The Cosy Corner: Inspiring Books by Women
Today we are so excited to be sharing another feature from our much loved Cosy Corner segment. This time Naomi and I have collaborated to bring you the most inspiring books by women we could think of, and although we’re clearly biased I think we’ve got good taste. Let us know in the comments if you’ve read any of these already and which ones you want to get your hands on. I think I’ll start with Eat Up and make some banana bread to snack on….
The Promise of Happiness, Sara Ahmed: I first encountered Ahmed’s writing whilst studying at university. As a film student, I was very used to the canon being heavily male dominated, and the literature surrounding the canon being male dominated too. I was directed towards Ahmed’s writing by an incredible lecturer of mine, a feminist surrealist scholar whose seminars regularly blew my mind. I studied affect theory, and Ahmed’s writing on the topic resonated deeply with me- I had finally found a queer feminist perspective, just like my own! A rare and joyous thing in a sea of Bazins and Truffauts. The natural curiosity and inquisitive nature of Ahmed’s writing was infectious. I finished a reading of hers on affect with big ideas racing through my mind, and I looked at the world with newfound knowledge and feeling. I have since asked for an Ahmed book every christmas, and The Promise of Happiness was my most recent gift. Exploring the “duty” of happiness from a feminist stance, it examines the ideas of the feminist killjoy, the angry black woman, the sad queer, and the melancholic migrant, framed by the argument that happiness can be imposed in order to give grounds for social oppression. An incredible read that will expand your mind on the week of International Women’s Day.
Eat Up, Ruby Tandoh: TW food, TW diets: There are many incredible female food writers whose books I have pored over late at night, letting their recipes send me into delightful dreamlands of pavlovas and peach ice creams. However, instead of recommending a recipe book here, I wanted to recommend a book about food, and about the act of eating. There are wonderful, delicious, morish recipes scattered throughout, interspersed between insightful stories which recognise the way class, race, eating disorders, and much much more play into what we eat. It solidified my views on the toxicity of diet culture, and the radical act of instead eating what you want, when your tummy wants it, for good. Ruby Tandoh’s delightfully refreshing Eat Up recreates the sensation of cosying up with your favourite comfort food through words alone. In the modern culture of influencers promoting food supplements and harmful laxative lollipops on social media, reading this book felt like a big hug. Masterfully wrapped in between lines of love and care, Tandoh is wickedly funny, and ferocious too- she takes a gorgeous, glittering sword to fatshaming and the acerbic language of “clean-eating” (food often being described as “sinful” for example- I am quite certain that the Bible doesn’t cite a mars bar as one of the deadly sins). As someone who always finishes my fiancee’s meals, steals chips from her plate, and forever wants the dessert I didn’t order as well as the one I did- and I know I’m not alone here- Tandoh’s book really got me: “No doubt some people, probably guys, will be thrown off balance by your forthrightness. Who cares. Eat their leftovers. If they carry on judging you, eat them, too.”
The Five, Hallie Rubenhold: History is often seen as fact, but nuance lies in the idea that every part of history has been told, written, or recorded by someone, and each of these people can choose to elide certain information, focussing on particular aspects over others. With the case of Jack the Ripper, historically, much time is spent on trying to uncover the infamous serial killer himself, rather than paying tribute to the lives of his victims. Rubenhold turns the status quo on its head with The Five, where it is the victims' lives and stories that are told, and sensitively too. Importantly, the murderer is not romanticised at all, as is so often the case. The novel is split into five parts, and each part looks in depth at a victim- Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Kate, and Mary Jane are all given time, thought, and respect. So much more than a simple retelling of a well-known series of tragedies, I was drawn to the depth and layers this book provides, addressing the roles of homelessness, poverty, and patriarchal values in crimes such as this.
Hidden Nature: A Voyage of Discovery, Alys Fowler: A myriad of adventures on Birmingham’s canals provide the backdrop for Alys Fowler’s exploration of her internal world, as she grapples with a longing to escape the sense of entrapment that characterises her only almost happy life. Not only is Hidden Nature inspiring for its commitment to making changes that expand upon our daily lives even when they seem outwardly acceptable, it shines light on the small achievements; leaning into the unfamiliar, trusting your sense of unease and listening to it. Far from going out into nature to find easy answers, Fowler seeks adventure and finds a new way of attending to the outside world, noticing the ways in which the creatures around her adapt to the changing world around them. I found this book to be a refreshing read not only for its attention to nature within a city but because of Fowler’s openness about her sexuality and curiosity for the life around and amongst her own.
