December Reads

The last push for the Good Reads challenge saw me overtake my 35 book target and rattle through another couple of reads during the festive period. Of course, having so much time to kill in departures and on flights has aided that. My desk today is from a cosy corner in Malta, looking out on a blue sky, white-capped waves and sunshine on sandstone rooftops. Not a bad way to ease back into things.

I’ve already finished my first book of 2019, setting the bar sky high with Sally Rooney’s Normal People, more on that next month, but it’s been nice to look back at December’s reads and think about the festivities now all but put to bed for another year. It was a good month of reading and, I’ve just realised, all women writers!

A quick 2018 wrap up…

Last year I read 37 books, 25 of which were written by women but only nine by BAME writers. A good balance of fiction and non-fiction with 15 books from the history, memoir and new thinking shelves. Not a bad year, all in all, a few troublesome reads but so many more than I utterly adored and several that will take a permanent place on my bookshelf along with my most favourite reads.

And as for December’s additions…

Heartburn by Nora Ephron

I’ve waxed lyrical about Nora Ephron’s brilliance before so I’ll try to curb my enthusiasm a little on this occasion though it’s not easy when the writing is this good. Not that I was surprised – I’ve come across quotes and extracts from Heartburn before, I even recognised some of the lines which made it into Ephron’s scripts for Sleepless in Seattle and my absolute favourite, When Harry Met Sally, but she never fails to astound me.

As an aspiring writer, I’ve long-since adopted Ephron’s mantra that ‘everything is copy‘ but I’m not quite sure I’d have the balls to dissect such painful personal experiences with the same sharp wit and brutal honesty. In Heartburn, Rachel potters through the various threads of a sorrowful narrative which came straight from Ephron’s own life – discovering, at seven months pregnant, that her husband was in love with someone else. The book is a testament to the sage advice commonly given to those who get involved with writers romantically – don’t fuck with them, because you will find yourself and your depraved actions immortalised in print. That Ephron does it with such bittersweet humour is a testament to her genius. 

“‘I don’t make everything into a joke,’ I said. ‘I have to make everything into a story. Remember?”

Nora Ephron, Heartburn

The circumstances which open the book, the fictional husband, Mark, and his fictional giant lady friend Thelma, may well be thinly veiled reflections of their real-life inspirations but Ephron insists that everything else in the book is fictional. But as an avid Ephron fan, I couldn’t help seeing glimpses of her movie characters in Heartburn. She captures the ridiculousness of people in a way that few others can – the ruthless candour which passes between real friends, even in times of heartache, the absurdities of humans, including ourselves – Rachel admits that since she’d married Mark, she didn’t feel like anything happened to her anymore and as a result revels in whatever drama that she does stumble into, witnessing a murder for example:

“I don’t mean to get excited here but I’ve always wanted to be a witness. I’ve always wanted to swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth and spar with lawyers and be sketched by courtroom artists. Now my time had come!”

Nora Ephron, Heartburn

Of course, the point of the book is that lots of things are happening to Rachel and the sequence of events which lead to her taking control of her own happenings are a wonderful rollick. The truth is that nothing much has to actually happen in an Ephron story because the storytelling is the point, the characters are fascinating chasms of human chaos and little kindnesses – the chapter about Rachel and Mark’s friendship with the Siegals is utterly wonderful but it is purely, and very honestly, only there to provide background. 

And yet there are also hugely important lessons to be learnt from Heartburn, many of them culinary thanks to the mouthwatering recipes which Ephron scatters among the narrative, but also, for me at least, a timely reminder of telling our own stories, of being honest with ourselves, if not completely with our audiences. I’ve been trying very hard over the past few weeks to put down on paper how I feel and where the facts might be mingled among all the emotion that I’ve needed to expel. 

“To write it down was to give it permanence, to admit that something real had happened. I walked around the room trying to pretend that nothing had happened. I thought about potatoes.”

Nora Ephron, Heartburn

As someone who regularly thinks about potatoes, I also greatly appreciated the emotional entanglement they seem to have for Rachel/Nora too:

“The problem with mashed potatoes, though, is that they require almost as much hard work as crisp potatoes, and when you’re feeling blue the last thing you feel like is hard work. Of course, you can always get someone to make the mashed potatoes for you, but let’s face it: the reason you’re blue is that there isn’t anyone to make them for you.”

Nora Ephron, Heartburn

It’s in perfect little moments such as this that you step back from the laughter and feel the sorrow, just for a second, just long enough for it to remain real. Ephron may distort the realities of her own experience with wit, but no amount of comedy can obscure the hard truths so familiar to the reader – someone you trust can betray you, someone you love can hurt you, can become a stranger. And much of the heartache that follows those colossal agonies, is just how long it takes to hit home. It can take weeks, months, even years, before you can say the words out loud to yourself and know them to be true. It’s part of the story and if Ephron has taught us nothing else, it’s that you have to own your story.

“Because if I tell the story, I control the version. Because if I tell the story, I can make you laugh, and I would rather have you laugh at me than feel sorry for me. Because if I tell the story, it doesn’t hurt as much. Because if I tell the story, I can get on with it.”

Nora Ephron, Heartburn

The Long Song by Andrea Levy

It already feels a lifetime since I finished Andrea Levy’s The Long Song and I’ve not yet caught up on the BBC adaptation what with all the Christmas chaos – in fact I have such a wealth of festive telly to catch up on when I get back to Liverpool, I may not write another thing until March.

