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text 2019-01-18 01:00
Around the World in 80 Books Mostly by Female Authors: Master Update Post

[World map created with Mapchart.net]


The aim: To diversify my reading and read as many books as possible (not necessarily 80) set in, and by authors from, countries all over the world.  Female authors preferred.  If a book is set in a location other than that of the author's nationality, it can apply to either (but not both).


On the map I'm only tracking new reads, not also rereads.


The Books:







Michelle Obama: Becoming (new)






Xinran: The Good Women of China (new)



Shizuko Natsuki: Murder at Mt. Fuji (new)




Australia / Oceania





United Kingdom

Lorna Nicholl Morgan: Another Little Murder (new)

Stephen Fry, John Woolf, Nick Baker: Stephen Fry's Victorian Secrets (new)



Tana French: The Witch Elm (new)



Stephen Fry: Mythos (new)






The "Gender Wars" Stats:

Read to date, in 2019:

Books by female authors: 5

- new: 5

- rereads:


Books by male authors: 2

- new: 2

- rereads:


Books by F & M mixed teams / anthologies:

- new:

- rereads:

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review 2019-01-16 18:50
Christie-esque? Hardly.
Murder at Mt. Fuji - Shizuko Natsuki

Ugh.  If I believed the publisher's hype that this is among the best that Japanese crime fiction has to offer, I'd be done with Japanese crime fiction here and now.


Natsuki knows how to write "atmosphere", but how she could ever have become (according to her American publisher) "one of Japan's most popular mystery writers" is utterly beyond me.  And while I do believe that Natsuki really was trying to copycat Agatha Christie, all she produces is an overly convoluted plot and a novel brimming with inconsistencies.  From egregious scene continuity issues to essential information being gathered "off stage" by teams of policemen elsewhere, to characters behaving purely as the author's plot sequencing and writerly convenience dictates (with little to no regard for, and repeatedly even contrary to what should have been both their inner and their outer response to events), to a clichéd "woman facing off against villain during dark and stormy night" final scene, the novel abounds with things that either should have been weeded out in the editing process or should have prevented it from being published altogether. 


Worst IMHO, however, are the police, who


* let a family -- all of whom are suspects -- merrily go on living in the very house that constitutes the crime scene without having cleared the scene first (thus affording the suspects plenty of opportunity to tamper with the scene ... which promptly happens),

* give press conferences in the very building that constitutes the crime scene (again before the scene has been cleared -- allowing for the reporters to further muddy the scene),

* allow the suspects to be present at those press conferences (oddly, without a single reporter showing any interest in approaching the suspects -- instead, the reporters wait until most of them have finally departed to Tokyo, to then fruitlessly stalk the premises from outside at night),

* reveal every last scrap of information -- including and in particular things only known to the police and the culprit(s) -- to the press,

* and involve a civilian who only a day earlier had still been one of the suspects (and should actually be charged with conspiring to conceal a crime / as an accomplice after the fact) in an ill-conceived, risk-prone, and promptly almost fatally derailed scheme to entrap the killer.


Oh, and did I mention that -- though I can't comment on the substantive details of the Japanese legal provision central to the plot (which gets cite-checked to numbing point in the final part of the novel) -- Natsuki's research, if any, on the legal issues that I can comment on is seriously off as well?  (Which, in turn, may actually explain the otherwise inexplicably stupid behaviour of one particular character.)


Well, I guess at least I finally get to check this one off my TBR ... and check off Japan on my "Around the World in 80 Books" challenge.



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review 2019-01-15 20:30
Daba's Travels from Ouadda to Bangui by Makombo Bamboté
Daba's Travels from Ouadda to Bangui - Makombo Bamboté,George Ford

Like apparently most of the people who read this book, I read it for my world books challenge and wasn’t particularly impressed. It seems to be aimed at middle-grade readers (ages 9-12), and recounts the childhood experiences of a boy named Daba as he leaves his village in the Central African Republic to attend school in a larger town and spends his vacations traveling around the country with friends and relatives.

As you would expect, this is a quick and easy read that even includes some illustrations. It’s a pretty gentle story, including adventures such as attending a boarding school and tagging along for a crocodile hunt. However, it is disjointed, prematurely ending events that could have been exciting if fully-developed – like the crocodile hunt, which gets less page time than a neighbor telling the boys a story – and including more episodes than fit comfortably within its brief page count. It does little to immerse the reader in Daba’s feelings or experiences; in the second half of the book, he seems to fade into his group of friends, who are indistinguishable in personality and experiences (except for the French pen pal who somehow is able to fly to a Central African Republic town alone and spend the summer wandering from village to isolated village with the local boys).

Daba grows older – the book appears to cover a couple of years – but he doesn’t really have struggles to overcome or seem to change or learn more about life. At times, knowing the story to be based in some way on the author’s childhood, Daba’s portrayal even comes across as self-aggrandizing: a star pupil, always cool and confident, beats adults at games, liked by everyone except for one classmate who’s condemned by other children and adults alike. Meanwhile, for adult readers, the language is perhaps too simple, and some of the events are eyebrow-raising or could use more explanation (the pen pal trip, Daba’s being awarded a scholarship to study abroad without any apparent effort from him or consent from his parents, etc.).

