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.

OUT OF THE WOODS: JANUARY BOOK REVIEW

Category: Non-fiction

Luke Turner: Out of the Woods. Weidenfield and Nicholson. 288 Pages.

Kindle edition downloaded 24th January 2019.  Kindle edition price £8.99

The brief book description added on the Literary Review Calendar of ‘books to look forward to’ for January said “A powerful memoir, centred on Epping Forest, about sexual abuse, a religious upbringing and life as a bisexual man”.

From the Guardian’s monthly list, this is my first to review.  I chose this book in particular because it took me out of my reading comfort zone (more of that later) but had an element of the familiar in that the writer identifies as queer. 



It was an unthreatening choice though not one I ordinarily would be drawn to in a bookshop.

In a professional capacity, I have reviewed books at the request of both publishers and authors.  For those reviews, I focused on the usefulness of the book in helping to improve my profession or its utility in enabling students to understand how to become new and better professionals. 

The Guardian carried an erudite and scholarly review by Sukhdev Sandhu published 17 January 2019 https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/jan/17/out-of-the-woods-luke-turner-review

Sandhu both gives a snapshot of the book and critiques it, so there is little merit in me offering the same. I decided instead to focus on the utility of the book to me, as a reader. Did I enjoy it?  Was the time spent on it a good use of time?  Would I recommend it to others?

To the best of my memory, I have never read a memoir.  I could not imagine why one would. 

In the context of this book, I do not know the author or his work that his name would be a draw (I have subsequently read more about him), nor am I particularly interested in Epping Forest.  I have little active interest in religion.  As a lesbian feminist activist and scholar I have read more books about sexuality than I ever planned to and so these have also somewhat lost their place on my interest spectrum.   It is safe to say this book did not call out to me, screaming to be read. 

It is something of a surprise to me that I enjoyed Luke Turner’s book so very much. It is a deliciously rich and multi-layered text, beautifully crafted read.

At first, perhaps because it was the type of book I am not drawn to, I found it a little self-consciously literary and wordy but this may be because I had decided to dislike its ‘self-indulgence’ before I read it.  It may be that it could have done with some further editing – I am unsure (though I did begin to play ‘pollard’ bingo early into my reading so very much did this word appear – so perhaps it did).

Despite my initial irritation with the book (which I own entirely as being nothing to do with the actual book and everything to do with my dismissal of memoir) I was quickly drawn into the craft of this story.  Turner artfully blends complex discussion about self, history, identity, sexuality and nature into one narrative of discovery. He uses words so thoughtfully the story flows river like, and gently.  This is an artistic, poetic use of words rather than being forensically exact in choices made. Whether one is emotionally reeling from stories of abuses of power against him, his connection to the forest or relationship changes, it is still experienced as opportunity rather than woeful/painful documentary. 

Out of the Woods was my bedtime reading book and reading it felt like a tender caress before sleep. 

Despite going into the realms of abuse, unfairness, confusion and breakdowns I was comforted by the refuge of nature that enabled Turner to find more solid ground, and assured me the reader that culturally we all became more evolved through the story Turner told/experienced/shared.

This was a bold and unusual book which I heartily recommend.  Luke Turner is a wonderful wordsmith and I am in awe.  Kudos to Weidenfeld and Nicolson for accepting it for publication. 

Thanks also to the Guardian Literary Review calendar for alerting me to the book as one to look forward to from the January publication list: you were right. 

TS Eliot Prize for poetry awarded

January dates of note (Review 5 January 2019)

  • 1 Centenary of birth of The Catcher in the Rye Author JD Salinger*.
  • 7 Winners of Costa category awards announced.
  • 11 Release of the biopic Collette, starring Kiera Knightley.
  • 12 50th Anniversary of the publication of Phillip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint.
  • 14 TS Eliot prize for poetry awarded.
  • 29 Costa prize-giving with book of the year revealed.
  • Germaine Greer turns 80.

In this post I will be pondering upon 14th January: The TS Eliot prize award for poetry

Image: TS Eliot by Lady Ottoline Morrell © The estate of Lady Ottoline Morrell. Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence

I mentioned in my first post that some of the dates are written as if self-explanatory – that anyone would understand why these, rather than other dates, are especially of note in the literary year ahead.  In a future post, I will reflect on the influence of the lens upon the collection offered.

For this post, and for future monthly choices of dates to consider specifically, I will be guided by one simple question:  Why is this a date to note?

I chose this date because I am relatively ignorant about the event.  What I know about the craft of poetry writing could be covered in a seven-line limerick. Beyond ‘knowing what I like’ in a poem (John Cooper Clarke, Maya Angelou, Roger McGough, – popular but arguably unadventurously mainstream) I find many as difficult to interpret as another language.  Learning about the shortlist and the winner provides me with an opportunity to give more time to poetry than I usually allow. 

Helpfully, readings from the full shortlist are posted online:

Personally, I find hearing poetry is a more satisfactory, more sensual experience than reading it and so I spent a couple of hours being variously caressed, battered or bored. 

I do not have the technical knowledge to critique but I found Tracy K Smith’s reading from Wade in the Water (Penguin, 2018) to be distinctive, evocative and politically thought-provoking.

The winner of the TS Eliot prize was announced as Hannah Sullivan for her book Three Poems (Faber, 2018). Her work is precise with a near-forensic economy of chosen words.  Her reading readily evoked visceral imagery. Belying my lack of a framework to understand poetic form and discipline, I did not have as powerful a response to it as the prize awarding panel which found her work ‘exhilarating’. The Chair of the panel and previous winner Sinéad Morrissey is reported, in a Guardian article, to have said of Ms Sullivan that ‘a star is born’.   

A quick peruse of Wikipedia shows there are a great many well-respected poetry prize opportunities internationally and I assume this must be a good thing for poets and therefore poetry.  It must be a very challenging field in which to publish and become successful.  Prizes must help bring work into focus and audience and this can only be a very lovely thing.  The TS Eliot prize is unquestionably much coveted and indeed, valuable. 

I found an unexpected prize.  The TS Eliot Prize website made available for download readers notes for each nominated author.  Notes include brief bio’s of the author, example reviews of their work – some samples of which are also included – and, super-usefully, discussion ideas through which to dissect and debate the authors work. Suggestions for other writers of a similar vein are offered.  The reader notes allow poetry novices such as me a way to engage with and learn how to understand the poems submitted.  It is my intention to now actively use these so go back to the recordings and consider them with a more discerning ear. There was also an invitation to join the mailing list and I enthusiastically signed up.

If one is a poet or involved personally/professionally in the literary world, then I guess the TS Eliot prize is indeed noteworthy and perhaps obviously so.  I am sorry (and perhaps just a little bit embarrassed to admit) it had not crossed my own horizon before, but I am very sure it will become a date to note for me in the future. I am grateful it was included in the list. 

Postscript: *I note that the Review of 2 February 2019 carries a four-page article based on an interview with Matt Salinger, JD Salinger’s son and literary executor.  On 3rd February the Observer (sister paper) ran a ‘book of the day’ article by Tim Adams (@TimAdamsWrites)  about the publication of volume 8 of the letters of TS Eliot. I wonder if perhaps the Literary Review calendar is in fact plan which will be guiding future editions of the supplement?  Time will tell.