Fight Like A Girl – Clementine Ford

Summary from Goodreads:

Online sensation, fearless feminist heroine and scourge of trolls and misogynists everywhere, Clementine Ford is a beacon of hope and inspiration to thousands of Australian women and girls. Her incendiary debut Fight Like A Girl is an essential manifesto for feminists new, old and soon-to-be, and exposes just how unequal the world continues to be for women. Crucially, it is a call to arms for all women to rediscover the fury that has been suppressed by a society that still considers feminism a threat.

I picked this book up a few months ago, read the first chapter, and then put it down again. I guess I just wasn’t really in the mood for it and it did feel a bit like reading ‘Feminism 101’. NOTE: THAT SHOULD NOT DISCOURAGE YOU FROM READING IT. A few months later, I saw it in the ‘hot picks’ section at my local library and picked it up again and I AM SO GLAD I DID.

Ford’s writing is punchy, sarcastic and incredibly accessible without dumbing down the big theoretical issues too much. In many ways this book is perfect for teenagers (I was going to write teenage girls but it’s essential that boys read this kind of stuff too) and I wish that it had been around when I was younger. If you are well-versed in feminist theory, you are unlikely to learn anything new here, but Ford’s arguments are well-summarised and she adds a personal touch to many of them by sharing her personal experiences. Importantly, Ford acknowledges that she is an able-bodied, middle-class, heterosexual, cisgender white woman and that unpacking privilege is an incredibly difficult but important task. Reading this book reminded me that Ford’s particular brand of feminism is not one that all women identify with and many of the ideas I take for granted are in fact quite controversial.

My key criticism of this book is that it was a bit repetitive at times. In fact, it was written like a very long Facebook rant and I would have appreciated a little more structure. This humour-driven, rant-like style works well for short, snappy pieces online or in the newspaper, but in a longer form, it can be exhausting to read. Criticisms aside, I think it is incredibly important that people read and discuss this book and I am so happy to see that it is selling so well here in Australia. Also, on a side note, Clementine is a lovely woman who often comes into the bookstore where I work and you should support her by reading and discussing her book!

Have you read Fight Like A Girl? What did you think? Would love to hear your thoughts (even and especially those that differ from mine). 

~Anna

Life After Life – Kate Atkinson

Summary from Goodreads:

On a cold and snowy night in 1910, Ursula Todd is born, the third child of a wealthy English banker and his wife. Sadly, she dies before she can draw her first breath. On that same cold and snowy night, Ursula Todd is born, lets out a lusty wail, and embarks upon a life that will be, to say the least, unusual. For as she grows, she also dies, repeatedly, in any number of ways. Clearly history (and Kate Atkinson) have plans for her: In Ursula rests nothing less than the fate of civilization.

Before I start this review, I just want to say that this book had been on my TBR list since 2013. And I finally got around to reading it! And I didn’t buy it! I borrowed it from the library (that I have lived around the corner from for over a year but didn’t join until last month because I was too busy buying books that I don’t need). How’s that for fighting tsundokism? *pats self on shoulder* Seriously though, libraries are magical havens that should be frequented much more frequently by all, especially me. Note to self: when faced with the urge to buy a book, go to the library instead.

Anyway, back to Life After Life. The book blurb suggests that the question the novel explores is: “What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?” While this question is posed by one of the characters, it didn’t really strike me that this is what the novel is about. Rather, it’s more about all of the paths that a person’s life can take depending on a range of factors, including their own decisions, the actions of others, and random events over which no one has control. In their impact on Ursula, these factors create a complex web of alternative realities, so that she lives different lives in parallel worlds.

Ursula’s lives can be seen as an infinite series of forks in the road of time, with each fork representing a moment of crisis and subsequent change. However, Atkinson layers Ursula’s different lives on top of each other, so that she can sense them, through déja-vu experiences, through presentiments of doom, or simply through feeling that something is not quite the way it should be. Ursula states at one point that time is like a palimpsest and this is exactly the impression that Atkinson creates. The ways in which Ursula’s lives differ one from the other are given additional force by the things that stay the same: Ursula’s essential character, the personalities of her parents and siblings, the nature of her relationships with them, the family home. With each layer of a different life, Ursula, her parents and siblings age and develop; yet they remain recognisably themselves, for good or bad.

All in all, I really enjoyed this book! It was fun, original, well-written, and thought-provoking. Parts of it were quite over the top (I mean really, Ursula shoots Hitler in the opening chapter), but I didn’t really mind at all. After reading Robert Seethaler’s lovely, quiet novel A Whole Life (you can find my review here), it was a lot of fun to read something so audacious.

That said, there were moments where I was a little disoriented, as the story jumps around in time quite a lot. Also, I thought there were some sections that dragged a little and I couldn’t help but wish for Ursula to hurry up and die already so I could read about another one of her lives. Does that make me a horrible person? Don’t get me wrong, she is not an unlikeable character – in fact, I really liked her and emphathised with her a lot – but there were moments that felt a little repetitive.