At any rate, this isn’t too bad if you’re doing a world books challenge – Daba travels around his country, giving the reader a sense of the landscape and the culture in the places he visits, and quick reads are always valued for big challenges – but those searching for diverse books to give to the children in their lives would be better served looking elsewhere.

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text 2019-01-10 22:30
Women Writers: Reading List



I originally compiled this list for the 2018 Women Writers Bingo, but decided to undust it and continue using it for this year's "Around the World in 80 Books Mostly by Female Authors."


Basically this is an extract from my bookshelves (both TBR and read -- "read" where I've already read other books by the same author and am interested in further exploring her work). Further authors are added on an ongoing basis as they come to my notice.  This ought to keep me busy for the next couple of years, I think ...


(Note: I'm tracking the precise reading year from 2018 onwards, and only authors read from 2018 onwards are crossed out / checked off.  Rereads count as "read" in the year of the reread for purposes of this list.  Authors who write under several pen names are added to the list under all names, with a note as to their alias(es).)



  • Alice Adams
  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - 2018
  • Renee Ahdieh
  • Madeleine Albright
  • Louisa May Alcott - prior to 2018
  • Tasha Alexander
  • Isabel Allende - prior to 2018
  • Margery Allingham - 2018 and prior
  • Julia Alvarez
  • Vicky Alvear Shecter
  • Jessica Anderson
  • Donna Andrews - 2018 and prior
  • Mary Kay Andrews
  • Maya Angelou
  • Hannah Arendt - prior to 2018
  • Elizabeth von Arnim - 2018 and prior
  • Emily Arnold McCully
  • Maureen Ash
  • Frances Ashcroft
  • Mary Astell
  • Thea Astley
  • Kate Atkinson
  • Margaret Atwood - 2018 and prior
  • Phoebe Atwood Taylor
  • Jane Austen - prior to 2018




  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg
  • Beryl Bainbridge - prior to 2018
  • Sarah Bakewell
  • Pamela Ball
  • Sandra Balzo
  • Chitra Banerjee Divakarumi
  • Muriel Barbery
  • Pat Barker
  • Djuna Barnes
  • Linda Barnes
  • Nevada Barr
  • Elizabeth Barrett Browning - prior to 2018
  • Vicki Baum
  • Mary Beard
  • Simone de Beauvoir
  • Harriet Beecher Stowe - prior to 2018
  • Aphra Behn
  • Lauren Belfer
  • Josephine Bell
  • Gioconda Belli - prior to 2018
  • Marie Belloc Lowndes
  • Carol Lea Benjamin
  • Margot Bennet
  • Isabelle Berrubey
  • Barbara Beuys - prior to 2018
  • Ruth Binney
  • Holly Black
  • Victoria Blake
  • Moonyeen Blakey
  • Enid Blyton - prior to 2018
  • Tracy Borman
  • Phyllis Bottome - 2018
  • Margaret Bourke-White
  • Elizabeth Bowen
  • Marjorie Bowen - 2018 and prior
  • Dorothy Bowers
  • Pamela Branch
  • Christianna Brand
  • Charlotte Brontë - prior to 2018
  • Emily Brontë - prior to 2018
  • Anne Brontë - 2018 and prior
  • Geraldine Brooks
  • Nancy Marie Brown
  • Pearl S. Buck - prior to 2018
  • Thi Bui
  • Lois McMaster Bujold
  • Jan Burke
  • Fanny Burney
  • Anna Burns
  • Jessie Burton
  • Stephanie Butland
  • A.S. Byatt - prior to 2018




  • Margaret Campbell Barnes
  • Trudi Canavan
  • Dorothy Canfield
  • Joanna Cannan
  • Charity Cannon Willard
  • Peggy Caravantes
  • Angela Carter - 2018
  • Miranda Carter
  • Vera Caspary
  • Helen Castor - prior to 2018
  • Willa Cather - prior to 2018
  • Catherine of Siena
  • Eleanor Catton - prior to 2018
  • S.A. Chakraborty
  • Suzanne Chazin
  • Andrée Chedid
  • Tracy Chevalier
  • Marjorie Chibnall
  • Laura Childs
  • Kate Chopin - prior to 2018
  • Agatha Christie - 2018 and prior
  • Rin Chupeco
  • Marchette Chute
  • Sandra Cisneros - prior to 2018
  • Susanna Clarke - prior to 2018
  • Ann Cleeves
  • Barbara Cleverly
  • Hilary Rodham Clinton
  • Colette
  • Maryse Condé
  • Kara Cooney
  • Artemis Cooper
  • Mairead Corrigan Maguire
  • Petra Couvee - 2018
  • Hannah Crafts
  • Charlie Craggs
  • Marie Curie
  • Eve Curie
  • Helen Czerski - 2018



  • Elizabeth Daly
  • Clemence Dane
  • Tsitsi Dangarembga
  • Edwidge Danticat
  • Alexandra David-Neel - prior to 2018
  • Diane Mott Davidson
  • Lindsey Davis
  • Natalie Zemon Davis
  • Charlotte DeCroes
  • Barbara Demick
  • Anita Desai
  • Emily Dickinson - prior to 2018
  • E.M. Delafield
  • Joan Didion
  • Isak Dinesen (Karen / Tania Blixen) - prior to 2018
  • Emma Donoghue - prior to 2018
  • H.D. (Hilda Doolittle)
  • Susan Doran
  • Kirstin Downey
  • Ruth Downie
  • Evelyn Doyle
  • Margaret Drabble - 2018
  • Daphne Du Maurier - 2018 and prior
  • María Dueñas
  • Sarah Dunant
  • Dorothy Dunnett
  • Nancy K Duplechain
  • Marguerite Duras - prior to 2018



