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Maidens’ Trip by Emma Smith

I’ve been reading novels, memoirs and other texts from the Second World War recently. It was a time when social norms were upended, and people were called upon to take up activities that they would not have dreamed of a few years before. And they hoped would never be required to again. Such upheaval is fertile background for novels and other writings. 

I published a post called Novels from the Home Front in WW2 in November. You can find some interesting fictional choices there. I particularly enjoyed Blitz Writing: Night Shift & It was Different at the Time by Inez Holden (1941/5), republished by Handheld Press 2019. The second half of this book is extracts from her wartime diaries. I am working on a short story set during the war so it was also research for me.

Originally published in 1948, Maidens’ Trip has the subtitle A wartime adventure on the Grand Union Canal. I read several reviews of Maidens’ Trip and I thought I would be interested to read about more wartime experiences. It finally got to the top of my tbr pile. I was looking forward to more wartime research.

Maidens’ Trip 

The account of the ‘wartime adventure’ is partly fictional but based on Emma Smith’s years as a boater. She describes it as ‘part fact, and part fiction’.

When, fairly soon after leaving the ‘cut’, I began to write the book, it seemed to me that the best method of describing the couple of years I had spent working narrow-boats on the Grand Union Canal towards the end of the Second World War would be to condense them into a single trip. For this imaginary portmanteau trip I invented as my two companions Nanette and Charity. I also, for the sake of balance and objectivity, exercised the novelist’s right by largely inventing the third member of the trio, named as myself, (sixty years on I deny ever having been so bossy). (vii Preface)

She assures the reader that everything that happened in the book took place. She reinforces this authenticity by frequently referring to ‘we’ but always referring to herself as Emma.

In 1943 three young women (18 years old) become crew of a motor longboat and its butty on the canals, plying their cargo of steel from London to Birmingham and returning via Coventry with coal. 

While the work was hard and at the beginning unfamiliar, it also provided freedom for these young women. And their enjoyment of their outdoor adventure is a recurring theme. We read no references to ‘home’. Their companions become the boating families and as they adopted the boaters’ life they developed friendships and affection for some of the families.

The work was dirty, hard and wet and twice one of their crew was nearly killed. It’s hard to imagine now but their conditions were pretty awful, sleeping in wet beds, always dirty and oily, and outsiders in the world of the boaters and the working men in the docks and locks. But with a heartiness and good grace they put up with terrible working and living conditions. Today we might assume that they felt obliged to do their bit for the war effort. But this was not their chief motivation according to Maidens’ Trip.

The war hardly intrudes, in fact. There is the mention of the blackout and occasional news shouted down to them by lock keepers. By and large they were not there  ‘because of the war’ although their cargoes of steel and coal were no doubt important. 

Recommended

I enjoyed the book for its references to some canals I used to know: Braunston and its tunnel, the Coventry and Birmingham canals and the London Docks. More than the familiarity of those canals I was attracted by the qualities of the young women who volunteered for this work. I think one appropriate word of the time is pluck.

It’s well-written too, despite the author’s claim to have written it very quickly. The decision to create one journey out of her experiences pays off. The rhythm of the journey, the flurry of working the  locks followed by the calmer more deserted stretches of canal, the tying up at night, the early starts with tea from water boiled on the primus, the days move by.

Immediately outside Leamington we passed by acres of allotments, the neat parcelling out of bean-sticks and cabbages on that flat unhedged and seeming, more especially in the failing light, a very attar of depression. One or two blurred figures, grey moth-like creatures surely with every spark of passion ground out of them, bent over spades or shambled down the nondescript paths. Yet behind them flared the giant sky, a citron yellow, massed with magnificent clouds which crowded together round the going sun, snatching up its dying heart to deck their black and purple edges. We passed them, these humble ghosts, like life rejecting death, and turned the bows of the Venus and Ariadne directly into the sunset, strong but tired, tired but still triumphant, and with several more miles to go and two more locks. (103)

The Silvers arrived. … The three old ladies all wore black hats of felt or crumpled straw, the sort of hats that grow on a head as naturally as an eyebrow above an eye. All three wore black button boots going high up round their ankles, and two of them had long black skirts with a motley of pinafores and jersies above. But the third, the one in the straw hat, wore a pair of men’s blue dungarees. She looked about fifty-five, but was probably short of forty, and her apparel was even more surprising in that trousers were seldom worn by the boating women – except the very bold or the very young – being considered unseemly. (104-5)

And reading her account of working as a team, managing the motorboat and its butty on a flight of locks – the bicycle, the windlasses, the pulling or pushing, the leaping, the tying, the shouting – leaves one informed and breathless.

