The Week in Books: Femen exposed, the £30,000 'one-star' Jeff Bezos book and a digital map for bookstores
Would any one feminist text make the same waves today as Germaine Greer's or Betty Friedan's?
Arifa Akbar is literary editor of The Independent and i newspapers. She has worked at The Independent since 2001 as a news reporter and arts correspondent before joining the books desk in 2009. She was a judge for the Orwell Prize for books 2013, and the Fiction Uncovered Prize 2014.
Saturday 23 November 2013
Femen – the book – is due to hit the shelves next year. Whether it will retain the in-your-face nudity of its front cover in the French original (published in March this year) is as yet unknown.
What is certain is that Polity press, its English language publisher, is updating the story of the four female founders to answer the question that has been asked ever since the film, Ukraine Is Not a Brothel, screened at the Venice Film Festival this autumn. It made the claim that the real brains behind the often topless protest group was a feisty man, and not a feisty often topless woman. The book, a history of the movement, a manifesto and an autobiography in one, is due out in May 2014 and I’m told that Polity has approached Femen for an update over the controversy of their “male leader”, Victor Svyatskiy, who was quoted in the film as saying “These girls are weak...They don’t even have the desire to be strong. Instead, they show submissiveness, spinelessness, lack of punctuality, and many other factors which prevent them from becoming political activists. These are qualities which it was essential to teach them.”
Any rejoinder or clarification by its key members – Inna, Sasha, Oksana and Anna – or the gang of four as they refer to themselves in the first chapter of the book, will be fascinating to read. All we know for now is that there will be a new afterword by Galia Ackerman, the journalist who worked with Femen on the book, in which she will address the implications made in the film. In some ways, it would be disappointing for the debate about the movement to be sabotaged by a far grubbier discussion on whether the movement was founded by the women, or the man.
The question of how a book can galvanise activism is more interesting to consider, given the seemingly symbiotic relationships that texts have had with feminist activism in the past. The 1970s Second Wave movement seemed to revolve around the symbolism of books as “manifestos”, first and foremost, whether it was Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique or Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch. To what degree these texts were arguing for the same things as the women on the streets, and at Greenham Common, is up for debate. Greer’s book became inextricably linked with that decade’s activism but studying it now, it reads more like bookish literary criticism than a manifesto for bra-burning. Similiarly, Simone de Beauvoir’s older text, which was no less appropriated by the Second Wavers, The Second Sex, might have the perfect campaign title but was heavy on theory and philosophy, and seemed detached from any grassroots call to action, partly because it had been written two decades earlier.
Did the books inspire the activists or were the books co-opted by them for their cause? They certainly gained a purchase and became rallying badges and signs of allegiences. Perhaps all political movements need the symbolism of a book, laying out a new philosophy to use as a manifestor, and to galvanise the activism. Can we see the same text-led movement in today’s world? Would any one text make the same waves as Greer’s book or Friedan’s? Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman certainly made it easier for younger women to declare themselves feminists on their Twitter handles and blogs.
Maybe Femen’s militant, streaker-style protests are not to everyone’s taste, with topless acts of derring-do that seem to blend the romantic heroism of James Bond with the sexual titillation of the Bond girl, but you never know, their manifesto, in book form, may help to formulate the Third Waves, with or without the help of their ‘man’ friend.
‘One-star’ book on Jeff Bezos gets a £30,000 prize
MacKenzie Bezos, the wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, and now infamous writer of the “one- star” review that was posted on Amazon of her husband’s unauthorised biography, might have been feeling yet more downcast this week when the book in question – The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon by Brad Stone – won the £30,000 prize at the Financial Times and Goldman Sachs’s Business Book of the Year Awards. MacKenzie Bezos began her review with the words ‘I wanted to like it’, before settling into a string of objections, including the fact that she thought the book “passes off speculation about his (Jeff Bezos’s) thoughts and intentions as fact.” The (probably more impartial) jury, meanwhile, called it a “compelling” read.
Digital map for bookstores on and off the high street
Digital media is often drawn as the enemy of the physical book but in some instances, it leads us away from online multiplexes such as Amazon, and into curious old independent stores that we would never otherwise have known existed. A case in point is a new app, available next month from the London Bookshop Map, that leads the way to the nearest independent bookshop, using GPS technology, down an alleyway or above a sex-shop (yes, there really is a such a specialist store, in Soho).
It sounds like a Google Maps for Londoners who love buying books off the beaten track. It is being launched on 2 December for free, enabling users to search for particular specialisms including antiquarian, magic, zines and gay fiction.
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