Is The Golden Notebook a feminist novel?


For all the suffering its women endure at the hands of men, it’s not hard to see why Doris Lessing disliked her book’s polemical reputation

The New York Times critic Ernest Buickler once wrote that “a firkinful of scorching aphorisms” could be culled from nearly every page of The Golden Notebook. An exaggeration, of course – but only just. Doris Lessing’s 1962 novel is eminently quotable:

“For with my intuition I knew that this man was repeating a pattern over and over again: courting a woman with his intelligence and sympathy, claiming her emotionally; then, when she began to claim in return, running away. And the better a woman was, the sooner he would begin to run.”

“The real revolution is women against men.”

And so this man spent a second night with Julia. With no better results.

“Naturally he left at four, so that the little woman could believe he had been working late. Just as he left he turned on me and said: ‘You’re a castrating woman, I thought you were from the moment I saw you.’”

He sauced her with his eye; sitting up broad, solid, pink-cheeked; very sure of himself and his world in this house.

“Why haven’t you put on the dress you said you were going to wear?”

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Tips, links and suggestions: what are you reading this week?


Your space to discuss the books you are reading and what you think of them

Welcome to this week’s blogpost. Here’s our roundup of your comments and photos from last week.

Let’s start with some searching questions from Larts, who has been enjoying Warlight by Michael Ondaatje:

Ondaatje has the ability to draw me into the events of the novel but at the same time imbue scenes with mystery by leaving information out. As I read I have the sense of confusion and puzzlement – I am trying to piece events and characters together. It seems to be fragmentary and yet detailed, thoughtful yet careless.

The novel has also made me realise, yet again, that I do not know the significance of certain people or events in my life. I dig around for that one moment, the moment in the rose garden. Perhaps it doesn’t exist. People walk into and out of my life and I miss them, wonder what they’re doing. Do they remember the things I remember? Do they think of me? That elusive meaning … what is it? I don’t often personalise the things I read – or do I?

I’m in love with David Livesey. He’s a pipe smoking contemplative magistrate. He’s a hands on medic true to his oath but also quick to show his swashybuckle side. His powdered wig is his emotional barometer, on and off like nobody’s business … when he is het up or in a pickle. If that wasn’t enough he carries a chunk of parmesan in his snuff box. I mean, come on.

It was not an easy read due to the subject material, but all the same, I’m glad I did. The recent TV programme of the same name deviated somewhat from the book. Such a tragedy was the culmination of political pressure to exceed power output, operator error (inexperienced staff conducting a safety test which deviated from procedure, which was driven by a career climbing senior staff member) and withholding of pertinent safety issues surrounding the use of cheaper RBMK reactors (government level). When I finished the book, I came away with the feeling that human history has a tendency to repeat itself – economic/political success trumps the human cost of delivering such success.

Some of it I could have done without, I don’t really need a romantic plot to illustrate what is obvious. But it was fascinating to read about the importance of water, the corruption associated with providing it in those days, & how the people in the bay just did not recognise what was happening with the mountain. The central character for me was Pliny who literally died because he could not stop being curious. He was also rather stupid at the same time. A great read.

I thought that Homegoing was very good indeed; it surpassed my expectations. The novel tracks two branches of a family, ranging in setting from the Gold Coast as the slave trade is beginning to present day US. Each chapter is narrated by a new character, each a generation later than the last. I worried that this might be frustrating and stop me bonding with the characters but, in general, they were well-drawn and interesting enough for this not be a problem … It’s a first novel by a young author, so it’s not all perfect, but I thought it was an excellent read and recommend it.

Staying with racism infecting society (it’s been a cheerful reading fortnight), I then read The Nowhere Man by Kamala Markandaya … it’s a really good novel and quite nuanced in its portrayal; for every racist, there are several other people in the community who are well-meaning, albeit sometimes in a clumsy way … Markandaya’s prose can be a bit strange at times, causing the odd stumble in the first few pages. But, once you’re into the rhythm of it, she’s a very good writer.

