How To Be A Woman, Caitlin Moran

It’s lovely to encounter smart and funny women, who ooze talent and to whom we can aspire. Sometimes we just like to pretend we’re the more Liz Lemon-y version of Tina Fey. There is no shame in that.

Caitlin Moran is definitely smart and funny. How To Be A Woman is written in the spirit of a rant, inspired by the age of the internet, and embracing it’s oddities and abbreviations. Moran turns “rofl” into a noun as swiftly and unapologetically as she advocates tasting one’s own menstruation. Reading it mostly reminded me of the late night chat sessions I have one of my besties, in which she, for obvious reasons, usually refers to me as “Drunk Tarryn”. It’s rude, irreverent, shouty, and hilarious. But, it is also, often, brave and moving.

Much of the criticism of this book follows the general structure of “she’s funny, but -”. She’s funny, but her feminist arguments are not intellectual enough. She’s funny, but all of her evidence is subjective (I mean, how dare she be subjective in her memoir?). She’s funny, but she only tells one side of the story. She’s funny, but she uses too many capital letters. The thing is, these were all aspects of the book that I loved. I love that she took the stance that “feminism is too important to be discussed only by academics”. I don’t believe we can escape subjectivity. I admire her for telling a rude, bloody, and distinctly non-princessy story. I LOVE A GOOD RANT.

Despite my general affection, I would, however, recommend starting to read it only after you have at least two glasses of red wine in your belly, and are feeling like you need to join in with a general chorus of “screw you, the patriarchy” without having to justify yourself intellectually. You should also not be feeling queasy about menstruation.

How To Be A Woman reads like a tequila-sodden ladies night diatribe, delivered with joyous passion, and punctuated by the slamming down of shot glasses. Embrace it for that, and it will embrace you in return (before walking into a door, and nearly throwing up on your shoes).

The Casual Vacancy, JK Rowling

I think that the release of The Casual Vacancy was always going to be difficult. After its initial reception it seems that many people have been describing it in terms of what it is not, rather than what it is. Every review I’ve read contains little magical puns and mentions how far from the wizarding world the town of Pagford is located. This seems an unfair and irrelevant way to approach a book review, but it appears that Rowling is haunted by Harry in much the same way that the townsfolk of Pagford are haunted by Barry.

No one doubted that The Casual Vacancy would sell well. Yet whether it is liked is still under debate. The New York Times has described the novel, which explores the lives of eight small town families around the time of a general election, as ‘banal’, ‘depressingly cliché’, and ‘dull’. It is not an action-led novel, but more of a snapshot of small town life and the ways in which seediness permeates the heart of the town despite the perception that it is the gritty periphery which threatens its picturesque perfection. Themes of imbalance, prejudice, morality, and fairness weave through the plot, which is littered with the poor moral decisions of each of the characters.

It takes awhile for the novel to gain momentum. Rowling sets a slow pace which, once the action does begin, spirals into darkness and disarray quite quickly. Once I got to this point – a little over half way – I was eager to see the story through to it’s conclusion. The ending is, as most will already know, bleak. Many reviewers found it disappointing; but not all stories have to be happy stories. Despite the morbid ending, I felt a glimmer of hope remained. Several characters are changed, potentially signaling that they may be able to save the deteriorating morality of the town.

Afterwards I was left questioning whether the narrative was over-orchestrated, whether the story had depth, and particularly, whether there was truth in it. Did the characters behave, to use Stuart ‘Fats’ Wall’s word, “authentically”? None of the characters are particularly like-able, but I do get a sense that I recognise realistic traits in them. People can be gossipy, and cruel. They are often irrational. I did get a sense that the characters’ motivations were based on beliefs that were very real to them, even if these may seem petty to readers.

There are several poignant vignettes, including accurate observations on teenage lust, the relationship between friendship and jealousy, and the discontent or uneasiness that can manifest in intimate relationships. But then there are also too-obvious impressions of the relationships which teenage boys have with their fathers, or teenage girls with their mothers, and of the differences in favoritism experienced by children who do and do not live up to parental expectation.

