Tag Archives: America

August: Book County

14 Sep

Shockingly late, I know, but I did actually read some books in August and I’ve only just got round to writing down what I thought about them. In part this is because my internet is currently refusing to play ball, so I can’t fanny around on Buzzfeed and the Vagenda, but it is also because I have started a new job and I’m not sat in front of a computer for 8 hours a day. (Not that I ever used said time in front of a computer at work to do anything *but* work, naturally).

Well. You already had 1 book review that got its own blog post devoted to it (Laurie Penny’s Cybersexism) but I did read some other things. The first: Female Chauvinist Pigs, by Ariel Levy. This book, published in 2003, explores the rise of ‘raunch culture’ and the effect this has had on (particularly Western, mostly American) society. Essentially, Levy contests the idea that female liberation seems only to be sought in accordance with the male-endorsed ideal of femininity. In the light of Twerkgate (or whatever it is being called these days – y’know, that thing, with Miley Cyrus and the VMAs), this is particularly relevant. On the one hand, women should be free to express themselves as sexual beings. On the other – female sexuality is rarely portrayed as anything other than an accessory to or facilitator of male sexuality and male power. And this is the point Levy makes, wisely, wittily and with great passion. And notably – she does not by any means restrict her criticism to men. Oh no! Women too can be relied upon to endorse this model. Why? Because it’s sold to them as ‘empowerment’. Because it’s explained as ‘confidence’, and as ‘liberation’. “Get your tits out for the lads” is a rallying cry for the raunch-culture generation.

There were times when I thought whilst reading – hold on a moment, maybe this is going too far. The danger of carrying the argument forward so heatedly is that some smart arse will turn around and say ‘I suppose you want everyone back in corsets then, huh?’. Perhaps such an aggressive attack on raunch culture will instigate a backlash that is even more unpalatable. But, then again, perhaps not. And these are all problems with which, ten years later, we are still facing. So. Ariel Levy. I highly recommend her.

Next – The Cuckoo’s Calling, by [Robert Galbraith]. Actually by JK Rowling. To read a novel for no other reason than that I wanted to – a novel that had no bearing on any of my current interests or academic intentions – a novel that was wholly and utterly a self-indulgent literary experience, where I wasn’t analysing as I went along – was delightful. And it was a relief, too, to read it and find that it was really rather good. Of course I read it in the light of a previous post on gender and authorship. I came to this conclusion: if you know who it’s by, you can see the similarities – if you don’t, you’d struggle to pick them out.

Rowling loves to use floods of adjectives; to make her places (especially, in this case, London) absolutely vivid and often quite grimy; to come up with some weird names and to talk about the weight of expectation carried down from parents to children. I wouldn’t say any of those are especially gendered traits, but they are very Rowling-y. And combined with her subject and her storytelling, the result was a very neat tale with some compelling characters and fascinating snippets of celebrity life. Refreshingly, there is no romantic frisson between the detective and his sidekick. Or rather, they are both very clear to demonstrate that there is no such thing. It’s really very good. I look forward to future evenings in Galbraith’s company.

After being told many a time that I must read Orlando, by Virginia Woolf, I finally did. As I had been assured, it was funny (I laughed out loud on a bus more than once and earned myself some odd looks), combining some of Woolf’s excellent Victorian Gothic parodic skills with her typical light wit. You almost don’t notice it at first – and then you spot it, you breathe it in, you carry it about for a long time and eventually it kills you. Her wit is devastating. ‘Nobody minds a woman thinking, so long as she thinks of a man’ – what a line. What a genius. What a novel, to turn a life-and-love story into a meditation on art, on time, on gender, on value, on spirituality. What a treat. But don’t take my word for it. If you haven’t read it, you really must.

One of my favourite things in the world is ‘popping in to the library’. I read Matilda as a child and her enthusiasm for books matched my own. I love the library. Cambridge recently (-ish) had a library upgrade, too, so going to the library in town is now an even more pleasant experience than ever it was. Well, when I last ‘popped to the library’ (en-route somewhere, I think), I acquired three books. One of these books was Backlash by Susan Faludi. I started reading it, but I’ll be absolutely honest, it’s hard going. Not because it’s not well-written, or compelling or anything like that – it is – but because it’s so anger-inducing. You read a chapter and you have to put it down and fume for a little bit. Sometimes you have to go for a walk and be a bit rage-y. The worst of it is that it was published in the early 1990s – yet so much is still so relevant! It’s truly incredible.

Anyway, in despair (with fortune and men’s eyes), I turned back to Angela Carter for a break. I read American Ghosts and Old World Wonders, another short-story collection in the manner of The Bloody Chamber but less explicitly figured as ‘fairytale’. It was wonderful. Carter is so deft, allusive and manipulative with language – much like Woolf, but in a subtly different way. She also has a great touch of wit. When I read her description of a martini as ‘gin at which a lemon had briefly sneered’, I sniggered audibly and I had to immediately message the excellent E to suggest an Angela Carter themed cocktail-party. Well, all the stories are self-contained, so it doesn’t make much sense for me to give you a plotline (although I tend to avoid that anyway, because I know I for one can’t un-see spoilers), but they are very much individually worth reading. I particularly liked the story containing the gin-line (about a young film student going to visit the wife of a deceased great of the profession)  and the story about the puppets.

OK. That’s your lot, for this month. I’m still battling through Backlash, so I’ll hopefully be able to say something more coherent about it soon. I’ve also read The Uncommon Reader, which was fun. Hopefully I’ll get through The Common Reader too, although as I’ve only got a week before I start uni for the second time, I don’t know how much reading for my own pleasure I’m going to get done. You have been warned! 


