Women of the Hour

I don’t think I will ever get bored of talking about womanhood. It is my safe space, on and offline. Listening to other women’s experiences helps me to make sense of my own, of struggles I am included in, as well as those I am not.

I rarely feel this more keenly than when I am listening to Lena Dunham’s Women of the Hour podcast. Every week Dunham presents a different theme – friendship, work, sex and being trapped are some examples – and invites a variety of smart women to talk with her about it.

This show is honest, funny, painful and absolutely not, as I have seen it described ‘Girls in podcast form.’ Girls is a show built on satire, while Women on the Hour is all about sincerity.

To state a controversial opinion, I don’t believe Dunham deserves 90% of the shit she gets (the other 10%, I have to allow, but I don’t really think she messes up more than the average narcissist with a Twitter account (so, most users)). My arguments in favour of Lena Dunham are as follows:

  1. She is wildly, frequently and – I think – deliberately misquoted. As someone who has read her memoir multiple times (review here), I have had many frustrating arguments with people who haven’t about its contents. All this without even mentioning the ‘voice of a generation’ thing – a joke from the first season of Girls widely attributed as Dunham’s opinion of her work that she herself has accepted will likely be etched on her tombstone. Before judging Dunham – actually before judging anyone – please read the essay, listen to the interview or watch the show in question. The source material they provide will often give you a better idea of a person than clickbait designed for outraged sharing.
  2. I find it strange that in the television business, which is, let’s face it, mostly white men giving jobs to other white men, it is Lena Dunham who is held responsible for the diversity problem. Let’s be clear, we need all TV to look like Shondaland (if only), we need different voices and groups to be represented. The fault of the total whitewashing of TV however, lies with the majority of producers, directors and screenwriters (i.e. the white men) rather than Lena Dunham.
  3. Lena Dunham would get away with so much more if she was a man. The main reason she gets shit for her radical honesty, her open emotions and her mistakes is that she’s a woman. In a landscape overwhelmed with stories written by narcissistic men, one told by a narcissistic woman is jarring. Because she is – or she was, at the time Girls first came out, which was, let’s remember four years ago – one of few such amplified young female voices, she was given the task of representing everyone, an impossibility for anyone, let alone a bohemian rich white girl from New York. Male screenwriters like Josh Radnor and Dan Harmon – who are, for some reason, only ever expected to represent themselves – can spill their emotions all over screen, tie them up neatly with a joke and be considered great writers. If Lena Dunham does the same thing she is a selfish naval gazer with nothing better to do than obsess about herself. When men write introspective satire its art, when women do it, it’s considered self-indulgence. The response to Dunham’s entire career thus far demonstrates this.

Rant over. Or paused, anyway.

After every episode of Women of the Hour, I have to dedicate a morning to googling the work of every woman interviewed. Shows so far have introduced me to so many women whose work I am now such a fan of. Janet Mock, the writer and trans activist, Ashley C. Ford, a journalist who writes so beautifully it makes me want to cry, hug her and bash my own head against a wall (because I will never, in all my days, be as talented) all at once, Mindie Lind, a singer-song writer with no legs who rides around on a skateboard and Anastasia and Alba Somoza, disability activists who have campaigned for their whole lives for people with disabilities to get equal access to mainstream education.

Also, Gina Rodriguez was on it one time, and she was every bit as delightful as you would imagine.

Just listen to the show. The only way to judge Dunham’s work is to experience it yourself. Most of what is written about her is wrong.

After Alice

When Alice fell down the rabbit hole, she found Wonderland as rife with inconsistent rules and abrasive egos as the world she left behind. But how did Victorian Oxford react to Alice’s disappearance?

Gregory Maguire turns his imagination to the question of underworlds, undergrounds, underpinnings – and understandings old and new, offering an inventive spin on Carroll’s enduring tale. Ada, a friend mentioned briefly in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, sets out to visit Alice but arrives a moment too late. Tumbling down the rabbit hole herself, she embarks on an odyssey to find Alice and bring her safely home from this surreal world below the world.

after-alice

After Alice, by Gregory Maguire, is one of the best retellings I have ever read. Rather than modernize the story and strip it of some of its more bizarre elements as so many authors do, Maguire has crafted a novel that is intricately woven with its source material. He echoes Carroll’s frenetic writing style, creating something that feels authentically 19th century but also somehow anachronistic – as I suppose a 19th century novel written by a 21st century author couldn’t help but be. In Maguire’s take, Wonderland becomes self-aware.