Set in 1932, it focusses on the lot of Violet, a 38-year-old so-called ‘surplus woman’, in her situation of struggling to cope with loss, to make ends meet on a low-income job (afford a warm meal) and to be independent. We read about her position in her family and her developing new friendships, as Violet and others gradually and quietly push back against societal constraints. What is particular is that the author paints a detailed picture of ecclesiastical activities (the crafts of embroidery and bell-ringing) at Winchester Cathedral, where Violet finds some comfort in the community of volunteer broderers working on a project to embroider kneelers for worshippers. The scenes are well set and enjoyable; the characters come to life. The ending gave me food for thought. I won’t say anymore.

The deep and lasting resonance of Goodnight Moon.

The JD Salinger exhibition at The New York Public Library sounds incredible.

“Isn’t faux praise and elevation of mediocrity just as patronizing as the dismissal of ‘ethnic writing’?” Colin Grant considers the anxieties and complexities of furthering diversity in the literary world.

I “had a good experience” with Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron says Anthony Madrid in The Paris Review.

Reading Gaol is up for sale.

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Sanditon: why are Austen fans so enraged by Andrew Davies' ending?


ITV’s dramatisation of the unfinished novel has offended the sensibilities of many Janeites. Alison Flood wonders if this makes sense

In one of the last glimpses Jane Austen gives us of the world of Sanditon, her final, unfinished novel, Charlotte Heywood has just met Sidney Parker, a young man of “about seven or eight and twenty, very good-looking, with a decided air of ease and fashion and a lively countenance”.

Andrew Davies’ TV adaptation of Sanditon, which aired on Sunday, ended with Charlotte and Sidney bidding each other a tearful farewell – in love, but not together. Viewers were teased with the hope of a last-minute reconciliation, as Sidney stopped Charlotte’s carriage. Would he throw honour to the wind and choose Charlotte over Eliza? But the expected happy ever after didn’t materialise. Reader: he didn’t marry her.

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Not the Booker prize 2019: join us to watch the judges decide the winner live


The judges meet to decide the winner of this year’s award at 11am BST. Watch the meeting live to see if Daniel James will take the coveted Guardian mug

Let’s get down to business. The public vote is in.

At this point, we have a clear leader: The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas by Daniel James. More than 70 votes behind that is Please Read This Leaflet Carefully by Karen Havelin. Close behind that comes Liam Brown’s Skin, and then we have Flames by Robbie Arnott, Spring by Ali Smith and Supper Club by Lara Williams. Here are the votes so far:

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Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook is our Reading group book for October


The 1962 novel is a challenging masterpiece – luckily, its author wrote a blisteringly bad-tempered guide to reading it

Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook has won the vote and will be the subject of this month’s Reading group. On the whole, this is excellent news. If we’re going to read Lessing, we might as well go for the big one: the 1962 novel regarded as her masterpiece and described in The Oxford Companion to English Literature as “one of the key texts of the women’s movement in the 1960s”.

The only possible reason for hesitation is that this world-shaker is also challenging. It’s long and involved and features far more mid-20th-century Marxism than most modern readers are used to. But that should also make coming to terms with this book all the more fascinating.

She considered the novel to be a triumph of structure. By fragmenting the story, she said, she wanted to show the danger of compartmentalizing one’s thinking, the idea that “any kind of single-mindedness, narrowness, obsession, was bound to lead to mental disorder, if not madness.”

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Tips, links and suggestions: what are you reading this week?


Your space to discuss the books you are reading and what you think of them

Welcome to this week’s blogpost. Here’s our roundup of your comments and photos from last week.

To begin, let’s go to the end of Anthony Trollope’s The Prime Minister, the final book in the Palliser series, as reviewed by capedoctor:

With a central theme of 19th century British political life and intrigue, the resonance with current political chaos is astonishing. Although there is no resemblance whatsoever between the eponymous prime minister and Mr Johnson, the smooth journey of landed gentry into political office, the transience and superficiality of political alliances and the jealous protection of self-interest and patronage seems not to have changed much in 150 years. Added to this are Trollope’s eloquence as a writer, his power of understatement on crucial social and political issues and so many other reasons why I personally keep going back to the great Victorian novels.

In a nutshell: it’s not her best, but it was still supremely satisfying to read, and I find myself still thinking it about it a week after finishing, which doesn’t always happen with any author.

But even a less-than-perfect Patchett is better than lots of stuff, and I’m very glad I read it.

