine their wife/mother/daughter as the subject of sexual assault or rape before they can experience empathy. Adichie reminds us about the power of language and that children learn more by example that lesson – they should hear you talk about women you admire as much if not more than about women who dislike, about your health as much if not more than your appearance.
The Whitsun Weddings by Philip Larkin
It’s not often that I’ll pick up a poetry anthology and read it cover to cover, I prefer to dip in and out of collections over the course of weeks, months, years even. But Faber and Faber’s poetry paperbacks are perfectly aesthetically pleasing for reading on the go – a poem at the bus stop, over your sandwich at lunchtime, in the doctor’s waiting room. If you find yourself dozing off after a page or two at bedtime, poetry is perfect. Read it out loud, slowly, two or three times over, focus on the lines that speak to you, the words that feel good on your tongue, sound nice to the ear.
“Home is so sad. It stays as it was left, Shaped to the comfort of the last to go As if to win them back. Instead, bereft Of anyone to please, it withers so, Having no heart to put aside the theft And turn again to what it started as, A joyous shot at how things ought to be, Long fallen wide. You can see how it was: Look at the pictures, and the cutlery. The music in the piano stool. That vase.”
A whole poem, though it might not seem it with the line breaks removed. But read as a paragraph it paints a picture, tells a story, stirs up something inside. Home is so Sad, Talking in Bed, The Whitsun Weddings, these poems spin greater stories in just a few lines than some writers can tell in 200 pages, partly that’s the beauty of Philip Larkin but also it’s just good poetry. It’s what I turn to first when I’m struggling to write, Larkin’s poems in particular – he captures moments so charged with feeling, they’re the greatest writing prompts you could ask for, their history is there waiting to be unraveled.
A Song for Issy Bradley by Carys Bray
Phew. This was a Shared Reading group book, every line read aloud slowly and deliberately in weekly sessions over the course of eight months. Part of the brilliance of Shared Reading opposed to a book club is that you can’t skim over anything, you don’t forget to mention the little things or the seemingly trivial. Nothing in a novel should be trivial, and reading slowly and with such purpose in a group provides the space for those conversations to unfold – questions are asked, different points of view are shared – and this book is the perfect read for that. I’ve seen Carys Bray talk before so I knew a little about the heartache this book had grown from, usually in Shared Reading we avoid the author, but with this book it was difficult. From the offset group members could feel the personal experience in it, they could sense that closeness, and if anything knowing the reality of the story, the loss of a child, made it more compelling.
There were moments throughout this book where we really struggled – we were reading it slowly, but Bray was also telling it slowly, the reader is meant to feel the struggle of grief, the time it consumes, the way that life can stand still for one person yet carry on regardless. And life happened regardless of what we were reading, during the months we were reading A Song for Issy Bradley, we heard the news of two elderly group members passing, another suffered a close family bereavement, we felt this book deeply and personally, as everyone must. But just like life, there were also moments of real humour, we giggled and triumphed in the sarcastic backhands of the teenage Alma. We grieved and pitied and sometimes didn’t quite know what to say as we stepped inside the unfamiliar customs of an unfamiliar religion (Mormonism) and watched a family in crisis.
“Anyone can be brave for five minutes or an hour or two. The bravery no one talks about is the hardest bravery of all. When you get up in the morning even though you’d rather be dead, that’s brave.”