  • Angela Eagle
  • Maria Edgeworth
  • Esi Edugyan - 2018
  • Jennifer Egan
  • George Eliot - prior to 2018
  • Joy Ellis - 2018
  • Anne Enright
  • Nora Ephron - prior to 2018
  • Louise Erdrich
  • Jenny Erpenbeck
  • Margaret Erskine
  • María Amparo Escandón
  • Laura Esquivel
  • Janet Evanovich




  • Lygia Fagundes Telles
  • Linda Fairstein
  • Anne Fadiman
  • Jerrilyn Farmer
  • Elena Ferrante
  • Elizabeth Ferrars
  • Rosario Ferré
  • Helen Fielding - prior to 2018
  • Erica Fischer
  • Helen Fitzgerald
  • Fannie Flagg - prior to 2018
  • Judith Flanders
  • Jane Fletcher Geniesse
  • Joanne Fluke - 2018
  • Gillian Flynn
  • Moderata Fonte - prior to 2018
  • Sarah Foot
  • Amanda Foreman - prior to 2018
  • Karin Fossum - 2018
  • Earlene Fowler
  • Anne Frank - prior to 2018
  • Lois P. Frankel
  • Ariana Franklin
  • Antonia Fraser - prior to 2018
  • Caroline Fraser
  • Marilyn French - prior to 2018
  • Tana French - prior to 2018, 2019
  • Esther Freud
  • Alexandra Fuller
  • Margaret Fuller
  • Anna Funder



  • Diana Gabbaldon
  • Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling) - 2018
  • Mavis Gallant
  • Janice Galloway
  • Elizabeth Gaskell - 2018 and prior
  • Elizabeth George - 2018 and prior
  • Stella Gibbons - prior to 2018
  • Frances Gies
  • Anthony Gilbert (Lucy Beatrice Malleson, aka Anne Meredith)
  • Janet Gleeson
  • Kristin Gleeson
  • Molly Gloss
  • Lisa Goldstein
  • Carol Goodman
  • Nadine Gordimer
  • Charlotte Gordon
  • Sue Grafton
  • Caroline Graham
  • Anna Katherine Green
  • Kerry Greenwood - prior to 2018
  • Germaine Greer
  • Lady Augusta Gregory
  • Susanna Gregory - prior to 2018
  • Kate Grenville
  • Aceituna Griffin
  • Nicola Griffith
  • Martha Grimes . prior to 2018
  • Sarah Gristwood
  • Judith Guest
  • Ursula K. Le Guin



  • Radclyffe Hall - 2018
  • Brigitte Hamann
  • Barbara Hambly
  • Denise Hamilton
  • Edith Hamilton - prior to 2018
  • Sheila Hancock
  • Helene Hanff
  • Lorraine Hansberry
  • Valerie Hansen
  • Kate Harding
  • Kathryn Harkup - 2018
  • Joanne Harris
  • Cynthia Harrod-Eagles
  • Mavis Doriel Hay - 2018 and prior
  • Eliza Haywood
  • Anne Hébert
  • Elke Heidenreich - prior to 2018
  • Lillian Hellman
  • Kristien Hemmerechts
  • Amy Hempel
  • Sandra Hempel
  • Jennifer Morag Henderson
  • Christine Heppermann
  • Georgette Heyer - 2018 and prior
  • Joanna Hickson
  • Susan Higginbotham
  • Mary Higgins Clark - prior to 2018
  • Patricia Highsmith - 2018 and prior
  • Hildegard von Bingen - prior to 2018
  • Susan Hill
  • Laura Hillenbrand
  • Lisa Hilton
  • Ayaan Hirsi Ali
  • Tami Hoag
  • Antonia Hodgson - prior to 2018
  • Frances Hodgson Burnett - prior to 2018
  • Beatrice Hohenegger
  • Renate Holland-Moritz
  • Victoria Holt (Eleanor Hibbert, aka Jean Plaidy & Philippa Carr) - prior to 2018
  • Winifred Holtby
  • Susan Howatch - 2018
  • Dorothy B. Hughes
  • Zora Neale Hurston
  • Siri Hustvedt
  • Elspeth Huxley
  • Hypathia of Alexandria



  • Laura Ingalls Wilder - 2018
  • Susan Isaacs
  • Molly Ivins - prior to 2018




  • Shirley Jackson - prior to 2018
  • Lilian Jackson Braun
  • Miranda James
  • P.D. James - 2018 and prior
  • J.A. Jance - 2018
  • Tove Jansson
  • Lisa Jardine
  • Inge Jens
  • Ianthe Jerrold
  • Sarah Orne Jewett
  • Katherine (and Romilly) John
  • Elizabeth Jolley
  • Erica Jong
  • Morag Joss
  • Rachel Joyce
  • Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz - prior to 2018
  • Julian of Norwich