What I liked most about the book – and I liked it even more for it not being included in the blurb – was the early revelation that Ada has some kind of physical disability. In typical 19th century style, she is described in pretty monstrous terms by the governess who despises her.

‘Ada Boyce, a child parcelled out by a lapse in heaven’s supervision, as far as Miss Armstrong was concerned. The guarded eye in that child. That torso. When other girls of Ada’s age were gleeful English roses on swaying stems, Ada was a glum, spastic heifer. Sooner or later she’d require a wheeled chair.’

While most people – with the exception of Alice – react to Ada with disgust and fear, in general, those she meets in Wonderland are indifferent to her disability. In fact, Maguire immediately sets up Wonderland as a place where Ada can exist without shame. In an attempt to ‘cure’ her, Ada’s parents make her wear an iron corset, a ‘penitential vest intended to tame the crookedness in her spine.’ As she tumbles down the hole that leads to Wonderland, the corset springs open and falls away. Not exactly subtle, but you get Maguire’s point. You can be yourself in Wonderland.

Maguire takes this a step further when Siam, another character, finds himself in Wonderland. Siam spent much of his childhood as a slave, and even after abolition lived in constant fear of recapture until his guardian, Mr Winter, brought him to England – where people consider slavery wrong but are still totally racist – to keep him ‘safe’. Siam has lost his entire family, and with them, his hope for the future. It probably goes without saying that 19th century England isn’t doing much to restore that hope. He chooses to remain in Wonderland, forever.

After Alice is a book preoccupied with childhood. All of its young protagonists find the adult world intruding on their lives. Siam was enslaved, his childhood stolen from him. Alice and her sister, Lydia’s ended on the day their mother died, and their father vanished into his grief. Ada is denied it by a society that rejects her before she even has the chance to participate in it.

Lydia – as much a villain of the piece as Ada’s governess, Miss Armstrong – is an interesting example of this. She is one of the most complex characters in the book. She’s an unreliable narrator and she veers as dizzyingly between adult and childhood as she does monstrous and sympathetic. At fifteen, she wants all the freedoms of an adult and the privileges of a child. She resents having to watch Alice (which leads her to be inattentive which leads Alice to fall into Wonderland) now that her mother is gone almost as much as she resents Alice herself for being the younger child. For being the one who can experience grief without responsibility.

After Alice is a beautifully written, richly layered book. It is absolutely perfect for anybody looking to take another trip to Wonderland.

‘The Jabberwock flexed its wings and circled above the crowd in the courtroom, snatching a sleeping dormouse into its open maw, but the dormouse simply dropped through and landed into a barrister’s starched wig, snoring all the while. Ada thought, Is that all that happens by walking into the mouth of doom?’

Why Do We Force Ourselves Through Books?

For the past few weeks, I have been trying to read On the Road, by Jack Kerouac. I do not like it. It’s racist, misogynist and… really boring. And yet every time I finish another book, I shame myself into picking it up again.

This book is one of the great examples of American literature. Smart people have said that it’s good. It’s one of those books that people turn to when they are looking for The Answers. It’s the kind of thing the popular kids on my literature degree (that I never got along with) thought was amazing.

So if I don’t like it, what does that say about me?

Please tell me that I’m not the only one to have found herself embroiled in the midst of a book-related shame spiral?

It’s not my first time – it’s not even my first time with this particular book. I tried to read it back when I was in high school and couldn’t get through it then, either.

It comes down to having been taught by society (and specifically, university education) that there is a difference between high and low art. High art is all about ideas and intellectualism whereas low art is pure entertainment. These distinctions – in addition to being pointless, because surely any decent book is a blend of both elements? – so far as I can tell anyway, don’t have much to do with the work itself so much as its readership.

