March Random Round Up

March was Women’s History Month, a concept I find kind of reductive because women are a part of and make history twelve months a year but moving on from that…here’s a list of groundbreaking female authors you should bookmark for your next book shop visit.

Zadie Smith’s beautiful story about Billie Holiday in the New Yorker is seriously worth reading.

This month I watched Season 2 of Love on Netflix and had mixed feelings about it. Gillian Jacobs’ performance is one of the highlights. One of the not-so-great things about the series is this.

Royal Blood are releasing their second album later this year and they’re teasing us with this studio clip. Bring. It. On.

The upcoming documentary Kiki looks amazing, a new take drag ball culture which first reached mainstream popularity in Paris Is Burning.

Speaking of drag, Netflix has struck a deal whereby new episodes of Rupaul’s Drag Race are streamable the day after they’re broadcast in the US. Season 9 is two episodes in and Valentina’s my early favourite.

The Glass Shore – Sinéad Gleeson

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Sinead Gleeson. Photo by Paul McVeigh

A few weeks ago I attended the launch of The Glass Shore: Short Stories by Women Writers from the North of Ireland, a new anthology edited by Sinéad Gleeson. This anthology is a follow-up to Sinéad’s last collection, The Long Gaze Back, an anthology of short stories from women writers in the Republic of Ireland, published last year. It featured well known names such as Maeve Brennan and Elizabeth Bowen and more recently published writers including Anne Enright, Eimear McBride and Lisa McInerney.

I’ve been dipping into The Glass Shore, reading a few stories a week and becoming familiar with writers I had never heard of. Sinéad has unearthed some gems from contemporary writers and resurrected some older ones, one of my favourites being the first story in the book, ‘The Mystery of Ora’ by Rosa Mulholland, a classic gothic tale with supernatural overtones. I also loved the Lucy Caldwell story, ‘Mayday’, a sparely written and affecting story about unwanted pregnancy that seems particularly relevant in the light of the Repeal the 8th campaign.

Sinéad is an incredibly accomplished woman: a broadcaster and journalist, a writer and editor. The Glass Shore is another feather in her cap and if you’re looking for present inspiration for the book lover in your life this is definitely a great purchase.

The Rose Garden – Maeve Brennan

Meave Brennan.  January 6, 1917– November 1st 1993
Maeve Brennan
6th January 1917 – 1st November 1993

 

I am now back into writing mode, having taken a wee bit of a mental holiday over the last few weeks. I’ve commenced a new project and am fairly immersed in it, so as a result at bedtime I want to read something short as I don’t really have the energy to get into something doorstop-sized. I went into Hodges Figgis a couple of weeks ago in order to stock up on some short stories and ended up with Maeve Brennan’s collection The Rose Garden and Edna O’Brien’s The Love Object. I had long wanted to read Brennan and so I started with her.

One of Ireland’s foremost short story writers, Maeve Brennan was born in Dublin in 1917 and grew up in Ranelagh. Brennan’s father was appointed as the Irish Free State’s first minister to the United States and so the family moved to Washington when Maeve was seventeen. She went on to get a degree in English and moved to New York where she began writing fashion copy for Harper’s Bazaar. She was soon noticed by the New Yorker magazine and she went to work there in 1949, first as a social diarist and then as a short story writer.

Brennan was beautiful, stylish and a glamorous fixture on the New York literary scene. She married once to St. Clair McKelway, the New Yorker’s Managing Editor, but he was not a safe bet – alcoholic, manic depressive and already divorced three times – and the marriage disintegrated after five years. Brennan remained single for the rest of her life and never had children. Towards the end she became badly alcoholic and struggled with mental health issues. She became something of a bag lady, sleeping in the toilets at the New Yorker, or occasionally staying in one of the hotels for transients on 42nd Street. She died of a heart attack aged seventy-six and is buried in Queen’s, New York.