I am ashamed when I think of how my generation told our predecessors they were so square, had made the world a mess for us, and we were going to do it better. Now I think we had everything to learn from these plucky young women. 

Maidens’ Trip: A wartime adventure on the Grand Union Canal by Emma Smith was first published in 1948. It has been reissued in paperback by Bloomsbury in 2011. 225pp

Related blog post

Tripping Over is a post on Stuck in a Book blog from 2009, but still valid and includes enthusiasm for Emma Smith’s book about growing up in Cornwall, The Great Western Beach. I liked his word ‘energetic’ for the writing in Maidens’ Trip.

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Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

A prize-winning novel that is an adaptation of Sophocles’s Antigone, set in the present day? Already chosen by my reading group as our August book? There was no reason not to get stuck into this one.

Summary of Home Fire (no spoilers)

The story follows the misfortunes of one Pakistani-origin family living in West London. The children are orphans. Father was rarely there, a fighter for the so-called Muslim causes, who died somewhere between Bagram and Guantanamo. Mother died suddenly leaving Isma to bring up the twins Aneeka and Parvaiz with the help of local families, especially Aunty Naseem. The action takes place about 3 or 4 years ago against this background.

We meet Isma as she is about to board a plane for Boston where she plans to take up her doctoral studies again. The twins have grown up and she can leave them in the care of others. The usual airport irritations of the security checks are much greater for her, both at Heathrow and also when she lands. She is a Muslim and must be closely questioned. Knowing this, she has arrived extra early and rehearsed answers to possible questions with her sister. The family have a secret that must not be divulged. Parvaiz has left the UK to join ISIS. Both sisters miss their brother badly and would like to make contact with him, find out if he is okay.

In Amherst she meets Eamonn another young British citizen from a Pakistani family. His father, Karamat (Lone) Wolf, has just been made Home Secretary. Karamat is a man of high political ambitions, but known to Isma’s family as Shameless. He favours Muslims who adapt to British life, not those who object to how they are treated.

Eamonn goes to London and takes up with Isma’s sister Aneeka. It is not clear whether she has hidden motives for getting involved with him, the reader suspects that she has, but he is quickly smitten.

The action shifts to Parvaiz. We learn of his recruitment, his training and employment in the media branch of ISIS, and how he now wants to return to London. This is, of course, the crux of the action of the novel. The Home Secretary has just announced that those who have left to join the militants will have their British citizenship revoked. And now, his own family is involved with such a young man.

As the plot moves to its conclusion, both families – the Home Secretary’s as well as Isma’s – are put under severe pressure.

My reactions

The idea of using a modern-day Antigone to explore some very ancient and difficult themes works well. Kamila Shamsie does not confine herself to the original story, but makes enough use of it to enrich the telling of this thriller. The theme of conflict between family and civic duty is central. Those who try to legislate for civic over familial duty are culpable. We must also understand the pull of the family, and the questions of identity in our multifaceted world.

The novel questions easy solutions. It will not allow us, or any of the characters, to get away with ideas about British values being the answer, and continually asks what is identity, what matters to one’s sense of self, and the role of family and country in this. These concepts have never been straight forward, and today they are as complex and insoluble as ever.

I have two reservations. First, it is not possible for anyone to be in ignorance of the atrocities committed in the name of ISIS. Nor of the possible consequences of betraying your country by joining them or of betraying them. [I write this as the current Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, announces the suspension of the policy of demanding that British Citizens do not face capital punishment.] But for the plot to work the reader must have some sympathy for Parvaiz and believe that he is motivated by his wish to find the truth about his father and that he is susceptible to the recruitment process.