I haven’t read a Patchett novel before (although “Bel Canto” has lingered on my informal “to read” list for a while), and I bought it purely on the strength of its ludicrously gorgeous cover (always a risky move – I’ve been burned before). So far it has been the perfect book for being curled up under a blanket with a gross cold.

A retelling of the Iliad but set in 1996 Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Achill is a sniper with the IRA who chooses to sit out his cohort’s raid on a local army base. He’s furious because he has been personally betrayed over a relationship, and he refuses all entreaties to change his mind, especially those from his friend, Pat. Henry is a British soldier who first fought in the Falklands, and now he’s been sent to Northern Ireland. Everything leads to the consequences of Pat’s refusal to fight.

Barnes is on top form here, telling a tale where the protagonist is roughly the same age as himself, and starting when the young man (19) falls in love with Susan (48). Every word is chosen with care, and the writing is top class.

Although I won’t see the Japan that Booth travelled through or have the level of engagement with local people in remote rural areas that he did (he was a fluent Japanese speaker whereas I have got to the heady heights of evening college level 2), Booth’s beautiful prose which is alternately elegiac and comedic, remains an inspiration for my coming travels. His early death robbed us of a gifted travel writer whose love for his subject is burned into every page.

Atwood’s ideas about Gilead have obviously been maturing for many years, helped, as she acknowledges, by feedback from readers and the opportunity to work on the TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale. This book is so rich in subtle details. I felt that the TV series, by making her horrific vision visible, actually diminished the impact of the story. She has an incredible, almost offhand, way of suggesting the horrors that have taken place. This book explores how Gilead came to exist and the insidious way in which precious freedoms were lost. The testaments of the three principal characters interleave to build up the picture of the rise of the theocracy and the bravery of the women who fought it. I think the book is a stunning achievement. Margaret for the Nobel, I say!

Jim Carrey has written a novel about the inner darkness of a Hollywood actor. This actor is fictional.

This piece on the collected words of Auberon Waugh has an excellent headline.

“The Cockroach is so toothless and wan that it may drive his readers away in long apocalyptic caravans.” Something tells me the New York Times reviewer didn’t enjoy Ian McEwan’s latest.

UN report on magical realism warns of increased incidences of women’s tears flooding the entire world. (Hat tip to Swelter.)

The books of Susan Sontag ranked.

Good news! Nothing is real.

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Not the Booker prize: vote now for the 2019 winner


It’s been a fine year of reading, and now your choice will help determine the winner. You have just under a week to pick a favourite

It’s time to vote on the 2019 Not the Booker prize. By the end of the week, one of our six books will be declared the winner. After the high quality of the novels in this year’s competition, receiving the Guardian mug is going to be a real honour. Our contenders are:

Supper Club by Lara Williams

Related: Not the Booker prize 2018: Rebecca Ley wins with Sweet Fruit, Sour Land

11. The winner will be chosen via a public vote from readers who have submitted reviews of their chosen titles, in combination with a panel of readers to be selected by a process outlined in clause 12. Readers may vote for only one title at this stage – changes of mind will be governed by clause four on indecision. A vote in support of one book at shortlist stage does not rule out a subsequent valid vote in support of a different book to win the Competition. Reviews may be written at any time before a vote is cast. Winner votes received after 23.59 BST on Thursday 10 October 2019 will not be counted.

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Reading group: which Doris Lessing book should we read in October?


This month marks the centenary of the British-Zimbabwean’s birth, and we’re celebrating her remarkable career. Help us choose a book

On 22 October, it will be 100 years since the birth of Doris Lessing. That’s a good reason to revisit the work of the award winning British-Zimbabwean novelist here on the Reading group. In a career spanning more than 50 years, Lessing wrote dozens of works of fiction and biography, in many different genres and moods, and was shortlisted for – and won – most of the major literary awards in Europe. She won the Nobel prize in literature in 2007, when the Swedish Academy described her as “that epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny”. The word “epicist” means “epic poet”, which possibly fits Lessing in the broader sense of the term, even if the poetry she wrote had a quieter impact than her novels.

At 88, Lessing was the oldest author to receive the honour. She was also one of the most nonplussed. “Oh Christ,” she said when a reporter on her doorstep told her she’d won. On further reflection she said: “I’m sure you’d like some uplifting remarks of some kind … It’s been going on now for 30 years, one can get more excited … I’ve won all the prizes in Europe – every bloody one. I’m delighted to have won them all. The whole lot.”

