As part of 4th Estate’s month-long celebration of women’s writing, we’re bringing you personal picks from the 4th Estate team. Today’s variety of choices are from Louise Haines, Lottie Fyfe, Jordan Mulligan and Sarah Thickett.
Louise Haines, Publishing Director
Most of my favourite books are by female writers, I now realise. I still reread Middlemarch and Persuasion every few years. I have recently been discovering mid-twentieth century authors like Elizabeth Taylor (Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont) and Barbara Pym (Jane and Prudence and Excellent Women) who both so wittily observe the banalities of everyday life. I was late coming to the infinitely varied, remarkable work of Penelope Fitzgerald too (The Beginning of Spring and The Bookshop). And An Omelette and a Glass of Wine by Elizabeth David remains so vivid today. Finally, The Secret Garden was the PERFECT in every way children’s book for both my daughters and me.
Lottie Fyfe, Project Editor
I recently read Women and Power by Mary Beard and was enthralled and galvanised by it in equal measure. It is a highly intelligent, measured, feminist call-to-arms: throughout all of its short 128 pages I was gasping in shock and awe, nodding along or laughing knowingly to myself, and there were times when I could barely stop myself exclaiming ‘Yes!’ to the entire train carriage as I came across yet another nugget of prescient cultural commentary. Beard expertly excavates modern and ancient constructions of power and how women throughout history have been excluded from them, her wealth of experience as a Cambridge Classicist giving academic weight to the insight that misogyny has existed since antiquity. One of her most brilliant moments is an attempt to rethink how we perceive and value female power, and her suggestion that we begin to think of ‘power’ as a verb rather than a noun – to power something; to make it work; to bring it forward: because ultimately, if power as we know it doesn’t work for women, surely it is not women, but power that needs to change.
Jordan Mulligan, Editorial Assistant
No one recommended Mary Oliver to me.
I first found her staring out from the cover of New and Selected Poems: Volume 1. She was dressed in a waterproof jacket, looking windswept, as if just back from a walk down some foggy New England beach, or, like me, she was wandering around Foyles to get out of the rain.
The cover was plastered with her accolades. ‘National Book Award Winner’, ‘Pulitzer Prize Winner’, a quote from the New York Times that read ‘Far and away, this country’s best-selling poet’. And yet, for all that, I’d never heard of her.
It has become unsurprising, how often I realise I am badly read.
Mary Oliver is a poet made for stumbling across.
While it is sometimes thought of as a dirty word, her poetry is accessible, and beautiful for it. You can come to her work, free of critical context, and find a home for yourself in each stanza. They are poems that thrive on a sense of place and emotion that is arresting. Her craft is incredible, but the heart in them is irresistible.
I’d say, you could turn to any page in New and Selected Poems: Volume 1, and find something that will grab hold of you and not let go for the rest of the day.
That day in Foyles, when I picked up her collection, I stumbled across a poem called Wild Geese, and I am still stuck in its grip.
‘Wild Geese’ is probably Mary Oliver’s most well-known poem. It is also, in my mind, her best.
‘Wild Geese’ crystallises everything that makes her such a mesmerising poet. There is her ability to capture the beauty of nature, and whole landscapes with quiet feats of description, such as ‘the clear pebbles of the rain’. There’s the way she draws the reader in by appealing to them directly, welcoming you to the poem ‘whoever you are’, and offering to unburden you of ‘your despair.’ And there’s that astonishing poetic leap, that in the final four lines takes you from the harsh cry of geese to a pulled-out view of, well, everything.
It is a plainly worded invitation to self-forgiveness, self-love and self-awareness of your own place ‘in the family of things’.
The first five lines were enough for me:
‘You do not have to be good
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves’
I do not have to be well read, to know that I love Mary Oliver’s poetry.
Sarah Thickett, Assistant Editor
The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy
‘I decided early that I would be a writer when I grew up. That, I thought, was the profession that went with the kind of woman I wanted to become: one who is free to do whatever she chooses.’
One of my favourite recent piece of women’s writing is Ariel Levy’s The Rules Do Not Apply.
New Yorker journalist Ariel Levy was a successful, well-travelled writer, married to her long-term partner Lucy, when in her mid-thirties she decided to start a family. With the help of a friend, Ariel became pregnant not long before her 38th birthday and it appeared as though everything was going to plan: she had a thriving career, a stable relationship and the promise of security for her soon-to-be-born child. But in the middle of her pregnancy, Levy went on an assignment to Mongolia where, tragically, she lost the baby. In devastatingly quick succession her marriage collapsed, and with it the home she shared with Lucy.
The Rules Do Not Apply examines these events, and the time leading up to them, in forensic detail, combing painfully through them for answers. Levy challenges the myth she feels her generation were sold of ‘having it all’: her story is a brutal depiction of how our lives can be dictated by circumstances beyond our control, as Levy finds herself with her hopes to start a family, and find companionship, seemingly crushed overnight.
What emerges is somehow still a celebration of life, and love, even when both are so unpredictable in how they unfold. Levy’s strength in the face of her misfortune shines through in her ability to tell the story with such clarity: there is never any vanity in her self-reflection, nor in her anger and sadness as her world shifts irrevocably. Miraculously, in the final chapters Levy even hints at the possibility of new love, and new hope – the flicker of light at the end of a long tunnel.
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