How to be Both by Ali Smith

How to be Both by Ali Smith became an instant success after its publication 2014. Back then all I could see on my Twitter feeds was praise for an author that I had never Heard about. So, after seeing that her latest book Autumn has also been welcomed with equal enthusiast for people I trust, I decided to finally read How to be Both. I borrowed this book from the Bristol Central Library.

“Cause nobody’s the slightest idea who we are, or who we were”.

How to be Both is a novel about fluidity and ambiguity. As the title suggests, a constant theme in both parts of the book is the characters’ ability to evade categories set by society and construct their identity all by themselves. Liminality, those spaces that are both and none at the same time, becomes key for George, an English teenager that has recently lost her mother, and Francescho, a Renaissance artist struggling to become a well-known painter.

The novel is all play, a game between Smith and the reader that will fascinate and surprise in equal measure. The book is divided in two halves, each of them dedicated to a different character. As a metaphysical experiment, there are two version of the book: One that present’s George story first, and another one that presents Francescho’s story first. No matter which, a quick look at Goodreads shows that readers prefer the first half no matter the edition they had. Not happy with this game, Smith also plays the reader for some pages until we discover that George is actually a young girl who is facing the rest of her life with her mother while trying to figure out who she is. As she explores sexual identity, female desire, and growing up, George presents us with a portrait of her mother as an inspiring woman obsessed with creativity and art. So much so, that she visits the same painting so often, George feels the need to visit too after her death.

That painting is no other than Francescho’s. But again, things are not what they seem, and Francescho is a young woman in disguise trying to become a painter in Renaissance Italy. Hidden under big clothes and a lot of banding is the body of a woman that defies social conventions and belongs to another time. As her male friends take her to brothels and her secret is discovered by the city’s prostitutes, she also discovers her sexuality letting her desire roam free in exchange for a drawing. It is in Francecho’s experience that Smith finally gets to fully develop the theme of ambiguity presenting the reader with very interesting questions about identity, how society plays an enormous role in how we define ourselves and the freedom that comes from liminality, ambiguity and letting yourself remain unlabeled while trying to experience life to the fullest.

“It was all : it was nothing : it was more than enough”

How to be Both is my first Ali Smith but it will not be the last. Reading such a complex work could be considered a difficult and daunting task, but Smith’s prose is so beautiful and perfectly constructed that reading just flows. I read this book while I was writing and editing, and I found myself constantly thinking about the story, and pulled to the book every night, no matter the hour.

Interview with Paula Hawkins for Crime Fiction Association

As many of you now know I am also a freelancer writer and an organiser for the Captivating Criminality 4 conference, an annual event organised by the Crime Fiction Association. A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to interview writer Paula Hawkins (The Girl on the Train) yet again for the Association’s blog and we discussed women, crime, and her latest novel Into the Water. To read the interview, click here.

News: Crime Fiction Conference and #PhDLife

As I said last week, big crime fiction news were to be released soon. So, here they are! I am very happy (and proud!) to be part of the Captivating Criminality Organising Team for our  2017 conference Crime Fiction: Detection, Public and Private, Past and Present. This event is part of an interantional effort by the Crime Fiction Association – led by Dr. Fiona Peters from Bath Spa University –  to fully incooporate crime fiction studies as valid and serious research in the Humanities. If you want to learn more, please click here to visit our website. You can also find us on Twitter @CrimeFic, and on Facebook Fb.me/crimefic.

Meanwhile, you can check the programme for our 2017 conference to see how people from all over the world are joining efforts to research crime fiction (*):

http://www.captivatingcriminalitynetwork.net/programme.html

(*) Please note that the programme is still under construction and may be subject to changes

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Getting to Know the Author: Sophie Hannah

One of my new tasks in my recent move to the UK is to help organise an event in which some crime fiction writers are involved (more information on the event soon!). As the crime fiction family is such a big and diverse one, I was not surprised to realise that I had never read anything about one of the women authors participating, but I was certainly curious about her work. In an effort to solve that gap in my reading history I have decided to do some research about the author and read at least one of her novels. Here’s Sophie Hannah:

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British novelist and poet Sophie Hannah was born in Manchester (England) in 1971 to an academic father and a writer mother. She went to study at the University of Manchester and saw her first book of poems published at the age of 24. She continued writing with critical acclaim, with her work usually compared to Wendy Cope’s and Lewis Carroll’s. Currently her poems are studied at A-Level in the UK.