Second, fictitious presentation of prominent political figures is very hard to do. This may be because our perceptions of them are built gradually through innumerable press exposures, not presented as thought-through characters in a novel. I think of the Blair character in The Ghost by Richard Harris (2007), and the Prime Minister in The Child in Time by Ian McEwan (1987). Both characters are problematic because they do not accord with our own picture of these people. The complexity of a political figure’s motivations and actions seem to me to resist authenticity.

I will mention two other things which I thought were well done. Aneeka’s grief is overpowering and leads to the final horrifying scene.

But this was not grief. It did not cleave to her, it flayed her. It did not envelop her, it leaked into her pores and bloated her beyond recognition, She did not hear his footsteps or his laughter, she no longer knew how to hunch down and inhabit his posture, she couldn’t look in the mirror and see his eyes looking back at her.

This was not grief. It was rage. It was his rage, the boy who allowed himself every emotion but rage, so it was the unfamiliar part of him, that was all he was allowing her now, it was all she had left of him. She held it to her breast, she fed it, she stroked its mane, she whispered love to it under the starless sky, and sharpened her teeth on its gleaming paws. (193)

The other small detail is the way the press mangle the names of the protagonists. Their identity is fodder to the news mill.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (2017) Bloomsbury 264pp

Long listed for Man Booker in 2017 and winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018.

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Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

Dear Reni Eddo-Lodge

Please do not stop talking about race. Please do not stop talking about race to me (a white person). And please do not stop talking about race to anyone. I can see your arguments, and understand why you may need a break every now and again, but please do not stop talking about race. We need to talk.

Best wishes Caroline

The Argument

The argument of the book is that white people on the whole do not accept that racism is structural; that to be a person of colour means you are cumulatively disadvantaged; that by default people are assumed to be white unless indicated otherwise. To be black is to be different. Moreover, racism and discrimination are seen as belonging to a fringe group, or to those rather nasty people who aren’t a bit like us.

And because this is the reaction, it’s hard to go on beating your head against that proverbial brick wall, repeating the arguments, noting the small victories but seeing very little change in the big picture.

It began as a blog. Feeling oppressed and tired with it all Reni Eddo-Lodge wrote her blog called Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race in February 2014.

So I can’t talk to white people about race any more because of the consequent denials, awkward cartwheels and mental acrobatics that they display when this is brought to their attention. Who really wants to be alerted to a structural system that benefits them at the expense of others? (xi)

It proved to be provocative, after all white people do not like being excluded (any more than black people do) and not addressed by stroppy bloggers. And to allow that a system benefits one group at a cost to others implies the necessity both for action and for a possible loss of privilege.

What other people have said

It’s only a small minority of people who are racist. The fringe groups such as the BNP, Combat 18, National Action are just that – on the fringe, some proscribed.

I’m not part of the problem. I’m not a racist. I’m colour-blind.

Many black people are very successful in British society and life. If one can be successful all can be successful.

Structural disadvantage is a myth. Remember Mrs Thatcher’s claim that ‘there is no such thing as society’? In 1985 Oliver Letwin, one of her advisers and now a Tory MP, said much the same: ‘Riots, criminality and social disintegration are caused solely by individual characters and attitudes.’ (53). Which is a way of saying that bad people cause problems not poor social conditions.

My reactions

I did not find the argument about structural disadvantages by Reni Eddo-Lodge new. In part, this is because so much of my adult life has been conscious of the structural disadvantages endured by women. And because I have worked in inner-city education for most of my professional life.

Even so I accept that being a white feminist puts me at an advantage over black women/feminists.

And Reni Eddo-Lodge is right to be critical of those who do not act. Above all action should be taken by you and me, our institutions, organisations and our mouths should be forever open.

I got into political commentary because I wanted to change the consensus, to widen the narrow confines of political ideas that were deemed acceptable. But over the years I have realised the futility of this job. Attempting to challenge the racism deemed acceptable in political discussion istacitly tolerated, but making white people feel uncomfortable is impermissible. (220)

And there will be pushback when action is taken. The book was published before the recent Penguin Books incident. Lionel Shriver made some doubtful comments about Penguin’s actions to improve diversity in their publishing. It caused a furore. But it’s a classic. There were suggestions, by Toby Litt for example, that it was a bit much to dilute quality to satisfy some perceived need to diversify. Did someone say political correctness gone mad? The dilution argument ignores the possibility that current practice excludes many excellent black people from the publishing (and other worlds and other achievements). And that this exclusion operates at many levels. Penguin are choosing to act at their level.

