Too Male! (A Few Recent Reviews for Shiny New Books and TLS)

I tend to wear my feminism lightly; you won’t ever hear me railing about the patriarchy or the male gaze. But there have been five reads so far this year that had me shaking my head and muttering, “too male!” While aspects of these books were interesting, the macho attitude or near-complete dearth of women irked me. Two of them I’ve already written about here: Ernest Hemingway’s The Garden of Eden was a previous month’s classic and book club selection, while Chip Cheek’s Cape May was part of my reading in America. The other three I reviewed for Shiny New Books or the Times Literary Supplement; I give excerpts below, with links to visit the full reviews in two cases, plus ideas for a book or two by a woman that should help neutralize the bad taste these might leave.

 

Shiny New Books

 

The Way Home: Tales from a Life without Technology by Mark Boyle

Boyle lives without electricity in a wooden cabin on a smallholding in County Galway, Ireland. He speaks of technology as an addiction and letting go of it as a detoxification process. For him it was a gradual shift that took place at the same time as he was moving away from modern conveniences. The Way Home is split into seasonal sections in which the author’s past and present intermingle. The writing consciously echoes Henry David Thoreau’s. Without even considering the privilege that got Boyle to the point where he could undertake this experiment, though, there are a couple of problems with this particular back-to-nature model. One is that it is a very male enterprise. Another is that Boyle doesn’t really have the literary chops to add much to the canon. Few of us could do what he has done, whether because of medical challenges, a lack of hands-on skills or family commitments. Still, the book is worth engaging with. It forces you to question your reliance on technology and ask whether making life easier is really a valuable goal.

  • The Remedy: Homesick: Why I Live in a Shed by Catrina Davies, which I’m currently reading for a TLS review. Davies crosses Boyle’s Thoreauvian language about solitude and a place in nature with a Woolfian search for a room of her own. Penniless during the ongoing housing crisis, she moves into the shed near Land’s End that once served as her father’s architecture office and embarks on turning it into a home.

 

Doggerland by Ben Smith

This debut novel has just two main characters: ‘the old man’ and ‘the boy’ (who’s not really a boy anymore), who are stationed on an enormous offshore wind farm. The distance from the present day is indicated in slyly throwaway comments like “The boy didn’t know what potatoes were.” Smith poses questions about responsibility and sacrifice, and comments on modern addictions and a culture of disposability. He has certainly captured something of the British literary zeitgeist. From page to page, though, Doggerland grew tiresome for me. There is a lot of maritime vocabulary and technical detail about supplies and maintenance. The location is vague and claustrophobic, the pace is usually slow, and there are repetitive scenes and few conversations. To an extent, this comes with the territory. But it cannot be ignored that this is an entirely male world. Fans of the themes and style of The Old Man and the Sea and The Road will get on best with Smith’s writing. I most appreciated the moments of Beckettian humor in the dialogue and the poetic interludes that represent human history as a blip in the grand scheme of things.

  • The Remedy: I’m not a big fan of dystopian or post-apocalyptic fiction in general, but a couple of the best such novels that I’ve read by women are Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel and Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins.

 

 

Times Literary Supplement

 

The Knife’s Edge: The Heart and Mind of a Cardiac Surgeon by Stephen Westaby

In this somewhat tepid follow-up to Fragile Lives, Westaby’s bravado leaves a bad taste and dilutes the work’s ostensibly confessional nature. He has a good excuse, he argues: a head injury incurred while playing rugby in medical school transformed him into a risk taker. It’s widely accepted that such boldness may be a boon in a discipline that requires quick thinking and decisive action. So perhaps it’s no great problem to have a psychopath as your surgeon. But how about a sexist? Westaby’s persistent references to women staff as “lady GP” and “registrar lady” don’t mitigate surgeons’ macho reputation. It’s a shame to observe such casual sexism, because it’s clear Westaby felt deeply for his patients of any gender. And yet any talk of empathy earns his derision. It seems the specific language of compassion is a roadblock for him. The book is strongest when the author recreates dramatic sequences based on several risky surgeries. Alas, at its close he sounds bitter, and the NHS bears the brunt of his anger. Compared to Fragile Lives, one of my favorite books of 2017, this gives the superhero surgeon feet of clay. But it’s a lot less pleasing to read. (Forthcoming in TLS.)

  • The Remedy: I’m keen to read Direct Red by Gabriel Weston, a memoir by a female surgeon.

 

(Crikey! This was my 600th blog post.)

26 thoughts on “Too Male! (A Few Recent Reviews for Shiny New Books and TLS)

  1. Haha! Another remedy for the Mark Boyle might be The Word for Woman Is Wilderness by Abi Andrews – really skewers the whole Thoreau-inspired genre.

    I felt that Westaby was too macho in Fragile Lives, so I won’t be reading his follow-up…

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    1. I would quite like to read that, but never managed to find it last year. Unless I have it on my Kindle? (I’m drowning in 400+ NetGalley downloads!) I’ll have a look.