Aside from these small criticisms, I loved this book. Would definitely recommend it to anyone looking for a fun-and-entertaining-but-not-trashy read.

Have you read Life After Life? What did you think about it? 

~Anna

A Whole Life – Robert Seethaler

In German, we have a word (Waldeinsamkeit) that roughly translates to “the feeling of woodland solitude, of being alone in the woods and contemplating one’s existence”. Replace “woodland” with “mountains” (Bergeinsamkeit, I guess) and that is what Robert Seethaler’s exquisite novel A Whole Life captures.

Andreas Egger lives almost his whole life in the Austrian Alps, where he arrives as a young boy taken in by a farming family. He is a man of very few words and so, when he falls in love with Marie, he doesn’t ask for her hand in marriage, but instead has some of his friends light her name at dusk across the mountain. When Marie dies in an avalanche, pregnant with their first child, Andreas’ heart is broken. He leaves his valley just once more, to fight in WWII – where he is taken prisoner in the Caucasus – and returns to find that modernity has reached his remote haven…

After his return, the days pass slowly, but they are not filled with sadness as one might expect. Rather, Andreas is filled with an appreciation for the world around him – the beauty of the mountains, the gift of waking up each morning and falling into a deep sleep at the end of the day, the sense of having a purpose, even if it is not quite clear. He believes sharing his love of nature might be his purpose, and so he begins to act as a guide for tourists, and for a time, he is content.

It feels as though each word in this book (it’s more of a novella, really) was chosen with great care, but there is nothing pretentious about the writing. There is joy and sadness, but it is expressed quietly, softly – as an appreciation for the smallest kindness or a muted sense of loneliness. Like John Williams’ Stoner or Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, A Whole Life is a tender book about finding dignity and beauty in solitude. Simply gorgeous. Please read it.

Have you read A Whole Life? Did you enjoy it as much as I did? Thanks for stopping by. 

~Anna

The Secret Agent – Joseph Conrad

While Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is certainly his most famous work, I think that The Secret Agent is infinitely better. Why? It’s beautifully-written, full of action, suspense, well-drawn characters, and although it was published in 1907, Conrad’s astute observations about society are relevant even today. Especially today.

The plot: Adolf Verloc has two jobs. One is to run a seedy shop in London with his wife and her simple-minded brother, and the other is to operate as a secret agent. However, Verloc is certainly no James Bond; he prefers to do the absolute minimum required to receive his paycheck. That is, until he is confronted by the shady Mr Vladimir, a foreign ambassador of some kind, with an ultimatum: lose his job or blow up the Greenwich Observatory. The idea behind this plot is that by targeting a building of such symbolic significance, England will be stirred into decisive, even extreme action against criminal/revolutionary/terrorist organisations. This is pretty dark stuff and it is easy to see how this bleak take on the political world would be eaten up by conspiracy theorists.

One of the first things I noticed about this book is that although the novel is set in London, it is surprisingly un-English. None of the characters have very English-sounding names, and even the descriptions of the city do not bring to mind images of red telephone boxes and Buckingham Palace. Rather, Conrad’s London appears to be permanently engulfed in darkness, so much so that it becomes difficult to tell that the novel is actually set in London and not in some bleak, cold corner of Poland (Conrad’s home country).

Another thing I loved about this book is that although it is so obviously, relentlessly political, the characters are not one-dimensional. Throughout the novel, Verloc grapples with his conscience as he is forced to adjust from being an observer to an active participant in a terrorist plot. Then there’s the relationship between the simple-minded Stevie and the Verlocs. It is difficult to discuss this relationship without divulging any spoilers, but it is safe to say that he is, in a sense, both a symbol of innocence and the human mirror of Mr Verloc’s emotional state.

I think you can probably gather that I really loved this book, but I must admit that I did have a couple of issues with it. It did take me about 100 pages to get into the story and I did contemplate giving up once or twice towards the beginning because the writing is so dense (I’m so glad I didn’t). I also thought that some words were used a little too frequently (Mr Verloc ‘mumbles’ so much that I couldn’t help but think of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series) and Conrad uses a ridiculous number of adverbs. But, you can’t be too critical of his over-use of adverbs because did I mention that English was Conrad’s THIRD FREAKING LANGUAGE?!? Yep, that’s right. His first language was Polish, then came French, and then at the age of twenty-one, Conrad finally learned English. And he writes better than the vast majority of native speakers. Unfair.

Anyway, I highly highly highly recommend this book, especially if you’re a fan of political satires. Or even if you’re not. Just read it.

Have you read The Secret Agent? Or any of Joseph Conrad’s other works? What did you think? Would love to hear from you. 

~Anna

Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil – Melina Marchetta

Melina Marchetta’s Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil is a fast-paced thriller that jumps between both sides of the English Channel. The story begins in London, where suspended desk cop Bashir “Bish” Ortley is grappling with the death of his son and the disintegration of his marriage. Across the channel, a bus carrying a group of British teenagers is subject to a deadly bomb attack and Bish discovers that his daughter is one of those on board. The main suspect is 17-year-old Violette LeBrac, whose grandfather blew up a supermarket thirteen years ago, and whose mother is serving a life sentence in prison for allegedly planning the attack. As Bish is dragged into the search for missing Violette, he finds himself reluctantly working with her mother and begins to wonder if justice was actually served all those years ago.

