Like Other Girls – Claire Hennessy

display-77a293ccc54cee3754d2eb8c557acf69I was lucky enough to get an advanced copy of this book, and gobbled it up in a day – but thanks to the unexpected appearance of the wondrous orb of the sun in Irish skies I haven’t been inside with my laptop to tell you about it. The rain is back, so now you get to hear about a book I have wanted to read since I heard the author say what it would be about at DeptCon2 last October.  I knew this would be a YA book that would bring home the reality of the Eight Amendment – I didn’t expect it to do the same for gender identity and mental health, but after reading it I will be recommending it to every teenager I know. (If you’re not Irish and wonder what the Eighth Amendment is, click here.)

“I am a groupless, friendless creature in a sea of chat…”

Lauren has all the usual teenage reasons to feel awkward in her own skin, plus a few more – her mother has become principal of her all-girls school; her classmates don’t know she is bisexual; her boyfriend is a grade A git, and her capacity for critical thinking isn’t exactly going down well with her religious teachers. All this before she faces every teenage girls worst nightmare. Pregnancy with nowhere to turn is always terrible, but in a country with the most restrictive reproductive rights in the EU riddled with misinformation it is horrific. Hennessy does an admirable job of telling Lauren’s story with clarity and dignity. Lauren is a smart, acerbic girl who, while occasionally confused by her sexuality, is never ashamed of it. She is not perfect – and this is what makes her an authentic character. She is not just a cipher on which to hang an ‘issues’ book.

“I have felt trapped in this body since I was 10 years old and discovered that, contrary to the impression that Judy Blume had given me, periods were neither magical nor one-off things that happened to turn you into a woman.”

Aside from one scene (when Lauren is called to the office by her mother to discuss a personal matter, something so out of character it was jarring) this book is close to flawless YA, and excels at capturing the feeling of being different/other/wrong. One of its key strengths is the gradual revelation of many other people who feel just as alienated as Lauren – although for different reasons. Many of Lauren’s darkest moments are when she stays in her room, obsessively pouring over social media; the brightest are when she opens up to those around her. This book is a perfect promotion of the importance of open communication and friendship to mental health. YA is at its best when you know it is shining a beacon of empathy and understanding to young people who feel alone, and we have never had a book that has dealt with the reproductive realities of modern Ireland. Like Other Girls is a book that needed to be written – now it needs to be read!

Like Other Girls is published by Hot Key Books and is available in good bookstores. I received a copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. 

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The Cows by Dawn O’Porter, book review

The CowsAlthough I hadn’t read any other books by Dawn O’Porter, I was delighted to be approached to review it as I loved the sound of a fearlessly frank and funny book about how women don’t have to fall into a stereotype. The story follows three women: Tara, a single mother who makes documentary films in a misogynistic office; Cam, a childfree blogger who documents her life and loves online; and Stella, grieving the loss of her twin sister to breast cancer and facing a decision to have a prophylactic mastectomy. One night, and one very public action, creates ties that bind the three women together in unexpected ways. Lots of topics we don’t read enough of are discussed in a refreshingly frank way – single motherhood, working moms, choosing to be childfree, online dating, the pressure to conform, fake friendships, female masturbation, public shaming, trolling. It’s a heady list, and the language is realistic rather than po-faced.

First things first – this is a rattling read, clipping along at a great pace and with several laugh out loud moments. There were also a few full body cringes at times, in that delicious way that made The Office so enjoyable to watch. I wish I had read it on holiday (I wish I was on holiday!) because it’d be a great poolside read. I devoured the first half of the book in one evening, and was eager to pick it up the next day. So far so good.

