‘Asking For It’, by Louise O’ Neill

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In reviewing this book, I realize I am late to the party. It was published last August and has sparked many debates on the pervasive grey areas of consent, ‘promiscuity’ and the legal system.

The culture portrayed in this book is all to familiar to me, having grown up in Ireland. The boys sitting by the xbox playing and slighting one another, the girls who have grown up to believe they have nothing more to give than the gift of their beauty and who trade too frequently in the currency of their looks. As a girl-child growing up in Ireland, I remember well adults telling me how beautiful I am, almost because they didn’t know what else to say. They say it so often you internalize it.. But we live in a polarized society where boys are commended for being boys, being athletic, strong and ‘male’. When I was in primary school, the boys played soccer while the girls learned Irish dancing. And I hated it.

(******–SPOILERS HERE–****)Here’s a synopsis of the plot: The protagonist ‘Emmie’ is a beautiful confident school-going teenager who can make men melt with a flick of her hair. She is portrayed as being too confident, she enjoys too much when the other girls are jealous, she luxuriates in grown men gasping when they see her. She expects people to suck up to her, she surrounds herself with uglier girls so she can feel even more important. She is not loyal to her friends and takes the men they want just because she can. When her friend is raped, she advises her not to say anything. The book sets out for you to dislike her, an archetypal ‘mean girl’, maybe the book almost wants us to say ‘she was asking for it’ when the central event of the book takes place- a drug and alcohol -fueled party. At the party, Emmie is slighted by the man she is interested in, and takes up with his friend who is about 10 years her senior. The man gives her MDMA and has sex with her. His and her friends then join them in the bedroom- they take prescription drugs and she cannot remember anything after that. The next day her parents return home from their trip away and find Emmie sunburnt, lying unconscious outside the family home.

On Monday when she returns to school, she is shunned by her friends. A facebook page has been set up and the disturbing contents contain evidence of what happened when she was unconscious. You would think that the natural course of what happens next would show her being wrapped in the protective structures of society, her family, friends, community. Instead she is called a whore, a slut. The students of the school launch a hate campaign against her through social media, her own parents seem to blame her, the consequences of the night are far-reaching, but the person who suffers most is Emmie- believing the rape to be her own fault, believing she ruined her rapists lives.

There are a number of issues explored in this book, importantly the virgin/whore dichotomy of how women are described- Emmie is not a virgin, and wears provocative clothing. But should this mean that we do not protect her in law? Should this mean that men do not have to ask her for consent? Of course not, but this is what is happening time and time again. And consent is such an impossible difficult thing to prove- one word against another. I am sure many women back down, some never tell their stories because they fear being shunned by their friends. This has happened to people I know in Ireland. I am sure it has happened to many more who never open up about it.

Another thing that impressed me was the vivid picture of mothers in Ireland. Emmie’s mother is a typical ‘Irish Mammy’ always running around baking things and having more time for her son and husband than her daughter. Emmie says early on that her mother has a special voice she only uses around men and that she wonders why the mother never uses that voice with her. Growing up with these damaging role models, Emmie goes on to use her sexuality to please men. She says she never really enjoys sex, maybe perversely she enjoys the power it bestows on her in competition with other women. Mainly she strives to make it a pleasant experience for the man. Again the result of this type of mother /role model on the young girl is to make her spoilt, selfish and unable to deal with life. Having a mother who does everything for everyone is unrealistic, it shows the young woman that a woman is nothing in her own right, just a servant to others. In a letter that Emmie had written to ‘her future self aged 30’ she imagined she would have a rich husband and two children at that age. Her expectations of the future are cast in relation to what man she would have- the achievements she imagines are as a trophy, a mother.

Small town Ireland is given a severe bashing, a cultish parochial patriarchy rules over all- the church, the GAA, the male bank managers and police all forming a net that protects young men and the vision of Ireland where we’re all just ‘grand’ all the time. There is no time given to real conversations. Emmie’s mother is happiest sitting in front of the late late (TV show) with her children, not speaking and drinking wine . Everything in the Irish household is based on appearance rather than reality- once the appearances are intact, reality follows suit and not the other way around. ‘Saving face’ in Ireland is ever important. This is why things fall asunder when appearances are disrupted by what happens to Emmie. She has shed off the ‘virgin’ assigned to her by her father, who calls her his ‘princess’. Using the dichotomous concept of femaleness she must then be a whore- the issue of consent is never discussed properly by the older generation- her mother and father both believe she is at fault really… Why was she in bed with a man, if she didn’t want this to happen?Respected men in the community can not be brought down. In the words of Emmie’s mother ‘They’re good boys really, this all just got out of hand’.

As an English teacher I am going to go out of my way to get teen girls, boys and adults to read this important book. Just look at the Stanford case that is on the news right now, our attitudes to women, sexuality and consent need to change, and fast.