Many of the stories in The Rose Garden are set in the upmarket New York suburb of Herbert’s Retreat, based on Sneden’s Landing where she lived with McKelway. Brennan often uses the same characters in these stories: an overbearing theatre critic called Charles Runyon, the maids working in the kitchens of the grand houses, social climbing wives and their put-upon husbands. These stories are brilliant; scathing, beautifully observed and very funny. Five of the stories are set in Dublin, including “The Holy Terror”, a study of a ladies-room attendant in a hotel, whose contemptuous attitude finally leads to her downfall.

While I haven’t yet finished the book I am interested in reading more of Brennan’s work, particularly The Springs of Affection. In common with other great short story writers, she has a way of compressing huge amounts of detail into deftly crafted sentences, making her stories rich and layered. Much can be learned!

#readwomen2014: Will you do it?

I posted back in 2010 about the gender split in my library; I realised it was heavily in favour of men and so I tried to redress the balance, which I have done reasonably successfully so far, but it’s a task in progress! Consequently #readwomen2014 – a Twitter hashtag project started by Joanna Walsh – piqued my interest when I read about it a couple of weeks ago.

Joanna explains: “I started the Twitter hashtag #readwomen2014 after drawing some bookmark-shaped New Year’s cards showing some of my favourite female writers…When I posted photos of my cards on Twitter, a few people asked me to tweet the 250-odd names of female writers I had typed on the back…within minutes, women – and men – were adding their own favourites to the list. The meme was passed on until the list of names doubled, then trebled. This was something people cared about. It also felt as if they were having a lot of fun.”

I am wholeheartedly on board with #readwomen2014 and would urge any Multiverse readers to bear the project in mind when adding to their libraries this year.

Flavorwire have posted a handy list of fifty books by female authors, so if you want inspiration for your next book purchase, you could start there. Alternatively I’m listing some of the reviews of books that I have loved here, so you can visit my archives for some recommendations too:

I’m currently reading Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, which I intend to review on the blog soon; it’s a challenging but utterly original read so far. Look out for the hashtag #readwomen2014 for any books by female writers that I review on the Multiverse this year and let me know if you make any discoveries I should know about.

On Beauty – Zadie Smith

Sometimes you read a writer who is so good, it is mildly depressing. Zadie Smith is one such writer. Only a year older than me, she has already published three novels: White Teeth (2000), The Autograph Man (2002) and On Beauty (2005) which won the Orange Prize in 2006.

Smith was just 21 when her first novel was sold (unfinished and based on only 80 pages) for an advance rumoured to be in the region of £250,000. When White Teeth was published a couple of years later it launched Smith as one of the most exciting new literary talents in the UK. I tried to read White Teeth a few years ago when I was living in London but I found, unusually for me, that I just couldn’t get into it. I’m fairly persistent with books and a very fast reader so I don’t tend to give up all that easily but for whatever reason White Teeth was one of those novels that lay gathering dust on my shelves with only 100 pages read.

I bought On Beauty just after Christmas and started it a couple of weeks ago. It is the story of two families, the Belseys and the Kippses. The Belsey family consists of university professor Howard, a white Englishman, his African-American wife Kiki, and their children Jerome, Zora and Levi, living in a fictional university town outside of Boston. Monty Kipps, is a Trinidadian man living in Britain with his wife Carlene and children Victoria and Michael. The novel explores the relationships between the two families as they become increasingly intertwined over a period of a few years. Smith based On Beauty on Howard’s End by E.M. Forster and has called it an homage to the classic novel.

On Beauty is masterfully written, instantly engaging and very funny in parts. The characters are well drawn and recognisable and I particularly loved Kiki Belsey, the matriarch of the Belsey family. Her feminist principles, love for her children and her unshakeable core of strength give the book its warm heart. Smith’s novel is sprawling, taking in academia, modern multicultural society, race, culture wars, family and relationships, art and music. But at no point does it feel that the subject matter is about to escape the author’s hands, or about to turn into a political polemic. Smith is in control and obviously enjoying the writing process, which makes for a page turning entertaining read.