January’s books: a rundown

5 Feb

I said a while ago that I was intending to do a variety of things that would make me a happier person this year. One of those things was to read more books. I decided I’d keep a list, broken down by month, of what I had read, partly because I like lists, and partly because I thought it might encourage me to read new things. Then I thought I could turn each monthly list into a blog post, because talking about books is fun. So here we are.


January’s list starts optimistically with The Great Gatsby but is then subsumed under and becomes largely dominated by the Game of Thrones series (or, as George R. R. Martin originally intended it to be known, A Song of Ice and Fire). I make no apologies for this. I was stuck in a station.


I had The Great Gatsby with me but I had finished it, editorial notes and all, within a few short hours. Gatsby was – well, it was fine. I wasn’t overwhelmed. I wasn’t underwhelmed. I enjoyed the references to Trimalchio (ever the Classicist, me; Trimalchio is a character in Petronius’ Satyricon, also hailed as the first Roman novel). I felt sorry for Gatsby. I felt a little bit sorry for Daisy, but not that much. I struggle a little with the American blurring of what a British author would distinguish as the separate strands of class and wealth. To be honest I suspect a lot of Americans struggle a little with this too – wealth seems to confer the right to a membership of a certain sort of elite, but you can still be despised as a nouveau-riche. How are these factors reconcilable?


It doesn’t make an awful lot of sense to me, but on thinking about it I suppose the system is rather similar to the Roman one after all, where you had to be wealth-qualified to be a member of a particular class but you didn’t – necessarily – have to be from a particular family (although, of course, great snobbishness existed when new families broke into the old ranks, as in the case of Cicero). So I closed Gatsby feeling rather unenlightened and a little deflated. This may have had something to do with the fact that it was 7.30am and I’d been on a coach from Paris to London all night. If I’ve missed something crucial, I’d be interested to hear it.


Happily, my finishing Gatsby coincided almost perfectly with the WHSmith at London Victoria opening for business. Lacking in reading material and with many hours of waiting ahead, I lurched in, bleary-eyed, and selected the biggest tome I could find (and towards which I had been harbouring guilty intentions of reading for some time). I was doubly sold by the picture of an angsty Sean Bean on the cover. Game of Thrones captured my attention for most of the month. I’ve read Book 1, 2 and 3 (parts I and II) now; Books 4 and 5 are obviously soon to come.


GoT is a riot. It’s not spectacularly well-written – some of the sentences are hilariously painful, weighed down with archaisms like bowling balls on the rubber sheet of the universe, and aware of it, too – but it is fun. And it carries you along relentlessly, because even if you don’t like hearing about what Sansa is up to, you can’t wait to find out what Tyrion (played by the truly excellent Peter Dinklage in the HBO series) is going to say next. He is a funny, funny man. And so on. Martin is pretty brutal with his characters, too. There’s not a lot of time to get sentimental. You think someone’s the hero, that he’s safe? Jog on. You have no idea what’s going to happen in just a few chapters. Even the evil bastards don’t stay the same. In terms of the words that get put on the page, GoT could be better. But the overall plot – the threads of the story, and the inexorable winding-together of those threads – is incredible. It’s an absolute Gordian knot of a series. Also, there’s a lot of sex.


After I’d finished Book 2 of GoT I realised that I’d have to allow myself to take time off in between the books if I ever wanted to read anything else. I’d also refused to go and see the film Life of Pi before I had read the book, and time for the former was running short. So I obtained the book, read it, thought about it, watched the film, thought a bit more. It wasn’t what I was expecting, I’ll be totally honest. I had no idea that it was about a boy and not about a way of living after the manner of a mathematical concept. Which is – well, pleasing, really. I liked the total mystery the book held for me; nothing in the title gave it away. It was beautiful and improbable. I didn’t really understand the divine connection straight away; or rather, I understood it on a surface level, within the confines of the novel, but not until I heard it actually spoken in the film did it mean more. I won’t spoil it if you haven’t read it. But basically, I took it to mean that humans tell stories so they don’t have to confront their worse natures. Which is quite a stark and simple message for a book about a boy and a tiger. Well done, Yann Martel.


I also read Catcher in the Rye, finally. Finally, in that I read it to round off the month, and finally in that I’d been intending to read it since I was approximately 14. Again, it wasn’t what I was expecting. I read it half-aware that I had heard Benedict Cumberbatch refer to it as the book that had changed his life in an interview once. Given the execration dished out to ‘phonies’ and ‘actors’ by narrator Holden Caulfield, I thought this was fascinating. I find it more rewarding to read books through a prism cast by something or someone else in any case; this was a good example of that. Again, though, I have to say that, like Gatsby, Catcher left me pretty cold. Maybe there’s a lot to be said for actually studying a text. I can’t say I ever felt the need when it came to (eg) Pride and Prejudice, but I certainly wouldn’t be able to say anything interesting about Plato if I hadn’t read what a bunch of other people thought about him too (no snide comments, please).


So, in conclusion, I’ve read a couple of modern classic American novels, a Man Booker Prize winner about God and a medieval-esque fantasy series about knights, dragons and sex. Not bad. I’ll continue this sub-theme in March when I tell you about February’s books (and to whet your appetite, I can tell you that these will include 1984, On the Road and Wolf Hall). I have broad tastes, and I’m not afraid to share them. Oh! And – of course – all suggestions very much welcome!