 

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‘New Town Soul’ By Dermot Bolger : Review

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New Town Soul is the only YA fiction novel by Dermot Bolger.Based in Blackrock and interestingly, commissioned under a percent for arts scheme, the tale is an unusual mashup of contemporary suburban Dublin and gothic horror. I have to say that I actually enjoyed reading this book, it was compulsive reading and although the plot is quite convoluted there is a lot to go on in this novel for dealing with as a teaching text for leaving cert students because the plot focuses largely around ideas of identity attainment, dealing with difference, influence, cyber bullying, death and many other worthwhile themes.

Protagonist Joey is starting in a new school after being mercilessly bullied by his former classmates. It seems he is starting afresh in the senior cycle having completed the junior cert but I could be wrong. As he enters the classroom for the first time, tentatively choosing  a seat a much more confident and attractive youth glides into the vacant seat beside an inviting and pretty young girl. This is Joey’s first introduction to Shane.

Joey had in mind to become ‘invisible’ to erase every eccentricity about himself that made him unique in order to avoid ridicule. Having been lambasted at a ‘talent show’ at his previous school for singing his self-penned songs he is determined not to violate any social norms again. However, Shane seems determined to draw Joey out and exerts a powerful influence on him.

This is where things begin to get strange and soon we learn that Shane is not quite who we think he is, any more at least. Following on from a difficult time in Shane’s life when his parents’ marriage hits the rocks due to financial difficulties, Shane becomes a typical Irish disaffected teenager and starts hanging around in an abandoned house. However, he does not get off lightly with a warning from the Gardai or a slap on the wrist. Instead, we learn that Shane has been co-opted into a blood- brothers pact that spans centuries in age. He has become immortal, the living dead, his body has been snatched by a syndicate of souls who cast his spirit out into the body of an old man named Thomas. Following a supernatural event that features the cursed dice of an old gambling rake, a bottomless well in the basement of a dilapidated house and a strange old man that has groomed him to take his part in the chain.

We feel empathy for Shane, because we have come on an emotional journey with him, chapters of the book are based around Shane in the days before he became undead and the commonplace teenage angst that he encountered, the class struggle of his parents and his bravado in trying to protect  them from the dark and isolated life he was leading while they were busy working.

However, there is still hope. Joey is the hero of the novel, and it is he who will triumph over the forces of darkness and break the chain of ‘changelings’ once and for all. He hasn’t had it easy himself, Joey. His ambitious musician father died tragically while he was still in his infancy and his mother is a ‘dry drunk’ who seems to have struggled immensely in life. Shy and unsure of himself, it could be argued that the gothic subplot of the book is in fact an allegory of Joey’s quest for personal identity that begins when he starts his first day at the new school.

Using Marcia’s four stages of identity attainment as a guide to reading Joey’s psychological state, we can see clearly how Joey navigates the four stages of identity formation throughout the course of the novel:

  1. Identity diffusion: at the beginning of the book, Joey is in a state of identity diffusion- he has no sense of personal choice about who he can be. He decides to ‘keep his head down’ and refrain from doing anything that would draw attention to himself.
  2. Identity foreclosure: Joey is largely influenced by Shane and also by his late father. He feels that it is his destiny to fulfill his dad’s thwarted ambitions. Outside of these two options he has not explored very far.
  3. Identity moratorium: Joey hits a crisis when Shane is revealed to not be quite who he claimed to be and when his mother reveals Joey’s father treated her badly. He reacts by behaving out of character- he steals a bottle of vodka and a car, he acts recklessly and aggressively.
  4. Identity achievement: Joey attains his own identity when he decides to stop pursuing ‘immortality’ and strives to live his life to the best of his ability. The epilogue includes a lovely quote on the conclusions that this journey has brought to Joey:

“The problem with immortality of course, is that it doesn’t last for ever. Since then, I have known the ups and downs of any musician’s life […]In short, I have enjoyed the miracle of a normal life, where I have tried to live every day as if it was uniquely precious…” (New Town Soul, p. 245).

I would recommend this book to young adults and to adults too. I think it will be a great teaching text and although there is a sparsity of resources on it out there, I think the relevance of the themes to teens outweighs the effort on behalf of the teacher. Give it a chance!

 

Review: “1984” by George Orwell

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1984- Party slogans

You’re going to be getting some reviews of classic literature more than contemporary books over the next few months. I have a long reading list ahead of me for a course I am starting in September. 28 years old and heading back to College again.. Thanks a bunch Ireland, austerity is keeping me a student for life!

1984, written in the 1940’s by George Orwell paints an all-too vivid dystopian nightmare, and is now even more relevant than the day it was written.

