Reviewing the Review – a Review!

On Saturday 5th January 2019, alongside many other Guardian readers, I received a copy of the Review section of the paper which included a year calendar of books ‘to look forward to’ and ‘literary dates to note’. It was the Review’s cover story and was sizeable piece of journalism covering a whole eight pages of the Review.  I was curious about how the list came about and its purpose.  Was it just a fat advertorial, sponsored perhaps by the publishing industry?  Was it maybe a filler task handed over to some junior intern or newbie-learning-the-ropes?  I pondered the possibility that it was very carefully put together by an incredibly learned bookish person and was indeed filled with terribly important knowledge I really should take note of. No author was ascribed (if I had written it, this would have upset me greatly!)

As I wrote in my first blog post, on 2nd February I decided to Review the ‘Literary Year Ahead’ calendar published in that edition of the paper.  As I mentioned in that post, I hoped it was something Guardian editors over at the Review might be interested in. Their failure to respond to a number of approaches on email, twitter and by actual posted letters (yes, I did that) suggested not.  So, as a potential article pitch, my efforts failed.  Having drawn on the Review for my reading matter during the previous year (for reasons also explained in the first blog post), I found many of their monthly recommendations disappointing reads.  Indeed. Some of the positively reviewed books were downright terrible.  Was the ‘literary year ahead’ calendar, abundant in recommendations, going to offer richer pickings?  I decided to choose one book recommendation and follow up on one ‘event to note’ per month to read, research and write about (see choice methodology below). But first, I wanted to know – why were these books and events to note? What authority did they have?  Who said so and why?  So I wrote, emailed, tweeted to Sian Cain (the Guardian’s books site editor) and Lisa Allardice (the Guardian’s chief books writer).  I asked each:

  • who is the author of the Literary Calendar (none is attributed)
  • how was the ‘books to look forward to’ list arrived at – why were those books in particular chosen?
  • how was the list of ‘dates to note’ arrived at? who put this list together and was there a rationale or inclusion criteria?

Eventually, after a few emails, I had a response to question 2 from a staff member at the Guardian (no role title given) called Hanako who replied:-

“we have a fiction and a non-fiction editor who both read widely and decide which are the most interesting books to include based on catalogues from publishers. Obviously we can’t include everything, but they do their best to make sure a wide range of new and established authors are included in the list”.

(Email correspondence 5 Feb 2019).

I followed this up with Hanako, but unfortunately, no further responses were offered.

It would seem then, the list is drawn up based on the personal choices of the editors. I assume these are the two book editors referred to on the Guardian website – Sian Cain (#siancain) and Lisa Allardice (@LisaAllardice), but I acknowledge this may be an incorrect assumption.

Anyone who follows Sian Cain and Lisa Allardice on Twitter will know these are women who understand the book world and have enviable knowledge about the industry, books, authors and are fine writers themselves. I admire their work tremendously. There is though, a responsibility that comes with creating a list others should ‘note’. The inclusion methodology should be transparent – is this a well thought out list or just a huge book flogging (paid for??) advertorial for some publishing house/s? The trustworthiness of our media is important, and it shouldn’t matter whether this is news about 2019 (UK) election, or a pert but somewhat throwaway little filler magazine insert into the weekend paper.

Analyzing the list: my methodology
I decided to spend a little time analyzing the list, and it is just as important to make my methods transparent.
‘Analyzing the list’ turned out to be much more of an effort than I had first imagined. I looked at both the books and the dates to note listed for each month of the year. I used a spreadsheet to do a count.

Books to note list
For the book list, specifically, I counted:

  • whether fiction, non-fiction or poetry
  • the gender, sexuality and ethnicity of the writers
  • whether authors identified as disabled
  • (from May only) the class/educational level of the author

To be completely transparent I need to acknowledge that this count was literally me running my fingers down the monthly list and looking the (first named only in the case of dual authored books) authors up on the web. In May I added a further very loosely framed category of class/educational level of the author after recognizing a pattern of very high academic achievement of listed authors but I did not go back and find this data for the previous five months. By any research standards, it was a roughly hewn methodology and approach. Counting is almost certainly awry and therefore, it should be viewed as a general big picture rather than micro perfect.

I need to add a couple more important caveats:

‘Straight’ sexuality was identified and assumed only by the author being married to someone of the opposite sex in materials I found online. No ‘straight’ author actually self-identified as such in any articles I viewed.

Gay and lesbian authors were identified specifically by biographical material found online where they identified with this naming specifically-

Some authors identified as queer.
One author identified as non-binary.

The sexuality of some authors could not be identified through biographical information found online.

Disability information was taken from biographical information found online and language used here reflects how it was presented on-line.

One author self-identified as ‘mixed nationality’. Some identified as dual nationality. International includes Canada, US, Australia, Jamaica, Chile, Argentina, Nigeria, Ghana, Zambia, Sudan, New Zealand, Georgia, Russia, Mexico, India. The country with the biggest representation within this group was the US with 25 writers featured.