  • Frida Kahlo
  • Liz Kalaugher
  • Lydia Kang
  • Ellis Kaut - prior to 2018
  • M.M. Kaye
  • Doris Kearns Goodwin
  • Susanna Kearsley - 2018
  • Helen Keller - prior to 2018
  • Faye Kellerman
  • Karen Kelly
  • Margery Kempe
  • Sarah Kendzior
  • Christine Kenneally
  • Hannah Kent
  • Jamaica Kincaid
  • Laurie R. King
  • Naomi Klein
  • Barbara Kingsolver
  • Rosalie Knecht - 2018
  • Helen J. Knowles
  • Rachel Knowles
  • Clea Koff
  • Elizabeth Kostova
  • Nicole Krauss
  • Ellen Kushner
  • Aug San Suu Kyi




  • Marie Laberge
  • Camilla Läckberg
  • Mercedes Lackey
  • Mary Ladd Gavell
  • Carmen Laforet
  • Selma Lagerlöf - prior to 2018
  • Jhumpa Lahiri - prior to 2018
  • Lorna Landvik
  • Nella Larsen
  • Carole Lawrence - 2018
  • Camara Laye
  • Laurie Lee
  • Tanith Lee
  • Madeleine L'Engle
  • Charlotte Lennox
  • Donna Leon - prior to 2018
  • Doris Lessing
  • Elizabeth Letts
  • Laura Levine - 2018
  • Andrea Levy
  • Marina Lewycka
  • Amy Licence
  • Juliette Lichtenstein
  • Astrid Lindgren - prior to 2018
  • Leanda de Lisle
  • Clarice Lispector
  • Elizabeth Little
  • Ivy Litvinov
  • Guadalupe Loaeza
  • Norah Lofts
  • Sarah Lovett - 2018
  • E.C.R. Lorac - 2018




  • Sharon Maas - prior to 2018
  • Greer Macallister
  • Hilary Macaskill
  • Helen MacInnes - 2018
  • Margaret MacMillan
  • Karen Maitland - prior to 2018
  • Abby Mann
  • Erika Mann
  • Katia Mann
  • Elisabeth Mann-Borghese
  • Olivia Manning
  • Katherine Mansfield - prior to 2018
  • Hilary Mantel - prior to 2018
  • Beryl Markham - prior to 2018
  • Monika Maron
  • Ngaio Marsh - 2018 and prior
  • Megan Marshall
  • Sujata Massey
  • Francine Matthews - 2018
  • Doris Maurer
  • Margaret Mazzantini
  • Mari McAuliffe
  • Sarah McBride
  • Anne McCaffrey
  • Susan Carol McCarthy
  • Helen McCloy
  • K.D. McCrite
  • Sharyn McCrumb - 2018 and prior
  • Carson McCullers
  • Colleen McCullough
  • Val McDermid - 2018 and prior
  • Alison McGhee
  • Jill McGown - 2018
  • Maureen F. McHugh
  • Pat McIntosh - prior to 2018
  • Shirley McKay
  • Patricia McKillip - 2018
  • Paula McLain
  • Bethany McLean
  • Catherine Meadows
  • Leslie Meier - 2018
  • Lise Meitner
  • Francesca Melandri
  • Rigoberta Menchú
  • María Rosa Menocal
  • Anne Meredith (Lucy Beatrice Malleson, aka Anthony Gilbert) - prior to 2018
  • Claire Messud
  • Anne Michaels
  • Barbara Michaels (Barbara Mertz, aka Elizabeth Peters)
  • Rosalind Miles
  • Margaret Millar
  • Marja Mills
  • Anchee Min
  • Denise Mina - prior to 2018
  • Rupali Mishra
  • Gladys Mitchell - prior to 2018
  • Margaret Mitchell - prior to 2018
  • Nancy Mitford
  • Miyuki Miyabe
  • Theresa Monsour
  • Rosa Montero
  • Lucy Maud Montgomery - prior to 2018
  • Anne-Marie-Louise D'Orleans Montpensier
  • Lorrie Moore
  • Susanna Moore
  • Wendy Moore
  • Elsa Morante
  • Lorna Nicholl Morgan - 2019
  • Toni Morrison - prior to 2018
  • Toni Mount - prior to 2018
  • Hermynia Zur Mühlen
  • Bárbara Mujica
  • Alice Munro - prior to 2018
  • Lady Murasaki Shikubu
  • Iris Murdoch
  • Tamar Myers




  • Barbara Nadel
  • Meera Nair
  • Sylvia Nasar
  • Shizuko Natsuki
  • Marguerite de Navarre
  • Irène Némirovsky - 2018
  • Katherine Neville
  • Anaïs Nin - prior to 2018
  • Ingrid Noll - prior to 2018
  • Elizabeth Norton
  • Amélie Nothomb
  • Mary Novik - prior to 2018
  • Naomi Novik
  • Frances Noyes Hart
  • Tiina Nunnally