Orwell began to write the book in 1946 having suffered through the second world war. He was recently widowed and was raising a young son alone. When his Editor at the Observer offered to let him write and live at a house he owned on the island of Jura in the Hebrides, Orwell jumped at the chance. In poor health, Orwell set to work on his manuscript. 1984 would be his swansong, and he struggled to complete it. He died shortly after its completion in 1950. Perhaps in some way his sense of isolation and recent grief fed into the book, because 1984 is not an easy read, nor is it meant to be. It is a lonely and claustrophobic book which serves as a cautionary tale to a world with an uncertain future.

Orwell constructs his nightmare civilization in an interesting way. The government of Oceania  a totalitarian state which governs ever expanding territories including Britiain aims not only to control citizen’s lives but also their minds. Party members who work at one of the ministries have to be constantly vigilant , at work and at home they are constantly observed by a telescreen (iphone?)  which both transmits constant news and monitors  citizen’s every move.

Winston works at the ironically named ministry of truth, where his job consists of re-writing news stories, effectively editing history to suit the current mood of the party.

” ‘Who controls the past’, ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.'” Part 1, Chapter 3, pg. 37

The originals are then burnt leaving no trace. According to the party, the new truth must then be accepted by all as the absolute truth, even though “truth” is constantly in flux. A process called “doublethink” allows citizens to erase the previous truth but believe the new one. If one is able to “doublethink” correctly, then it is easy to avoid “thoughtcrime”.

A three tier class system operates in Oceania, at the bottom are the “proles” who are ironically the most free. They are not monitored by telescreens, they live in slums and are encouraged to entertain themselves into  servitude.  The ministry of fiction has a whole department dedicated to churning out entertainment such as pop songs and porn for the proles. This type of material is known as ‘Prolefeed’ in newspeak. The proles drink, breed and fight amongst themselves, they live in different areas to party members. The party is of the opinion that the proles can never rise because they lack intelligence.

“They were born, they grew up in the gutters, they went to work at twelve, they passed through a brief blossoming period of beauty and sexual desire, they married at twenty, they were middle-aged at thirty, they died, for the most part, at sixty. Heavy physical work, the care of home and children, petty quarrels with neighbors, films, football, beer, and, above all, gambling filled up the horizon of their minds.” Part 1, Chapter 7, pg. 71

The middle class consists of outer party members like Winston and Julia, the most unfortunate class, they are closely scrutinized by the inner party and have to be constantly on call both in work at the ministries or in the recreational time during which they are meant to take part in community activities. The inner party represents the top tier and consists of the elite government officials, little is revealed about this class but it can be deduced in the novel that corruption is rampant within this class and the privileges that they enjoy compared to the outer party are immense.

Winston constantly struggles with his anti-party sentiments, keeping a secret journal just out of view from his telescreen. This linguistic crime might seem minimal but in a society where even unscrupulous thoughts are illegal, physical evidence of subversion is an extreme act of rebellion. Winston’s second act of dissent is an affair with fellow party member Julia. Together, they rent a small  bedroom illegally above an antique furniture store. It is in this small space that they are free to experience love, to experience each other with such freedom that it feels as though they have annexed a small piece of territory which is free from the oppressive rule of Oceania.

However, even this love affair contains within it the seeds of it’s own destruction. Winston knows he is doomed before he begins because Big Brother is always watching and no one escapes his omniscience. Julia and Winston try to join a revolutionary group but find themselves face to face with the inner party. Winston finally meets an inner party member named O Brien, who he mistook for a revolutionary. O’ Brien tortures him for what seems like years, arguing his ideology between electric shock treatments.

But Winston still manages to evade the mind control the party aims for. He holds on to his love for Julia, or at least the idea of it. He holds on to the idea that he has not betrayed her. But something is waiting in room 101 which will push him beyond his limits. Winston’s story ends on a sad note, but there is still hope for the future. In an appendix to the story, which is written in the form of a historical essay on ‘newspeak’ (Oceania’s official new language which aims to reduce the number of words, and therefore the number of thoughts). The existence of this appendix gives hope to the reader because it signals that Oceania ceased to exist at some unknown point. Maybe the proles finally rose up against the party? Maybe the never ending frontier wars ended unfavorably? Orwell is not giving anything away. Just a tiny sliver of hope- and at the end of this novel, it felt like enough.

Philippe Djian: ‘Unforgivable: A Novel’ (2009)

Review

 

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Unforgivable offers a darkly comic panorama of a middle aged author’s life. Francis  is a misanthropist who despite having received acclaim in his professional life, cannot seem to find peace in his personal life. Having suffered the tragic loss of his wife and youngest daughter, he now suffers again when his only remaining daughter Alice goes missing. Matters become further complicated when Alice, herself a mother of two, is found alive and well.

