Monday, July 28, 2014

How To Build A Girl Readalong III: He looked like Richard Burton, full of song.

Another week, another instalment in the How To Build A Girl readalong and as always immense thank you's to Emily, Harper Collins, Caitlin Moran and everyone else taking part being so witty and interesting.

As this is the third week, obviously there will be spoilers for this week and the content from weeks before. But if you're also reading along, or have already read the book and are interested in checking out everyone's opinion then head over to Emily's blog to get the links to all the participant posts. And if you're in the US and want to pre-order the book, then head right over here.

The more of this book I read, the more I love it. And I'm actually really grateful that I'm reading it during a readalong because I'm forcing myself to only read the required chapters and savouring all the beautiful moments of sass, exploration and social observation. It's a beautiful thing, actually.

So before I get into this week's events, can I just point out something I meant to mention last week but completely forgot? Johanna has been stressing about her slip of the tongue for TWO YEARS. For two years she's snapped up the mail before her parents can, because she's terrified that she'll be the cause of the family's ruin. And that is just so utterly heartbreaking I can't even handle it. No child should have to go through that sort of stress.

Which actually leads into the rather large and important point of the week. Namely, that being poor sucks and that Caitlin Moran is brilliant at teasing out a point without pointing fingers and turning people into villains and saints. First through Johanna and then through her musician love, John Kite, Caitlin cuts down to the core of the issue of wealth. Namely that losing 11% of benefits doesn't sound like a lot (especially to a 16 year old with no real tangible concept of money) but 11% of basically nothing can be world ending.
There are no investments to cash in, to tide you over this 11 percent dip - no bonds, savings, or shares. There are no "little luxuries" to cut back on, like going to the hairdressers, or a subscription to a magazine. We cut our own hair, and read magazines in the library. There are no grand plans we can temporary shelve during this cash lull - like replacing our caar, or decorating the front room. We were never going to replace our car, or decorate our front room. 
When you already have a tight budget that accounts for every cent in and out of the house, 11% is HUGE. You can harp on about how the parents are irresponsible for bringing children into this situation, but in 1993 Britain was in a recession. Hundreds and thousands of families who hadn't been struggling were finding themselves scribbling budgets on the back of envelopes and worrying desperately about how to feed their kids, keep them clothed and set them up for a chance at a better life. Johanna's parents might be struggling, but they know where they went wrong and they want their kids to succeed where they failed. They may have let Johanna quit school, but they aren't going to let her take a spot beside them as they scramble together as many pennies as they can. Johanna is, bless her, like most young people (myself included) completely blind to the realities of life. She's at the start of her career and moving upwards. She's seen the world at 30,000 feet, she knows it's always sunny above the clouds - what rainy day does she possibly need to fear and squirrel money away for? So whatever you want to say about her parents, and I sure know they aren't perfect, it's clear that they are at least somewhat self-aware and do love their kids.

Which leads us to John Kite, the musician Johanna/Dolly/Duchess has fallen head over heels in love with. He acts as this perfect conduit between Johanna and Dolly. He knows what it means to be from a poor family but he's broken through to become something more. When she's around him, she's not the girl who embarrassed herself on television nor is she the girl who had to be created to be able to climb out of Wolverhampton. She's this perfect, ideal mix of the two.
John Kite was the first person I'd ever met who made me feel normal. That when I talked "too much," it was not the point where you walked away, going, "you're weird, Johanna," or "shut up, Johanna" - but that was when the conversation actually got good. The more ridiculous things I said - the more astonishing things I confessed - the more he roared with laughter, or slapped the table and said: "That is exactly how it is, you outrageous item."
From the talks I've had with a lot of you I think most of us fall into the introvert category, and I imagine we all know how it is to find that friend we don't have to try with. There's no awkward getting to know each other period, it just clicks. It doesn't happen often but when it does..... *sighs happily*

But perhaps more importantly this "filthy, ugly, loquacious man in a fur coat" opens her eyes to things that Johanna hasn't experienced and can also act as a conduit for us. Johanna may have grown up poor, but she's also quite insular in her life. She isn't particularly aware of what's going on in the world at large, so while Caitlin can write insightful discussions about surviving an 11% cut to a family budget through Johanna, she needs Kite to expand upon that and take it further.