  • Joyce Carol Oates
  • Tea Obreht - prior to 2018
  • Edna O'Brien - prior to 2018
  • Carol O'Connell
  • Flannery O'Connor - prior to 2018
  • Sandra Day O'Connor
  • Nuala O'Faolain
  • Sofi Oksanen
  • Susan Orlean
  • Margaret Oliphant
  • Emmuska Orczy - 2018 and prior
  • Mary Orr
  • Anna Maria Ortese - prior to 2018
  • Perri O'Shaughnessy
  • Elsa Osorio - prior to 2018
  • Meta Osredkar
  • Isabel Ostrander
  • Delia Owens
  • Helen Oyeyemi
  • Ruth Ozeki
  • Cynthia Ozick




  • Tina Packer
  • Sydney Padua
  • Sara Paretsky - prior to 2018
  • Sandra Paretti - prior to 2018
  • Dorothy Parker
  • I.J. Parker
  • S.J. Parris - prior to 2018
  • Rachel Pastan
  • Ann Patchett - prior to 2018
  • Jill Paton Walsh
  • Renee Patrick
  • Maggie Pearson
  • Sharon Kay Penman - prior to 2018
  • Louise Penny
  • Andrea Penrose
  • Charlotte Perkins Gilman - prior to 2018
  • Régine Pernoud
  • Anne Perry - 2018 and prior
  • Ellis Peters / Edith Pargeter - 2018 and prior
  • Elizabeth Peters (Barbara Mertz, aka Barbara Michaels)
  • Nancy Pickard
  • Jodi Picoult
  • Hazel Pierce
  • Tamora Pierce
  • Marge Piercy
  • Christine de Pizan - prior to 2018
  • Jean Plaidy (Eleanor Hibbert, aka Victoria Holt & Philippa Carr) - prior to 2018
  • Sylvia Plath - prior to 2018
  • Sarah B. Pomeroy
  • Elena Poniatowska
  • Katherine Anne Porter
  • Linda Porter
  • Beatrix Potter - prior to 2018
  • Susan Power
  • Helen Prejean - prior to 2018
  • Annie Proulx - prior to 2018
  • Barbara Pym



  • Rachel de Queiroz
  • Amanda Quick
  • D.M. Quincy
  • Anna Quindlen - 2018 and prior




  • Lea Rabin
  • Ann Radcliffe
  • Carol Daugherty Rasnic - prior to 2018
  • Pauline Réage
  • Kathy Reichs - prior to 2018
  • Ruth Rendell (aka Barbara Vine) - prior to 2018
  • Barbara Reynolds
  • Lucy Ribchester
  • Dorothy Richardson
  • Henry Handel Richardson (Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson)
  • Brenda Rickman Vantrease
  • Stella Rimington - 2018 and prior
  • Margaret Rivers Larminie
  • Candace Robb
  • J.D. Robb
  • Alice Roberts
  • Mary Roberts Rinehart - 2018
  • Marilynne Robinson
  • Roxana Robinson
  • Judith Rock
  • Katrin Rohde
  • Sally Rooney
  • Nelly Rosario
  • Colette Rossant
  • Christina Rossetti - prior to 2018
  • Roswitha von Gandersheim - prior to 2018
  • Laura Joh Rowland
  • J.K. Rowling - 2018 and prior
  • Arundhati Roy - prior to 2018
  • Gabrielle Roy
  • Priscilla Royal
  • Joanna Russ
  • Harriet Rutland
  • Sofie Ryan



  • Vita Sackville-West
  • Jehan Sadat
  • Françoise Sagan
  • Angela Saini
  • George Sand - prior to 2018
  • Cora Sandel
  • Elisabeth Sanxay Holding
  • Sappho - prior to 2018
  • Beth Saulnier
  • Dorothy L. Sayers - 2018 and prior
  • Ruth Scarborough
  • Andrea Schacht
  • Katherine West Scheil
  • June Schlueter - 2018
  • Harriet Scott Chessman
  • Lisa Scottoline - prior to 2018
  • Alice Sebold - prior to 2018
  • Lisa See
  • Anna Seghers - prior to 2018
  • Sei Shōnagon
  • Annemarie Selinko - prior to 2018
  • Barbara Seranella
  • Julia Serano
  • Diane Setterfield - 2018
  • Anna Sewell - prior to 2018
  • Elif Shafak
  • Kamila Shamsie - 2018
  • Beth Shapiro
  • Mary Shelley - prior to 2018
  • Carol Shields
  • Katharine Sim
  • Helen Simonson
  • Helen Simpson
  • Mary Sinclair
  • Maj Sjöwall (& Per Wahlöö)
  • Margaret Skea
  • Karin Slaughter
  • Ali Smith - prior to 2018
  • Julie Smith
  • Shelley Smith
  • Zadie Smith
  • Rebecca Solnit
  • Susan Sontag - prior to 2018
  • Sonia Sotomayor
  • Diana Souhami
  • Muriel Spark - prior to 2018
  • Annie Spence
  • Julia Spencer-Fleming
  • Johanna Spyri - prior to 2018
  • Freya Stark
  • Gertrude Stein
  • Gloria Steinem
  • Carola Stern - prior to 2018
  • Amy Stewart
  • Mary Stewart - prior to 2018
  • Rebecca Stott
  • Susan Stryker
  • Edna St. Vincent Millay
  • Kate Summerscale - prior to 2018
  • Rachel Swaby
  • Beverly Swerling
  • S.D. Sykes