Despite her skills as a poet, Hannah is more well-known for her novels, especially her crime novels. Her first psychological thriller Little Face was released in 2006, and since then she has written more than 12 crime fiction novels. These works feature detective Sam Waterhouse that the British press has already catalogued as a household name. However, I am currently reading book #5 in the series and although I feel I am missing out something regarding Sam and the police department the plot is easy to follow and I am really enjoying the story.

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She has also worked prominently in the fight for crime fiction to be considered ‘serious’ literature, and she takes pride on being known as a crime writer. She has stated that Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie and Ruth Rendell were some of her favourite writers growing up, and that they have inspired the writing she has been doing since she was a 6-year old. In a 2015 interview for The Guardian she openly discussed the necessity to reevaluate crime fiction:

There is still a great deal of snobbery about crime and thriller writing. There are people who think a crime novel can’t be proper literature, mainly because they are prejudiced against genre fiction and writing that is plot-based. Whether one ought to care about this, I’m not sure. Personally, I’ve always thought crime fiction is the best kind of literature. Done well and properly, there is no better kind of fiction. If other people can’t see that, then I think that’s a shame for them but I am not going to get angry about it.

Despite her success as a crime fiction writer Sophie Hannah success skyrocketed when she became the heir to Agatha Christie’s literary legacy. In 2014 she famously earned the blessing of Agatha Christie’s family and State to publish a new Poirot novel The Monogram Murders. The book received mainly positive reviews, with Laura Thompson from The Guardian highlighting that: “The first posthumous Hercule Poirot mystery impresses with its intricacy” and Alexander McCall Smith writing for the New York Times answering the general public’s fear: “Does Sophie Hannah’s Poirot live up to our expectations? Yes, he does, and markedly so”.

The Monogram Murders is based on a plot that Hannah had in mind but had not managed to include in any of her modern thrillers. However, when her agent approached her with the Christie State’s proposal to write a new Poirot novel, she realised that it was time to develop said plot. During an interview with Harper Collins Hannah addressed the controversy of bringing such a beloved character back to life. However, she stresses that Agatha Christie still is the best-selling writer of all time and the new Poirot novel is a way to let new generations discover Christie’s work. The novel was such a success that a second installment Closed Casket was published in September 2016.

Sophie Hannah is without a doubt one of the big names in contemporary crime fiction in the UK. Her works show a diverse range of skills, as well as a passion for literature. So much so, that Hannah was a fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford between 1997 and 1999. Currently she is a Fellow Commoner at Lucy Cavendish College, and she lives in Cambridge with her husband, children and dog.

Into The Water by Paula Hawkins

When I first read that Paula Hawkins had a new novel coming out this year I freaked out. As you recall I loved The Girl on the Train, and I was immediately smitten with Hawkins on her first interview here as soon as she expressed her views on women and crime fiction. You can revisit the interview here. So, when I saw pictures of her new novel Into The Water to be published on the 2nd of May, I knew I had to get my hands on one. I also knew I would love it (spoiler alert: I was right!). Thanks to Paula and to Alison Barrow’s team for sending me one.

Into The Water by Paula Hawkins

‘Nel Abbott is dead’, she said.

‘They found her in the water.’

‘She jumped,’

Into the Water starts with the death of Nel Abbott in a small town in England. But she is not the protagonist of the story, as her identity is reconstructed throughout the novel by her estranged sister Jules who sees her return to their hometown to take her of Nel’s daughter Lena as her late sister’s last and darkest joke. However, Jules’ is not the only voice in the book. As it happened with The Girl on the Train, Hawkins creates a story from different points of view playing with the readers’ perception of the characters. If Rachel was a divorcee and an alcoholic, Nel is a hippie, an artist, a beautiful unmarried woman who leads a tranquil life with her daughter. Or isn’t she? Playing with social and gender prejudices, Hawkins makes the reader face long-held beliefs about women, knowledge and body issues. The background of Nel’s life is plagued by her obsession with the Drowning Pool, an enchanted part of the local river in which witch trials and sacrifices took place, holing a special attraction to the women of the town ever since.

