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This week's book review, a new book club show we can't get enough of, plus a tip for a newsletter Kate drops everything for...

Detransition Baby by Torrey Peters

If you know anything about this book it may be that there was a storm of controversy when it was long-listed for the Women’s Prize. The book’s author, Torrey Peters, is transgender and I think, probably to massively over-simplify the debate, that feminists felt they had struggled for years to carve out spaces for women that were protected from incursion by men, and a transgender woman to them felt like the patriarchy moving in by stealth. I was curious to read it, possibly not to understand the debate so much as the book comes with a cover quote from Carmen Maria Machado, one of my all-time favourite writers, saying ‘So good I want to scream.’ 

The plot centres around Reese, a trans woman, whose relationship with Amy, also trans, falls apart when Amy detransitions back into a man, Ames. Ames starts an affair with his new boss at work. The relationship is intense, but when she becomes pregnant he doesn’t feel able to raise a child in his masculine guise. He turns to Reese to ask her if she would become a second mother to the baby, helping him to be a parent from a more truthful place and the birth-mother, Katrina, somewhat amazingly, agrees to include her.


I’ve been at such a loss trying to write this review because it’s so hard to sum up how I felt about the book. On a technical level I found the writing uneven. The characters only felt vivid when the author had them individually in the spotlight. As soon as Peters brought them together something about the intensity of the characterisation was lost. Strangely for a book with such a huge amount of explanation in it, it felt confusing. I found the sex (of which there is a lot, written about in a way that managed to be simultaneously specific and vague) offputting. It felt like the thing that governed these characters and dictated their actions, reducing them, somehow, and I suppose that just seemed like a curious choice for the author to have made. And it was long. So long. I got tired of wading through paragraph after paragraph with sentences like ‘Reese is a veteran of the horrific social gore that results when individuals fight personal battles with unnecessarily political weaponry on a queer battlefield mined with hypersensitive explosives.’ 

And yet there were stories within this novel that riveted my attention. The first time Amy visits a clothing store aimed at transgender people, her delight at being able to shop openly for the things she has wanted for so long, and her horror when a cis (a person whose gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth) woman and her daughter enter the store by mistake and decide to brazen it out, suddenly rendering everything that Amy had coveted cheap, tawdry and fake. Or Reese attending the funeral of a friend who had died by suicide, reflecting that these funerals were so frequent she had developed her own kind of mental armour for getting through them. And certain thoughts that resonated, Reese’s conviction that as a trans-woman she had most in common with cis divorced women because they, like her, had been cast adrift from the usual structures that govern society, and had to make a place for themselves anew (and so interesting considering that with Deborah Levy's living autobiography still vivid in my mind). It was also eye-opening. Towards the end as Reese prepares to be co-parent it is clear that there is a course of mediation she can take that will allow her to breast-feed. And I just thought ‘wow’, I didn’t know that was possible. And it’s interesting, isn’t it, because if you know that is possible then it does make you question so many things. It made me realise the extent to which gender is just an assumption for me. I don’t think about it, I don’t question it, and to get this window of insight into the experience of someone who doesn’t have that luxury felt like an extraordinary thing.

All in all I’m glad I read it. As a novel I thought it was a bit all over the place – having read five of the six shortlisted titles I agree with the choices the judges made, I don’t think this matches up to any that are on the shortlist. But I am glad it was longlisted and that more people will read it as a result. I’m not sure there’s anything else that gives you the opportunity to live through someone else’s eyes in quite the same way that reading does. It’s one of the things I love most about it. Books like this don't come along every day, and we should read them when they do.

Buy Detransition Baby  from Bookshop.org


Further reading: Conundrum is Jan Morris's memoir of transitioning from James Morris into Jan, the woman she always knew herself to be. It was one of the first autobiographies to discuss a personal gender reassignment. We read it for Laura's book club, but didn't manage to pod on it. It's always nice to have an excuse to read Virginia Woolf's Orlando – 'In each of us two powers preside, one male, one female', she wrote. Off at a tangent is The House of Impossible Beauties, Joseph Cassara's novel of drag queens and drag balls in 1980s New York. Laura and her book club had reservations, but I loved it. We talked about it on episode 24, alongside Less by Andrew Sean Greer, a novel than in no way relates to any of the above but If you haven't read it know that it is a total delight.

Three to Try

 

Napoleon: A Life in Gardens and Shadows by Ruth Scurr

In this innovative biography, as uniquely fitting its subject as Ruth Scurr's applauded portraits of Robespierre and John Aubrey, Napoleon emerges a giant figure made human, seen through the eyes of those who knew him best – close witnesses, rich and poor, famed and obscure – in the shade of his gardens. The result is vivid, multidimensional and haunting, throwing us back in time, so that we see him before us, both as the Emperor hunting for glory and the man in an old straw hat, leaning on his spade.

We love Simon Schama. He's a friend of the pod (see episode 34) and a keen reader. So his rave review in the weekend FT got our attention. 'Glorious,' he writes, 'Scurr has achieved something remarkable: a completely original book on a completely unoriginal subject. But then she is herself a truly remarkable writer, one of the most gifted non-fiction authors alive.'


Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason

Rave review in The Guardian who called this 'sharp, funny love story' a feat of 'inspired storytelling'.