Ethnicity data proved to be the most challenging to gather from on-line sources due to the broad range of ways people’s ethnicities were described and in some cases, it could not be found and only assumed from images. The term ‘mixed’ is only used where authors have specifically referred to themselves thus in on-line sources.  I have used the categories provided by Gov.UK’s   ‘List of ethnic groups’ but attributing descriptions as given in on-line information to these groups involved somewhat clumsy decision making and data presented here should be understood in that context and as relatively poor quality data.

The book breakdown

  • Fiction 61
  • Non-fiction 53
  • Poetry 9
  • Young adult 1
  • Children’s 1

Gender

  • Male 59
  • Female 65
  • Non-binary 1

Sexuality

  • Not known 35
  • Straight 76
  • Non-binary 1
  • Queer 3
  • Lesbian 4
  • Gay 6

Disability

  • Mental health issues 1
  • Physical health issue 1
  • Dyslexia 1
  • Deaf 1
  • Not known 121

Author Nationality

  • UK 56
  • Europe 22
  • International 46 (25 US writers within this group).
  • Mixed 1

Ethnicity

  • White 83
  • Mixed/multiple ethnic groups 2
  • Asian/Asian +other 7
  • Black/African/Caribbean/Black +other 20
  • Other ethnic group 1
  • Not known 12

I intended to have a category called ‘educated or posh. By the time my web based research of the authors on list got to the month of May I came to realize that the majority of authors seemed to be Princetown, Harvard or Oxford educated, were Professors of Literature, University lecturers, held degree’s, MA’s, and doctorates and/or were prize winners from Laureate to other prestigious prizes. There were of course authors who identified as working class (in on-line bio’s), so not everyone was posh. Still, the vast majority were at the very least educated to degree level and most far beyond (and, yes, I do equate access to funds to participate in education at beyond degree level to equate to some level of privilege. Sue me). The Ivy League and Oxbridge had a significant presence in the list of authors.

So what might we make of the ‘books to look forward to’ list?

The list is balanced well between fiction and non-fiction aimed at an adult audience. Poetry appears to be underrepresented in this list but this, of course, depends on the annual number of poetry books published by the major houses. Women were marginally over represented. The majority of authors were straight. Although in number terms UK authors had a good showing, in terms of the geographical size of the potential pool of authors both it and US writers were arguably over represented. As mentioned above, the breakdown of ethnicity is complicated because of the challenge of attributing ethnicity accurately and respectfully. However, even with that caveat, white authors significantly dominate the ‘books to look forward to’ list.

Disability information proved to be the most difficult to gather. Very few authors mentioned any kind of disability. As a person with disabilities myself I have long noted both the absence of characters with disabilities portrayed in books. Conversely where we are portrayed we are often the cripples – physically or mentally lessor as a story telling short-cut to enable the help/pity etc of an able bodied character to be evidenced. While it is not the responsibility of people with disabilities to educate society about the subject, it is true that ‘writing from within’ and telling stories from our point of view has an important place. Still, these stories were largely missing from the Guardian list. I have also been influenced to think about the struggle disabled writers face to be published, experiences of ableism within the industry and the impacts of that upon both writers with disabilities and how we are represented in published works. Is this represented in the Guardian List? I guess it is hard to say.

I highly recommend spending time with Alice Wong (@SFDirewolf) and Nicola Griffith (@nicolaz), their #CripLit twitter chats and the Disability Visability Project to understand why representation is important.

The ‘dates to note’ list.
The literary ‘dates to note’ could be separated into book festivals (ie Hay), prize awards (ie Man Booker), historical events (ie Peterloo Massacre), film releases – or dead white men. There were exceptions – for example, the death of the fascinating Sarah Kane – but from whichever viewpoint you look at the list of dates to note featuring people rather than events, is dominated by white, mostly dead, men.

How I used the lists and what I gained from them
Each month I chose one book to review and one event to write about. I tried to get a balance across fiction and non-fiction books but only reviewed one poetry book (Simon Armitage – marvellous BTW) because the second possibility (John Cooper Clarke) had a delayed publishing date. I actively tried to choose books from the list I would ordinarily pass by in bookshops – not actively avoid, but not seek out either. I wanted to leave my reading comfort zone.

I was a rather fabulous adventure! I learned a lot from the ‘dates to note’ list. For example, the Peterloo Massacre was new knowledge to me. I am both astounded and a little ashamed that until my research for this blog, I had been woefully ill-informed about such an important historical event (and I ponder on how this could be). Ditto my ignorance of the wonderful Sarah Kane. I rediscovered a joy for Whitman and decided that for the sake of my bank balance, I must never visit the London Book Fair.