Given the expectation upon her as a writer, perhaps this was a necessary next-book in her repertoire. At this point let’s hope it acts as a palate cleanser to ready us for the better, richer, next course. Suffice it to say that The Casual Vacancy was a well-written, yet joyless read. I will probably not read it again, but it did make me think – if not about the intricacy of local British government or the ills of modern society, at least about how to tell a story – and that is a good thing for a book to do.

For the Love of Books

Walking out of my primary school gates on a Wednesday afternoon was always a joy for me. Not because school was over, but because as I stepped out onto the pavement, and was guided by a neon-clad traffic commander across a black and white striped crossing, I was walking towards my Grandpa. He would stand there beaming at me as he waited.

Once I’d bounded up to him, he’d always tell me the same two things: “Did you know that I was the first one to see you when you were born?”, he’d ask. As always, I’d say yes. Then he’d point to the book that was usually in my hand and say “I remember one day when you’d just started school, you came home crying and said to me: ‘Kenny-Boy, I’m never going to be able to read”, but you can”, and then we would walk together to his car so that I could spend the afternoon with him and my Gran.

Once I’d got over the obviously tenuous relationship that I had with Janet, John, and their dog spot, I became quite a prolific childhood-reader. I practically lived in the Magic Faraway Tree, solving mysteries with Nancy Drew and the Famous Five, while the girls of The Babysitter’s Club tried to teach me how to be a business mogul. I spent hours in the school library (where I met my best friend), and developed strong peripheral vision while simultaneously reading and walking to class. I carried this forward to High School, where Dumbledore died in a History class, partially obstructed from a less magical teacher’s view by a wooden desk that was poorly designed for inconspicuous reading.

While I was still a reader, sadly I began to read less and less for the sheer joy of escapism as I got to Varsity. This was probably because it’s hard to see the words on a page when your blood alcohol levels are at .10. It’s not something I’m proud of, but for a while I cheated on books with vodka and lemonade. Don’t worry though, we got back together. Books don’t give you headaches unless you’re writing them, editing them, or bashing yourself over the head with them. Vodka gives you a headache any which way.

C.S Lewis wrote that “no book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.” I am on a mission to re-Kindle (see what I did there) my passion for reading to delight. I’m revisiting old favourites, and becoming acquainted with new ones – I’ll share my opinion on them if you share yours. Let’s start a book club! While many would deem it a failure, I’m hoping it turns out like the one I organised with my cousin when we were ‘tweens, which nobody came to except our respective best friends.

Book Town‘ illustration by Yael Albert

All of Time and Space

I have a friend. She’s lovely, and quite mad – in the very best way. She’s also an historian which means she’s as close to time travel as I’m going to get – and I’m a huge fan of time travel. Most of Western thought believes that time is linear: past, present, and future. In the words of Doctor Who, explaining time from his point of view as a Timelord: “people assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint – it’s more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly… time-y wimey… stuff.” So what can history teach us about temporality? I asked Zara to give us her perspective.

The most interesting thing about time is how it affects the people who exist within it

Whatever your conception of time is, it’s likely that you do have some notion of its passing, even if this isn’t clearly defined. It seems to me then that peoples’ conception of time forms a fundamental part of their worldview. Much like other differences in worldview, the differences between these conceptions have often resulted in societal clashes. Time is most interesting because of the different connections it effects.

Time periods cannot be divorced from their social contexts

Microhistories are small, focused cases, which teach us something about the broader realities of society. Examining contemporary reactions to a particular person or event often reveals trends or attitudes about the norm. Once these are established, a microhistorian will need to “fill in the gaps”. I don’t mean they guess wildly about context or intent, but rather that they make informed, thorough estimations of plausible motivations, all available information considered. There’s a degree of cultural relativity that has to be applied when looking at contentious events that might be unpalatable to present day readers. It’s important to clarify that this doesn’t entail “excusing” the people involved. Rather, judgment is temporarily suspended in order to better understand the society in question.

There are multiple truths in any one time period

I reject the notion that there is one absolute truth about any historical event. All texts are imbued with their authors’ worldview and preconceptions, no matter how hard they try to avoid it. So as explanatory primary sources are often lost to time or non-existent, this is an interesting (and often enjoyable) attempt to make sense of the time you are exploring.