It’s an unmistakably gendered thing. A man can write a book about a relationship and have it considered literary, but if a woman does the same thing, her work is reduced to ‘chick-lit’, shoved in the low stakes section of the shop for women readers only.

From when we’re first learning to read, we’re taught that while girls can certainly read books typically aimed toward boys, boys will never read ‘girl books’. In fact, as Caroline Paul, author of Gutsy Girls: Escapades for Your Life of Epic Adventure pointed out in her brilliant article for TED, we teach young boys that if books aren’t specifically about them, they are excluded from them altogether. Obviously, this is incredibly problematic.

This is so relevant to YA, of course, a grouping of books disproportionately written and read by women. As we all know, YA is subjected to an endless series of attacks, accused of mindlessness, pandering and irrelevance by people who think that its readers should instead be investing their money in a much more traditional ‘literary’ library.

It’s an attitude backed up by popular culture, where some of our favourite TV bookworms only read the classics. It happened, but it was rare to see Rory Gilmore reading anything that wasn’t written by a twentieth century white man.

This is where my need to read Jack Kerouac – and give myself severe book burnout trying – comes from. Sometimes (and I kind of hate myself for it) I feel like I can only be considered a ‘legitimate’ bookworm when I’ve got through the (essentially endless) list of books that the (probably imaginary) Smart People read. Despite the fact that I read ten times the amount of books the average person did last year (though, I have realised since I started this, WAY less than the average book blogger (I like TV OKAY?!)), I still feel somewhat inadequate because not enough of them were this thing that I have already decided (so called ‘high art’) is meaningless.

Sigh.

My feminist, YA loving brain is telling me to throw the damn book out the window, but my academically programmed brain (which is dealing with, let’s face it, a good deal of internalised misogyny – what else would make my want to read a book – a ‘respected’ piece of literature – in which women are totally reviled) is protesting.

It’s so stupid.

I believe in the importance of reading widely – from all genres, from authors all over the world, of all genders, sexualities, abilities, languages… I could do on.

But what I no longer believe in is reading racist misogynist assholes just because someone said they were high culture.

I think it’s time to strike On The Road from the TBR. I’d much rather read about brave women saving the world that ‘smart’ men abandoning them alone in the desert.

Some questions

What was the last book you had to force yourself through, and why did you do it?

What do you consider to be a ‘legitimate bookworm’?

Have you read and HATED any critically acclaimed, classic and respected books? I’d love to hear about them (I also couldn’t stand Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and The Unbearable Lightness of Being #sorrynotsorry).

And finally, have you experienced any of the feelings I just talked about? Or am I just a crazy insecure bookworm all by myself?

 

The Hating Game

NEMESIS (n.)

  1. an opponent of rival whom a person cannot best or overcome
  2. a person’s undoing
  3. Joshua Templeman

Lucy Hutton has always been certain that the nice girl can get the corner office. She prides herself on being loved by everyone at work – except for imposing, impeccably attired Joshua Templeman.

Trapped in a shared office, they’ve become entrenched in an addictive game of one-upmanship. There;s the Staring Game, The Mirror Game, The HR Game. Lucy can’t let Joshua beat her at anything – especially when a huge promotion is on offer.

If Lucy wins, she’ll be Joshua’s boss. If she loses, she’ll resign. So why is she questioning herself? Maybe she doesn’t hate him. And just maybe, he doesn’t hate her either. 

the-hating-game

I read The Hating Game, by Sally Thorne in one sitting the day after my 24th birthday. I haven’t done that since I finished university. It felt good.

Fellow new adults: I know that every day feels like it has to be some desperate, scrambling attempt to avoid ultimate failure, but what I realised, lying in bed at 1pm reading the final pages of The Hating Game, is that sometimes you have to relax a while on that cliff edge. Whether you do that with a ridiculously sexy book is up to you, but I thoroughly recommend it.

The Hating Game is romantic comedy at its best. Set in the world of publishing – which Nora Ephron taught us is the perfect backdrop for epic romance – we are introduced to Lucy, co-executive assistant to co-CEO Helene Pascal of Bexley & Gamin. There are basically two essential aspects of Lucy.