  • Lalita Tademy
  • Amy Tan -- 2018 and prior
  • Natasha Tarpley
  • Donna Tartt
  • Mary Taylor Simeti
  • Janne Teller
  • F. Tennyson Jesse
  • Sheri S. Tepper - prior to 2018
  • Mother Teresa
  • Josephine Tey - 2018 and prior
  • Angie Thomas
  • Jane Thynne - 2018
  • Grace Tiffany
  • James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Bradley Sheldon)
  • Masako Togawa
  • Claire Tomalin
  • Jean Toomer
  • Lillian de la Torre
  • Stella Tower
  • Sylvia Townsend Warner
  • Rose Tremain - prior to 2018
  • Joanna Trollope
  • Sojourner Truth
  • Gail Tsukiyama
  • Barbara Tuchman
  • Abigail Tucker
  • Katy Tur
  • Janette Turner Hospital
  • Helen Tursten - 2018
  • Joyce Tyldesley - prior to 2018
  • Anne Tyler
  • Kathleen Tynan



  • Jenny Uglow
  • Ludmila Ulitskaya - 2018
  • Sigrid Undset
  • Else Ury - prior to 2018




  • Catherynne M. Valente
  • Sarah Vaughan
  • Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell) - 2018 and prior
  • Serena Vitale
  • Susan Vreeland




  • Alice Walker
  • Amy Wallace
  • Maureen Waller
  • Harriet Walter - prior to 2018
  • Minette Walters
  • Evangeline Walton
  • Jo Walton
  • Sarah Waters
  • Winifred Watson
  • Tiffany Watt Smith
  • Betty Webb
  • Alison Weir - prior to 2018
  • Eudora Welty - prior to 2018
  • Patricia Wentworth - 2018 and prior
  • Debbie Lee Wesselmann
  • Rebecca West
  • Kate Westbrook - 2018
  • Megan Whalen Turner
  • Edith Wharton - 2018 and prior
  • Phillis Wheatley
  • Sara Wheeler
  • Ethel Lina White - 2018
  • Samantha Wilcoxson - prior to 2018
  • Margery Williams - prior to 2018
  • Wendy Williams
  • Valerie Plame Wilson - 2018
  • Jeanette Winterson - prior to 2018
  • Margaret Wise Brown - prior to 2018
  • Susan Wittig Albert
  • Christa Wolf - prior to 2018
  • Mary Wollstonecraft - prior to 2018
  • Faith Wolseley
  • Barbara Wood
  • Frances Wood
  • Paula L. Woods
  • Virginia Woolf - prior to 2018
  • Jennifer Worth
  • Mary Wortley Montagu
  • Jennifer Wright - 2018
  • Andrea Wulf



  • Xinran (Xuē Xīnrán) - 2018, 2019




  • Tiphanie Yanique
  • Jane Yolen
  • Banana Yoshimoto - 2018
  • Marguerite Youcenar - prior to 2018




  • Juli Zeh - 2018
  • Xianliang Zhang
  • Edith M. Ziegler
  • Stefanie Zweig




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review 2019-01-05 03:07
Written with the Pen Grown in Her Heart
The Good Women of China - Xinran



Raw, sad, lyrical and candid -- my first book of 2019, and already a huge winner; I'm pretty sure this will be one of my overall top reads of the year.  I can see few ways how this reading experience can possibly be topped.


Xinran tells the stories of some of the hundreds, perhaps even thousands of women whose stories she listened to (and, if allowed by both the women themselves and by the Party censors, broadcast) for eight years as a Nanjing radio presenter on a nightly program called Words on the Night Breeze; a combination of recorded interviews and live talk radio with musical interludes.  As a young reporter she had come to realize that, conditioned by centuries of physical and emotional suppression (far from being abolished, made even worse by the Cultural Revolution), complete and unbridled male dominance in society, and the associated deep-set mysogyny which Chinese women had even swallowed themselves, hide and hair, her countrywomen had practically no sense of self -- nor any sense how to talk about their feelings, experience, traumas, hopes, dreams, disappointments, and injuries.  Indeed, as the Chinese characters explained on the book's back cover (see below) make clear, even the words "female" and "woman", "mother" or "girl" are not anywhere near synonymous in writing: All female substantives are "female" with a specific function: a "woman" is "a female whose job is to do the housework", a "mother" is "a kind female" (or "a female with kindness"), a "girl" is "a female with kindness and [a sense of] tradition (or, since the second part of the sequence is identical with "mother", "a female with a sense of tradition who is attached to her mother") -- and lastly, if a "female" has a son attached to her, the result is "good".