I repeat, according to Gunter Grass, it is the job of citizens to keep their mouth open. That includes you Reni Eddo-Lodge. Write on.

This book, Why I’m no longer taking to white people about race is a prizewinner.

THE TOP 5 SUNDAY TIMES BESTSELLER
WINNER OF THE BRITISH BOOK AWARDS NON-FICTION NARRATIVE BOOK OF THE YEAR 2018
FOYLES NON-FICTION BOOK OF THE YEAR

BLACKWELL’S NON-FICTION BOOK OF THE YEAR
WINNER OF THE JHALAK PRIZE 

LONGLISTED FOR THE BAILLIE GIFFORD PRIZE FOR NON-FICTION
LONGLISTED FOR THE ORWELL PRIZE
SHORTLISTED FOR A BOOKS ARE MY BAG READERS AWARD

Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race by Reni Eddo-Lodge, published by Bloomsbury in 2017. I used the updated edition, which includes a chapter on the election of Trump and the EU referendum. 261pp

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Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan

‘This is a story of luminous beauty and rambunctious joy, of dark secrets and silences, revelations and, ultimately, the unknowability of those closest to us.  An in the face of the unknowable, personal history becomes fiction.’ (From the blurb on the cover of Nothing Holds Back the Night.) This is as good a description as any of this prizewinning book.

Every month I read and comment on a book by a woman in translation. Mostly they have been works of fiction. This book is a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, an attempt by the French writer Delphine de Vigan to explain her mother’s life and death.

Nothing holds back the Night

Nothing holds back the Nightis an attempt to understand the life and death of the author’s mother, who she calls Lucile. Her mother committed suicide at the age of 62 in Paris. While a suicide often defines a life, in this case Lucile’s life appears to be shaped by her long history of mental ill health, bi-polar disorder. By setting her mother’s story within her network of relationships – family, lovers, friends, neighbours and work mates – Delphine de Vigan shows us so much more than one person’s life. We see how families and society respond and react to damaged people.

Delphine de Vigan was already a recognised writer when she decided to write this book. She drew on interviews with the surviving family members and friends, on documentary evidence including Lucile’s own writings, on a tv documentary made about the family when Lucile was a teenager, and from her own memories. That which she could not discover from these sources has been created by her. This means she is adding to the same family mythology to which she refers.

Every day that passes I see how difficult it is to write about my mother, to define her in words, how much her voice is missing. Lucile talked very little about her childhood. She didn’t tell stories. Now I tell myself that that was her way of escaping the mythology, of refusing to take part in the fabrication and narrative reconstruction which all families indulge in. (115)

She also wrote this book to get beyond the fear with which Lucile’s life infected her and makes her fear for her own family.

I am writing this book because I now have the strength to examine what troubles and sometimes assails me, because I want to know what I am passing on. I want to stop being afraid that something will happen to us, as though we were living under a curse, and to be able to make the most of my good fortune, my energy, my happiness without thinking that something terrible is going to happen to destroy us and that sadness is forever waiting in the wings. (231)

Lucile’s Life

Born to French parents in 1946, Lucile grew up with a total of 8 brothers and sisters. She was the 3rdchild. She was 8 when a younger brother died in a terrible accident by falling into a well. The family were knocked sideways by his death. As the years went by death and suicide affected other siblings and friends.

The first part of this book recounts Lucile’s life in a big family. In a large family the dynamics are always changing, always difficult, always mediated by parents. Lucile was exceptionally pretty and used as a photographic model, especially in the commercial world. The family was in the public gaze but they were dominated by an opinionated and demanding father and a lively and loveable mother. There was never enough money.