History is alive

I’m completely fascinated by memory, and its effect on the stories that people tell about their experiences.

Alessandro Portelli, an Italian historian, was one of the pioneers of a particular approach to oral history which shifts power to the storyteller, as he/she can choose the way in which they want to portray their story. One of the things I like most about this approach is the fact that it values “misremembering” as much if not more as “accurate” remembering (what is accuracy, anyway?) In other words, the way in which people remember is affected by a wide variety of factors, and this approach illuminates the fact that history is subjective and collaborative, just like real life.

Portelli wrote,  “Oral history… refers [to] what the source [the narrator/storyteller] and the historian [the interviewer/listener] do together at the moment of their encounter in the interview” (The Battle of Valle Giulia, 1997: 3). Exactly as Portelli noted, in the moment of interview (and indeed after, when the interviewer/historian is writing up his/her research), “history” is actively being created. Even on a smaller scale, when we read, reorganize, and then assimilate or reject what we have seen, a living process is undoubtedly occurring.

The illustration above is by the talented Nan Lawson (my fave).

The Fantastic Flying Books Of Mr Morris Lessmore

Good morning! Need a little Monday pick me up? Looking for something to do while drinking your morning tea? I have just the thing: a gorgeous short film that won an Oscar a few short weeks ago. It tells the sweet and whimsical tale of how people dedicate their lives to books and how those books add colour to people’s lives. This is the way I like to imagine librarians. Enjoy!

Our books tell all our secrets

They say the first step on the road to recovery is admitting you have a problem. Don’t ask me who “they” are. I don’t know (I actually do now, because I just looked it up). But that’s beside the point, stop trying to get me off topic. We are not talking about the historical development of Bill W and Dr Bob’s twelve-step program (see what I did there? How I threw in what I just learnt? There really is no excuse for ignorance when we have the magic of Google). Side Bar: About a week ago, while sending an email, I typed “google” in a sentence, and Gmail auto-corrected it to “Google” (i.e. with a capital ‘G’), so as an experiment, I typed “god”, and it didn’t auto-correct it to “God”. I find this extremely amusing. Just me? Oh well.

Anyway, what was I saying? Oh yes, I was saying that I have a problem. Namely, that I am easily distracted. This post thus far? Case in point. This has severe implications for most activities in my life. Just 10 minutes ago I was doing reading preparation for the tutorial I am teaching, but now I’m doing this. I know what you’re going to say. It’s not procrastination exactly. I also start making tea and then forget to finish it because I started to watch YouTube, or I let pasta burn because I started to watch a new episode of Glee while I was ‘waiting for it to boil’. I find it hard to concentrate on just one thing.

There is a point to all this rambling. Namely, that yesterday I bought a book. It called out to me from the shelf with its beautiful gold lettering, and its cover was the exact same shade of deep blue as my couch.It made me think of tea and tucking my toes under cushions, and when I picked it up, I found out that the pages smelt the same as Harry Potter. From then my heart was well and truly smote.

Until recently, all my books had been in storage, but I unpacked them the other day and it struck me how many books I have that I have not finished reading, or in many cases have not even started reading. Which leads me to my problem. My problem of being an easily distracted and fickle reader, as well as a compulsive book buyer. It’s not my fault that all the covers look like a special brand of candy.

Nick Hornby, a famous author who I once sat across the room from in London, once said: “All the books we own, both read and unread, are the fullest expression of self we have at our disposal. …But with each passing year, and with each whimsical purchase, our libraries become more and more able to articulate who we are, whether we read the books or not.” This idea is one which I find particularly fascinating, because it would not only be the books that we enjoy reading that are telling about us, but also the books which we want people to think we are reading, or the books that we think we should read in order to become a certain type of person. Moreover, it is not only the content of the book that is telling, but the very fact that we bought it, and whether or not we read it, and where we put it on display afterwards (or perhaps even more interesting- where we hide it, and why).

I’m not sure what the half read pile of books next to my bed says about me. What I do know is that I should definitely not ever buy a Kindle, because I would needlessly download a bazillion books that I will not ever get around to reading.