From the books to look forward to I read a couple which underwhelmed but I also read books I absolutely loved and yet, would never have chosen were it not for this blogging adventure. – The standouts were:

  • Invisible Women: Exposing data bias in a world designed for men by Caroline Criado Perez (@CCriadoPerez) which was mind blowing and reignited a long damped feminist call to arms. I am delighted to see how widely her book is being recognised as trailblazing and congratulate her for winning the Financial Times Book of the Year award.
  • Black, Listed: Black British Culture Explored by Jeffery Boakye (@unseenflirt) which was written beautifully, was funny and had radical and compelling content. I learned so much from this book. As I wrote at the time, ‘Jeffrey Boakye… opens eyes and minds and I wish I could write like that’.

The Guardian Review, Review – the Review!

I still wonder what the list was written for. Was it written to be used as I used it? How many people still have copies, consulted monthly from which a choice is made. Not many I suspect, and that is a shame because with a little attention to the caveats cautioned by the data breakdown, it was a damn fine list which facilitated an enjoyable literary journey across my year. The author – whoever that was – could rightfully be proud of it but may I make a suggestion for next year? Please pay less attention to dead/old/white men and more attention to disability.

Finally as this literary journey comes to an end, to the readers of this blog a warm thank you for following!

November ‘book to look forward to’: Oligarchy. Scarlett Thomas (Canongate). Kindle edition £8.63

The brief description added on the Literary Review Calendar of ‘books to look forward to’ for November 2019 said:
‘Her first adult novel in four years: a tale of power and privilege set in a girls’ boarding school’.

I quite enjoyed this novel, despite it being removed on almost all levels from my own experience.

The central character of the book is Natasha – the daughter of a Russian oligarch who, despite them barely having any kind of relationship, has arranged for her to go to an English boarding school. The story is of her learning to understand and negotiate her privilege, her relationships to and with her peers (another form of oligarchy) and navigate the complex and dangerous territory of female body image. Alongside these elements the mystery of a death of a pupil – murder or suicide? – which the girls explore with somewhat ridiculous and excited energy entirely in keeping with the overblown drama peculiar to teenage girls. There was a further story sprinkled throughout, tied to the conclusion featuring a Princess, a death, a diamond and the school lake but I would need to read the final chapters again to work out what was going on here! This element felt like an ‘add on’ and unclear

There are many funny lines and crisp insights and the writing positively bounces along capturing the fickle attention span of teenagers perfectly. I didn’t get any real sense of cultural or character difference between the girls (I had no ideal what made Natasha Russian for example). Sexuality was also strangely missing – in a girls school with teens in the spotlight I might expect more focus than referring to slight crushes. I did not think the line between humour and cruelty was well drawn in relation to anorexia. Anorexia doesn’t lend itself to comedy and whilst the experience of anorexia/bulimia was well drawn (the carrier bags of sick found after a death, the jutting bones) the girls are not given any sympathy or much positive agency beyond the creation of ever more dangerous food restriction rules.

So, it was a bit of a mixed bag for me. There is a lot to commend in this book – it is fun, there are great lines, good dialogue and Aunt Sonja is a fabulous character who I would like to know more about but there is a level of bleak unkindness about anorexia, and the girls who experience it, that was prickly and pointed and a bit uncomfortable – possibly a writerly technique to reflect a disordered self-hating mind mind that becomes anorexic?

Book review: October‘ book to look forward to’: Grand Union. Zadie Smith (Hamish Hamilton). Kindle edition. £9.99.

The brief description added on the Literary Review Calendar of ‘books to look forward to’ for October 2019 said:
‘Her first short story collection brings together ten new pieces and ten written over the past two decades’.

Zadie Smith is almost universally lauded since her debut novel White Teeth became a best seller in 2000.

Reviews of White Teeth pointed out her talent as a writer, the humour of her stories, her crafted characters and the freedom in-between the words, from doubt either in the story or its crafting. I didn’t get it. When the hype around it began, I was thrilled and greedy to read it, but I found the book to be confusing with so much detail about so many things I found myself forgetting what the story was actually about. Even now, writing this, I had to go back to the cover blurb to remind me. At the time, no doubt drawing on my insecurities, I decided it was me – that I was not literary/learned enough to appreciate it. Her subsequent works (and she has an impressive output) have been very positively received also – including nomination for important literary prizes.

Certainly, Zadie Smith can put words together, so her text reads like lyrics and invoke rippling movement. Her ideas (so many ideas in Grand Union!) are bountiful and wide and a little bit mind-blowing in their breadth.

Perhaps it remains true that I am not literary enough because I have not enjoyed Grand Union either. This is more than a rhetorical point for me because I truly want to love her work.

So many critics and reviewers rave with such bounty about her fabulousness I want to experience their joy, but I found the terrain of this book difficult and frustrating to navigate. The stories as a collection seemed to me to be a hotchpotch of streams of consciousness. It is an incoherent collection and very few of the stories I enjoyed. When I read a story (especially a short story) I expect some outcome, a parablic or allegoric curve, a laugh, a reveal or a satisfying ending but I just didn’t find the majority of the stories in this book to be very good.