Plotting issues started to become a big problem for me in the second half of the book. Stella’s story escalated from grief to elaborately Machiavellian scheming in a not particularly convincing way. As someone who has invested a lot of money in Fortress Uterus I can assure you it’s not that difficult to get knocked up, she really could have tried shagging around a bit first. Jason went from the usual level of unrealistic you can expect from a leading man (so handsome, so kind, so loyal, so amazing in bed and yet waiting for true love, so wealthy but so grounded etc etc) to just a bit of an idiot. Nevermind that is not in any way realistic that this guy would be consistently dumped by stone-cold career women when he says he wants a family (seriously, he is what every single woman I know is actively trying to meet). Are we really supposed to believe he was the only person in the UK if not the world to have seen the endless twitter, tabloid, TV, newspaper coverage of Walthamstow Wank Woman? And the biggest problem for me – Cam. This book was so baffled at what to do with an independent, successful, sexually active, loved, and childfree by choice woman that *SPOILERS after the jump!*
Continue reading “The Cows by Dawn O’Porter, book review”

Books by Women (for International Women’s Day)

It’s International Women’s Day, and to celebrate it Rick O’Shea started a little experiment in his book club* this morning – asking us to pick one book by a woman, past or present, that you absolutely, positively, definitely think should be read by someone wanting to read more by women authors, and share it on social media. I failed spectacularly at picking just one, so it’s gonna have to be a blog post!

International Women’s Day celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievement of women. Yet progress has slowed in many places across the world, so global action is needed to accelerate gender parity. In the European Union in 2016, the number of extra days a woman must work to match the amount of money earned by men in the previous year was 67. Ireland, my country, has a constitution that enshrines a woman’s place as being in the home; has an abysmally low conviction rate for rape and sexual assault, and some of the most restrictive abortion legislation in the EU. Contraception was illegal in Ireland until 1980, when it was legalised only with strong restrictions – all firmly pro-birth, not pro-life, as the catalogue of horrors inflicted on women and children in laundries and Mother and Baby ‘Homes’ proves. Last week’s sickening discovery that 796 babies were dumped in a septic tank in one of these ‘Homes’ in Tuam, is horrifying not only for the barbarity of the act itself but because this happened in our time, our parents time. This is a recent darkness – the last Magdalene laundry only closed in 1996. This International Women’s Day we should all remember Gloria Steinem’s words “The future depends entirely on what each of us does every day; a movement is only people moving.” We all need to use our voices to stand up for women, to speak the truth even if our voices shake.

For-most-of-history-Anonymous-was-a-woman

I love Rick’s experiment for this very reason – women’s words are important. Women’s work is important. Women’s health is important. Women are important. Here are some books by women that I think everyone should read. Happy International Women’s Day.

FICTION:

handmaids taleThe Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

A searing speculative fiction about totalitarianism, this is one of the few books I can definitively state changed the way I see the world. Vivid and terrifying – and uncomfortably plausible. “That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn’t even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn’t even an enemy you could put your finger on”

paradiseParadise by Toni Morrison

A brilliant portrayal of race and gender spanning the 1960s and 70s, Paradise begins with the brutal attack on a group of young women in a convent near an all-black town, and unpicks the events leading up to it through the interior lives of the citizens of the town. “They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time. No need to hurry out here. They are 17 miles from a town which has 90 miles between it and any other. Hiding places will be plentiful in the Convent, but there is time and the day has just begun.”

needleworkNeedlework by Deirdre Sullivan

Irish writing is having a bit of a moment, and Deirdre Sullivan is an unmistakably authentic voice who deserves more recognition.  Needlework is beautiful, painful and full of things we need to be aware of. I can’t talk about this book without raving about it, so here’s a more thoughtful review I made earlier.

wideWide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

A must read for fans of Jane Eyre, this book gives a voice to Bronte’s ‘madwoman in the attic’. Antoinette Cosway, a white Creole heiress, marries Mr. Rochester… and is slowly driven mad, a madness arising from her voice being silenced, and others speaking for her. Moody, introspective, and sad – “There are always two deaths, the real one and the one people know about.”

buddha atticThe Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

So beautifully written it hurts, this book, spanning the years between WWI and WWII tells the story of a group of Japanese ‘picture brides’, who travel to America speaking no English clutching pictures of husbands-to-be they knew nothing about. The use of collective voice makes their stories all the more heartbreaking: “We forgot about Buddha. We forgot about God. We developed a coldness inside us that still has not thawed. I fear my soul has died. We stopped writing home to our mothers. We lost weight and grew thin. We stopped bleeding. We stopped dreaming. We stopped wanting.”