Through an interview with Kite, both Johanna and the readers can ponder the position of the wealthy in society. As someone who has seen more than Johanna, he can tell us that in his experience rich people are not evil or malicious, they're blithe.
They believe nothing can ever really be so bad. They are born with the lovely, velvety coating of blitheness - like lanugo, on a baby - and it is never rubbed off by a bill that can't be paid, a child that can't be educated, a home that must be left for a hostel when rent becomes too much.
What I really loved about the interview with Kite though, is his perspective of politics and wealth. It touched on a lot of things I had thought about in the past but had never managed to accurately put into words. This post is becoming a big ol' quote-a-thon, but it's all just so good. 
Politics will always mean more to the poor. Always. That's why we strike and march, and despair when our young say they won't vote. That's why the poor are seen as more vital, and animalistic. No classical music for us - no walking around National Trust properties or buying reclaimed flooring. We don't have nostalgia. We don't do yesterday. We can't bear it. We don't want to be reminded of our past, because it was awful: dying in mines and slums without literacy or the vote. Without dignity. It was all so desperate then. That's why the present and the future is for the poor - that's the place in time for us: surviving now, hoping for better later. We live now - for our own instant hot, fast treats, to pep us up: sugar, a cigarette, a new fast song on the radio. 

On the surface this talk is so tangentially related to the plot. But it's also completely intertwined to the fundamental point of the book. Johanna might have built Dolly through a collage of pictures and quotes and songs and maps of London, but she also builds herself through her interactions with the world around her. She's grown up with an intimate relationship with poverty, with a family which requires the kids to grow up before their time and find their own, free, entertainment. She's come of age hearing her dad and uncles screaming at Margaret Thatcher on the TV, knowing that people are gossips who will banish a family to ruin because they don't care about what happens past their own garden fence. Perhaps that's why she gravitates towards John Kite, because he's basically the male embodiment of everything she knew and everything she's decided she wants to be. He's creative and funny and talks a lot, he's seen his family succumb to poverty and mental illness and worked out a way to make a career from that. He's proof that you aren't contained by your bad postcode, that being poor isn't a disability. He's hope. He's the Johanna's personal instant, hot, fast treat.

 This has been a pretty serious post, and it is a fairly serious section. Johanna has to deal with potentially losing her new job, her family losing their benefits, Krissi catching her...scratching her itch to demon fantasies. But it's also hilarious and fun. Playing Twin Peaks with Lupin wrapped in plastic, discovering that the buffet is a girls best friend at a party where she knows no one, discussing whether or not Mary Poppins would be filthy and sleeping in a musicians bathtub wrapped in his fur coat. Wonderful.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Audiobook review: How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran

How to be a Woman

Written and read by: Caitlin Moran

Published: 2011

Synopsis: Though they have the vote and the Pill and haven't been burned as witches since 1727, life isn't exactly a stroll down the catwalk for modern women. They are beset by uncertainties and questions: Why are they supposed to get Brazilians? Why do bras hurt? Why the incessant talk about babies? And do men secretly hate them?

Caitlin Moran interweaves provocative observations on women's lives with laugh-out-loud funny scenes from her own, from the riot of adolescence to her development as a writer, wife, and mother. With rapier wit, Moran slices right to the truth—whether it's about the workplace, strip clubs, love, fat, abortion, popular entertainment, or children—to jump-start a new conversation about feminism. With humor, insight, and verve, How To Be a Woman lays bare the reasons female rights and empowerment are essential issues not only for women today but also for society itself.


“When a woman says, ‘I have nothing to wear!’, what she really means is, ‘There’s nothing here for who I'm supposed to be today.”

Caitlin Moran is a very funny woman. I am basically reduced to shrieks of laughter and tears every other sentence. She's also seems very down to earth and approachable. I am not good at approaching people, even the people I know, but I feel like I could at least squeak a hello her way and she'd probably give me a big smile and compliment my dress and then I'd cry and scurry away before I made a fool of myself. But perhaps what I love most about her, is how passionate she is about women. Even though a lot of her columns aren't exactly platforms to discuss feminism, she's always managed to weave it in. Or maybe it's just that because she obviously feels so strongly about the issue of female empowerment that it comes through in subliminal waves.