Lowborn, Kerry Hudson: The compelling story of Kerry Hudson’s journey back to all the places she once called home, revisiting memories from all of her nine different primary schools, the bed and breakfast stays, the council flats, the childhood trauma. In stark contrast to her life in the present day, Kerry examines her past with great care and attention, and explores what needs to be done to change things for those suffering a childhood like hers, today. She charts just how much books and libraries mean to her as the places where she was first able to escape and imagine the kind of life she has now. Inspiring for its tenderness and Kerry’s compelling voice, it is a book which shines light on the courage it takes to re-examine the past for the sake of the future. Lowborn helped me to better understand what effect our childhoods have upon the kind of people we grow up to be, and put words to my belief that reading and knowledge can change lives for the better.
The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House, Audre Lorde: International Women’s Day, to me, is all about intersectionality, and bettering yourself. It is educating yourself, reading, listening . Though racism is and always has been deeply rooted within American society, institutions, and infrastructure, a particular media light was shone on the Black Lives Matter movement last year. That anyone could oppose people marching for their lives filled me with rage that spilled out as tears and shaking hands. Thousands of miles away, living in a small town in England, I felt helpless. One thing I knew I could do, though, was better my own knowledge on such matters, unlearning racist societal ideas from a book written by someone from multiple groups facing prejudice, the powerhouse that was the black lesbian author, Audre Lorde. In every page of The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House, there is an urgency, yet the words are not rushed: Lorde’s mastery of language makes the essays elegant, eloquent, and accessible to all. I fear that the word ‘essay’ may strike concern in some readers, harking back to days of writing GSCE English pieces on why Curly’s Wife in Of Mice and Men (John Steinbeck) has no name, or what the significance of the conch is in Lord of the Flies (William Golding). Lorde’s writing is, unlike my GSCE nonsense-fests, crystal clear, however, and leads you through large topics in a logical, unclouded fashion. This, to me, is a must read from the list- not just a wonderful display of excellent writing, but a vital request from Lorde to understand the structures of power in today’s society, to be more empathetic, and to use whatever privileges you may have to work on dismantling the systems which affect those without such privileges.
Float, Anne Carson: The first time I read Carson’s poetry I didn’t end up putting the book down all day. It took me right back to my weekends as a child, where, as a treat on a Saturday, I would go to my local library, and pick out books to read. I’d then spend the next day lying on my tummy, reading them all from front page to last- nothing mattered but stories; their faraway lands, characters which felt like friends, and beautiful words. To me, Carson is one of the greatest poets of all time. This is the perfect introduction to her craftwork and her art: a collection of twenty-three ‘chapbooks’, you can pick and choose which chapbook, consisting of a poem, to read at your leisure. All at once a masterclass in forgetting about rules because your own style is more ingenious, playful, and remarkable than the constraints of what came before, a probe into what poetry can and can be, a multi-layered, multi-textured piece of art, and an analysis of so much at once it’s hard to know where Carson manages to store all of her knowledge (art criticism, myth, the science of memory, geography, history, the great works of literature, and so much more), I implore you to treat yourself to this epic monument to the joy of writing. These poems are inspired; from them you yourself will be inspired.
Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin: If ever you have come across a list of what are claimed to be sci-fi and fantasy writing’s greatest authors, you will usually see Stephen King, and Philip K. Dick. Of course, J.R. Tolkein will feature, and sometimes, J.K. Rowling too, but the less said about her the better. Here, though, I want to talk about Ursula K. Le Guin. The Earthsea Cycle, otherwise known simply as Earthsea, is a masterpiece of Le Guin’s, which started with the publication of A Wizard of Earthsea in 1968. There are six books in the series in total, and they were written throughout the decades leading up to a final publication in 2001. The magical islands of Earthsea are located within an archipelago, with an island named Roke holding a school for the most gifted magicians. As soon as I started reading the books, I immediately recognised how much Le Guin’s writing has influenced the genres of sci-fi and fantasy: she paved the way for many generations of mystical lands and incredible powers in fiction. More than this, the books represent ethnicities and races other than what came to be the typical straight, white, male hero, with nearly all characters in Earthsea being described as having “red-brown” or “black-brown” complexions. In a recent publication of A Wizard of Earthsea in 2019 by Gollancz, Le Guin expresses how hard it was to have work featuring black and brown characters in sci-fi taken seriously, with many illustrators dismissing her intention to represent communities like her own in her work: “Some covers were quite pretty in themselves, but delicate medieval persons on twee islands with castles with pointy towers had nothing to do with my earthy, salty Earthsea. And as for copper or brown or black skin, forget it! Earthsea was bathed in bleach”. Now, Le Guin's Earthsea is being represented correctly, with a beautiful 2018 publication of all of the books being illustrated by Charles Vess. The stories will let your imagination flow, without being constrained by characters we’ve read a million times before: perfect to delve into on a rainy afternoon where all you want is to be transported to mysticism, spells, and fabulous descriptions of faraway realms.