NON-FICTION:

beauyThe Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf

Smart and righteously angry, this book examines the beauty industry and the rise of a social control based on appearance that is just as oppressive and damaging as traditional roles trapped within the home, showing that the beauty myth is always prescribing behaviour, not appearance. “A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.”

sexual politicsThe Sexual Politics of Meat by Carol J Adams

The idea of meat as a macho food is overt, and this book looks at the interplay between contemporary society’s ingrained cultural misogyny and its obsession with meat and masculinity. This is a truly seminal work for me – while I don’t agree with all of Adams’ ideas, this is an important and provocative book that has inspired and enraged across the political spectrum for more than 25 years. “Feminist-vegetarian activity declares that an alternative worldview exists, one which celebrates life rather than consuming death; one which does not rely on resurrected animals but empowered people.”

wild swansWild Swans by Jung Chang

This book has it all – if it were fiction it would be an impossibly perfect story, this is utterly unforgettable and one of the few books I would call a masterpiece. Through three generations of Chinese women – a grandmother who was given to a warlord as a concubine, her communist mother, and the daughter herself – we encounter bravery, love, hope, nightmarish cruelty, the will to survive, and an understanding of the epic sweep of China’s twentieth century. “As a child, my idea of the West was that it was a miasma of poverty and misery, like that of the homeless ‘Little Match Girl’ in the Hans Christian Andersen story. When I was in the boarding nursery and did not want to finish my food, the teacher would say: ‘Think of all the starving children in the capitalist world!”

* The Rick O’Shea Book Club is the nicest corner of the internet, and Ireland’s largest online book club with almost 6000 members. Each month, Rick (the Book Warrior!) recommends two books for us to read (see our previous choices here), but the conversation ranges far beyond those selections and the meet-ups, author interviews and blind book swaps are always brilliant. Want to join the club? Just head over to Facebook, and be prepared for your TBR pile to just grow and grow!

 

Hunting Girls- Book Review

 

oliverKelly Oliver’s Hunting Girls: Sexual Violence from The Hunger Games to Campus Rape certainly has an interesting premise. Written by an eminent feminist philosopher (currently Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University) it looks at popular culture’s fixation on representing young women as predators and prey and the implication that violence (especially sexual violence) is an inevitable, part of feminine coming of age. I came to this book with high hopes for its content.

 “Why do we find violent pubescent girls killing animals, humans, and the occasional vampire, so appealing? Is this equal opportunity killing?… Killing, instead of loving, animals has become the emblem of girl power. Just as girls are hunted and attacked with relish in these films, our heroines displace that patriarchal violence onto their animal prey”.

The first sections of the book examines several popular movies/franchises in light of violence perpetrated by the heroines and upon them, particularly by their romantic partners. The discussion of the symbolism of hunting provide the most interesting sections of the book. However, despite going over the plot of The Hunger Games (trilogy), the movie Hanna, and a few fairly random name checks and one liners (Merida from Brave has a bow!), it all feels a bit hollow. The best of the points she makes were made by Carol J Adams in The Sexual Politics of Meat over twenty years ago.

In the final section of the book, Oliver refocuses on the real world, particularly through the growing prevalence of campus rape in the United States. As an educator, Oliver obviously has strong views about sexual violence on campuses and who is responsible for this culture – to the point she loses objectivity. She ‘name drops’ the Hunting Ground documentary in a way that I was not comfortable with – reducing these real women to more archetypes for analysis. I am not a fan of trigger warnings, but Oliver is extremely dismissive of the need to provide safe spaces for survivors of assault. While I agree with her that there needs to be discussion and debate around the causes of rape culture, I disagree that victims of sexual assault cannot be simultaneously protected and respected.

