The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf

This classic text is unlikely to have been read by Donald Trump. Many affluent men perceive women as trophies to be won, but the President of the United States is particularly prone to judge a book by its cover. However, Wolf shows that this cultural trend has an economic base.

We all know about the injustice of the gender pay gap. We all appreciate that men typically shirk their share of chores. But lots of us forget the full extent of the pressure exerted on females to look their best. This force breeds unnecessary competition. Furthermore, it means that substantial discretionary spending is wasted on keeping up appearances.

Perhaps Wolf was slightly too passionate at times. Maddened by the social disasters of anorexia and unnecessary plastic surgery in the United States, she did make an unfortunate comparison with the Holocaust. Nevertheless, the author did produce a compelling argument. She was generous towards other feminists and paid a warm tribute to Virginia Woolf:

“Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own had a vision that someday young women would have access to the rich forbidden libraries of the men’s colleges, their sunken lawns, their vellum, the claret light.”

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Inflation: the basket case

The Office for National Statistics regularly adjusts the composition of the basket of goods which is used to assess inflation in the UK. This can be a controversial process because consumers buy such different items. While artisan gin may be really popular in some circles, other social groups could be more concerned with the price of iced buns.

Class and gender may impact on what we purchase. Our perception of inflation is thereby influenced by the position we occupy in society. When inflation is above the two per cent target, our emotions about it might be structured by more than our income.

This matters when interest rates are the subject of elite discussion. The Bank of England may cite inflation if it nudges up the interest rate this week. But people know that the central bank is also concerned with its credibility. Any decision of the Monetary Policy Committee will be evaluated by citizens with different spending patterns. This suggests that a broader economic debate is needed. Minor interest rate adjustment may be deemed to be tinkering if enough people think that the unbalanced UK economy requires the implementation of a robust democratic strategy.

This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein

“The environmental crisis- if conceived sufficiently broadly- neither trumps nor distracts from our most pressing political and economic causes: it supercharges each one of them with existential urgency.”

This lengthy text focuses on the need to be more assertive in the fight against climate change. Naomi Klein is unafraid to link the crisis to the international political economy. She makes a persuasive case against ‘business as usual’ solutions.

Klein is at her best when she attacks the emergent research on geoengineering. Clearly, it is not in the public interest to explore solutions which would exacerbate the crisis. Moving towards a sustainable future should not involve adding untested and risky initiatives into the mix.

Towards the end, the argument apparently loses some of its sharpness. This is because of the significant stress on the personal life of the writer. While the narrative about her son is far from dull, there is something uncomfortable about its location in the wider story. As climate change is an international dilemma, the inclusion of an innocent individual in the discussion seems slightly incongruous.

Vasilisa Malygina by Alexandra Kollontai

This story is a moving combination of the personal and the political. Set in the Soviet Union, it is a brief tale of feminist awakening. The main character goes on a painful emotional journey, but she does not lose her optimism.

Although the action takes place during a period of extreme hardship and political turbulence, ideology rarely overshadows the fiction. The personal betrayals of a charismatic man are not displaced by extended critiques of his dubious role in post-revolutionary Russia.

The text cannot be described in terms of socialist realism because Kollontai was not restrained by rigid commitment to a Party line. Her characters actually attacked dogmatic interpretations of Marxism. Nonetheless, the future struggle was viewed through a lens of confidence typical of Leninism:

“Live and work, work and fight, live and love life, like the bees in the lilac, like the birds at the bottom of the garden, like the crickets in the grass!”

T.S. Eliot: a Short Biography by John Worthen

This odd book about an odd man employed an eccentric technique to generate a thought-provoking biography. John Worthen leaned heavily on the diaries of Virginia Woolf to defend the reputation of her celebrated friend. Her antipathy to the wife of T.S. Eliot means that the great poet has a really sympathetic portrayal.

Relying too much on the brilliant Woolf as a witness has its risks. Her own instability means that she may not have been the most consistent judge of character. And her literary elitism could have led her to a bias towards the conservative American. Further, she might well have been afraid, jealous or resentful of others who occupied the sick role she shared.

Fortunately, Worthen was aware of the limitations of his effort. Like Eliot, he knew that “No one can be understood.” As a result, those who appreciate poetry can turn back to fragments of the poems:

“And I…must borrow every changing shape

To find expression- dance dance

Dance like a dancing bear,

Whistle like a parrot, chatter like an ape;

Let us take the air, in a tobacco trance.”

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Some writers are their stories. They have witnessed remarkable things. They have overcome massive obstacles. Nevertheless, it is their personal literary style which separates them from ordinary survivors of trauma, poverty or discrimination. Maya Angelou is an inspirational author and teacher of this type.

Many readers will be familiar with her personal tale of suffering and abandonment. They will know her description of the terrifying American South during the Depression. However, they might not have read Mom & Me & Mom. This illuminating text revisits the complex dynamics of her tough family.

However, the later work does in part reveal that writers can find it hard to let go of their best material. Jeanette Winterson is another superb author who has kept raiding her early life for content when her most famous effort has been completed. However, Angelou developed a brilliant honesty which distinguished her from many of her contemporaries. Perhaps she inherited or copied this trait from her mother:

“Baby, now they are treating you as if you are a horse’s ass. Let me tell you something. All you have to do is get your work done. If these people live, they will come back to you. They may have forgotten how badly they treated you, or they may pretend that they have forgotten. But watch: They will come back to you.”

The Lifted Veil by George Eliot

“Our sweet illusions are half of them conscious illusions, like effects of colour that we know to be made up of tinsel, broken glass, and rags.”

This Gothic novella by Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot) is a fascinating read. It is a radical departure from her typical realism. Beautifully written, the compelling narrative wastes no time. When the story gathers momentum, the writer allows the plot to unfold without excessive description.

The central character suffers considerable emotional torment. Nevertheless, the text is composed cleverly so that the reader is not overly affected by all the anguish. This makes it a suitable Christmas book for people who want to be distracted from the commercial excesses of the season.

Evans put this tale together from a male perspective. This is interesting because she used a masculine pen name in order to guarantee a serious reception for her work. One message of the chilling story is that tyrannical individuals should not be given emotional support. Hence Evans injected some shrewd psychology into her attempt to convey horror.