I still wonder what I am missing.

September ‘book to look forward to’: Coventry. Rachel Cusk (Faber) Kindle edition. £6.47

The brief description added on the Literary Review Calendar of ‘books to look forward to’ for September 2019 said:

‘A series of essays that reflect on themes central to Cusk’s fictional writing, including life choices, politics, womanhood and art’.

I am not sure I have ever read a collection of essays before.  Of course, I have read essays but never a curated collection from a single author so I was unsure what to expect, and I was unfamiliar with Cusk’s work.  It did not begin well.  The first couple of essays in section one (which include the title essay ‘Coventry’) had quirky and enjoyable nibbles of acute observation but I found the essays to be a bit over self-aware … trying too hard, too cerebral, too self-indulgent.

I wondered ‘what is this book and who is it for?’

The first collection of essays are inward-looking and somewhat autobiographical. The second a mix of reflection, introspection and commentary and the third commentary on works from other writers.  The last section (Classics and Bestsellers) was straightforward, and from a review perspective, easy to understand. These are essays about well-known writers and their work, for example, DH Lawrence’s The Rainbow. These essays evidence an enviable exactitude and economy of prose alongside astounding clarity and intelligence. While I was awed by the gifted writing, I was not overawed and learned a great deal. (Even about Louise Bourgeois of whom I am a fan and despite this particular essay having something of a dense form).  I am in the process of reading or re-reading all the works she addresses in this section.

These essays are excellent and will no doubt be used in creative writing class compulsory text lists forevermore.

I struggle more with the earlier two sections of the book.  I felt irritated by them, and the irritation endured after I had finished the book. I had to go back and re-read it to understand why. On second reading, I tuned in to the fluidity of the writing and the clever and finely tuned wit.  I particularly relished ‘On Rudeness’ and wish everyone would read it. Cusk has a blisteringly penetrating gaze and unique voice. On second reading I thoroughly enjoyed the book.  I think my irritation had root in the unapologetic erudite, self-awareness presented in her work. As a feminist, I applaud and support the lack of apology from any woman for her scholarly sophistication but reflect that I see it so rarely I experienced it as ‘show-offy’. My initial response says more about my academic and scholarly insecurities that it should about the accessibility of Cusk’s book.

I still do not quite understand how this book came to be or who it is for.  It was a bold choice to publish it.  I have no idea if I am the target market (Guardian reader, educated, woman, feminist, writer) but I am glad I read it and that it was included in the ‘books to look forward to’ Review calendar for this month.

August ‘book to look forward to’: Platform Seven. Louise Doughty (Faber). Kindle edition. £6.47

The brief description added on the Literary Review Calendar of ‘books to look forward to’ for August 2019 said:

Suicide at Peterborough railway station: a high-concept thriller from the author of Apple Tree Yard’.

When I ordered this book, I was curious about it having been described as a ‘high concept thriller’. I am fond of an edge-of-the-seat yarn, so the ‘thriller’ element of the description was what called to me while the ‘high concept’ element was anticipated to be Guardian hyperbole.

So this book was something of a breathtaking surprise, and by ‘breathtaking’ I mean like you might experience being strangled.

Even remembering elements of the story as I write this review leads my heart to race a little bit faster. It is not entirely pleasant but then, neither is the story, and the impact is a measure of the exquisite writing and perfect, subtle, nuanced story-telling.

Imagine if an abused and murdered victim had to understand her own story to be able to move on from being a ghost stuck at the place of her death?

Doughty tells the story of a victim of coercive control through the voice of Lisa who dies on Platform Seven – the ghost of the victim.

I was once fortunate enough to supervise a PhD student writing a research thesis on coercive control. It was an extraordinary work which gave structure and meaning to the singular and collective undermining and frequently life-threatening experiences of coercive control. This was especially welcome as it helped me to gain clarity on my own experiences of having been via a toxic and manipulative colleague, a victim of its cousin, gaslighting.

Doughty’s book addresses with needle-point accuracy what I learned from the contributors to my student’s research, and also from my personal experience: How, during the very acts of abuse the abuse is cancelled out, explained away, presented as un-challengeable and as evidence and proof that the victim is herself culpable, histrionic, irrational and deserving of what is happening. She describes the drip drip drip of techniques designed to isolate and marginalize the victim until she is, as Women’s Aid describe it, bound by ‘…invisible chains and a sense of fear that pervades all elements of a victim’s life’. For some, including many contributors to the student’s research, the abuse was literally life-threatening and included violence. My own experience was of mental well being damaging anxiety, confusion and damage to self confidence.

Platform Seven is indeed a thriller – it is cleverly paced so that the reader experiences feelings of ghostly transition, grief, loneliness.