It is likely that her father abused Lucile when she was a teenager, drugging and raping her. Lucile’s revelation of this event some years later was simply ignored by the family. Soon after the incident Lucile met Gabriel, fell in love, became pregnant, married and gave birth to Delphine. She was not out of her teens. A second daughter was born and later Gabriel left and Lucile brought up the children more or less alone.

The episode in which Lucile was hospitalised is horrifying. It was witnessed by 12-year old Delphine, who retells the events of her mother’s restraint and removal as she saw them. The children were sent to live with their father and barely saw their mother for a while. They were later reunited but the fear of a relapse was always present, even when the two girls became adults. After years of psychotherapy Lucile recovered enough to retrain as a social worker and develop a new life for herself. But the fear remained and ultimately she took her own life.

Of everything in this detailed book, this quotation from her own writing, in 1979, shocked me for what it reveals about Lucile’s inner life.

This year, in November, I will be thirty-three. A rather uncertain age, I think, if one were superstitious. I am a beautiful woman except that I have rotten teeth, which in a certain way I’m very pleased about, sometimes it even makes me laugh. I wanted it to be known that death lies beneath the surface. (213)

Delphine de Vigan, in Nancy (Le Livre sur la Place 2011) Ji-Elle via Wikicommons

It is shocking, today, that Lucile’s revelations about her father, considered to be true by her daughter, were ignored, perhaps because they did not fit the family’s mythology. The book leaves the reader with a sense of sadness for Lucile, who suffered so much. And sad too for the others touched by her life, not least her two children. Yet Lucile died on her own terms, while still alive. It’s a difficult read, but one that honours its subject.

Women in translation series

Every month I review a book by a woman in translation on this blog. Here are some recent posts with links.

Notes of a Crocodileby Qiu Maojin, translated from the Chinese by Bonnie Huie.

The Winterlingsby Cristina Sanchez-Andrade, translated from the Spanish by Samuel Rutter.

Memoirs of a Polar Bearby Yoko Tawada, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

Go, Went, Goneby Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

Over to you

Do you have any recommendations of books by women in translation? Next month (May) I plan to read Loveby Hanne Orstavik.

Nothing holds back the Nightby Delphine de Vigan, published in English by Bloomsbury in 2013. 342pp. Winner of the Prix FNAC and the Grand Prix des lectrices de ELLE.

The French title is Rien ne s’oppose à la nuit. Translated by George Miller

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In Gratitude by Jenny Diski

So I’ve got cancer. I’m writing. (13)

I came to know Jenny Diski through the London Review of Books, in which her ‘cancer diaries’ appeared. I followed her as she published 17 articles, from September 2014 until earlier this year and admired the vividness and honesty of her writing.

276 In Grat

Here is a taste of her approach and style from the opening paragraph:

Diagnosis

The future flashed before my eyes in all its preordained banality. Embarrassment, at first, to the exclusion of all other feelings. But embarrassment curled at the edges with a weariness, the sort that comes over you when you are set on a track by something outside your control, and which, although it is not your experience, is so known in all its cultural forms that you could unscrew the cap of your pen in your hand and jot down in the notebook on your lap every single thing that will happen and everything that will be felt for the foreseeable future. Including the surprises. (1)

Rejection of Metaphors of fighting cancer

Her writing appealed to me because, in her first article, I read this statement.

One thing I state as soon as we are out of the door: ‘Under no circumstances is anyone to say that I lost a battle with cancer. Or that I bore it bravely. I am not fighting, losing, winning or bearing.’ I will not personify the cancer cells inside me in any form. I reject all metaphors of attack or enmity in the midst, and will have nothing whatever to do with any notion of desert, punishment, fairness or unfairness, or any kind of moral causality. (10)

Glynis in Lionel Shriver’s novel, So Much for That, makes a similar comment. The metaphor of fighting can blame the loser for losing – you didn’t fight hard enough! In the case of Glynis, she was fighting the US health insurance system, which decided that the rarity of her cancer made her uneconomic to research or treat.

‘Cancer Diaries’

276 J Diski

And despite the ‘preordained banality’ and the rejection of the metaphor of fighting cancer, Jenny Diski decided to write about her illness.