      I didn’t pick up on the macho personality in Westaby’s previous memoir: either the second book is more overt, or I’m more woke. Probably both. He has such a negative attitude in this book! And thus this is the most negative review I’ve written for the TLS. I’ve seen the edits and luckily they haven’t toned me down much at all.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. RE Doggerland: There’s a review – on the front cover, no less. That was a warning right there. Have you noticed that books that feature reviews on the cover instead of telling you a bit about the book on the back or the inside flap usually wind up being dogs?

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    1. I’m not sure what you mean — puffs from other writers very often appear on the front cover of new books. There was, of course, still a back cover blurb (I read a proof copy). And I wouldn’t call it a ‘dog’; my 3-star review points out successful aspects as well as those that I found disappointing or alienating.

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  3. I hated Hemingway until about age 50–although I enjoyed Old Man of the Sea when it was read to the class by our (male) 6th grade teacher. I point out his gender, because I think it helped us “get” the story in a way a female teacher might not have been able to do (keep in mind it was 1973!). I loved Across the River and Into the Trees–he gives such a view of how Richard feels and how he views Renata. Older man/younger woman today is always evil–always Epstein. This book is as much fantasy as reality. I also loved Moveable Feast which I read in college in History of Paris/Berlin in the 1920s–a class I call upon often today as that era is seemingly back. Doggerland, therefore, sounds interesting–a very claustrophobic male story (hopefully without mentioning the size of their….). In case anyone is interested (no pressure) here is my review of Across the River https://hopewellslibraryoflife.wordpress.com/2018/10/17/review-across-the-river-and-into-the-trees-by-ernest-hemingway/

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    1. Perhaps I’ll appreciate Hemingway more in years to come!

      Yes, Doggerland is indeed claustrophobic. In my full review I remarked on the lack of female characters but also on the lack of any explanation of why they aren’t there, even in memory — was there a plague or similar? We only ‘see’ ‘women’ through a fertility figurine, which grotesquely misrepresents the female body.

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  4. Hemmingway leaves me cold.
    Your description of Doggerland’s heavy use of maritime vocabulary and technical detail about supplies and maintenance, has me convinced this is absolutely not for me
    And any book that refers to Lady GP would have me throwing it into the bin….

    There, glad I got that off my chest 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Books like The Way Home usually appeal to me. I’m fascinated by people who can (or who have to) live off the land, or who are isolated from society in some way. So I might have to read it anyway, even though, obviously, very few people can actually do what he did. It might have been good for him, but lots of people would probably die trying to do it. Can’t wait to hear what your think about Homesick – I’ve added that one to my list, too!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I did like the details about how he lives without any modern conveniences. A factoid that didn’t make it into my mini-review is that initially his girlfriend joined him in the venture, but she left him / that way of life.

      I’m over halfway through Homesick and loving it. Although my life is very different from hers in a lot of respects, the feeling of insecurity in not owning a home is something that resonates for me.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. How interesting! I will still read Doggerland (I have a proof) and it does appeal, but I loved your remedies for that one – especially Station Eleven. I really enjoy Hemingway, but didn’t start reading him until I was about 50! I enjoyed Fragile Lives, but won’t bother with Westaby’s sequel.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’ve added Homesick to my wish list too and will look out for your review. We had similar feelings about Boyle’s book and I was very glad you landed it for Shiny and they didn’t offer it to me, as I’d have leapt at it (as I did with the NetGalley listing) and then struggled to write a fair or positive review (as I didn’t have to on my own blog!).

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    1. Homesick is a wonderful memoir, and set in your beloved Cornwall. She’s, understandably, rather indignant about the second-home and tourist culture that drives out natives (literally: her sister and others she knows move out of their homes so they can rent them out for the whole summer) and makes it impossible to afford to buy property.

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      1. I always feel a bit uncomfortable reading about that, however we always go out of season and make sure we use the amenities and spend our money with local organisations, etc. When I was considering buying a place in Cornwall we were looking at houses divided into flats so I could keep renting the place to locals at a fair rent and keep one small flat to use for ourselves and family members (again, buying everything for it locally and contributing to the economy). But I’m glad you rate it and I really want to read it once my 20 Books is done!

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    2. I didn’t mean to make it sound like I was getting at you — we’ve rented our fair share of holiday cottages (in Cornwall and elsewhere) and Airbnbs and I’ve rarely given a thought to the effect it might be having on the locals. Going off season is a good idea. You can avoid the hordes that way too!

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      1. Oh no, I didn’t think you were, sorry: I have s lot of friends in Cornwall who get affected by it and complain about uncaring tourists who bring all their own stuff and charge around. I’m sure you don’t do that, either!

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  8. I don’t know that I find myself actually using the phrases ‘the patriarchy’ or ‘the male gaze’ all that often, but I will certainly go on the occasional feminist rant. However, I’m not necessarily bothered by a book with only male characters – perhaps because individual books like this strike me as not a problem, although collectively the way our culture tends to value male experiences more highly does seem problematic. So, the last book you mention, with the clear sexism and probably related lack of appreciation for empathy, sounds the most irritating to me. It also seems like a real failure of introspection for the author to write two entire books without recognizing this problem with his attitude!

    On the other hand, while I don’t necessarily view books like the first two as the most problematic, I’m not sure I’d enjoy them as much. I do find myself more often reaching for books that center women’s perspectives.

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