 I found this book disappointing on a number of levels. Close to the end of the book Oliver states “we should focus on the ways in which girl power in these films is also the result of girls and women bonding together to nurture and protect each other”. I’m going to set aside my utter loathing for the phrase ‘girl power’ for a moment and agree with this. So, if Oliver believes this why didn’t she do that, rather than tearing apart these characters, encouraging the reader to look at them through a violent male gaze instead? That there is a significant issue with the packaging of female suffering as entertainment there is no doubt – but this book is an unrelentingly negative attack on the majority of strong female characters in the past ten years. Which is helpful how? The recasting of these YA heroines as new Disney princesses is gimmicky and doesn’t work (Bella Swan and Edward as Beauty and the Beast anyone? Anyone? No, me neither).  It’s also disappointing that she focuses on the flattened film versions of more complex book series, not least because this insures she is speaking about white women and girls when she talks about women and girls.

 Oliver’s point seems to be that a lack of consent is something prevalent and reinforced by popular culture – which is a bit of a ‘no shit Sherlock’ conclusion to come to. I expected Hunting Girls to be an analysis of, and perhaps a suggested response to, rape culture. Instead this book concludes that yes, there is indeed a rape culture, and lack of consent as a virtue has been around for as long as the Sleeping Beauty myth has. In essence, Hunting Girls is a journal article stretched into a (short) book, shorter again if we take out the plot summaries of several movie franchises that bulk out the first two-thirds of the book. This pop culture analysis, while sometimes entertaining, doesn’t mesh with the campus rape discussion in the latter third of the book at all. While some of the points raised are interesting, I felt this book left a lot to be desired.

Hunting Girls: Sexual Violence from The Hunger Games to Campus Rape by Kelly Oliver is published by Columbia University Press and is available in bookstores now. I received a copy of this book in exchange for an impartial review.

 

 

From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers

BeastI have been a huge fan of Marina Warner since I first read No Go, the Bogeyman, a history (as the subtitle would have it) of ‘scaring, lulling and making mock’ which explored the dark realms of ogres, giants and other figures of male terror. From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers was written prior to that, and is widely regarded as a landmark study of the history and meaning of fairy tales, but I have only gotten to it now.

 Warner is an exceptional academic writer, and wears her learning lightly. Unfortunately its density makes it difficult to do justice to in a short review, given that it ranges across several centuries of fairy tales (or ‘wonder tales’) and the cultural context from which they sprang. Although the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson, and Charles ‘I even got a Google Doodle’ Perrault are the famous tellers of fairy-tales, it comes as no surprise that the dearth of women in this cannon is merely the result of masculine appropriation of stories that were told, retold and shaped by women. Unlike the majority of fairy tale studies, Warner is not here for psychoanalysis but rather to illuminate the tellers of these tales and then reattach those tales to their historical context.

 The book is divided into two sections ‘The Tellers’ and ‘The Tales’. In the first we learn much about how female voices and wisdom were perceived in the Christian west, including how old woman began to be denigrated to crones as they carried secret knowledge about sex, contraception and abortion while simultaneously Saint Anne, mother of Mary, became ever more venerated. In one of many fascinating asides Warner unpacks the etymology of ‘gossip’ – from the Old English godsibb meaning ‘godparent’ (in Old English sibb could mean kinship, relationship, love, friendship, peace, happiness’ while sibling meant any relative or kinsman); to the c.1300 meaning of “familiar acquaintance, friend, neighbour – especially women friends invited to attend a birth” to the 1560s meaning of “anyone engaging in idle talk”. Continue reading “From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers”

How to be a Heroine: Or what I’ve learned from reading too much

heroinecoverI’m a bit at a loss as to what to say about this book. In a weird way I hated it. Who is this Samantha Ellis person and how dare she take an idea I had never really had, but feel like I should have because it’s brilliant, and then run with it to produce something bloody wonderful? It’s really just too bad. But seriously – I can’t imagine any woman, of any age, who enjoys reading not loving this.

Part literary criticism, part memoir, the book starts with the author debating literature with her best friend, and coming to the slightly sickening revelation that all her life she’s wanted to be Cathy Earnshaw, when really she should have been trying to be Jane Eyre. (No idea how she ever wanted to be Cathy. I was named after Cathy Earnshaw, and so I should have wanted to be like her. Until I read the book myself and realised that although I loved the book I kind of hated Cathy and thought Heathcliff was a sadistic lunatic. The whole thing was neurotic, not erotic #TeamHareton).