In this book, which she wrote after having moved to England in 1997, Xinran takes her readers on her voyage of discovery of the lives of some of the women she met during those eight years of reporting; as well as her discovery of herself and her role as a reporter.  We meet, inter alia:


* The girl who kept a fly as a pet (and if you think that's a euphemism for poverty and hunger, think again: the title of the chapter hints at the fact that a baby fly's feet were the sole soft touches this girl ever felt after having "become a woman" at age 11, from which time she was brutally raped daily by her own father -- so much so that she took to making herself dangerously ill, in order to be able to spend time at the hospital, where she was better (though not perfectly) protected ... until she died of septicemia at age 17);

* The scavenger woman who, though well-educated, lived off scraps and in a ramshackle hut near Xinran's radio station just so she could be near her son -- an important man whose threshold she had not even crossed a single time;

* The mothers who endured an earthquake and saw their loved ones perish before their eyes, painfully and in one instance, over a period of two weeks (a young teenage girl, her lower body squashed high up in the ruins of a broken wall, with rescue coming too late to reach her and rescue equipment falling woefully short of what would have been needed); in another instance, as a double suicide of husband and daughter, after the daughter had been gang-raped by strangers in a tent near the rescue facility where she had been taken -- and yet, these mothers had built a new community with the children made orphans by the earthquake and were giving all their love to these orphaned children;

* Xinran's mother and several other women, all left emotionally and often also economically destitute as a result of their lives having been broken to pieces by the Cultural Revolution (no matter whether for reasons of their education, foreign contacts and financial independence, or similar reasons for being considered "counter-revolutionaries", or because their youthful idealism for the new system was brutally abused and ground to shreds, and they were tossed, literally within a single day and by the Party itself, into loveless and abusive marriages with high officials);

* The childhood Xinran herself cannot leave behind and which, likewise, was replete with physical and emotional abuse for being the daughter and granddaughter of suspected "counter-revolutionaries"; as well as several other women of Xinran's generation with similarly devastating experiences;

* The Guomindang general's daughter, who grew up with a Chinese family after her parents had had to flee to Taiwan without being able to take her (then five years old) with them, and who was driven into insanity by a combination of seeing her foster family being tortured on her account and the torture and abuse that she herself suffered after having been "outed"; and

* The women of Shouting Hill (a remote, barren hillside area to the West of Xian), the encounter with whom was the last straw for Xinran to leave China and life as she knew it behind and seek a different life for herself and her son in London. 



On this last group, Xinran writes:

"Women there [in Shouting Hill] are valued solely for their utility: as reproductive tools, they are the most precious items of trade in the villagers' lives.  The men do not hesitate to barter two or three girl children for a wife from another village. [...] After they become mothers, they in turn are forced to give up their own daughters.  Women in Shouting Hill have no rights of property or inheritance.


The unusual social practice of one wife being shared by several husbands also occurs in Shouting Hill.  In the majority of those cases, brothers from extremely poor families with no females to barter buy a common wife to continue the family line.  By day they benefit from the food the woman makes and the household chores she does, by night they enjoy the woman's body in turn. [...]


They [the women] lead an extremely hard life.  In their one-roomed cave houses, of which half the space is occupied by a kang [earthen bed heated from below], their domestic tools consist of a few stone slabs, grass mats and crude clay bowls; an earthenware pitcher is regarded as a luxury item for the 'wealthy families'.  Children's toys or any household items specifically for the use of women are unthinkable in their society.  [...]


It is the women who greet the dawn in Shouting Hill: they have to feed the livestock, sweep the yard and polish and repair the blunt, rusty tools of their husbands.  After seeing their men off to work on the land, they have to collect water from an unreliable stream on the far side of a mountain two hours' walk away, carrying a pair of heavy buckets on their shoulders.  When cogon grass is in season, the women also have to climb the hill to dig up the roots for use as cooking fuel.  In the afternoon, they take food to their menfolk; when they come back they spin thread, weave cloth, and make clothes, shoes and hats for the family.  All through the day, they carry small children almost everywhere with them on their arms or on their backs.


In Shouting Hill, 'use' is the term employed for men wanting to sleep with a woman.  [...]  After being 'used', the women tidy up and attend to the children while the men lie snoring.  Only with nightfall can the women rest, because there is no light to work in.  When I tried to experience a very small part of these women's lives through joining in their daily household tasks for a short while, I found my faith in the value of life severely shaken. [...]


I noticed a bizarre phenomenon among the female villagers of Shouting Hill: when they reached their teens or thereabouts their gait suddenly became very strange.  They began walking with their legs spread wide apart, swaying in an arc with each step.  There was no trace of this tendency in the little girls, though.  For the first few days I puzzled over this riddle, but did not like to enquire too deeply into it.  I hoped to find the answer in my own way.


It was my habit to make sketches of the scenery I thought typified each place I was reporting on.  No colour was necessary to depict Shouting Hill, a few lines were enough to bring out its essential qualities.  While I was sketching, I noticed some small piles of stones that I could not recall having seen before.  Most of them were in out-of-the-way spots.  On closer inspection, I found blackish-red leaves under the stones.  Only cogon grass grew in Shouting Hill; where had those leaves come from?


I examined the leaves carefully: they were mostly about ten centimetres long and five centimetres wide.  They had clearly been cut to size, and seemed to have been beaten and rubbed by hand.  Some of the leaves were slightly thicker than the others, and were moist to the touch, with a fishy odour.  Other leaves were extremely dry from the pressure of the rocks and the burning heat of the sun; they were not brittle but very tough, and they too had the same strong salty smell.  I had never seen leaves like this before.  I wondered what they were used for and decided to ask the villagers.


The men said, 'Those are women's things!' and refused to say any more.


The children shook their heads in bewilderment, saying: 'I don't know what they are, Mama and Papa say we're not to touch them.'


The women simply lowered their heads silently.


