The Women We Read

A long while ago I got one of these thoughtful presents from J who sometimes sees something in a store and immediately knows that I will love it and so he spontaneously buys it and brings it home without having any occasion to do so. This time it was a pocket book with a collection of short stories by Haruki Murakami that I had somehow missed.
I’ve been devouring short stories for the past year, reading everything I can get my hands on that’s remotely in my area of interest and so this was a gem.
And yet to this day I still haven’t read this particular collection.

Well, because the start of the first story irritates me beyond words. It’s a story called DRIVE MY CAR and the first paragraphs are assumptions about women and driving. And I can’t get past it. There are few things that annoy me more than generalising about gender and I know I sometimes do it too but generalising about female drivers? That’s unforgivable in my books.

Why this story was chosen to be the first one in the collection is beyond me. I realise that the “generalisations” about women drivers in this story are not necessarily the authors views, that’s not what annoys me but the words on those first pages just annoy me so much that on the three occasions that I’ve tried to read the book I’ve failed. Maybe this IS one of the strongest stories in the collection but this “detail” is just too much for me.
And I know what you’re thinking “why don’t you start with the second story?” Yeah, I would but now the sight of the bug on the cover annoys me so much that I can’t get past it. Not now. And remember that Murakami is one of my favourite novelists, – he is not however one of my favourite short story writers, but that’s a different story.

It’s the international women’s day today. So I figured I’d write a little about the women that I’ve read, the women I have enjoyed reading. The things that have captivated me.

The fact is that the vast majority of the writers I read are male. This might have many reasons I guess. Maybe the genres I like are dominated by men, maybe (I don’t know if it’s true, I rather doubt it) aren’t as many women writing those kind of macabre, dark, dystopian horror/fiction. Maybe it’s me, maybe I drift towards male writing rather than womens? It’s not conscious if that’s the case. Maybe it’s something else entirely – but having said that some of my favourite writers are obviously women.

Let’s start with the first and maybe the one that moulded me the most. The first novel I read by her I read when I was twelve years old and unless you’re from one of the Nordic countries I doubt you’ll have heard of her. She’s a Norwegian writer called MARGIT SANDEMO and she wrote an epic series of 42 books about a special family ranging from the 1500s to somewhere around the second world war. These books were on high shelves in magazine stands when I was a kid and labelled as “frump filth” due to its sexually explicit nature. It’s pulp fiction. These books are about a family of women, wizardry, magic, the supernatural – she puts her feet in almost all areas of the supernatural/horror/fantastic genre in her stories about this family and it completely captivated my mind when I was young.
I recently listened to the entire series as audiobooks and I can tell you that they stood up well against time and adulthood. There was still magic and excitement in the stories. (The series is called The Ice People, if you’re interested in checking it out). And she is without a doubt the female author that shaped me most as a reader and a writer.

Another woman whose unique storytelling pulled me in was BANANA YOSHIMOTO. I can admit that initially I read a book by her because of her name BANANA. I’ve always liked Bananas and I figured that with a name like that I couldn’t go wrong (childish I know). I was reading a lot of Japanese literature at the time, which I liked but she struck a nerve with me that’s rarely been touched. She’s written a lot of excellent short fiction, but her story in KITCHEN called MOONLIGHT SHADOW still lingers in me all these years later. When it comes to her stories though, it doesn’t really matter which one you pick up – they’re all excellent.

MARGURITE DURAS’ book THE LOVER is another one that captivated me. I haven’t read it in years but during a time when I was buried in Anne Rice’s Vampire books (the way today’s youngsters devour TWILIGHT or whatever it might be that has taken its place) DURAS came as a breath of fresh air. I never read anything else by her but the realistic, and yet utterly exotic feel of that novel fascinated me.

When I moved to Sweden I started reading a Swedish novelist ANNA-KARIN PALM, whose debut novel THE FAUN, was fascinating in the way it combined fantasy and realism. It was her novel HERRGÅRDEN (The Mansion or Country Estate) that I loved the most though. It reminds me of Kobo Abe´s WOMAN IN THE DUNES (in a way) but also of books like Paul Auster’s IN THE COUNTRY OF LAST THINGS (which I love).

I can’t make a list like this without mentioning LIZ WILLIAMS. I’m a bit picky when it comes to science-fiction but when I stumbled upon her book THE GHOST SISTER I was captivated. There is something very inviting in her prose, very suggestive and calm and her sci-fi is out of this world (well obviously), and very compelling.

In my desperate search of late for the perfect short story (I could make a list) there is one story that hit me hard and stayed with me and is still here lingering. It’s a story which I read in the short story collection HOUSE OF FEAR which is edited by Jonathan Oliver and it’s a story by LISA TUTTLE called OBJECTS IN DREAMS MAY BE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR. It’s one of the best haunted house stories I think I’ve ever read. I’ve been meaning to pick up another book by her. I’ve read some of her other short stories, all good, but still haven’t got around to picking up one of her books. It’s about time I do that.

And you know what? We should do that. Pick a up a book by a woman writer to read. It doesn’t have to be one of mine (hint, hint) but maybe someone you’ve enjoyed in the past? Someone you’ve been meaning to pick up? Who are the women whose books you’ve enjoyed? It would be interesting to hear about them.

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