So I was so happy when I discovered that How to be a Woman is, as the title might slightly suggest, about women. And it's about all kinds of womanly issues, from lighter fare about handbags to tales of terrible boyfriends and confrontations with co-workers and strangers and siblings. It's about periods and hairstyles and weddings and babies. It touches on every contradiction women are forced to deal with, every sexist, unfair way of life that doesn't seem likely to change in the near future. It discusses stilettos and glass ceilings and falling in love with celebrities.

It is, overwhelmingly, a book about feminism. HOORAY!

I'm sure there are men (and maybe women) that roll their eyes and mumble under their breath about the feminazis and make pithy comments about it being "that time of the month" when they hear me exclaim excitedly about a book being about feminism but to me it feels really important that we have fun, interesting and relevant books about feminism right now. It seems like every other week another celebrity is coming out to say "never fear fans! I'm no feminist!". No, they're humanists; they actually love men a lot; they don't think it's helpful. It's infuriating and it's a subject that Caitlin beautifully, bluntly covers in her book.
“We need to reclaim the word 'feminism'. We need the word 'feminism' back real bad. When statistics come in saying that only 29% of American women would describe themselves as feminist - and only 42% of British women - I used to think, What do you think feminism IS, ladies? What part of 'liberation for women' is not for you? Is it freedom to vote? The right not to be owned by the man you marry? The campaign for equal pay? 'Vogue' by Madonna? Jeans? Did all that good shit GET ON YOUR NERVES? Or were you just DRUNK AT THE TIME OF THE SURVEY?”
When women are dying and being humiliated for wanting to be sexually responsible,shamed for being raped and are bullied out of having abortions, feminism is that much more important. It shouldn't be a dirty word. It shouldn't be something people wonder if we really need. It is confounding to me that anyone would hear the definition of feminism and think "hmmm, no, not for me".
“What is feminism? Simply the belief that women should be as free as men, however nuts, dim, deluded, badly dressed, fat, receding, lazy and smug they might be.”
I'm sure the staunchly anti-feminist types aren't likely to pick up this book but they really should, because Caitlin is incredibly fair and reasonable in her perspectives on society. Perhaps my favourite example is her chapter on porn. Caitlin makes a very important distinction between porn, or the act of watching two people have sex, and the porn industry. There is, as Caitlin believes, a world of difference between the two. There is nothing inherently wrong with enjoying sex and even wanting to watch two people who are attracted to each other bump uglies. It's why romance novels always sell like gangbusters. There is plenty wrong with an industry that objectifies women and presents an unrealistic expectation of sex, relationships and female bodies though. These sorts of distinctions sometimes get lost in the general anger of internet feminism, and perhaps to some people it isn't an important distinction to make, but I think a lot of the feminist blow-back from men is just reactionary responses to issues like this being raised. They feel threatened and attack and before they know it they're yelling about feminists being lesbians or old cat ladies or social outcasts (as though there'd be anything wrong with being those women, I basically fall into two of those three categories) and then huff off to their shitty jobs that pay better than their female co-workers.

What made it a truly wonderful experience, though, was listening to Caitlin read the audiobook herself. I'm a big fan of comedy autobiographies read by the author (I can't even imagine having read Bossypants, it was made for Tina Fey to read out loud) and this is pretty much the same category. Whether it was Caitlin's impersonation of her over-enthusiastic 14 year old self reading diary entries, or her raucous laughter over a memory of her sister or the rising volume as she got angry about the glass ceiling or the ever present expectation that a woman needs to have babies to be complete, it was just the absolute perfect way to experience the book. It was like having an invisible Caitlin Moran following me around all day, commenting on life and love and careers while I drove to work, or caught a bus from uni, or waited in line at the post office. I'd find myself laughing along with her, or nodding along to her argument, or tutting in commiseration about the asshole musician boyfriend she once had. The only downside is that I didn't take any notes on my favourite quotes and parts, which means I can't just quote bomb you all for the final part of the review. But trust me, it's hella quotable.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

How to build a girl Part 2: "I am roughly 7% less virgin now!"