The reader experiences the terrible, dripping tension of the abuse as it unfolds from the early ‘friendly’ manipulation by Lisa’s on-the-face-of-it-charming boyfriend Matty to her descent into self doubt and the doubt of others about her mental health. As a reader, you want to shout to some of the (investigating) characters ‘it wasn’t a suicide on Platform Seven!’ and in that way, you also feel Lisa’s helplessness and loneliness.

Often the story is king in high concept works with less attention given to character development but it is not the case in Platform Seven: Each of the characters have a central role to play as the story unfolds and concludes and each I could readily picture in my head. Similarly the geographical locations are described in just enough detail so one understands the terrain and the story is enhanced. This is a well rounded and evocative text.

Without wanting to give away any story spoilers, I was a little disappointed by the conclusion which was largely achieved by an explanation from Lisa (the ghost) of ‘what happened’ but it did end as a completed story of hope.

It is such an accurate and chilling description of how coercive control develops and manifests it should be a text book and compulsory reading in any of the professional environments which might come into contact with people like Matty and Lisa.

July ‘book to look forward to’: Live a Little. Howard Jacobson (Cape). Kindle edition. £9.99

The brief description added on the Literary Review Calendar of ‘books to look forward to’ for MONTH 2019 said:

‘A funny, provocative novel about falling in love at the very end of your life, from the Man Booker winner’.

I hadn’t noticed the ‘very end of your life’ in the Guardian Literary Review description of this book.  I expected it to be about people in later life falling in love and for me, I guess, later life equated to 60’s or 70’s so it was a particular delight to find that our main characters are, unusually in fiction and even less so in love stories, nonagenarians and this is so much more than a simple love story. 

Alex Clark posted an interesting and story detailed (so some spoiler potential) review of the book which can be found here

With the exception of mention of finding the book to be an occasionally difficult read (as I did), the summary of Clarks review draws attention to key points to note about the book – the urgency and bleakness, the humour and style, the tenderness and thought provoking narrative and as I couldn’t agree more or have put it better myself there is no point in trying to and I recommend a trip over to his lovely review.

Why do I always imagine ‘older’ as only very slightly older than myself?

Reading this quite lovely book made me think about why I imagined ‘older’ as slightly older than myself, and why initially, before I had even read a word of it my enthusiasm for it was a little dulled precisely because it was about older people.  Was that just ageism on my part or something else?  Was it, as Ashton Applewhite argues in her TED Talk have origins in my own fear of my future self?  Was I afraid of the possibilities/probabilities of older age (some of them already manifest) such as body degeneration, loss of people and faculties, significant lifestyle changes and poor care?

Books create a magically open window through which to see the world a little differently and maybe affirm or change our held views. We learn and develop through virtually everything we read and plough this learning back into our engagement with the world. There are plenty of great books which feature older protagonists – Driving Miss Daisy, The Remains of the Day, Love Again – which of course are just the ones that come to mind. 

These book though do have an element of ‘looking backwards’ about them, as if there is not much left to look forward to.

I very much hope to have lots to look forward to 70 and beyond. The reality is though that these tend to be books specifically about ageing and the imminent presence of the grim reaper.  I do not know how the majority of fiction/contemporary novel book characters might be categorized but generally they seem to me to be childbearing to young-ish middle age.  I have three novels on the go at the moment (two crime, one up-lit) and whilst the age of all of the characters is not specified, actions suggest no character falls out of the 30 – 50 age range.  I was intrigued to read an article by Saffron Alexander in the Telegraph about so-called ‘boomer lit’ – that is, literature for the baby boomers of the 60’s who are now in their 50’s and 60’s.  Boomer lit apparently ‘addresses what matters to (boomers) as they enter into their ‘Second Adulthood’*. Typically, such literature deals with transition, and the management of change – ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’ is given as one example. 

Jacobson’s book, quite apart from being a delicious read, prods me to add ‘older characters’ to my growing list of ‘things often missing in novels’ so that I can be active in making sure characters I create in my fiction writing are fully representative of all communities.

*There is a whole blog post which could be written about the so called ‘second adulthood’ if only I did not loathe every element of patronising twaddle I have read about what it actually is!


June ‘book to look forward to’: The Heartland: Finding and Losing Schizophrenia’. Nathan Filer. (Faber) Kindle edition £7.19

The brief description added on the Literary Review Calendar of ‘books to look forward to’ for June 2019 said:
‘The former mental health nurse’s non-fiction follow up to his Costa book of the year-winning novel’.