Ellis grew up in a tight knit Iraqi Jewish community, and read voraciously looking for – not exactly friends, or reflections of herself – but alternative, aspirational versions of herself, new blueprints for behaviours. Realising she’s made a poor choice of heroine sparks her decision to reread her favourite books of the past and reappraise the heroines that shaped her as she grew. Along the way, she comes to the realisation that “all readings are provisional, and that maybe we read heroines for what we need from them at the time”. And it is lovely to visit old friends along with her – Anne Shirley is probably my first heroine, although she dwindled into her adulthood. Emily Starr never failed me however, and it’s through this book I learned just how autobiographical the Emily books were for LM Montgomery. Little Women, Pride and Prejudice, Gone with the Wind, and the many wonderful books of Judy Blume are just some of the old favourites revisited here, and it’s wildly enjoyable to go back and hang out with old friends with her.

A lot of the charm of this book is tied to the nostalgia factor. It’s much harder to enjoy lengthy thoughts and analysis on books you have never read, and further more based on what you are reading about them will never, ever choose to read. About a third of the book falls into this category for me, so perhaps your enjoyment of this book is directly proportional to what you have read yourself. It is also somewhat problematic to read judgements of characters so heavily focused on their relationships with men, when all of the biography included in the book shows just how profoundly Ellis herself is effected by the marriage plot. She says that she is panicking because her life isn’t progressing smoothly towards a happy ending, although her younger self took to books as a way of escaping the happy ending her family had planned out for her.

These are minor quibbles though, from a book that reaffirms how we all have the power to become the heroine of our own lives. “All my heroines, yes, even the Little Mermaid, even poor dull listless Sleeping Beauty, have given me this sense of possibility. They made me feel I wasn’t forced to live out the story my family wanted for me, that I wasn’t doomed to plod forward to a fate predetermined by God, that I didn’t need to be defined by my seizures, or trapped in fictions of my own making, or shaped by other people’s stories. That I wanted to write my own life.” This is a shelf-help book that will help you become the reader, and the person, you always wanted to be. Go read it. Now.

Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism – book review

DollsDivided into two sections ‘The New Sexism’ and the ‘The New Determinism’, Natasha Walter’s Living Dolls is a highly readable  call to arms written at a crucial moment in women’s history. Simone de Beauvoir once wrote “[t]he little girl cuddles her doll and dresses her up as she dreams of being cuddled and dressed up herself; inversely, she thinks of herself as a marvellous doll”. Walter’s use of this quote in this book is telling – this is an exposé of systematic societal programming and of the capitalist packaging of female agency so successful that feminism has been rebranded.

 The book opens in a UK club called Mayhem, where an open contest for glamour models is being held. The contestants strip and pose suggestively on a bed while a male DJ decides which woman has received the biggest cheers from the baying crowd. It’s 2007, and Walter – a supporter of sexual liberation – begins unpacking how this ‘liberation’ has turned so quickly back to objectification and oppression.  One of the prostitutes interviewed in the book blames feminism for her situation saying “I believed what everyone said, that all this promiscuous sex was so empowering”. Observing how the women walking through the doors opened by feminism are now funnelled into by a hypersexualised culture into a narrow definition of possibility where “being sexy and using the power of your sexiness is the one kind of power that women are sanctioned to exploit”, Walter successfully debunks the popular myths of ‘empowerment’ and ‘choice’ built into contemporary narratives of pole/lap dancing and glamour modelling as careers by speaking to women who are living those choices.

 There is a great deal of overlap with Ariel Levy’s excellent Female Chauvinist Pigs here, and it is in these overlapping sections dealing with the pornification of culture, albeit from a UK perspective, that Walter is strongest. In fact it’s a quote from Levy’s book that best sums up what Living Dolls articulates throughout “Sex appeal has become a synecdoche for all appeal”. It is not without its weaknesses – the focus is entirely heterosexual. Walter is also too quick to shy away from class issues, even when one lap dancer observes “[t]he men in there are respectable, they are in suits, they have bank accounts; the women are not respectable, they are naked, they have debts”.  However it is still an excellent introductory text for young women on modern-day feminism, and you should give it to your friends, daughters, and perhaps most importantly, your sons.