Sorry I'm a little late to the readalong party. I headed home for the weekend for a friend's hens night and what a shock, I was in no position to sit in front of a computer on Sunday. Or Monday.

Some quick housekeeping. Thanks again to the wonderful Emily for hosting, Harper Collins for providing the books and Caitlin Moran for writing it. Also, congrats to Alley on getting hitched over the weekend! You looked beautiful! And now that the apologies and housekeeping is out of the way...

How is everyone? And most importantly, how is everyone enjoying the book?

When we left Johanna last week she had very dramatically decided she had to die. Instead of physically depriving herself of life, she is going to give birth to a new Johanna, a Johanna who is so little like the Johanna of the Scooby Doo incident (who cries on a sanitary napkin to demonstrate the "sheer volumes of sorrow" she feels) that she isn't even called Johanna any more.
"A self-made man" - not of woman born but alchemized, through sheer force of will, by the man himself. This is what I want to be. I want to be a self-made woman. I want to conjure myself out of every sparkling, fast moving thing I can see. I want to be the creator of myself. I'm going to begat myself"
 And with a new identity comes a new name, Dolly Wilde, named after Oscar Wilde's lesbian/alcoholic/dead scandalous niece. Which I actually really like the sound of, although that might have just been because the other options were Laurel Canyon, Kitten Lithium and Belle Jar.

And with the new name comes a new image. Dolly wears heavy eyeliner and lipstick, dresses head to toe in black and holds her hair on top of her head with biros. She tries to join the tiny goth population in town but fails the interview process. Unfairly if you ask me because quirks about being"goth-curious" and trying to confuse people with jazz are winning strategies in my book.

It's okay Johanna/Dolly. You're too good to hang out at man on 'is 'oss

And with a new name and image comes a new identity. Johanna does what perhaps all teen girls do at one point or another, they plaster their wall with pictures of things they love and things they want to be. Sometimes these pictures have the double incentive of hiding the hole that appeared during the secret party you hosted at 16, but mostly they're there because just saying you love something never seems enough. Johanna is a little different in that she doesn't really know any of the people she's sticking on her wall, but she knows that lead away from Johanna and towards Dolly and a career in music. This is perhaps especially evident as she moons over a picture of Lenin.
"I don't know exactly what he went on to do, but I do know that he looks hot here, all brown eyes, natty scarf, and floppy hair. No one this handsome could be that bad, surely"
But of course the transition doesn't happen immediately. She gets shade thrown at her by her mum who is a real asshole, calling her a big black cow and snarking about sausage rolls. She isn't automatically accepted by the goths or the record shop folk. And her brothers just don't seem to grasp how momentous this whole thing is. But she strives forward, with her trade-mark enthusiasm and sass...even if it usually is mostly internalised sass and enthusiasm.

Case in point one - After feeling like she doesn't belong in the record shop she exclaims (in her mind) that she doesn't care:
 "I have regular, fulfilling sex with a hairbrush, and am the bastard son of a bastard son of Bredan Behan. They will all rue the day. Eventually."
 Case in point two - when he mother tells her she's changed while bleaching her moustache she beautifully replies:
"Yes. I've decided the Indie Hitler look wasn't going to work for me, after all."
Now kids, I'm not advocating you sass your parents. But if you do, aim high at Johanna's level of sass. It beats the hell out of "you don't even know me!" and slammed doors.

Perhaps the most important part of the reinvention though is the music. It might have started out as something to latch onto, anything to latch on to, but music is already having a pretty profound effect on Johanna/Dolly ( I really need to decide what to call her). The first time she listens to John Peel she is so terrified of the speed metal that she hide the radio under a pile of clothes after being convinced it's summoning demons outside her window. As the girlfriend of someone who listens to metal on the regular, I can say with some authority that that is still my reaction. *shudders*

But once she experiments with every band and style she can hire from the library she starts to really experience the music. All of Moran's quotes about music are so freakin' on point. I mean, they completely describe these moments in my adolescence when I heard a band and just experienced these crazy wooooshes of emotion and catharsis and jolts of understanding. 90s grunge/alternative/indie rock is my genre of music, so reading about Johanna's reaction to Hole and My Bloody Valentine, The Manic Street Preachers, Riot Grrrl... That is my past, present and future. I understand Johanna as she describes some of the music as being like a train driving straight through you and doing "mad, fast, cold circuits around your veins". I went through that same moment of clarity when I realised that girls could be as bad-ass in bands as boys.
"hearing women singing about themselves - rather than men singing about women - makes everything seem wonderfully clear, and possible"
   I know exactly how it feels to put yourself together through the music you listen to.

