Despite the fact that I vowed to buy fewer books this year, my Spell the Month reading challenge has made it difficult to do this. I have a lot of unread books but there are plenty of letters that I still don’t have books for. J is one of the most awkward letters for me at the moment and I had to go searching for something to pick up. I read about this when looking on the Booker Prize website. I’m not normally a fan of short story collections because I prefer a longer form. However, this sounded like something that I couldn’t miss. The fact that it’s a J title was an added bonus.
I have been a lover of Agatha Christie for a long time but I’ve never read any of the novels that she published under her pseudonym, Mary Westmacott. Mostly because of the way they’ve been labelled. If there’s anything more likely to get me to avoid a book it’s referring to it as a romance novel. It’s not that I think romance novels are bad but it’s just not my thing. Love is a fact of life but that doesn’t mean I need to read about it for 200-300 pages. I will read the odd romance every now and them but I prefer something a bit darker. Give me a love story full of grisly murder and maybe we can talk. Otherwise, I’ll probably look elsewhere. Although, I decided that I couldn’t really call myself a true Christie fan if I didn’t at least try to read her other books. Why pick this one? It was the first one I saw and it crossed off a letter on my monthly reading challenge.
On Saturday 19th September, I woke up to the news that Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died. I know that when a well-known figure dies there is always an outpouring of grief on social media but everything I read about Ginsburg felt different. This was a woman who had done so much and was such a beacon of hope. The collective sadness of so many, particularly women, was clear and this was a loss that would be felt for a long time to come. Ginsburg leaves behind her an amazing legacy and her fight for gender equality has changed the course of American politics. She was so much more than a feminist icon. In recent years, she became a cultural icon thanks to her nickname Notorious RBG. What else could I do this week but look back on her great career?
Not long after Donald Trump became President of the United States, there was a massive increase in sales of 1984. The George Orwell dystopia received a boost after Kellyanne Conway uttered the phrase “alternative facts” in a TV interview. Everywhere you looked, people were turning to social media to make sure the world knew that they knew how Orwellian it was. That’s the great thing about social media. Thousands of people are having the same original thought at the same time. Just think about what Orwell would have made of Twitter. But I digress. The point is, it seemed that everyone had suddenly decided that we were living in a time that was just as awful as the one Orwell had imagined. In the same way that people had started to see the world as mimicking Gilead, we were suddenly living in a version of Airstrip One. It’s a fun idea but, let’s be honest, it’s total bollocks.
I’ve had the Simon Callow reading of Animal Farm in my Audible library for a while now but it’s never felt like the right time to listen. Until this weekend. I just had a desire to revisit George Orwell’s animal allegory. I’ve always loved Animal Farm. I think it’s a really great book and is so readable. I love a book that you can digest in one sitting and I love one that does exactly what it needs to. Plus, the idea of it being read by Simon Callow was wonderful. I love his voice and the thought of him playing an angry pig made me very happy.
I, like so many people in the last few weeks, have added a lot of anti-racist books to my reading list. The majority of them were the sort of books that I should have read a long time ago but I’m really bad at reading non-fiction. Not just political or social non-fiction. There’s something about non-fiction that makes it seem so intense. It’s not the kind of reading that I think really works when you’re struggling to stay away. But, in the wake of yet another death at the hands of an American police officer, I knew that I had to do better. At the same time, I’d joined forces with some people I knew on Instagram to try and start a conversation about racism. We decided that we would all read this book and then talk about it as a group and with our followers. I know, in the grand scheme of things, it’s not a lot but it’s all about making positive steps right now. Ideally, I’d be out showing my support but I can’t. So, I’ll use what small platform that I have to help spread a positive message. To help share other people’s stories. Starting with Reni Eddo-Lodge.
Last week, I posted a short video to Instagram that featured a few ideas for films, documentaries, and television shows that people could watch to champion black voices. When it comes to the films that I review on this blog, I don’t tend to put too much thought into what I’m watching. It’s either whatever I fancy watching or whatever I can access at the time. I’ve never really looked at the diversity in my film choices in the same way that I do with my book choices. I make an effort to read a wider range of authors and stories every year, so why don’t I do the same with films? Why do I not do more to listen and pay attention to black voices and stories? Why do I not think more about who is directing and writing the films that I watch? All I care about is the story. It’s the very thing I get angry about whenever anyone speaks out against Oscars So White criticism. It’s something I need to work on and there’s no better time than now. Starting with one of the documentaries that I suggested on my Instagram post.
This is one of those classic cases of me being completely susceptible to marketing. There had been a poster advertising the paperback edition of this book at my train station. So, every morning on my way to work, I saw this book cover. I also saw the quote that described it as 1984 for our times or whatever. Well, it clearly worked because I had a huge urge to read this book. I didn’t really know much about it. But when it popped up in Amazon as a recommendation I had been conditioned enough to click on it. And it sounded great. I mean it took the Wall from Game of Thrones and added it to the modern world. I’m normally wary of dystopian novels because they tend to just be the same as each other. Nobody has written an original dystopian novel in years. I know there are plenty of people out there who will disagree but I haven’t been excited by one for ages.
Autumn by Ali Smith might well have taken the title of “the first Brexit novel” but, really, ever since the result in 2016, we’ve just been waiting for every British writer to churn out there own. Machines Like Me introduced us to Ian McEwan’s anger about the decision to take the UK out of the EU. In his alternate 80s timeline, British Prime Minister Tony Benn decides to take the UK out of the European Union without a second referendum. The writer hasn’t hidden his feelings about the current state of politics in this country so it was clear this wouldn’t be the last we heard about it. And, lo and behold, a few weeks ago it was announced that McEwan was set to release a surprise new novella. The work would be a political satire of “an old tradition”. Now, I’ve had an odd relationship with McEwan over my lifetime. When I was a teenage I read everything he wrote with glee. I loved his works. Enduring Love, Atonement, Saturday, and his short story collections were regularly recommended to everyone I could find. But, over the years, I’ve found myself less inclined to try out his new stuff. I loved On Chesil Beach but, until this year, that was the last recent book of his I opened. And then, Machines Like Me wasn’t anywhere near as good as I was hoping. Still, this was a novella and its mustard yellow. I do so love yellow things. I decided it was worth a try.
It’s been a while since I read The Handmaid’s Tale which is why I wanted to read it before starting The Testaments. The original novel is one of those momentous pieces of fiction that, if you read it at the right time in your life, changes you. I mean, is it any wonder that a teenage girl reading one of the most important pieces of political literature turned out to be this outspoken little feminist? But more than that. Margaret Atwood is one of the greatest writers in recent years so it definitely helped shape me as a reader. However, I have to make a point before I carry on. Just as I ranted before my Blinded by the Light review, I have something to ask. Can we please stop saying that we’re living in a world like we see in the novel? I’m not trying to suggest that things are great right now but America’s (undeniably) severe policies regarding abortions and birth control are not the same thing. And to suggest that it is would ignore the genuinely horrible conditions that many women experience around the world. Like the young girls forced into marriages or the girls facing female genital mutilation. Yeah, every woman should have the right to an abortion but at least you aren’t being sold into sex slavery by your family. Yes, we still have a long way to go but we’re nowhere near Atwood’s dystopia just yet.