When Niu'er [the girl with whom Xinran was staying] noticed that I was puzzled about the question of these leaves, she said: 'You'd best ask my granny, she'll tell you.'  Niu'er's grandmother was not so very old, but early marriage and childbearing had made her part of the village's senior generation.


Her grandmother slowly explained that the leaves were used by women during their periods.  When a girl in Shouting Hill had her first period, or a woman had just married into the village, she would be presented with ten of these leaves by her mother or another woman of the older generation.  These leaves were gathered from trees very far away.  The older women would teach the girls what to do with the leaves.  First, each leaf had to be cut to the right size, so that it could be worn inside trousers.  Then small holes had to be pricked into the leaves with an awl, to make them more absorbent.  The leaves were relatively elastic and their fibres very thick, so they would thicken and swell as they absorbed the blood.  In a region where water was so precious, there was no alternative but to press and dry the leaves after each use.  A woman would use her ten leaves for her period month after month, even after childbirth.  Her leaves would be her only burial goods.


I exchanged some sanitary towels I had with me for a leaf from Niu'er's grandmother.  My eyes filled with tears as I touched it: how could this coarse leaf, hard even to the hand's touch, be put in a woman's tenderest place?  It was only then that I realised why the women of Shouting Hill walked with their legs splayed: their thighs had been repeatedly rubbed raw and scarred by the leaves.


There was another reason for the strange gait of the women in Shouting Hill, which shocked me even more. [...]


The doctor who had come with us told me that one of the villagers had asked him to examine his wife, as she had been pregnant many times but never managed to carry a child to full term.  With the villager's special permission, the doctor examined the woman, and was dumbfounded that she had a prolapsed womb.  The friction and infection of many years had hardened the part of the womb that was hanging outside to cutin, tough as a callus.  The doctor simply could not imagine what had caused this.  Surprised by his reaction, the woman told him disapprovingly that all the women in Shouting Hill were like this.  The doctor asked me to help him confirm this; several days later I confirmed the truth of that woman's words after much surreptitious observation of the village women as they relieved themselves.  Prolapsed wombs were another reason why the women walked with their legs spreadeagled.


In Shouting Hill, the course of nature is not resisted, and family planning an alien concept.  Women are treated as breeding machines, and produce one child a year or as many as three every two years.  [...]


I saw many pregnant women in Shouting Hill, but there was no sense of eager anticipation of a child among them or their men.  Even while heavily pregnant, they had to labour as before and be 'used' by their men, who reasoned that 'only children who resist being squashed are strong enough'.  I was appalled by all this, especially at the thought of shared wives being 'used' by several men throughout their pregnancy.  [...]


The evening after I had established that prolapsed wombs were an everyday phenomenon in Shouting Hill, I was unable to sleep for a very long time.  I lay on the earthen kang weeping for these women, who were of my generation and of my time.  That the women of Shouting Hill had no concept of modern society, let alone any awareness of the rights of women, was a small comfort; their happiness lay in their ignorance, their customs and the satisfaction of believing that all women in the world lived as they did. [...]


On the day I left Shouting Hill, I found that the sanitary towels I had given to Niu'er's grandmother as a souvenir were stuck in her sons' belts; they were using them as towels to wipe away sweat or protect their hands."

Atwood's Handmaid's Tale come alive, and then some ...


Obviously Shouting Hill is an extreme example even within China, distinguished from other parts of the country, as Xinran highlights, in part by its extreme remoteness, which prevents the women living there from learning anything that might induce them to question, ever so tacitly, their own living conditions.  (Or prevented them -- I have no idea whether the practices described by Xinran are still going on today; shocking though they are even for the late 1990s.)  And I'm sure that at least some of the hundreds of millions of women in China, even some of those of Xinran's and her mother's generations, lead less traumatic or even happy lives.  But from Xinran's account, there is no question that the lives she describes are not rare exceptions; and given the severe reticence drummed into any Chinese woman from long before she can even walk and talk, it is anybody's guess how many there are who simply have not and never will speak out -- or who may look happy and successful but in reality are far from that (and Xinran provides examples of such women as well).


In the book's prologue, she talks about a mugging attempt in London, with the mugger trying to take away her handbag, which contained the only manuscript copy of this book then in existence.  She fought her assailant tooth and nail, even at the risk of being killed, and comments on a policeman's later question whether her book was more important than her life:

"Of course, life is more important than a book.  But in so many ways my book was my life.  It was my testimony to the lives of Chinese women, the result of many years' work as a journalist. [...] I wasn't sure that I could put myself through the extremes of feeling provoked by writing the book again.  Reliving the stories of the women I had met had been painful, and it had been harder still to order my memories and find language adequate to express them.  In fighting for that bag, I was defending my feelings, and the feelings of Chinese women.  The book was the result of so many things which, once lost, could never be found again.  When you walk into your memories, you are opening a door to the past; the road within has many branches, and the route is different every time."

And in the epilogue, she concludes:

"I recalled what Old Chen had once said to me: 'Xinran, you should write this down.  Writing is a kind of repository and can help create a space for the accommodation of new thoughts and feelings.  If you don't write these stories down, your heart will be filled up and broken by them'.  At that time in China, I might have gone to prison for writing a book like this.  I couldn't risk abandoning my son, or the women who received help and encouragement through my radio programme.  In England, the book became possible.  It was as if a pen had grown in my heart."

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