I picked up this book after one of my coworkers mentioned that it was her favourite crime read of 2016, but I have to say that I was a little disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, I think Melina Marchetta is a fantastic writer and I am a huge fan of her YA novels, but I think this one missed the mark by a bit.

My first criticism of this book is that the plot is highly convoluted. I had a lot of trouble keeping track of all of the characters and their respective backstories, and there are a lot of plotholes. For example, I really don’t think that a suspended London desk cop would ever be allowed to collaborate with MI5 on a serious bombing case, especially if his own daughter were involved in the attack. But whatever… good story > procedural accuracy, right?

My other main criticism is that this book lacks a lot of subtlety. One of the key themes explored is racial profiling, particularly the treatment of those of Arab/Middle Eastern descent by police authorities. This is an important issue, don’t get me wrong. But I thought that it was explored so heavy-handedly that the resolution of the story was clear to me from the very first chapter.

Despite these criticisms, I thought that the characters in this book were well-constructed and interesting, especially the teenage characters. Often, teenage characters in adult crime novels have absolutely no depth, but Marchetta has a real knack for writing complex and believable teenagers.

Overall, this book was a miss for me, but I know a lot of people who loved it. I think that Marchetta is great at exploring family relationships and creating interesting characters, but not so suited to the thriller/mystery genre.

Have you read this book? What did you think? How does it compare to her YA novels? Would love to hear from you. 

~Anna

Eligible – Curtis Sittenfeld

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice may have been written over 200 years ago, but it has been reimagined and resurrected countless times – as a Bollywood extravaganza (Bride and Prejudice), a gory zombie novel (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) and best of all, as a BBC mini-series featuring Colin Firth and a wet shirt. Now comes Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible, which moves this classic story to that roiling hotbed of societal intrigue, the Cincinnati suburbs.

The basic story is very familiar – a silly woman plots to marry off her five unwed daughters to rich bachelors, couples fall in and out of love, and the grouchy and handsome Mr. Darcy reveals his heart of gold – however Curtis Sittenfeld manages to give it a hearty and original update. I won’t go into detail about the plot because I think it’s pretty fun to see how the story has been reimagined, but I will say that I think this modernisation is lighthearted, fresh, and funny. The writing is not spectacular and it is by no means Curtis Sittenfeld’s best work, but it made me chuckle to myself a few times and it made a 12-hour flight pass very quickly. The final verdict: Curtis Sittenfeld + Jane Austen modernisations + long haul flights = the ultimate guilty pleasure. 

Have you read this book? If so, what did you think? And what do you think of Jane Austen modernisations in general? Let me know what you think.

~Anna

My Bedside Book Mountain

My bedside book mountain is really getting out of hand. Yesterday I bought two new books instead of picking up one of the million unread books lying around my apartment. Pitiful. But they both looked so good and I needed them on my shelf! To be honest, that’s probably a lie, but whatever. Anyway, I thought I would share with you some of the books I’m working my way through at the moment. I wish that I were more disciplined and could read just one book at a time, but I have a bad habit of picking up new books at random, discarding ones that don’t interest me, and most unfortunately, buying new ones instead of going to the library or reading what I already have.

1. The Story of a New Name – Elena Ferrante

I picked up My Brilliant Friend a couple of weeks ago and absolutely adored it (you can find my review here). The characters are wonderfully complex, the writing is so fierce and vibrant, and the story is very gripping. Needless to say, it took me less than 24 hours to buy the second book in the series after finishing the first. So far I am enjoying it immensely and to be honest, I think it might even be better than the first. I have definitely been converted.

2. The Hate Race – Maxine Beneba Clarke

I am also currently reading Maxine Beneba Clarke’s powerful and harrowing memoir about growing up black in Australia. I’m not going to lie, this is a difficult book to read, but I think that it is a very important book for Australians at this time. To be honest, I have neglected this one a little just because it is so depressing – the blatant and cruel racism that Maxine describes really makes my stomach squirm – but I definitely plan on finishing it soon.

3. The Hidden Life of Trees – Peter Wohlleben

Now for something completely different – The Hidden Life of Trees! In this book, Peter Wohlleben shares his deep love of trees and forests and explains the amazing scientific processes of life, death, and regeneration he has observed in the woodland. He argues that much like human families, tree parents live together with their children, communicate with them, and support them as they grow, sharing nutrients with those who are sick or struggling and creating an ecosystem that mitigates the impact of extremes of heat and cold for the whole group. As a result of such interactions, trees in a family or community are protected and can live to be very old. I’m only a couple of chapters in (this is my go-to lunch break read at work), but I still can’t figure out whether this guy is a treehugging nut case or a total genius. Will have to wait and see.

Which books are on your bedside book mountain? Have you read any of these? Do you have any recommendations? 

~Anna