Hidden Bookshelf 7: 7 Books of 7 Months of 2021
2020 was a really strange and difficult year for many of us, one of my ways of coping with the absurdity and anxiety of the pandemic was reading. I found it super helpful to dedicate a lot of my time and energy to something I love doing, for this reason, my new year’s resolution was to read as much as possible in 2021. So far, I’ve managed to do pretty well!
What I’ve Read so Far
As we’re now halfway into 2021, I’ve wanted to compile a small list of books that I’ve really enjoyed reading. I’ve read so many fantastic books that I found it quite tricky choosing and narrowing it down, therefore I decided to choose my favourite books that have been recently published in either 2020 or 2021.
1) Unwell Women: A Journey Through Medicine and Myth in a Man-Made World by Elinor Cleghorn
This is definitely one of my favourite reads so far, Unwell Women is an expansive and comprehensive Western history of women’s health. It’s extremely well-researched and contains an endless amount of fascinating information surrounding misogyny in medicine, and how this has catastrophically affected the health and lives of women. Elinor Cleghorn’s writing is fantastic, it’s factual, yet witty, she’s also angry and outraged (as we all should be!) at how Western medicine has continuously failed unwell women.
Unwell Women is split into three parts: Ancient Greece to the Nineteenth century, late Nineteenth Century to 1940s and 1945 to the Present demonstrating how women’s bodies and health have been continuously misunderstood and misdiagnosed. Cleghorn unpacks how early misogynist ideas about the ‘wondering womb’ and female hysteria shaped understandings of women’s health in later centuries, for example, unwell women being accused and later prosecuted for witchcraft, and physicians viewing women’s bodies as fundamentally inferior due to menstruation.
I think it’s an extremely important read highlighting the gender inequality within medicine, and also highlighting the stories of important and courageous women who fought to change the perception of women’s health in medicine, and also the stories of silenced women who suffered because of misogyny in medicine. If you’re interested in intersectional feminism and women’s health, Unwell Women is a fantastic place to start!
2) Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson
Open Water is a short, but incredibly beautiful and poetic insight into the life of a young black man living in South East London. It’s Caleb Azumah Nelson’s debut novel, and it’s a truly moving read. Two young people, one a photographer and one a dancer meet in a busy bar, they’re both artists, they’re both black, and both are struggling to belong. They quickly fall intensely in love. It’s written so beautifully and passionately, he’s able to depict love as its best, as well as its worse.
The novel is also an exploration of identity, the exploration of a young, black, man, artist navigating through the capital. He delves into race, class and masculinity and writes what it truly means and feels like to be a British black man. I think what I loved the most about this book was the vulnerability of both the protagonist and the writer, it felt like entering someone’s inner world and experiencing all the turmoil, grief and love that comes with that. It’s also a really beautiful ode to art, photography and music, all things that shaped the novel. Caleb Azumah Nelson includes so many fantastic songs in the narrative, and deliberately wanted the chapters to read like an album. He’s composed a playlist on Spotify called ‘Open Water Official Playlist’ including all the songs referenced in the novels, and also one’s that inspired his writing, it’s definitely worth a listen. Overall, I really enjoyed reading Open Water, as it an incredibly poetic insight into the difficulties of the protagonist’s life because of his race and class, but also illustrated the beauty of love, art, and music. I’d definitely recommend this book to anyone who loves the streets of London or to readers that enjoy poetic love stories. I’m looking forward to seeing what he publishes next!
3) The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey
This was another one of my top reads so far this year, I know you’re not meant to judge a book by its cover, but I was so captivated by the front cover that I purchased the book, and luckily was equally impressed with the novel, many agree with me as it’s the winner of the 2020 Costa Book of the Year and Costa Novel Award. It’s published by Peepal Trees Press, which specialises in the Caribbean and Black British literature, so if you’re interested it’s worth checking out what other books they published.
