Sunday, 22 January 2017

Diversathon 2017: My TBR

Diversathon, which starts today (22nd January) and runs until next Sunday, is a readathon that aims to encourage people to broaden their horizons by reading about communities/cultures that are different from their own. Specifically, the aim is to read books that are about people who are not typically represented in books or other media. Hosted by the YouTubers (or rather BookTubers) ChrstinaMarie, SheMightBeMonica, SquibblesReads, and SavideReads, the emphasis this year is on "own voices" - which means authors who have direct first-hand experience of what they are writing about. 

For example, The Diving and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby is an own voice book because it's a book about disability by someone who themselves is disabled (admittedly, it's an autobiography but it would still be an "own voice" book if it was fictional). By contrast, Jo Jo Moyles' Me Before You - which is a novel about a love affair between a woman and a quadriplegic man - is not an own voice book because Moyles is not a quadriplegic and (as far as I am aware) doesn't have close relatives who are.

I was a bit unsure about taking part in Diversathon, aside from the fact I am at least 10 years older than most of the hosts, because I couldn't see what the benefit would be to marginalised communities. Me reading about someone who was trans, for instance, is not by itself going to stop transphobia etc - for that, I have to confront transphobia when I come across it etc.

Also while Diversathon will hopefully show publishers that there is an audience for books about marginalised communities, I am doubtful about the value of my role in this. Say, for argument's sake, publishers bring out more diverse books because I buy diverse books (so they see there's a need). They would be publishing diverse books based on what a white, middle-class, cisgendered (and any other "normal" category you could think of) woman wants to read. Surely, they should publish diverse books on the basis of what marginalised communities themselves want to read? Not that I shouldn't read diverse books; more that I shouldn't be the one dictating what diverse books are published.

Anyway, I figured that taking part wouldn't do any harm and would certainly be of benefit to me (reading interesting books while learning about other people's experiences etc.). Therefore, given all that's happened with Brexit, I decided to focus on reading about the immigrant experience in Britain. I have chosen to read The Boy with the Topnot by Sathnam Sanghera, which is a memoir about Sanghera's experience of growing up in Wolverhampton in a Punjabi family. It also deals with him coming to terms with the realisation that both his father and his older sister have a severe mental illness.

If time, I will also try to read Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class by Owen Jones. In the past, I have been guilty of being a horrific snob (to my shame, I frequently used to use the word "chav" as an insult). Therefore, I do need confront certain prejudices of mine. I don't think it counts as an "own voice" as Jones probably can't be classed as "working class" (his mum is an IT lecturer). However, Jones undoubtedly did extensive research for the book and is dedicated to addressing social injustices. Therefore, I think it's fair to say he does have some authority on the issue.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

All things Jane Eyre: The verdict

In my last post, I wrote about my project of reading books related to Jane Eyre. To recap, I was going to read a prequel, the actual, a retelling, a sequel, and a spin off. Having now completed the project  - lest anyone thinks I've read all these books in a week, I should point out what I read most before my post last week - these are my GoodReads reviews of the books I read. Note: I was going re-read Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier but decided against it as realised I have enough paranoid thoughts of my own without reading about someone else's. 

Wide Sargasso SeaWide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jane Eyre is my favourite book of all time but, without a doubt, it's a fantasy - plain governess finds love with her Byronic hero of an employer, who turns out to have a mad wife living in the attic? That's a ridiculous plot even if you ignore the amazing coincidence of Jane bumping into her long-lost cousins and discovering she's inherited a fortune.

Wide Sargasso Sea is very much the reality. Rochester and Antoinette (aka Bertha) come from very difficult cultures and barely know each other when they are persuaded to marry each other, so of course their relationship fails - particularly as Rochester, being a 19th Century English man, is incapable of grasping that he ought to try to understand Antoinette rather than try to change her. Given her awful marriage and a difficult upbringing, it's no wonder Antoinette loses her mind.

I did really like this compelling novel but I was frustrated by how little I knew Antoinette by the end. A lot of the book focuses on Rochester's perspective or Antoinette's reaction to things - but there doesn't seem to be much about her wants and needs (perhaps because no-one really lets her have any).

Jane EyreJane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's fair to say I am more than a little obsessed with Jane Eyre. But I did wonder if I had built it up to be better than it was - so I decided to re-read it (not the for the first time mind; this must be at least the third time I've read it).

