February in Books


I Know I Am, But What Are You? by Samantha Bee

As it turned out, February was the perfect time to read Samantha Bee’s memoir because after the first episode of her new show aired, I was hungry for any extra morsel of Sam Bee hilarity I could get. This was as whacky and wild as anticipated, and maybe put me off getting a cat forever…

Rather than an autobiography, Bee’s book is more a collection of amusing anecdotes from her upbringing through to the early years of her career – including her days performing as Sailor Moon in a show she describes as “so vague and ridiculous that it could have been written by a basket of acorns that had fallen onto a laptop by accident.” Naturally, it was performing as Sailor Moon that led to meeting her husband, fellow former Daily Show correspondent, Jason Jones. (A story as surreal as it is sweet.) Basically, expect the unexpected. Most of Bee’s tales involve a calamitous sequence of events that were probably borderline traumatic to experience but, in retrospect and when retold by Samantha Bee, are so ridiculously amusing that reading in public is no longer an option. Also, an alarming number of them involve animals: cats, horses and even dolphins.

Writing a Woman’s Life by Carolyn G. Heilbrun

The perfect preparatory read for the Women’s Lives Club project (which I mentioned in more detail in January’s post), Carolyn G. Heilbrun’s Writing a Woman’s Life was fascinating, enlightening and all too short. In it, Heilbrun explores the specific pitfalls of female biography, the gendered documentation of history and, at least anecdotally, the stories of women lost to it. Wonderful, captivating stories. It feels like essential reading going into a yearlong reading project focusing on women’s stories, providing my analysis with a solid, structured foundation.

Heilbrun’s text is full of references to incredible women and my favourite of these were Vera Brittain and her soulmate-best-friend Winifred Holtby, who both seem astonishingly ahead of their time (bearing in mind their time was the 1930s). Heilbrun asserts that, “friendship between women has seldom been recounted” and introduces the pair as a rare, documented example. But I got so excited reading excerpts of their writing, most particularly this one, by Holtby, written in her book Women and a Changing Civilization (1934):

“I think that the real object behind our demand is not to reduce all men and women to the same dull pattern. It is rather to release their richness of variety. We still are greatly ignorant of our own natures. We do not know how much of what we usually describe as ‘feminine characteristics’ are really ‘masculine,’ and how much ‘masculinity’ is common to both sexes. Our hazards are often wildly off the mark. We do not even know – though we theorise and penalise with ferocious confidence – whether the ‘normal’ sexual relationship is homo- or bi- or hetero-sexual. We are content to make vast generalizations which quite often fit the facts enough to be tolerable, but which – also quite often – inflict indescribable because indefinable suffering on those individuals who cannot without pain conform to our rough-and-ready attempt to make all men [and women] good and happy.”

She wrote that in 1934. 1934.

To sum up, this was a dream read filled with similar excerpts, and had me yearning for my old Gender Studies days. I am always attempting to satiate that feeling through the recommendations of other likeminded, feminist readers and Writing a Woman’s Life really delivered, even if the enjoyment was disappointingly brief. If you’re participating in the Women’s Lives Club, even if you missed the first month, I would definitely recommend taking the time to pick up a copy of this.

The Silent Woman by Janet Malcolm

Less a biography of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes and more a biography of biography itself as a form, Janet Malcolm’s book has been a polarising first read within the Women’s Lives Club. For me, I found it enormously compelling – if at times also enormously uncomfortable and frustrating.

One of the key things that stands out to me after reading it is how little I really feel like I know about Sylvia from this biography. There’s a mythology to Sylvia Plath, no longer the living, breathing complex human that she was when alive. For me, with Malcolm’s biography in mind, that’s almost a relief. I don’t want to know anymore about Sylvia than was in her own words. The multitudes of a person are quite natural, those versions of ourselves we create for each of our various relationships, but in Plath’s case, these contradictory selves are exposed by everyone: her biographers, her husband, her mother. The invasiveness of the biographical form has never felt so flagrant. I was fascinated but it felt like the kind of fascination one might compare to not being able to look away from a car crash. No one came out of this as likeable – not the subject, not the biographer, not the cacophony of other voices all begging to be heard. I do feel that I got a lot out of reading it, though, and it’s equipped me with greater caution when approaching future biographies – particularly those about women.