With the reminiscence of witchery trials and the secret behind women’s knowledge in a 21st century story, Hawkins is brining back the social construction of women’s knowledge, as well as the sometimes trickery action of being defined by prejudices in a small town. Nel’s life constructs her as liminal in the white, middle-class and familiar environment of her hometown. Her beauty is considered dangerous. Her daughter is said to be following her steps. And the bond between them is strange to even the closest pair of mothers and daughters. And above all, she is obsessed with the Drowning Pool and the women who died there. So much so, that she is writing a book about them. A collective biography that aims to bring together the life and death of the women that jumped into the water, partially reproduced thanks to Jules in the book. Hence when Nel’s body is found in said drowning pool no one thinks twice about it, except her daughter. Was Nel the kind of woman who would jump? Who was Nel Abbott?

Like good English crime fiction, Into the Water is a crime novel and a character study. Like a Paula Hawkins book, the story forces readers to question the social construction of each of the characters’ identities, as well as their own definition of self. Confronted with the death of her sister, Jules sees herself become legal guardian to Nel’s daughter. But why were the Abbott sisters estranged in the first place? Lena is faced with her mother’s apparent suicide, but also with her best friend’s. What did the two women have in common? Detective Sean Townsend has seen enough death in the Drowning Pool of recently, will he able to solve the crime? These are only three of the several characters that construct the narrative and that faithfully reproduce the power of the community in the social construction of narratives.

I enjoyed The Girl on the Train a lot and I thought that from a feminist perspective the book has done a lot to question women’s representation in crime fiction. But Into The Water is even better, as Hawkins directly addresses the historical persecution of women’s knowledge and the agency that stemmed from it. However, those issues could easily become secondary for the general crime fiction reader, who will find a complex page-turner with a shocking ending. Totally recommended to all my readers here.

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud had been on my radar for a long time. So much so that when I decided to do some second-hand bookshop in Cardiff last year I knew I would buy a copy of the book if I found it. For those of you who kept recommending the book to me: Thank You.

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

The Woman Upstairs tells the story of Nora Eldridge, a middle-aged teacher who sees her conventional American class and life disrupted with the arrival of a new pupil from France. Nora describes herself in the first lines of the book as ‘a good girl’, and that is probably the description that best fits her until the following question is posted: What makes a good girl and why? In this first chapter we learn about her anger and her frustration with her life. If she has been a good daughter, a good colleague, and a good woman in general, why did this happen to her? Of course ‘this’ is the whole of the book. Messud is a master at describing psychological processes, and the novel focuses on Nora’s internal life and her evolution. But before we learn more about the year the incident that changed her life forever, she graces us with one of the most intense, truthful and brief takes on anger expressed by a female character in contemporary literature:

Maybe, instead, I’ll set the world on fire. I just might.

This anger floods her story like a hemorrhage she cannot stop when she reconstructs what happened between her and the student’s family. Because I do not wish to spoil the novel to anyone, I will leave it here, and instead I will focus on why so many people have considered Nora a unlikable character. For me she was a heroine, but I am the one who takes Rebecca’s side on the Du Maurier classic. As a female character, Nora uses the narration in first person to vent her anger and her frustrations, and she directly links her situation to the fact that she is a woman and has been socialized to be quiet, silent, kind, show acceptance, and care for others. But above all, she highlights how society teaches women to repress negative feelings, and most importantly to not show the in public:

Don’t all women feel the same? The only difference is how much we know we feel it, how in touch we are with our fury. We’re all furies, except the ones who are too damned foolish, and my worry now is that we’re brainwashing them from the cradle, and in the end the ones who are smart will be too damned foolish.