Back in the early 1980’s, living in a shared house a group of us young lefty student ‘radicals’ (we thought we were, but as it turns out, we were just young) debated ‘the troubles’ as we called the situation between Britain and Ireland back then.  Some of us referred to terrorists and some freedom fighters – the debate about where each of these sat of course depended on one’s perspective.  Being earnest young things we decided to become properly informed so we wrote to each of the political parties on each side of the divide to ask for manifestoes and leaflets etc.  We had a right old laugh at how many of the envelopes that subsequently arrived had been “damaged in the post” and appeared to have been opened but I don’t think any of us could truly imagine they had been.  One day I was on the phone to a friend. It was a proper old phone, fixed to a place by a flex with a handset that tied to the phone itself by way of a curly cord.  We were having a natter about nothing very much but it was a terrible line.  Suddenly I heard the conversation I had just been having played back to me!  The call – I – was being recorded. I shouted to another housemate to come and listen and then the phone cut off, line dead.  I am not sure who was doing the recording but a house full of women must have been quite tedious to listen to.  It was the first time I experienced paranoia and was glad two other people heard the whole thing.

(image Regos-Kornyei via Upsplash)

Whoever would have imagined MI5 had recorded little old me? People might have thought I was insane for saying so.

Fast forward more than ten years. I was working in a secure mental health facility.  A patient told me that ‘star signs’ were accurate descriptions of different personalities because they were cultural descriptions of people from 12 different planets of the solar system.  An ‘Aries’ was a descendant from one planet and ‘Cancerians’ were from a completely different planet.  He was a Piscean and he desperately wanted his family to come and rescue him from Earth and take him home.  The patient had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and was said to be delusional.  Strangely he was the second person in less than a year to put forward the view that ‘star sign’ personality traits in humans were a cultural legacy of being from 12 different planets of the solar system. The person I first heard espouse this theory was the chief copywriter, editor and company director of a successful advertising and marketing company. 

I was reminded of each of these (true) stories when reading Filer’s remarkable book.

The heartland of the book’s title refers to schizophrenia – the ‘heartland’ of psychiatry.

Filer artfully draws upon compelling stories which encourage the reader to have empathy and understanding to and with those experiencing mental distress. He forces the reader to consider labels, descriptions and diagnoses – how they are arrived at and who they serve (rarely the patient it would seem). The language of mental illness and treatment is that of control and uniformity and it would be hard to disagree that for the most part, conceptually mental illness is problematic and does not serve those experiencing distress well.

That schizophrenia and indeed psychiatry are problematic and that the people who are most badly affected by the problematic nature of each are the patients labelled is not a new idea but this book certainly adds much to the discussion.

Filer uses clever language techniques (‘so-called’ schizophrenia) to cause the reader to really think about the label and how it is used. The reader can only reflect on the impact of mental ill health on those who experience it and ‘the rest of us’ – whoever that is. Filer talks about the problems in service provision and treatment strategies without coming down either way on simple for/against arguments which means the reader must engage with the text and consider – what do I think? It is a well-written book – lyrical and flowing and with a friendly conversational style. It is a thought-provoking book and one I would recommend to most people but especially anyone going into helping professions (especially doctors). I was pleased to read stories showing patients as humans with varying ideas and understandings of the world and how it is (also showing patients with insight) because usually, we hear of ‘the mad’. This is a great book.

Apparently, according to Niler, social media is replacing religion as the source of paranoid delusions. It would appear that some people think social media is manipulating us, using and gathering data on us. As if…

May ‘book to look forward to’: Sandetti Light Vessel Automatic. Simon Armitage (Faber). £7.79 (Kindle edition).

The brief description added on the Literary Review Calendar of ‘books to look forward to’ for May 2019 said:

‘Newly awarded Queens Gold Medal for poetry, Armitage brings together his commissioned and collaborative work in this collection.’

Sandettie Light Vessel Automatic is a lightvessel stationed in the North Sea, named after its location on the Sandettie Bank In the Strait of Dover.  (Wikipedia).

I read in the press that Andrew Motion, poet laureate from 1999 to 2009 said the role was ‘entirely thankless’ had damaged his writing and had given him writers’ block. I ordered Simon Armitage’s book from the Guardian Review’s literary calendar of books to look forward to before the news broke in early May that he is to be the new poet laureate after accepting an invitation to take over the role from Carol Ann Duffy.  Having been unable to do anything but binge read this excellent book I very much hope his work is not impacted in the same way.

I have seen Simon Armitage perform poetry at an event sometime in this decade.  Ridiculously I cannot remember where or when or how I ended up there – it may have been Hull, Barnsley, Leeds, Bradford, Halifax or Todmorden. It might have been Brighton.  I remember the venue was dark like a night club and seated.  I remember that he was on a very slightly elevated stage and some other poets performed too but where or when eludes me.  What I can recall with absolute clarity is how captivating his words were and how seeing him scooped me back to a time of punks and zines and radical politics. Back in the day (the 80’s) I used to go to venues in Hull (shout out to fans of the Adelphi) to watch punk poets – Attila the Stockbroker, Swift Nick and somewhere or other (clearly my memory for venues has always been a bit dodgy) I saw John Cooper Clarke a couple of times too.  Armitage’s live poetry has the same ability to carry the listener into different worlds and different ways of seeing things.  His readings are punchy, delicious and extraordinary, but (and forgive me for saying so) his poetry is in a different league – highly sophisticated, subtly powerful, comic, thought-provoking, economic and extravagant. 