Everyone tells Martha Friel she is clever and beautiful, a brilliant writer who has been loved every day of her adult life by one man, her husband Patrick. A gift, her mother once said, not everybody gets.

So why is everything broken? Why is Martha – on the edge of 40 – friendless, practically jobless and so often sad? And why did Patrick decide to leave?

Maybe she is just too sensitive, someone who finds it harder to be alive than most people. Or maybe – as she has long believed - there is something wrong with her. Something that broke when a little bomb went off in her brain, at 17, and left her changed in a way that no doctor or therapist has ever been able to explain.

Forced to return to her childhood home to live with her dysfunctional, bohemian parents (but without the help of her devoted, foul-mouthed sister Ingrid), Martha has one last chance to find out whether a life is ever too broken to fix – or whether, maybe, by starting over, she will get to write a better ending for herself.
 

The Moth and the Mountain by Ed Caesar

One of my favourite reads of last year now out in paperback, a non-fiction book that has all the pace of a brilliant thriller. It tells the story of Maurice Wilson, ex-WW1 serviceman who conceived of a crazy plan to summit Everest singlehandedly, arriving via a Gypsy Moth he planned to crash land on the slopes. The only problems, he didn't have a plane or know how to fly, and he hadn't ever climbed a mountain before. Listen to everything I loved about it here or read more about it here. I also recommend, just for the sheer joy of it, The Ascent of Rum Doodle by W.E. Bowman, which would make an excellent follow-on.

 

What to Listen To


Our latest podcast is up, on The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. It's a modern classic, 1989 Booker Prize winner and the author is also the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature but none of this led Laura to hold back, calling it 'dull' and incredibly slow reading. But, of course, hers is not the only voice, so listen in to find out what I thought, and what my book club thought. I'd also draw your attention to one of my favourite blogs, Eyes On The Prize.The blogger in question is slowly working their way through all the Booker winners in order, and so far I think The Remains of the Day has been the favourite read. I love these posts because they are entertaining but also incredibly thoughtful, and there are good links here for anyone interested in delving more into Ishiguro's world and his thought process. I, too, recommend the Adam Buxton Podcast interview that was a joy to listen to and for someone who writes such melancholy novels Ishiguro turns out to be surprisingly jolly in real life.

At the risk of sending you to something you'll probably like more than our show, have you come across Graham Norton's new book club show on Audible? It has a really good formula, a book club of around 10 people, dotted around the country, and each episode one of them nominates a book. Then four of them join Graham on the show for a discussion. He also interviews the author but – and this is so important – separately. And he has another studio guest who recommends three books following a theme, and he even manages to squeeze in another interview with an audiobook narrator. But because it's audio and everything is beautifully edited it feels perfectly balanced, nothing feels rushed. In the Zadie Smith episode I loved hearing Zadie's thoughts on the book, On Beauty, then the book club discussion that was the perfect balance of praise and honest opinion where people didn't get on with it  – I had a pleasant surprise when Backlisted's Andy Miller turned out to be one of the bookclubbers), and finally a fascinating interview with Juliet Stevenson on her work narrating audiobooks, Jane Austen's novels in particular. She says she loves doing audiobooks because she gets to play all the parts. I have an audible subscription so for me it was free, but it's definitely worth investing in for a really good listen and a load of great book recommendations. 
 

Who to follow


If you've stuck with it this far let me reward you by telling you about the books newsletter I drop everything for. It's by Molly Young and comes from the Vulture division of New York Magazine. It's called Read Like The Wind. I love the way Molly writes – she always totally has my attention within about three words. I love the way she mostly reviews titles I've never heard of, and is up front about her reading tastes as she knows her readers might not share them. She's a genius with click-through teaser links, which I always follow with interest. It comes out monthly. It's a gift I never get tired of and now I pass it on to you. Sign up link is here. There's also a wildly ambitious spreadsheet where she invites readers to recommend books for her. If you like this sort of thing it's an interesting list (it probably goes without saying that I have been through it forensically). I would recommend to her The Driver's Seat by Muriel Spark which is deliciously dark and I think might be right up her street with the additional bonus of being short. That woman has a lifetime's worth of books to get through – I don't want to add to her burden.
 

What Kate is reading:

Last up on my Women's Prize pile is Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi, a book I know absolutely nothing about and have zero expecations of – always a good place to start. And after that I'm reading To The Lake by Kapka Kassabova in advance of her talk at the Boswell Festival this coming weekend. Happy to be reading her again (Laura and I loved her previous book Border, which we covered on the pod.)
 

What Laura is reading:


Laura is racing to the finish line with the Women’s Prize shortlist. After skim reading The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones at arm’s length with one eye closed, she’s finding No One is Talking About This (Patricia Lockwood) a perfect, light-spirited antidote. So far.

 

Thanks so much for subscribing to our newsletter, we hope you're enjoying them. Do get in touch at thebookclubreview@gmail.com or via our website. Let us know what you're reading – we always love to hear from you.

Anytime you're in the mood for a books podcast do check out our archive of almost 100 (we're nearly there) episodes from book club discussions to our bookshelf round-ups and interviews with book clubs far and wide and people from inside the book world.

And if you enjoyed the newsletter do forward it on to a book-loving friend. Sign up link is here. Spreading the word is the best possible way to support us and we are so grateful when people do. But for now, until next week, happy reading.

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