What We’re Told Not to Talk About by Nimko Ali review – the body laid bare


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Women from around the world talk openly about sex, periods and childbirth in a rich, varied study

In a 20th anniversary edition of The Vagina Monologues, Eve Ensler reflected on how seldom the “v-word” was said aloud in 1996, when she staged her groundbreaking show. The play, based on more than 200 accounts, dramatised women speaking about – and sometimes to – their vaginas, and such was Ensler’s fear of backlash that she thought she might get shot.

The lexical evasion that Ensler spoke of, arising out of centuries of cultural shame, fear and secrecy, still takes place. The original title of Nimko Ali’s book was the bolder Rude: There Is No Such Thing as Oversharing (the proof copy had a strikingly suggestive cover design). But Ali was apparently worried that this might suggest the book’s contents were shocking or indecent. The book’s packaging now makes almost no mention ...

The Apology by Eve Ensler review – my father, who abused me


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The Vagina Monologues writer revisits her childhood in a powerful imagined letter from her father – the words of repentance he never uttered

Eve Ensler begins her memoir with a simple dedication: “For every woman still waiting for an apology.” Ensler counts among these women herself. The award-winning American playwright and activist who has spent decades campaigning globally against anti-female violence, was ritually assaulted by her father, Arthur Ensler. It began as sexual abuse when she was five. By the time she was 10, he was choking her, punching her in the face, threatening to stab her and beating her with belts and paddles in sickening acts of pain and humiliation. Eve’s mother looked on in silence. Her family was pitted against her. Arthur died 31 years ago; he had not uttered any words of repentance.

Earlier this month, the TV presenter and comedian, Ellen DeGeneres, spoke of her ...

Permission by Saskia Vogel – quietly subversive debut


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An actress falls for a dominatrix in this mature, feminist spin on BDSM literature

Permission is a story about grief, loneliness and sadomasochism. There is a dominatrix, a submissive, and same-sex female lovers. There are spanking paddles, safe words and open-toed stilettos along with foot fetishes and rooms in which clients are led on a leash.

Or at least, that could be its extended elevator pitch. It takes a while to realise that Saskia Vogel’s quietly subversive debut novel, set on the fringes of Hollywood, is a story of domination and submission because it challenges any preconceptions you might have about BDSM in literature.

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Helen Oyeyemi: ‘I had such a lovely time dating different cities’


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The award-winning author on her passion for food, life in Prague and critics who told her to ‘live a bit’ after publishing her first novel while at school

Helen Oyeyemi is an award-winning author of eight books. Born in Nigeria, her family moved to London when she was four years old and she published her first novel, The Icarus Girl (2005), while still at school and her second (along with two plays) while at Cambridge University. She won the Somerset Maugham award for White Is for Witching (2009) and the PEN Open Book award for her short story collection, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours (2016). In 2013, she was named a Granta best young novelist. Now 34, she lives in Prague. Her new novel, Gingerbread, is published this month.

Gingerbread is a novel about an inherited recipe for gingerbread. Are you a fan of the stuff?
I ...

Mouth Full of Blood by Toni Morrison – review


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Spanning five decades, this collection of Morrison’s essays and speeches underscores her rage and linguistic brilliance

Toni Morrison’s Nobel lecture in literature, given on receiving the prize in 1993, opens as a kind of folk tale: “Once upon a time there was an old woman. Blind but wise… In the version I know the woman is the daughter of slaves, black, American, and lives alone in a small house outside of town.”

It goes on to describe how a bird is brought to the old woman that may be dead or alive. The woman, it turns out, is a “practised writer” and the bird is a metaphor for the mutability of language.

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If books can cure loneliness why are we closing libraries? | Arifa Akbar


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A new study calls for a £200m government scheme to promote reading. That sounds like a fairytale idea to me

“We read to know we are not alone,” wrote CS Lewis. He was clearly on to something. A new report claims that books are powerful enough to halt loneliness and social exclusion. The 50-page study, undertaken jointly by the thinktank Demos and the literacy charity the Reading Agency, argues that reading could also assist with social mobility and mental health, and even “hold off” dementia. It backs its argument with an array of compelling research and recommends a government investment of £200m, involving the NHS supporting “book-based interventions”, as part of its social prescribing strategy, alongside a major Comic Relief-style campaign to raise money for book charities, book circles and reading aloud schemes.

Related: The Tories are savaging libraries – and closing the book on social mobility | ...

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan review – beautiful and beguiling


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Mixing horror with high adventure, this powerful novel looks at the burden of freedom in a time of slavery

Washington Black opens on a 19th-century sugar plantation in Barbados and launches into the horrors of that experience from the child’s-eye view of the eponymous Washington Black, an 11-year-old slave. But it would be a mistake to think that Esi Edugyan’s Man Booker-longlisted third book is an earnest story of colonial slavery.

Just over 10 pages from the start, in a second beginning, Wash tells us he was a “freeman” by the age of 18, and it is clear that Edugyan is coming at her subject sideways, not with gritty realism but with fabular edges, and as much concerned with the nature of freedom as with slavery, both for her white characters and black.

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The Beekeeper of Sinjar by Dunya Mikhail review – the Iraqi Oskar Schindler


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How an apiarist created a hive of smugglers and rescued scores of women from Islamic State

Until 2014, Abdullah Shrem was a beekeeper in Iraq, tending to his hive and selling honey across the mountains of Sinjar. Then Islamic State forces arrived, announcing their terror in symbols daubed on the doorways of the homes they raided: “They wrote the letter Y on our homes and on our stores and built a barrier like the Berlin Wall – N for the Christians, and Y for the Yazidis. S for the Sunnis, and Sh for the Shi’ites,” Shrem recalls.

