Category Archives: Books/reading

Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou

maya (from Heather's Macbook Air)This has been one of my very favourite poems for years. Having just spent three hours at my oldest’s sports day, before doing the school pick up in less than two hours, followed by my youngest’s sports day tomorrow…during a week when multiple deadlines all come to a head, I think I could use some inspiration…

Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them
They say they still can’t see.
I say,
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman

Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need of my care,
‘Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

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Cozy mystery leads to a rediscovery

My sister has just written her first novel, a romance novel set in medieval Scotland.  We’ve been discussing genre writing, and she introduced me to the concept of the ‘cozy mystery‘. I love crime fiction, but I tend to like my protagonists flawed, my settings dark and my crimes a bit twisted. I love novels that have a political message and reveal something of the human condition. My favourites by a long shot include Andrea Camilleri, Jo Nesbo, Henning Mankell, Maj Sjowall & Per Waloo, Arne Dahl, Gianrico CarofiglioMichele Giuttari and Ian Rankin. I do occasionally read books that fall under the ‘cozy mystery’ banner – by Alexander McCall Smith or Colin Cotterill, for example – but most of the books I read in this genre are blisteringly dark.

rebusmontalbanonesbo (from Heather's Macbook Air)

When I sit down to write something non-academic, though, I can’t write like this (and not just because I have barely a whisper of the talent that these writers have!). I get through my ‘darkness’ through my academic writing, which is about the darker side of state-society relations, and when I’m off-duty, this girl just wants to have fun. And so my sister introduced me to the cozy mystery.

moon spinners

I read very little American fiction nowadays, despite having spent the first 25 years of my life in the US, and I don’t have any favourite US crime writers. I toured the cozy mystery section of Barnes & Noble as a complete novice, sure only that I have my limits when it comes to ‘cozy’. I definitely didn’t want Christian and cozy. I didn’t want peach pie baking and cozy. I didn’t want poodle-breeding and cozy. I mean, seriously. I finally settled on Sally Goldenbaum‘s Seaside Knitters series. Set in the North Shore of Massachusetts, just south of where I was born and where I lived very happily for five years before moving to the UK, the series follows a group of women of a range of ages who meet up once a week for a knitting club and end up solving murders. (yes…I am perfectly aware that there’s the finest of lines between knitting books and pie baking books…) I like all of the characters, and the murders are often pretty dark, if not graphic. But the cozy comes through in the setting, which takes me right back to my own time living in a little cottage on the North Shore. The characters are fairly affluent, and so there’s an appeal in their gentle, middle-class lifestyles, filled with good food, original art, charity work and beautiful wraparound decks for drinks parties, particularly as – in good New England fashion – no one is very ‘showy’. And then there’s the knitting. Sometimes the knitting metaphors get in the way and have clearly been placed in order to fit the genre, but I closed the first one that I read (‘Moon Spinners’, third in the series) and went straight away to get my plastic tub full of yarn from the garage.

crochet

I like crocheting, not knitting, but the effect is the same, at least in terms of well-being. In the last month, I crocheted a scarf for my daughter, and am about a quarter of the way through an absolutely gorgeous blanket. Instead of spending the last couple of hours at the end of the day in front of the tv flicking around on my iPhone, I’m crocheting my beautiful blanket, something that will hopefully become an heirloom. I’ve made my way back into the local yarn shop, and I’ve not been able to resist buying yarn already for my own winter scarf, which will come after this blanket is done. As far as hobbies go, crocheting is tactile and soft and warm and colourful and soothing and, let’s face it, cozy.

I may be no closer to penning my own first novel, but at least if I do continue on with it as a winter project, I’ll be able to do it lying under my own handmade and very cozy blanket.

Women, Work and the Art of Savoir Faire

A recent read was by Mireille Guiliano, called Women, Work and the Art of Savoir Faire.

As the book description says: ‘This is a book about life, how to make the most of it, how to find your balance when you are working long days and trying to be happy and fulfilled. Mireille Guiliano has written the kind of book she wishes she had been given when starting out in the business world and had at hand along the way. She draws on her own experiences at the forefront of women in business to offer lessons, stories, helpful hints – and even recipes! – that can make the working world a happier and more satisfying part of a well-balanced life. Mireille talks about style, communication skills, risk taking, leadership, etiquette, mentoring, personal relationships and much more, all from a perspective of three decades in business. This book is about helping women (and a few men, peut-etre) feel good about themselves, being challenged and engaged in our working lives, and always looking for pleasure in every single day.’

I’m torn between feeling like Ms Guiliano is a tad smug from time to time (though that could be both her French and American characteristics coming through! I’ve been in the UK long enough to feel a bit suspicious of anyone who isn’t at least a little self-deprecating), and then wanting to buy this book for every working woman I know. The advice she gives, as someone who has worked her way right to the top in a heavily male-dominated industry, is sound, and is about how imbalance between work and life affects the quality of both. Some of her advice is very practical, and I’ll write more about that another time. Some of it seems somewhat old-fashioned (she is, presumably, in her 60s…albeit a foxy 60s!), and yet I can still see the relevance (quick quiz: when you leave the table, where do you leave your napkin?). All of it is suffused with her clear passion for both her work and her life.

Photo: Andrew French

I say ‘working women’ because it does presume that the reason why you’re reading it is because you work, and she is evangelical about the benefit of work for pretty much anyone. I have to say that I am too, so it’s a message that suits me, but I can imagine that someone staying at home to take care of their kids would find little here for her. The author did not have children herself, and so although she is aware of the challenges of balancing it all with children, it’s not something she herself experienced directly. This is not inconsequential. The reason why I have made so little time for myself in recent years is because my children – not my job really – have sucked it all away from me! I spend less time doing my job than I used to, because of my children. I spend less time on myself than I used to, because of my children. And I wouldn’t want to spend any less time with them than I do. So that means I need to figure out how to do less work, and to do what I do more efficiently, in order to find time for myself.

This book is making a small contribution to helping me figure this out, and for that I’ll give it to friends who are in a similar place in their lives.

Are there still spinsters in fiction?

An easy, cheerful purchase from the Red Cross Bookshop is Alexander McCall Smith’s Friends, Lovers, Chocolate, from his Isabel Dalhousie series. I’m right in the middle of it, so I won’t review it just yet, but I had a horrible realisation this morning.

I’ve always pictured Isabel as someone who is ever so slightly like Miss Marple, an aging spinster who wears a grey skirt when she works and has male friends, but not lovers. Imagine my horror when I discovered that she is, in fact, in her early 40s. Her early 40s??!! My age! How many women in their early 40s wear grey skirts when they’re working at home, or diamante earrings when they go out to meet a new gentleman. How many spend hours in the company of an attractive man in his mid-20s without at least imagining a wee bit of depravity? They might not act on it, but they certainly would be imagining it!

The reason why these are lovely little petit fours of books is because they’re in no way dark, but are instead gentle and cozy – gezzelig, as the Dutch say. But there’s no excuse for entirely desexualising a 40 year old woman, nor for making a real-life 41 year old woman go into semi-shock!

Just to make it clear…

Aging spinster in grey skirt and cream cardigan =  

 

 

Women in her 40s in grey = 

 

Can you spot the difference? Answers on an SAE please…