It wasn't a particularly turbulent section, other than a few fights and awkward interactions here and there, so I think we can probably expect some things to go wrong for Johanna soon. I'm guessing her mum isn't going to let go of her leaving school quite so easily, and the stuff with her dad's band is guaranteed to get murky. And maybe, since she's officially off to gigs and interviewing bands, Johanna is going to barrel straight into having sex with someone, get what she's always dreamed of and's actually not what she actually wanted after all.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Movie Trailer: Hector and the Search for Happiness (2014)

This movie looks like it maybe borders into Eat, Pray, Love 'travelling is inspirational, look at me smile at the tiny child and dance like no one is watching' territory, but I have a crazy amount of love for Simon Pegg (and a lot of the cast, hot damn) so I am willing to forgive a little bit sentimentality for a film with him as the lead.

It's based on a book by a French psychologist, Fran├žois Lelord, and I am actually really interested to read it now. Wikipedia says that the book is:
"on psychology written for ordinary readers; it tells the story of Hector, a psychiatrist, who travels around the world in search of what it is that makes people happy. The book is written in a simple, humorous style, and gives psychological advice and thought-provoking impulses without even touching dry theory"
I love psychology and specifically created an honours project that let me tie it in to film analysis, but it can be dry as hell. So huzzah for Lelord writing for the layman!

Book Review: Landline by Rainbow Rowell


Written by: Rainbow Rowell

Published: 2014

Synopsis: Georgie McCool knows her marriage is in trouble. That it’s been in trouble for a long time. She still loves her husband, Neal, and Neal still loves her, deeply — but that almost seems besides the point now.

Maybe that was always besides the point.

Two days before they’re supposed to visit Neal’s family in Omaha for Christmas, Georgie tells Neal that she can’t go. She’s a TV writer, and something’s come up on her show; she has to stay in Los Angeles. She knows that Neal will be upset with her — Neal is always a little upset with Georgie — but she doesn’t expect to him to pack up the kids and go home without her.

When her husband and the kids leave for the airport, Georgie wonders if she’s finally done it. If she’s ruined everything.

That night, Georgie discovers a way to communicate with Neal in the past. It’s not time travel, not exactly, but she feels like she’s been given an opportunity to fix her marriage before it starts . . .

Is that what she’s supposed to do?

Or would Georgie and Neal be better off if their marriage never happened?

“He kissed her like he was drawing a perfectly straight line. He kissed her in India ink.”

Every time I finish a Rainbow Rowell novel I try to rank them, from favourite to most favourite. Do I love the 90s rom-com quality of Attachments best? The Harry Potter slash fic in Fangirl? The beauty of Eleanor and Park finding themselves in each other? But each time I try and come to a conclusion I realise how impossible a feat it is. I love all of them and all the parts that make them so similar and so different.

When I finished Landline I had the same internal discussion. Ultimately I came to same decision, but just for a moment I thought "yes, I think perhaps this is my favourite". Like the others it made my heart both ache and well with happiness. Like the earlier three novels, the characters are wonderfully flawed and live off the page. But unlike the other novels, this one isn't about new love. It's about a love that's gone through the whirlwind phase and is in danger of evaporating. It's the potential future for all of the characters from the previous three books, and that is why I thought, for a hot minute, that this might be my favourite Rainbow Rowell novel.

Because of this I felt like this novel was more depressing, more bound in sadness. But that's really standard for a Rowell novel. No one in her novels has had an easy life, they're insular, outside the ebb and flow of regular society. And then they find that thing, that person, that makes all of that loneliness vanish. But everything in this novel is flipped on its head. The characters still start the novel feeling separate from the rest of the world, but they aren't lacking love and they aren't lacking a clear direction. They have careers and a family and they've been together for nearly 20 years. So after three novels of falling in love with characters who fall madly in love just as Georgie and Neal did, Landline makes you question everything you've previously read. If Georgie and Neal didn't have enough love to keep things together, does that mean Eleanor and Park are doomed? That Beth and Lincoln will tread the same path to unhappiness?