Despite the importance of these feelings, Messud gives Nora a rich internal life, and her ambitions to be an artist also play a key role in the narrative. Even though she earns her living as a teacher, Nora has always wanted to be an artist but saw her will and determination crashed by society and her environment. Sadly this is a too common situation for many women even nowadays, and the fact that Messud chose to write about it may give help female readers give a second chance to the dreams of their youth. Nora’s self-rediscovery is one of the most beautiful and inspiring processes I have seen portrayed in literature, and it stands along with the library scene in Atonement, which two years later still lingers in my mind.

It has been over a month since I finished The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud, but I fiercely miss Nora. Every day I look at my piles of books trying to find something that will make up for the loss, but I am afraid I will not find anything until Messud’s next book comes out this year. Even though reading The Woman Upstairs l may take a while due to the intensity of the story, Nora will remain with readers as one of the most complex, fierce, brave, inspiring and flawed characters in contemporary literature. For me this is probably the best book I have read this year so far.

Doing It: Let’s Talk About Sex by Hannah Witton

I discovered online sexual educator and Youtuber Hannah Witton this year while discovering the huge amount of bookish and sexual content available on Youtube and decided to create a list of subscriptions to check every day. Her channel – with more than 300,000 subscribers – focuses on sex and relationships, and although I would be weary of anyone talking about such issues from a feminist perspective – I have had some terrible experiences watching other vlogger’s videos – Hannah does a good job by speaking openly, candidly and open-mindedly about sex. When I learnt that she had a book coming out this Spring called Doing It: Let’s Talk About Sex I requested a review copy to the publishers and they kindly sent me this early review copy:

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The first thing to say about Doing It: Let’s Talk About Sex is it is aimed at a 14+ audience, meaning that this is one of the few non-fiction YA books out there talking about body issues, sex, and relationships. Witton’s candid tone translates perfectly from her videos to the text, and she often illustrates her theories with her own experiences and even her own drawings. However, she is quick to recognise her privilege as a thin cisgender while female in Western culture and she does not shy away from including diverse voices in her book. Many of the contributors are Youtubers whom Hannah has met during her career and who offer another take on sexuality. The book includes testimonies from non-normative people including transgender, asexual people, homosexual, and disabled  making the text a landmark in contemporary non-fiction for young adults.

As Hannah Witton is known for her irreverent approach to sex, Doing It also includes a very interesting (and feminist!) section in which the author interviews her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother about their sex educations hence bringing together more than 100 years of sexual discourse together. The historical perspective is not new to the author, who is a History graduate and did research about Victorian sexual manuals during her time as a student. Even though I am usually weary of judging people only by their studies, Hannah’s past in Medical Humanities helps bring together science, art, and story-telling to offer young readers a fresh take on their sexuality. One of the book’s themes is the necessity to talk about sex always in the negative: Do not get pregnant. Do not get an STD. Do not lose your virginity too soon/late, etc. So, as much as sex-positive texts for teenagers, Doing It is a game-changer.

However, I was disappointed to hear Hannah on her Youtube channel, and then on the book talk about a contraceptive method that she labels ‘Fertility awareness’ and that basically consists of: “Figuring out when you are fertile during your cycle and avoiding unprotected sex during this time. Must be taught by a specialist. You monitor your body temperature, cervical mucus, and the length of your cycle”. For me this method sounds very much like the Knaus–Ogino method which has been proved not to be a reliable contraceptive method. Plus, if the book is aimed at teenagers I think that other external factors such as stress, medication, and hormonal changes could affect the monitoring hence resulting in unplanned pregnancies. I understand the body-positive idea behind the method, which would probably make women more familiar with their reproductive system but I deem the risk too high. Several scientific resources online associate a failure high as 15% for this method while Witton describes it ‘over 99% effective’. And while adult women may have more resources (physical, emotional, economic, plus the right to do as they want despite of their parents’ thinking), this method could put teenagers in a risky situation.

Doing It: Let’s Talk About Sex is a wonderful book for young adults that I wish I had had 15 years ago. Not only it provides great information about sex, gender identity, consent, and body image among other things, but Hannah Witton’s body and sex-positive attitude translates perfectly to the reader. Highly recommended to the teenagers in your life (boys and girls!), just make sure you mention the many contraceptive methods available today that have been proven more effective than the Ogino one.

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