I’m a writer. I’ve got cancer. Am I going to write about it? How am I not? I pretended for a moment that I might not, but knew I had to, because writing is what I do and now cancer is what I do, too. (11)

Reading the cancer diaries

And so over the next months I read the diaries as they appeared in the LRB, and marvelled at the quality of the prose, how Jenny Diski used her skills to examine the experience of treatment and facing terminal illness. Of course I admired her bravery, but was mostly absorbed in her writing because it was taking me into an experience with which I had only a small amount of familiarity: the best kind of writing.

I also enjoyed her humour, not so much the graveyard kind as of a good companion who finds humour and humanity, life, even in cancer treatment. The ‘Onc Doc’ is an example. So is the description of the radiotherapy procedures. And when the articles were collected and put together in a book, published more or less as she died in April, I bought the book and read it all again.

Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing and Jenny Diski in 1963

Doris Lessing and Jenny Diski in 1963

And Doris Lessing came into the book a great deal. Jenny Diski had a very troubled adolescence, her mother and father seem to have been unable to parent her. After experiences in psychiatric wards and in care, she spent some time at St Christopher’s School, where Doris’s son Peter met her. Doris Lessing offered to take her into her home in London. It was a decisive change in her life, even if it was not altogether successful, not the end of Jenny Diski’s troubled youth.

I must admit that my admiration for Doris Lessing has somewhat reduced as a result of this account. But the gratitude of the title is in part for the generosity of the older woman. How it corresponds with the cancer diary aspect of this book is not clear to me. But it was fascinating. A unique story retold.

276 Doris Lessing

And …

Since I first read her articles a friend has also been diagnosed with, treated for and very recently died of cancer. I look back at the opening paragraph of In Gratitude. I too found the banality, embarrassment and weariness of cancer treatment and death. And everything that happened, everything that was felt, including the surprises, was lived again by another set of people.

In Gratitude by Jenny Diski (2016) published by Bloomsbury 250 pp.

Jenny Diski wrote many novels including:

Nothing Natural (1986)

Apology for the Woman Writing (2008)

… and non-fiction:

Skating to Antarctica (1997)

The Sixties (2009)

What I don’t know about Animals (2010)

 

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A Little Reading on International Women’s Day

Here’s a little something for International Women’s Day: Saturday 8th March 2014. It’s a good day for mulling over the longlist for the Baileys’ Women’s Prize for Fiction 2014 (formerly Orange Prize for Fiction).

83.BWPFF logo

  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Americanah
  • Margaret Atwood – MaddAddam
  • Suzanne Berne – The Dogs of Littlefield
  • Fatima Bhutto – The Shadow of the Crescent Moon
  • Claire Cameron – The Bear
  • Lea Carpenter – Eleven Days
  • M.J. Carter – The Strangler Vine
  • Eleanor Catton – The Luminaries
  • Deborah Kay Davies – Reasons She Goes to the Woods
  • Elizabeth Gilbert – The Signature of All Things
  • Hannah Kent – Burial Rites
  • Rachel Kushner – The Flamethrowers
  • Jhumpa Lahiri – The Lowland
  • Audrey Magee – The Undertaking
  • Eimear McBride – A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing
  • Charlotte Mendelson – Almost English
  • Anna Quindlen – Still Life with Bread Crumbs
  • Elizabeth Strout – The Burgess Boys
  • Donna Tartt – The Goldfinch
  • Evie Wyld – All The Birds, Singing

20 titles. Have you read any of the longlist yet? I’ve read one and a half, so lots to consider for future reading. Let’s hear it for the newcomers on the list: six are first novels and seven are second novels. And I’m keen to read Canadian novelist Clair Cameron’s The Bear. She wrote The Line Painter. Which books will make it to the shortlist on April 7th? Doesn’t this list make you proud of women’s writing?

83 WPFF bookpile

These were the predictions of the blogger Farm Lane Books. Didn’t she do well?

And it’s a good day for women readers because Womankind and Bloomsbury have teamed up to make International Women’s Day Book List.  There are 10 books on the list and I’ve only heard of one of them. But they all look very interesting. Okay, yet more for the tbr pile.

imagesAnd check it out: the twitter hashtag #readwomen2014 is going well. No surprise given the content of this blogpost.

 

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