Juliet Takes a Breath, Gabby Rivera: Perhaps the most pertinent to our business here at Giftwellness Ltd., this young adult book, recently and beautifully transformed into a graphic novel, uses a youthful perspective to break down issues of many kinds, from the politics of sexuality, to white feminism, to taboos surrounding open discussion of periods. The character creation in this work is incredible: you will love characters deeply, and you will hate characters deeply, but every character will also teach you something. Whether this book helps you discover aspects of yourself you never knew existed, or helps you unlearn outdated and problematic ideals of what feminism is, it will do all of this while making you laugh, pulling on your heartstrings, and in the wonderfully immersive form of the graphic novel.
A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder, Holly Jackson: Pippa is a girl who will stop at nothing to uncover the secrets surrounding the murder of Andie Bell, a school girl from her town, in this wonderful murder-mystery. Everyone has their opinion about what happened and whodunnit, but Pip remains open-minded and committed to uncovering the truth. She takes on the mystery as her final year project and this brought back so many memories for me, the fervour with which I used to research my own projects and my thirst for knowledge. It reminded me of all the murder mysteries I used to be obsessed with too, if only this book has been around back then! A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder brilliantly captures not only Pippa’s quest for the truth, it uncovers the complexities of Andie’s life too and throughout depicts with intimate focus the two girl’s intersecting lives as well as the influence of the wider world which presses in on them. A gripping mystery suitable for anyone who loves to play detective.
Convenience Store Woman, Sayaka Murata: Perhaps one of my favourite books in recent years for its intimate perspective on the life of the unusual main character Keiko, who despite knowing exactly what gives her life meaning, comes up against pressure from those around her to be more conventional; to find a husband, and get a stable and respectable job. For Keiko, the convenience store represents a world in which the rules are clear and everything operates according to a finely tuned system- which over eighteen years of employment Keiko has fully aligned herself with. The store is almost a sanctuary for Keiko, away from the family that she feels she must appease, and eventually it provides inspiration for a cunning plan in which Keiko can appear more suitable whilst, she thinks, keeping hold of everything she wants. A book which plays with the line between public and private worlds, Convenience Store Woman is unusual, surprising and gives a voice to a character who must find a way to be unapologetic about the kind of life she really wants.
If We Were Villains, M. L. Rio: If you like complicated friendship entanglements mixed with dark academia, theatre, smatterings of homosexuality, and crimes that pull you in so hard you almost fall over sitting down with a book in your lap, this is the one for you. I read this book in the first lockdown, last summer. I needed distracting from the world, and this was that perfect distraction: I was all at once drawn to the complex characters, enamoured by the rich world Rio developed, desperate to figure out how it would end (which you will only know on the very last few pages), and perhaps most of all, entirely infatuated by the expert knowledge of Shakespeare displayed in this book. You see, Rio holds an MA in Shakespeare studies from King’s College London and Shakespeare’s Globe. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, she is also currently in the process of gaining a PhD in early modern English literature at the University of Maryland. It feels like an honour (excuse the pun) to read this book, receiving an education into the writing of one of the greats, whilst also enjoying one hell of a murder story. Ultimately a delectable recipe of romanticism and murder, this book is here to impress, in the week of impressive women. It is almost the How To guide for Perfectly Crafted Books to Make You Forget You Put Toast On, Have an Email to Send, or Need to Do Anything Else But Find Out WhoDunnit.
The Confessions of Frannie Langton, Sara Collins: A novel that completely commands your attention without distraction, I started listening to the audiobook of The Confessions of Frannie Langton whilst doing chores but found myself having to stop, sit down and give it my full attention. The voice of Frannie Langton is compelling, she is a former slave and current servant to the Benhams, who we learn almost immediately that Frannie is accused of murdering. Unable to be clear about the role she played in their deaths, Frannie retells her history; her life with John Langton, a slave owner trying to prove that Africans aren’t human, and her employment in the household of George Benham and his wife Marguerite, a woman with a reputation for beauty and wit, who shares Frannie’s literary interest and returns her affections. A book which challenged my ideas of the Gothic genre and presents an enlightening historical narrative.
The Binding, B. R. Collins: The perfect book for anyone who really loves books, Collins’ The Binding intertwines a magical take on storytelling and novel creation with the delights of a historical romance. Strikingly different to many other romantic novels I’ve read, the love story in this book took me by surprise, sweeping me off my feet when I least expected it. More than this, it defies the boundaries of historical social norms and literature norms all at once and at the same time. Collins' work here is perfect to get lost in, and almost absolutely calls to be read in a blanket, with a cup of tea, or a hot chocolate. Though the universe it is set in is alternate to ours, the threads running through it of feeling an innate connection to someone, of fate, and of the power of memory are those which we can resonate with us all.