I never expect the same head rush from reading poetry

I am no student of poetry and do not understand its discipline or form.  I chose this month’s book as I was trying to stick to my ‘rule’ of achieving a balance between fiction, non-fiction and poetry.  May’s choice needed to be poetry and Sandetti was the only one suggested.  I am so glad it was. The book is a collection of commissioned works which share the broad theme that they are works for what the Telegraph reviewer calls ‘non-literary spaces’.  There are great poems in this book – the Henry Moore poems take me directly to the sculptures without passing go.

The most extraordinary poems though are those grouped under ‘The Not Dead’ and ‘The Great War – an Elegy’ which are powerful, evocative, shocking and tear inducing and probably the most incredible poems I have ever read.

Read this book*. Even if you don’t like poetry read this book. It is glorious.

*(Only do not read it on Kindle – the last section of the book is a comprehensive chapter of notes which support and complement the poems with background information and interesting detail. None of the poems have links to facilitate easy navigation between poem and note so it is tedious indeed scrolling backwards and forwards).

April ‘book to look forward to’: Black, Listed: Black British Culture Explored. Jeffery Boakye. Kindle edition £8.99 downloaded 18 April 2019.

The brief description added on the Literary Review Calendar of ‘books to look forward to’ for April 2019 said:

A writer and teacher examines more than 60 words, many hugely contentious, that are used to describe black men and women, with a particular focus on black masculinity’.

I had originally intended to read Naomi Wolf’s book on Sex and Censorship which I was keenly looking forward to – only the publishing date was changed to later so I had to pick another title from this months options.  It is fair to say this title both intrigued and intimidated me.  I have spent a lot of my academic and activist life considering oppression and diversity issues but I am mindful that whilst I identify as a working class, disabled, lesbian woman I am white and as such, privileged.  I have not given very much thought at all to masculinity except in relation to the impact of masculinity upon women and I can only be academically aware of the impact of race upon lived experience.  Would I find this book interesting to read or indeed, relevant (enough) to me personally?  I was acutely aware of and politically anxious about the nuance of my preference for Wolf’s book over Boakye’s.

With limited time and energy one much choose carefully where to focus and whilst books about masculinity are important I guess I have decided to commit my own time largely to books about and by women. This should not be understood as a single focus so much as more a positively gendered choice.  I am aware of the contradictions inherent in a narrowed focus.

As I have mentioned before in this blog, I see little merit in reviewing books already thoroughly reviewed elsewhere.  The aim of the blog is to consider the merit or relevance of the Guardian Review Literary calendar.  David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, gives a compelling, politically powerful, and mediated by his own experiences as a black man, review in the Guardian (15 April 2019) . It is a thought provoking read of itself.

I loved this book – I want to give it to dozens of friends, students and strangers…

I loved this book.  I loved, admired and envied the cadence and rhythm of the writing style which was musical and easily accessible whilst discussing challenging concepts. I found it to be a radical and compelling book – the kind I want to hand to dozens of friends, students and strangers and tell them to read it.   It was funny. I learned so much from it – things I had never known or understood – and things I really should have known or thought about but can hopefully, not now ‘un-know’.  I (re) considered the nature of language, labels, binaries, cultural homogenization and appropriation, loaded terms and the impacts of these and who is hurt most.  Some of it was uncomfortable reading (language as a weapon) and some especially thought provoking in relation to terms (of endearment? of ‘outlaws’? of politics?) I now often hear used/appropriated across communities. 

However – and I am mindful that as a white woman I am on wobbly ground here – there was one section that just didn’t sit right with me and that in his discussion of the naming of Melanie Brown AKA Scary Spice.  Drawing on an article by Chaedria LaBouvier ‘We Owe “Scary Spice” an Apology’ in which LaBouvier discusses hair – specifically black girls hair, Boakye repeasts her questioning of why a black girl was given the name ‘Scary’ which LaBouvier says is inherently racist.  Boakye suggests that as a nickname ‘Scary Spice’ is about blackness being frightening to white sensibilities.  In a HuffPost live conversation Mel B explains the origin of the name and why she still uses it – because she likes it and has never been offended by it. She acknowledges it was given to her by (female) journalist who, like Mel came from Leeds.  Whilst LaBouvier suggests Mel B may keep the name because she has no choice, nothing I have ever read about Mel B suggests she is a woman without agency.  I have always ‘read’ her name to be a manifestation of her Leeds girl, badass, could wipe the floor with you if she wanted to, take no shit, self-confident attitude (and indeed, in the interview Mel B suggests it is exactly this).  As Yorkshire born I have known, been scared of and achingly wished I was more like/as ballsy as Leeds girls/women as I grew from girl to woman. I understand that there is an ‘eye of the beholder’ issue here and that this is a discussion of different hues with no ‘correct’ answer but it was the only part of the book that that made me feel something was missing and I was unpersuaded by the depth of the point being made.  The focus felt narrow and possibly even, dare I say it, not respectful enough in according Mel B (women’s) power to make her own informed choices.