The Mermaid of Black Conch is a perfect book for mythical escapism. The novel is set in St Constance, a small village on a fictional Caribbean Island. A lonely fisherman, David, spots a mermaid, Aycayia, out at sea, both become instantly mesmerised with one another. The novel effortlessly switches between prose, David’s diary entries and Aycayia’s verses. Aycayia’s sections stood out to me for its melodic and rhythmic Creole, the mermaid as a character, I also found to extremely entrancing, and as Atwood put it: “Not your standard mermaid. No comb and glass, no Lorelei hair. No catch and release…”. Aycayia is an innocent young woman, cursed by jealous wives to a life of eternal loneliness swimming the oceans, when she meets David she transforms back to a woman and navigates what it means to be a woman, exploring her sexuality and identity. The book isn’t just a love story but speaks of the indigenous population and legacies of colonialism, as well as an ode to mother nature. I loved this book, it was different and unexpected, I enjoyed it so much that I made my housemates read it so that we can talk about it.
4) Self Potrait in Green by Marie NDiaye
Marie NDiaye is an extremely talented French novelist and playwright, this book was originally published in 2004, but was re-published by Influx Press in 2021, and has been gorgeously translated by Jordan Stump. Self Portrait in Green is Marie NDiaye’s memoir, however, it’s extremely creative and clever, and differs highly from what we imagine a memoir to be like. It’s a slim book but contains so much, Marie NDiaye writes in short diary entries and has an extremely dreamlike narrative, as I was often questioning what was real and what was imagined.
The premise of the book is the nameless narrator becoming increasingly obsessed with different women, all dressed in green, and seeks these women out all across France. Some encounters are dreamed and imagined, others are real, however, all are important as they reveal aspects of the women in green and the narrator herself. The narrator becomes increasingly paranoid, and she explores and questions her memory and identity. The Garonne River also plays a big role in the memoir, as it haunts and guides the narrator, I found the inclusion of the river especially beautiful, and it emphasised the hypotonic style of the memoir.
I chose to read this book because I wanted to diversify my reading list to include more international authors, and I also wanted to read something by an author who I knew nothing about. I was drawn to Self Portrait in Green because of its exploration of female identity, and I’m so glad I chose to read it! I would definitely recommend it if you’re looking for a short and powerful book, I found it to be really captivating and it helped me get back into reading during a bit of a reading slump.
What I’m Reading Next!
To continue fulfilling my new year’s resolution, I’ve got a long list of books to read for the rest of the year, the summer has always been my favourite time of the year, so I’m hoping to get through lots of books, I can’t wait to spend sunny days reading in in gorgeous London Parks. I’ve selected three books written by women that I’m especially looking forward to reading. I’ll be reviewing them on my Instagram, @beatrice.zanca so check that out if you’d like to hear my thoughts!
5) Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myths by Natalie Haynes
I’ve recently been listening to a podcast called Let’s Talk About Myths, Baby! and have re-discovered my love of Greek mythology and its many characters, however with more of a feminist lens. I’m excited to delve into the Ancient Word find more about these complex, strong women of Greek mythology who unfortunately are usually omitted from the hero narratives we’re all familiar with.
6) Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami
The next book I’ve heard lots of hype about has been Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami, I’ve seen it bookshops everywhere, and have spotted lots of people reading it out and about, so I thought should read it too! This was originally published in Japan in 2008 but had not been translated into English until 2020. The novel follows three working-class women in Japan and deals with the themes of female liberation. I’m looking forward to this one as I’ve never read anything by a Japanese author so I’m really curious to learn about a new author and a new culture.
7) Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan
Lastly, Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan. I found out about it as it’s the chosen novel for a book club I’m part of, so I’ll probably be reading it next. This is Megan Nolan’s debut novel, and it sounds right up my street. It’s been described as an anti-romance novel, which explores female desire, obsession and self-doubt. So many books on my shelf are about sexuality, and in particular female sexuality and desire, so I’m sure I’ll enjoy it!
It’s been so great discovering new authors, especially international authors, who offer different and important perspectives on feminism, class and sexuality, I’ve also read a much broader variety of genres, such as romance and memoirs, all of which have been extremely insightful and delve beautifully into the lives of the authors and characters. I’m looking forward to my next fiercely feminist reads, and as always, if you’ve got any recommendations, please let me know, I’d love to read them!
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