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

I read this novel 99% because I wanted to share a mildly amusing anecdote about Sam Claflin, who is playing Will in the movie adaptation. Tenuous? I don’t care. So, one of the ladies my mum works with is Sam Claflin’s aunt (apparently) and she was hanging out in my mum’s office one day while I was visiting. Somehow her famous nephew came up in conversation and my mum went straight into Mrs Bennet mode, trying to set me up with this actor she had never heard of – massively underestimating his success, clearly. I found her misguided confidence highly entertaining. Anyway, now we’re married, rich and fabulous. At least I think that’s how it went down… Oh no! Wait. He’s a movie star.

And the book? Well, call me Lady Stoneheart because I didn’t shed a tear. I sped through the book in an afternoon, found it fairly enjoyable but didn’t quite get the hype.

To change tack a little, there was one aspect that I found a little off-putting, though others may feel very differently about it. The main character, Louise, references (or at least alludes to) an earlier experience of rape midway through the novel. It threw me because it was so far from a central storyline and felt like a rather odd, misjudged side-plot. Sexual violence is so often thrown into narratives centred on other things for a variety of reasons; here, it was to provide an emotional punch. But I think the topic should be treated as more than the accessory to a love story. Its position in the narrative was jarring. This isn’t what the book was about – but it’s the thing that lingers most in my memory. I don’t think it should be thrown into the mix just to up the emotional stakes, or give Will the opportunity to console Louise.

In many ways that feeds into how I felt about the book in general: it was purposefully attempting to get me weeping, and its blatant agenda had me on guard the whole time. I felt resistant to allowing the narrative to move me in a way that is fundamental to full enjoyment.

We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Best. Twist. Ever. It’s not one of those ‘OMG! He was the murderer the whole time!’ twists, the kind where you’re waiting for the reveal to come and prematurely attempting to play detective yourself. It’s delightfully unique. It comes almost out of nowhere, while making perfect sense once revealed. I didn’t see it coming at all; it was like I just stepped out into the road and BANG. One minute you’re contentedly reading your book and then all of a sudden it transforms into something utterly new. And fun. And weird. I loved it.

Though it sort of blew my mind a little bit (and I’m definitely overselling it, whoops), the twist wasn’t even my favourite part. The best of this novel was its humour, woven into the prose with deft subtlety and bringing a thrilling lightness to the words. The subject matter isn’t light, but somehow the novel never weighs heavy. It bounces cheerfully along, with some of the innocent charm of To Kill A Mockingbird. References to popular culture of its time setting – the references to each sibling’s varying views on Star Wars, for example – build a rich understanding of the characters, and the differences between them in both age and personality. Sometimes pop culture references, when overused, can feel tiring and ineffective and jarring, but here they enrich and entertain an utterly splendid narrative. I never wanted this to end, but when it did, I felt spurred on to get to work on my own writing. The best feeling.

I recommend this book to everyone, but above all to those who have studied a bit of psychology.

The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan

This book is my favourite kind of book: the kind that makes me want to write. Just throw open my pencil case and let loose on a notebook. It’s vibrant and fresh and engaging. The number of pages that are now marred by eager underlining is incalculable – and probably not that far off the total page count.

The Opposite of Loneliness is not a finished whole. It is a collection of work by a young writer who died tragically young, published posthumously. The first half is short stories, the second half non-fiction essays. Both sets of work are confident, rich and told with a voice so unique but relatable that I felt myself simultaneously totally understood and totally in awe. It made me want to write better. It made me want to write more. I didn’t want to get to the last page and when I did, I turned back to the first.

The particular highlights for me were ‘Cold Pastoral’, ‘Winter Break’, ‘Hail, Full of Grace’, ‘Stability in Motion’ and, unsurprisingly, the titular ‘The Opposite of Loneliness’. They stand out for unique reasons, every one of them. Each is its own story, exploring some new aspect of the human experience in a refreshing, enlightening way. Dog-eared corners remind me of lines that most caught my attention, for capturing my own experience or for eloquently articulating a stranger’s. As Mother’s Day just passed, I thought I’d choose an excerpt from ‘Winter Break’ appropriate for the occasion: “At little party things or parent-teacher meetings, people would tell us our expressions were the same. I’d never really noticed it on my own – I just thought the way she smiled made sense.”

(I would welcome a thousand book recommendations with a similar writing style to Keegan’s so if you know of any, hook me up!)

As always, if you have recommendations for March, please tell me! I’ve loved February’s reads and most of them I would encourage you to pick up too if they sound up your alley.

Click here to read about January’s books. 

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