Looking at it objectively, there are some deep flaws it - the implausibility of Jane finding love with her employer despite being famously "poor, plain, and little" and the somewhat miraculously coincidence that the kindly trio of siblings that come to her aid when she's destitute turn out to be her long-lost cousins. Not to mention Bronte's problematic treatment of people with mental health issues, particularly the implication that Bertha's Creole heritage is partly to blame for her madness (she was writing in much less enlightened times to be fair).

But, even with these flaws, Jane Eyre is still a wonderful, powerful call to arms for anyone who has ever felt that they have been unfairly overlooked because they lacked the necessary charm or looks. Jane never lets the rejection of others affect her sense of self. In fact, so strong is her sense of self that she spurns Rochester because even though she knows she will never love anyone like that again, she cannot compromise her principles to be with him (read it to find out exactly why).

Astonishingly for a book that was first published 170 years ago, Jane and Rochester are portrayed as equals. Rochester loves Jane not just because of her "pure heart" but also because she's fiercely intelligent and can match him in conversation. There's many a book or film these days that fail to show a woman's intelligence being an attractive quality (alas, many even show it to be an unattractive quality).

Reader, I Married HimReader, I Married Him by Tracy Chevalier
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was initially disappointed to discover that most of the stories within this anthology were "inspired by" Jane's famous declaration rather than different takes on "what happened next" (which is what I thought the book would contain).

However, I found I didn't actually enjoy that the few "what happened next" stories that the book did contain - they either questioned the love between Jane and Rochester or questioned Jane’s motives. I love Jane Eyre because it’s about finding love against the odds, so I don’t want read anything that undermines that! Mind you, Audrey Niffenegger’s (she of Time Traveller’s Wife fame) The Orphan Exchange was one of my favourite stories of the whole book. While that completely changes the plot of Jane Eyre, Jane is still the steely “poor, plain, and little” woman with a strong moral compass that made the Bronte’s book so great.

I much preferred the “inspired by” stories, so more so than others. I particularly enjoyed “Since I first saw your face” by Emma Donoghue and "Migrating Bird" by Elif Shafak.

Overall, I think this a lovely book to read if you’re a fan of Jane Eyre (not sure why you would read it if you’re not a fan). It does remind me why I don’t usually read short story collections – they can be hit and miss and the “hits” are never long enough – but I am glad I read it.

The Eyre Affair (Thursday Next, #1)The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The idea of a detective specialising in crimes involving literary fiction was a fun concept to begin with but the book did run out of steam a bit by the end I think. Plus, like a lot female characters written by a male author, Thursday did come across as a man's perception of a strong woman - straightforward and a little lacking in emotional depth (ie, not that complex).

Still, it was an enjoyable read and an intriguing mix of sci-fi/crime/magical realism

Saturday, 14 January 2017

All things Jane Eyre

I recently decided - for no other reason than because I felt like it - to read all things pertaining to Charlotte Bronte's masterpiece Jane Eyre, including both fiction and non-fiction. However, that was before I realised quite how many books there were out there that had something to do with Jane Eyre (94 according to this Goodreads list). As I have neither the money nor the time to read all of these books, I have decided instead read one book from each of the following categories: prequel, actual, retelling, sequel, and spin-off. 

Prequel - Wide Sargasso Sea by Rhys
There can no other prequel to read than Rhys' well-known novella, which documents how Antoinette Cosway - aka the first Mrs Rochester - ended up being called Bertha and locked up in an attic.

Actual - Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Well, obviously, there'd be no point to this project if I didn't use it as an excuse re-read my all-time-favourite book would there?

Retelling - Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
I have always thought the accusation that Rebecca was a reworking of Jane Eyre a little unfair to Du Maurier. Certainly there are parallels with Bronte's work, but it's a magnificent book in its own right. The only reason I am choosing to re-read it for my "retelling" book is because it's the most famous retelling and the other ones on Goodreads looked pretty ropey (one has five one-star reviews; not a good sign).

Sequel - Reader I Married edited by Tracy Chevalier
Technically this is a collection of short stories that are inspired by Jane Eyre rather than a straightforward sequel, but it does have some that purport to be sequels. Plus, I already own it and as I've already bought three books specifically for this project, I need to rein things in a little.

Spin-off - The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde
This comic crime novel about a "literary detective" called Thursday Next who has to enter the novel Jane Eyre stop a crime seems completely bonkers and, thus, a must read.

My goal after reading (or in some cases, re-reading) these books is to look at how the character of Jane in these books differs. However as Jane is only briefly referenced in Wild Sargasso Sea, I will look at  how Rochester in this book (though never actually named as such) compares with Bronte's version.