  1. She’s wanted to work in publishing her whole life and,
  2. She is obsessed with her co-executive assistant, Joshua.

Only a few months before, everything was going according to plan. Gamin publishing house was Lucy’s dream job – granted she wasn’t working in editorial, like she wanted, but everything was going well enough that it wouldn’t be difficult to progress sideways into editorial when the time was right.

But, with the rapid decline of the publishing industry, that time seemed to be getting farther and farther away. It all but disappeared when, in a last ditch attempt to stay open, Gamin joined with Bexley, a competing (and equally financially sunk) publisher. With Bexley came Joshua, and the hating game began.

Spoiler alert: the hating game takes a turn for the sexy.

‘Love and hate are visceral. Your stomach twists at the thought of that person. The heart in your chest beats heavy and bright, nearly visible through your flesh and clothes. Your appetite and sleep are shredded. Every interaction spikes your blood with a dangerous kind of adrenaline, and you’re on the brink of fight or flight. Your body is barely under your control. You’re consumed, and it scares you.’

To be totally honest, for the first three or so chapters of The Hating Game, I thought Lucy was nuts. When I say she is obsessed with Josh, I am not kidding. The girl lives and breathes this man. Sally Thorne manipulates the situation so that you totally believe Lucy’s only two options for dealing with Joshua are to kill him or sleep with him. Fortunately for the reader, Thorne went with the fun option.

Hate turned love (probably more accurately described as love mistaken for hate) is one of my favourite romantic tropes, and Thorne executes it perfectly. Watching Lucy and Josh circle each other keeps you turning the pages hours after you should have gotten out of bed (in my case, anyway). Josh is every inch the moody, sexy, intense but secretly caring guy that you want him to be. He challenges Lucy in all the areas that she needs it, and helps her to grow into a more assertive person. In turn, she teaches him to be less of an asshole.

All I can say is pick a difficult day, clear your schedule and read the book.

Birthday Book Haul

On my birthday (November 9th), I woke up to several messages that looked something like this: ‘Happy Birthday! OH GOD DON’T CHECK THE NEWS!!!’ Despite the good intentions of my friends, as we have all had the horrible experience of learning: Trump is impossible to ignore.

According to every good story ever, hate doesn’t win*. How long are we supposed to wait for that outcome, exactly?

Times like this – like when my country voted for Brexit – it is very easy to feel distant from the rest of humanity, to start seeing the whole thing as nothing more than a mass of hatred and misunderstanding.

This is a bad road to go down. Even though I know that – even though we all do, really – it still feels like a cliff I am forever scrambling up the edge of. For me, the footholds are often my books.

Fortunately for me, on November 9th I acquired some new books. (courtesy of my mum – thanks, mum!)

My reading list for the next few weeks is as follows:

After Alice – Gregory Maguire

after-aliceWhen Alice fell down the Rabbit hole, she found Wonderland as rife with inconsistent rules and abrasive egos as the world she left behind. But how did Victorian Oxford react to Alice’s disappearance? 

Gregory Maguire turns his imagination to the question of underworlds, undergrounds, underpinnings – and understandings old and new, offering an inventive spin on Caroll’s enduring tale. Ada, a friend mentioned briefly in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, sets out to visit Alice but arrives a moment too late. Tumbling down the rabbit hole herself, she embarks on an odyssey to find Alice and bring her safely home from this surreal world below the world. 

 

The Death of the Moth and Other Essays – Virginia Woolf

the-death-of-the-mothA while back I read an essay from this collection called ‘Street Haunting’. It is about that moment when you feel compelled, for no particular reason, to abandon Netflix and wander the cold streets alone, creeping in the windows of random houses and imagining the lives of the strangers living there. This is the sort of thing I do all the time, so I thought I should ask for the book in order to find out what else Virginia and I have in common.

If you haven’t ever read a Virginia Woolf essay, please do. They are almost always absolutely wonderful.

 

The Pedestrians – Rachel Zucker

As I’ve recently written, I’m having a poetry moment. I found Rachel Zucker on Stephanie Danler’s instagram.