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Tips, links and suggestions: what are you reading this week?


Your space to discuss the books you are reading and what you think of them

Welcome to this week’s blogpost. Here’s our roundup of your comments and photos from last week.

First, BlogWriter shows it’s never too late to read Graham Greene:

Just finished Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, almost half a century after I first became aware of its existence. A great author, he compels you to step into his characters’ shoes and live their agonies and tribulations from the inside. And then he leaves you thinking.

Duffy is the MD of IPSOS Mori so knows a lot about surveys of people’s understanding of political issues. In this book he explores the gap between what people think and reality. Depressingly, the gap is often enormous. A typical example is on immigration. When asked what proportion of the population are immigrants, British respondents said 25% when the reality is 13%, almost half. They also thought that refugees and asylum seekers made up a third of that number when the actual figure is 10%. What is worse, when confronted with the facts, those surveyed tried to justify their ignorance or deny the statistics altogether … One of the challenges he sets is to make your own guesses at the facts before he reveals the true answers. To my shame, I often got things wrong. It certainly made me think.

His Emperor of All Maladies knocked my socks off and educated me about cancer. This is doing just the same about the gene and genetics. I often look out to the stars and think ‘How has all of this come about?’ This book has me looking within and getting answers to the same question. How these singular building blocks come to work together to create such complexity is fascinating – and elegant and beautiful.

Here, the women of a Mennonite community debate whether to leave their home after finding out that a group of men in their community has been tranquilising and raping the women and children of the village. It is based on the true story of a Mennonite community in Brazil. Some sentences here hit me very close to the bone and I had to sit back and take the occasional breather. A gripping read.

An utterly bleak vision of contemporary Australia. The Doll, a pole-dancer in Sydney’s King’s Cross, is mistakenly identified as a terrorist after a scare about three bombs in a Sydney Sports Stadium. (In Australia you could blow up the Opera House and get away with it, but blowing up a sports stadium is just unforgivable.) A media pile on, led by a sleazy TV journalist, Richard Cody, convinces the country and the government and opposition that the Doll is a major terrorist, when all she has done is slept overnight with a young Arab, also mistakenly identified as a terrorist … what is truly disturbing about this book, set in the too-real sleaze and corruption of early 21st century Kings Cross, is that with the current overreach of Australia’s terror laws, which Flanagan brilliantly exposes, it could happen to any of us.

‘Hippos often come up to the lawn in front of the pub to graze at night; in any case, they’d dispensed with the need for a mower. ‘Careful not to walk up a hippos’s arse in the dark’, Dad always warned if I left my barstool to venture into the pub’s ablution block.’

You may have read Fuller’s earlier books, my favourite of which is Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, where she recalls coming of age in a family of white settlers in Zimbabwe in the early seventies. Sadly, she loses her beloved father in this volume but his presence pervades the pages. Her mother, “Nicola Fuller of Central Africa” is still very much alive and has more than a touch of Nancy Mitford about her. Fuller is unsentimental and often amusing about a tough life and her love of the country she grew up in.

“To me, a proper dictionary is a book of spells,” says Jeanette Winterson.

The 10 writers who have just won MacArthur genius grants.

Jerome Boyd Maunsell considers Susan Sontag’s Duet for Cannibals, 50 years on.

On the best small library in the United States.

When William Burroughs met Francis Bacon.

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Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day's real-life happy ending


It took 70 years for Winifred Watson’s novel to get the attention it deserves after world war scuppered her writing career – though Hollywood should have left it alone

When I introduced Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day as our reading group choice at the start of September, I told a small part of its publication history: a feelgood story in line with Miss Pettigrew’s own triumph over adversity. Winifred Watson stood her ground, persuaded her publisher to put the book out in spite of their worries about its risqué nature, and it became a huge hit. But that’s only part of the story – which has an unusual and enchanting afterlife.

Most of this story is beautifully told in the 2000 introduction to Persephone Books’ edition by the retired Cambridge academic Henrietta Twycross-Martin. She describes it as a Cinderella-style fairytale full of surprises, ups, downs and then, happily, more ups.

Related: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day: has naughtiness ever been so nice?

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