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The Penguin Book of Feminist Writing review – a powerful concept, frustratingly executed

As a tribute to vital work through the ages, Hannah Dawson’s anthology is more than welcome. But as a resource, it’s rendered hopeless

When I was a student, there was briefly a craze – if that’s the word – for rape alarms. Walking home nervously late at night, you held one tightly in your hand; should the worst happen, you were then primed to blast it in the ear of any attacker. If this sounds quite mad now, all I can tell you is that even then they were a source of (very) black comedy: mine was always without its batteries, usually because I’d “borrowed” them for my Walkman.

The Penguin Book of Feminist Writing is in most ways nothing at all like one of these devices. Where they were disposable, it eyes posterity. Where they only underlined what we were up against, it promises empowerment. What an excellent idea to put in one place some of the most inspiriting, vital and controversial writing about gender inequality you’ll ever read. This is long overdue. But there is a problem here: an own goal so enraging, it makes you wonder if women aren’t sometimes their own worst enemies. Having laboured to put this book together, its editor, Hannah Dawson, and whoever signed off the project at Penguin Classics have undone their good work at a stroke by making it close to impossible for the reader properly to use it. Not only does it have no general index, it does not even have one of its writers. Only by going painstakingly through the list of contents could I be absolutely sure that, no, nothing by Kate Millett is included; when I wanted to reread something I’d enjoyed by Susan Sontag, I ended up flicking through its 652 pages three times. However magnificent its selections, as a resource it is absolutely hopeless. Nothing in it can be found with any speed. No cross referencing may be done with ease. In this sense, it did indeed remind me of a rape alarm. In the heat of the moment, it’s totally inadequate, pathetic, no good at all.

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W-3: A Memoir by Bette Howland review – postcard from the edge

The American writer’s account of her stay on a psychiatric ward is as dazzling and daring as when i...

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Stone Fruit by Lee Lai review – breaking up is hard to do

Lai’s debut graphic novel is a downbeat but moving exploration of the aftermath of a relationshipLe...

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Burning Man: The Ascent of DH Lawrence review – purgatory and paradise with a wild prophet

Frances Wilson’s book is as magnificently flawed as its subject – and a work of art in its own rig...

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The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym by Paula Byrne review – life and loves of a true original

Clever, funny and full of surprises, this true literary original leaps off the page in a wonderfully...

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My Autobiography of Carson McCullers review – identity parade

Jenn Shapland’s insistence on reducing Carson McCullers’s life story to a modish account of her se...

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The Secret to Superhuman Strength by Alison Bechdel review – no pain, all gain

The author of Fun Home reflects on self-improvement, death and her lifelong obsession with exercise ...

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