The only real life I know. 🏙 From The Pedestrians by Rachel Zucker. #mypoets #currentlyreading #bookstagram

A post shared by Stephanie Danler (@smdanler) on

 

*J.K. Rowling has a lot to answer for, honestly.

 

Birthday Books

birthday-books

I am 24 today.

Being in your twenties, I am finding out, is a lot like the Looney Tunes. Wile. E. Coyote, to be specific. You’re forever chasing that Roadrunner. Every hare-brained scheme you concoct to catch it inevitably winds up with you punching yourself in the face. But you keep on trying.

coyote

Cartoons were so violent when we were kids.

Anyway.

To celebrate/mourn my having aged another year, I figured it would be fitting to name some of the books that have gotten me through the perpetual edge-of-a-cliff-ness that has solidified my twenties as confusing and clichéd.

Sweetbitter – Stephanie Danler

Tess is a girl ‘…shot from a mundane, provincial past, she’s come to New York for a life she can’t define, except as a burning drive to become someone, to belong somewhere.’

She’s also a waitress, which I relate to, although I do way less cocaine. Which is to say, none at all.

One of the things I so liked about this book is that Tess’ life existed as if on an island. She had a past, and presumably some sort of future, but the narration clings stubbornly to the present. Owing to my own tendencies to slip between past and future every other hour, I appreciated the there-ness of Tess’ character.

This is a poetically written girl coming of age in a world of disillusionment story. Required reading for all of us going through a similar thing.

My Life on the Road – Gloria Steinem

I couldn’t bring myself to review this book. I loved it TOO MUCH. It is the feminist bible. It is an instruction manual for a life LIVED. Gloria Steinem has spent her life travelling, listening to people’s stories and working with them to create real change. It is feminism at its intersectional best.

I might have to abandon this post and go reread instead.

Kidding!

(sort of).

The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman

I mention this book in every list I ever make. Sometimes when the world starts to feel small I reread these words and watch it start to expand again:

‘There was a passport in his bag, money in his pocket. There was a smile dancing on his lips, although it was a wary smile, for the world is a bigger place than a little graveyard on a hill; and there would be dangers in it and mysteries, new friends to make, old friends to rediscover, mistakes to be made and many paths to be walked before he would, finally, return to the graveyard or ride with the Lady on the broad back of her great grey stallion.

But between now and then, there was Life; and Bod walked into it with his eyes and his heart wide open.’

No Matter the Wreckage – Sarah Kay

This poetry collection helps keep the eyes and heart wide open.

Six of Crows/Crooked Kingdom – Leigh Bardugo

To me, the characters in this book felt much more like my own age than teenagers. They are all trying to figure things out on their own – who they are, what they want, what they’re good at. They created a home out of each other.

So much of life is searching for your people. I love reading books about those who have found theirs.

 

Sometimes I feel as if I am building a girl out of books. It seems like a pretty decent way to live, at present.

 

 

 

 

October Wrap-Up

It’s November. I am hung over from Halloween. Fun was had. As I age, I am learning that despite my hermit tendencies, I do actually like going out sometimes.

My sixteen-year-old self would be scandalised.

Happy November, people. This month I turn 24.

october-wrap-up

I reviewed…

Unhooked – Lisa Maxwell

Feelings: A sexy pirate romance that’s perfect for those lonely winter evenings…

No Matter The Wreckage – Sarah Kay

Feelings: This is the book that made me fall in love with poetry.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Stieg Larsson

Feelings: I might be coming to it late, but the hype is totally justified.

Crooked Kingdom – Leigh Bardugo

Feelings: Leigh Bardugo has full ownership of my heart until further notice.

The Raven Boys – Maggie Stiefvater

Feelings: Were it not for Crooked Kingdom, this would have been my favourite book from this month. I am actually very excited to progress with the rest of the series.

I also wrote about…

Big Magic: Or, some pre-NaNoWriMo wisdom 

Zodiac Book Recommendations (an aside – this post took me forever and was one of the sillier ones I’ve ever written. The reaction to it made me happy. Thank you!)

How To Be Bored