The Yazidis met the worst fate: men were marched into mass graves and shot, while women were separated – young from old, mothers from children, wives from virgins. The younger were taken to a “marketplace” to be sold as sex slaves or sabaya; the older were killed or sold as domestic ...

Hold by Michael Donkor review – a Ghanaian housemaid’s tale


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A bold literary debut gives voice to a female section of Ghanaian society that is often seen but not heard

Michael Donkor has said that the inspiration for this debut novel came from the housemaids who cooked, cleaned and waited on him on childhood trips to his extended family in Ghana. These women were ubiquitous but always silent.

In Hold, he gives them a voice through Belinda, a 17-year-old domestic servant who is sent from a well-heeled Ghanaian household in Kumasi to look after Amma, a troubled teenager who lives with her Ghanaian-born parents in Clapham, south London. Belinda leaves behind a younger housemaid, Mary, a mischievous and lovable character whom she has come to see as a younger sister.

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The Occasional Virgin by Hanan al-Shaykh review – farce, faith and sexual revenge


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Two old friends, displaced from Lebanon, meet for a holiday on the Italian coast

Lebanese-born Hanan al-Shaykh has never shied away from depicting female sexuality in her fiction: she did it in her earliest novels and in her ribald retelling of One Thousand and One Nights in 2011. What worked so well in that fabular setting is less successful in the modern day of The Occasional Virgin, which features two friends who fled the conflict in Lebanon 20 years previously. Huda is a Muslim and lives in Canada; Yvonne, who lives in London, is Christian. Both are independent and successful, but grew up in households weighted in favour of men, with difficult mothers to contend with, and this past comes in flashbacks after they meet for a holiday on the Italian coast. They are also single, and it is clear that they are sexual adventurers on this trip abroad: ...

How to be a black woman and succeed: two friends who have written the manual


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Elizabeth Uviebinené and Yomi Adegoke have turned a dream into a hot publishing property – a self-help guide for black women

In March 2015, Elizabeth Uviebinené had a brainwave that a less determined 22-year-old might have dismissed as a water-cooler pipe dream. It was ignited by a single chapter in a book by Sheryl Sandberg . “I’d always devoured self-help books growing up – books like Lean In,” says Uviebinené. “These were written by white women and were great but they didn’t have the added complexities of how to be a black woman and get ahead. It was like we didn’t exist in these books. Sandberg had one chapter in her follow-up book [Option B] about a black woman’s experience and it sparked something in me. A need for a sisterhood. I wanted to bottle it.”

The bottling, she thought, would come in the form of a ...

Salman Rushdie: ‘I like black comedy in dark times’


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The acclaimed novelist on his love of satire, Philip Roth and the death of the American dream

Salman Rushdie is an internationally successful British-Indian author. His second novel, Midnight’s Children (1981), won the Booker prize and was subsequently awarded “The Booker of Bookers” and “The Best of the Bookers” in 1993 and 2008. He has written children’s books, nonfiction and a memoir, Joseph Anton (2012), which reflected on the controversy around his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses (1988). Knighted in 2007, and now 70, Rushdie moved from Britain to the US in 2000. He has served as the president of PEN American Center and been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The Golden House (Vintage, £8.99), his 14th novel, is now out in paperback.

The Golden House reflects on life as it has recently unfolded around us, from the US elections to ...

Skybound by Rebecca Loncraine review – a euphoric, courageous book


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When, with severe illness, the ground disappeared from beneath Loncraine, she decided to conquer her fear, take up gliding and head for the clouds

“But I would rather be horizontal,” begins Sylvia Plath’s poem “I am Vertical”. Plath, poleaxed by depression, wishes her body to become part of the soil, yet even so looks up to the sky with a yearning for transcendence: “It is more natural to me, lying down / Then the sky and I are in open conversation”. Rebecca Loncraine invokes these lines in her memoir, Skybound, and they cast the same blend of light and shadow across this profound, euphoric and courageous book about how to live joyously, and how to meet death.

Loncraine was in her mid-30s when she got breast cancer. Two years after gruelling treatment, she entered into her own “open conversation” with the sky by learning to fly, or “soar” as she puts it, in ...

Whistle in the Dark review – a satire on every parent’s nightmare


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Emma Healey’s story about a teenager’s disappearance struggles with tone, but remains emotionally compelling

There were several striking absences in Emma Healey’s debut novel, Elizabeth Is Missing, from an elderly woman suffering with memory loss through dementia, to the disappearance of her sister decades earlier and the eponymous Elizabeth.

That book received an avalanche of praise and bestseller stardom. This second novel, Whistle in the Dark, toys with the same subjects of disappearance and blots on the memory, except that the narrative intrigue is built around what happens when the disappeared return and what, if anything, can be retrieved of their lost time.

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Whistle in the Dark review – a satire on every parent’s nightmare


This post is by Arifa Akbar from Books | The Guardian


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Emma Healey’s story about a teenager’s disappearance struggles with tone, but remains emotionally compelling

There were several striking absences in Emma Healey’s debut novel, Elizabeth Is Missing, from an elderly woman suffering with memory loss through dementia, to the disappearance of her sister decades earlier and the eponymous Elizabeth.

That book received an avalanche of praise and bestseller stardom. This second novel, Whistle in the Dark, toys with the same subjects of disappearance and blots on the memory, except that the narrative intrigue is built around what happens when the disappeared return and what, if anything, can be retrieved of their lost time.

Continue reading...