I struggled a little with the opening chapters of The Long Song, finding the form of storytelling and the meta-ish narration a little jarring. Gradually I began to understand the reasoning behind it – there’s such a rich a history of slave narratives that this fictional storytelling felt contrived but Levy knows what’s she’s doing. The direct narration of the storyteller which peppers the story-telling chapters are key to the whole book, bringing July’s history and the heroism and sometimes problematic nature of the genre to life.

Oddly, July’s temptations to alter her story or skip over the darker moments give her narration a greater sincerity. Newly freed slaves suddenly had the power and means to tell their own stories and while history might demand truth in all its painful honesty, why should the storyteller give it? Reliving such horrors, sharing them with the world, it’s only natural that some people might want to change their stories, to sugarcoat them or fictionalise them entirely. We know the stories of those freed slaves who have put their pain down on paper but Levy imagines the untold stories. Someone who tells their history not from a personal motivation but because they’ve been urged to do so by some external force, in this case, July’s son. It immediately sets a different expectation – can we trust her narrative? Not because she might lie maliciously or to her own fortune, but because she’s scared of telling her own truth, of reliving the pain and trauma, scared of admitting difficult things to her own son. It is the same fear any storyteller faces, that’s why so many of us turn to fiction, making things up or softening the focus on our own histories, is natural, human even.

I might return to ponder The Long Song a little more when I have the book back at hand and I’ve caught up on the BBC adaptation. For now though, I really would recommend it to anyone looking for a new year read!

A History of Britain in 21 Women by Jenni Murray

I only just snuck this read into the Vote 100 year as intended and it was a perfect festive read with bite-sized chapters that packed a punch, sending me back to family meals with lots of “I’ve just read about…” and “Did you know…” to share.

I’ve always had an affection for Jenni Murray after spending daily train journeys across the Wirral with the Woman’s Hour podcast. This book has a similar charm – informative, interesting, empowering and with just the right balance of cynicism or bitter humour.

I’d heard of most of the women included in Murray’s history but it was great to learn more about figures like Boadicea who exercised an equality unknown in recent centuries and Millicent Garrett Fawcett who endeavoured to retrieve it.

“We should honour and show more respect to the women who remind us that there was a time in distant history when men and women in Britain had equal rights to property, power and inheritance; where a woman would take up arms against the men who abused her and her daughters, and where men and women would fight alongside each other to defend their rights and their nation.”

Jenni Murray, A History of Britain in 21 Women

It even piqued my interest to revisit those names I came to dread in school like Elizabeth I. Not being British, it was something of a pill to swallow, learning the boring rigmarole of their kings and queens during history lessons, but looking back it hadn’t occurred to me then how few women were included in those classes. And why women like Nancy Astor and Barbara Castle weren’t mentioned is beyond me. Their impact on my life has been just as great if not greater than any of the faceless Richards or Williams who took to the throne.

It was interesting to see Murray include problematic female figures from history such as Thatcher, particularly having read her own personal experiences of meeting the woman and the impact her politics had on Murray’s own community. Thatcher “was loved and loathed in equal measure” but her place in history is simply a fact. It’s another thread from the global conversation about those historical figures whose beliefs or actions jar with our modern thinking. Should student halls, for example, continue to bear the name of a man who built his fortune on slavery? Should we tear down statues of those who ended up on the wrong side of history or simply build more of those who were on the right side to outweigh the former’s presence in the world? The erection of Emmeline Pankhurst’s statue in Manchester this past month answers the question for me.

Of course, I’ve only recently read Pankhurst’s own story, but Murray’s history reminded me to read around, to get the full picture and learn as much as possible. Mary Seacole’s life also felt familiar, reminding me of much snippets from The Long Song and Sugar Money, but it made me want to read more. Similarly, the snapshots of Mary Wollstonecraft’s life whet my appetite to explore the world which brought minds such as hers and Ada Lovelace’s to challenge male-dominated thinking.

I was familiar too, with Jane Austen and Countess Markievicz’s stories, being two of my greatest heroes, but it was still a joy to read Murray’s take on their role in history. Markievicz was, of course, an Irish rebel and politician “who had no love for Britain and the British” but as the first woman elected to the UK parliament she opened a door, and as an Irish woman, refused to enter it, making her an inspirational figure all round for me personally.

This book has opened up so many new stories to me, so many women I want to know more about. I suspect 2019’s reading will include a few more in-depth histories. The History of Britain in 21 Women is a fantastic gateway drug for anyone keen to revisit the history we learned in school from a woman’s perspective.

The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie

This was only my second venture into Christie’s back catalogue. After a festive book club choice a few years ago, I’ve come to think of Agatha Christie as a Christmas essential. Again, there’s a TV adaptation of another of her mysteries to catch up on but I really enjoyed The Body in the Library. Without meaning to sound snobbish or anything, I think most people would agree that Christie’s books are an easy read – perfect for the Christmas lull when you just want to curl up with a good story. Unlike the other books I read in 2018 there are maybe two or three page corners turned down, just a few quotes I wanted to come back to, mostly about women to be honest – if anyone has any pointers or recommended reading on Christie from a feminist perspective I’d be very interested to hear them!

Another thing about the importance of having an easy read on hand for Christmas – this was a book I could pick up and read in front of the telly when the family were watching something I wasn’t interested in. It didn’t require so much of my focus and energy that I couldn’t drop in and out of the general festivities while also making the most of the ideal reading conditions – namely, a crackling fire, a cosy sofa, a brew and a fluffy companion to curl up with.

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