In spite of this, this is still undeniably a Rainbow Rowell novel. They may be having problems, but things aren't hopeless. Or at least, Georgie is willing to try and make what seems hopeless right again. And in a way, there's a typical Rainbow book within the atypical Rainbow book. After a separation (Neal takes the kids to visit his mum in Omaha for Christmas, Georgie stays in LA to work on a life-changing career opportunity) Georgie tries to get in contact with Neal, to fix their fractured marriage. But what she actually finds is a link to the past. Her mother's home line links not to the Omaha of 2014 but Omaha 17 years earlier, when Neal had returned home after breaking up with her the first time. In this part of the novel, with older Georgie talking to younger Neal, we get our more traditional Rainbow novel. We hear about how they fell in love, the madness and inescapability of it. We see them navigate each other cautiously, we see them bounce off each other and rub each other the wrong way. You end up with that silly smile that you always get when you read a Rainbow novel. You sigh over her innate ability to write about moments that seem like they should be impossible to write. You fall in love with the love she draws on the page.
“Neal didn't take Georgie's breath away. Maybe the opposite. But that was okay--that was really good, actually, to be near someone who filled your lungs with air.”
Then there's the other part of the novel. Where everything you've read is thrown into question. Yes their young love is beautiful and sigh-inducing. But is it realistic? Is it sustainable?                                                        
         “You don't know when you're twenty-three. 
You don't know what it really means to crawl into someone else's life and stay there. You can't see all the ways you're going to get tangled, how you're going to bond skin to skin. How the idea of separating will feel in five years, in ten - in fifteen. When Georgie thought about divorce now, she imagined lying side by side with Neal on two operating tables while a team of doctors tried to unthread their vascular systems.
She didn't know at twenty-three.”
I loved Rainbow before, but I think I love her even more now. It's as though Landline has added a new dimension to her writing which not only transformed this book into something magnificent, but retrospectively added a whole new side to her previous books too. More than anything though, it makes me unbelievably excited to see where she goes next.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Ninja Book Swap: Summer (ahem, winter) edition

I took part in another instalment of the Ninja book swap this year, and as usual it was really, really brilliant. I was spoiled with not one but two packages. I always love putting together the packages for people, choosing the books off their list (ones that either I know and love, or am desperate to read myself) and then finding the perfect little gifts to accompany the books. Notepads and pens and chocolates and tea. And, I'm not going to lie, I also quite like coming home to a package of books and gifts on my doorstep too!

Package number 1 came from Bernadette of The Bumbling Bookworm (@BumbleBookworm) who is also from Australia. She bought me shiny new copies of Tom Perrotta's The Leftovers and Emma Donoghue's Kissing the Witch. PLUS she got me a fancy cat notebook (How do you like meow?) and some dinosaur rubbers. I feel quite spoiled indeed.

Package 2 came all the way from merry ol' England from Louise of Yellow Highway Lines (@Thisandyou). She sent me Michel Faber's Under the Skin, some crayons (I can't even explain how excited I am to have frickin' crayons in my house again!), an owl notebook, MORE dinosaur rubbers (and a little rhino guy) and a bunch of fantastic postcards. They are the greatest.

I did a bit of a clean up of my wishlist before I submitted it for the bookswap, but I was hoping above all hopes that I would get The Leftovers and Under the Skin in my packages. So obviously Louise and Bernadette are mind-readers, beautiful, wonderful, amazing mind-readers. The Leftovers, TV edition, has just started, so I'm going to read the book before I watch the show. And Under the Skin, the movie starring Scarlett Johansson, is supposed to be supurb, so here's hoping it's merely following the lead of the book that gave it life.

So a huge thank you to Louise and Bernadette for being so generous with their packages, and a cheery hug and thank you to Hanna and Bex for being the brilliant organisers of the event. They'll be back for a Halloween swap, so if you want to take part head over to their twitter so you don't miss out!


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