This is a wonderful book – I have never read one quite like it.  I have read a lot of books about oppression and discrimination underpinned by (righteous) anger and the fury can be an infectious call to arms.  There are several hundred pages of book here which could be a call to arms but Boakye does not write with incendiary fury. He writes instead with the voice of a wise, funny and thoughtful teacher who must be heard.  His voice opens eyes and minds and I wish I could write like that. 

So far, the ‘books to look forward to’ list offered by the Guardian Review is proving to be (almost annoyingly) worthwhile – though, as I will discuss in a future post, somewhat unbalanced and skewed in relation to representation.

March ‘book to look forward to’: Invisible Women: Exposing data bias in a world designed for men. Caroline Criado Perez

(Chatto).  Kindle edition downloaded 7 March 2019, £9.99

The brief book description added on the Literary Review Calendar of ‘books to look forward to’ for March said:

‘The activist and journalist on the discriminatory consequences of men being treated as the default and women as atypical, in a book that casts new light on homes, workplaces and public buildings’.

Feminism and I unexpectedly tripped over each other in the early 1980’s and without getting into major biography, feminism changed every single element of my existence with enormous and enduring impact. Through the 80’s and 90’s I read every feminist book I could get hold of hitting strident radical outrage and non-violent direct action along the way. For the past 20 or so years, having bought the many and varied t-shirts (some of which have now become cleaning cloths – oh the irony) my interest in such books waned. I read the books I needed to read for my professional life dutifully, to ensure my power-points stayed relevant and current but I had mellowed beyond outrage and indeed, slogan t-shirts. I chose this book from the March ‘books to look forward to’ list because of the others in the non-fiction group it looked a) the least dull and b) my semi-un-conscious bias kicked in.

Everything about this book is quite simply wonderful.

This assertion might be dismissed with a roll of an eye and a weary ‘of course you would say that’ but in fact, the opposite would be true.  I am a well-read feminist and I have read some turkey’s, which frankly did the women’s movement(s) no favors, but this is very certainly not one of them.  I have read enough to know the difference and I loved this book! 

The book considers the absence of women in the data that defines and shapes the algorithms, policies, designs and laws in the world, our understanding of them across time. It considers our lives, opportunities and dangers inherent in it – and by ‘ours’ she means all humans. The ones most disadvantaged by the absence of women in data are of course women who have equipment which doesn’t fit or cannot be safely used because it is not made for their bodies, who cannot use public transport because the standard use which informs timetable planning is that of the male commuter and does not take account of carer responsibility and so very many other examples across the home, the workplace and in general public life. The book makes clear, however, that all of society are disadvantaged by the uni-focused narrative of male defined data sets.

The book has potential to be a preachy call to arms but it is not – Perez manages to make this eminently readable book engaging, humorous and informative.  She takes us to the heart of how we understand our world and in doing so highlights false assumptions and the absence of other perspectives.  At one point she asks (a little tongue in cheek) whether women are even human at all!  Her question comes from analysis of data about the evolution of humankind being predicated on understanding of the centrality of ‘man the hunter’.  What were women doing when humankind was being built, (allegedly), by hunters?  Do we even fit into this narrative and if so, in what ways do we influence that prevailing story?  She gives another example of a warrior skeleton being steadfastly identified and labeled as a male by museum curators, despite indisputable DNA bone analysis showing she was a female, simply on the grounds that she was found with weapons and high ranking afterlife kit.  They apparently were unable to comprehend the notion of a high-ranking warrior woman and so refused to believe it.  In doing so, the educative purpose of the museum is shamefully compromised and yet again, women are denied the opportunity to know our history.  Perez, sadly gives example after example after example.

This book is exhausting reading. It is hard not to have one’s feminist fury re-ignited by it.

Fury – rightful as it may be – is not the most useful outcome of this work. It is a very well considered, well researched, evidence based discussion. I hope it can contribute now to a broader discussion which always, always, always considers ways in which data is defined only by a male view with female perspectives being either silenced or ‘othered’. If we want to understand and learn and plan in the most healthy and positive ways for humanity and our planet we need the best data and this means inclusive data that from which male bias is eradicated. I am taking a wild guess about which gender(s) are the most likely to take this opportunity on board…

Note all images copywrite Chatto

  • Personal anecdote: I once worked in a secure mental health environment.  The women complained they wanted paper towels back because the newly installed, air-blow hand driers had been fitted by a six foot three maintenance man. When the women tried to use the too-high driers, it caused water from their hands to run down their arms and make their sleeves soggy.  I have noticed ever since how stupid-high most air blowers are in women’s toilets.