Although this brief synopsis may sound gloomy, I can assure you that this book is in fact a lively and deeply humorous book, although the subject matter is extremely dark. Francis, the central character and first person narrator is painted as a lovable, hapless curmudgeon. The story is told in real-time interspersed with flashbacks and the reader is offered a diary-like play-by-play of events. I have found this style to be hit and miss in the past but Djian nails it and it is both compulsive reading, and laugh-out loud funny in places- most of the comedy issuing from Francis’s deadpan rendering of bizarre situations.

Francis reveals in flashbacks how Alice’s teenage years played out after the death of her mother. Devoting himself full-time to his novel, Francis made little time to care for the grieving teenager, and allowed her to embark on a path of self destruction which seems to culminate in her adult personality- she is ambitious, difficult and selfish. Although he is a novelist, Francis seems to be lacking in introspection, and never sees himself as the originator of her problems, having been largely absent as a provider of support or comfort when it was most needed. Instead of finding support at home, Alice embarked on a relationship with a drug-addled banker to whom she later became married.

Another plot line follows the tragic story of A.M, a private detective and one- time lover of Francis. Francis hires A.M’s son Jeremie, an ex-con to spy on his second wife as he suspects her of an affair. Taking Jeremie on and attempting to help him, Francis ends up in many bizzare and difficult situations- which end up with tragic consequences.

Parenting is the central issue of this book; Francis refuses to have children with his second wife and  this decision eventually erodes their relationship. He also expresses frustration and boredom with his twin grand-daughters; saying that he has already experienced all the emotions he could extract from parent-child relationship. In fact, Francis has more time for a couch that he owns which once belonged to Ernest Hemmingway than he does for most of the other characters in the book. Selfishness and self- absorption figure largely in this novel, and how these characteristics are incompatible with both parenting and relationships.

The broader issue at stake here is what happens when a parent grows to dislike the adult that their child has become. When do you draw the line with a child that has gone too far astray as an adult, who has hurt you and others, betrayed you  and made your life a misery? When is enough finally enough? In Unforgivable the reader is offered two examples. Francis chooses to never forgive Alice. In the case of A.M and her son Jeremie, not only does the mother forgive her son of his heinous crimes but she devoutly sets about nurturing him in the hope he will mend his ways. He never does mend his ways and she sees before she dies just how inhuman and beyond help he really is.

So what is the conclusion? There are no easy answers in this book, which ends on an ambiguous note and with an unexpected plot development. I would definitely recommend it as a dark comedy which deals with some fairly hard- hitting topics in extremely unconventional ways.

 

 

 

 

Bumper Fiction Review Post: Two Good, Two Bad, One Middling

Review

** Disclaimer: This post contains some negative reviews, of books that I did not enjoy.. however, having never attempted to write a novel myself I commend anyone who has actually written a book and been published.

The Miniaturist- Jessie Burton (2014)

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

I don’t normally read best-sellers but the beautiful illustrations on the cover of this book seduced me into buying it. Imagine ‘Girl With a Pearl Earring’; this is Amsterdam in the early colonial era. A country girl from a ruined aristocratic family is married into a rich merchants house. But all is not as it seems. Petronella Oortman is a child-like bride who has no idea how to run a household. Johannes the merchant and his sister are hiding something. In the meantime a mysterious ‘miniaturist’ leaves clues in the form of miniature furniture for a miniature cabinet made to mimic the house Petronella has married into. Unfortunately, the ideas which play out in the plot are too contemporary to actually be believable for anyone who knows  about this period. The Miniaturist character is never developed or fully explained- instead she is held out like a carrot on a stick till the end of the novel where she dissolves into thin air. It felt to me like the author didn’t quite know where she was going with it, when it got to the end it just didn’t feel satisfying. I felt annoyed when I was finished this book. If you have any enthusiasm to read it, go ahead, there are some lovely scenes and it is quite evocative of the time.  There are also some unexpected plot twists that I haven’t given away. Other than that I cannot recommend it.

Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither- Sarah Baume (2015)

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I got to around page 40 in this book. By which time the narrator, who is reclusive and has a learning disability has found a dog, revealed some of his traumatic childhood and then bought a muzzle for the dog. He then removes the muzzle as it upsets the dog. To be honest I abandoned this book as there just seemed to be no incentive to continue. It was not moving enough to keep going for some emotional pay off. There were some glowing reviews on the back cover from authors I have read and enjoyed. What am I missing here? It must have became amazing on page 41. I felt mean for not giving it a chance, the language was beautiful, but I genuinely felt bored.

Young Skins – Colin Barrett (2013)

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I enjoyed this book of short stories a lot. Colin Barett is a writer who grew up in Mayo, he is only around thirty. How jealous I am that I cannot write as well as him! He nails characters in a sentence, and holds up a cracked mirror to small town life in Ireland replete with descriptions of the bleak and murky world of boy racers, travellers, drug dealers, bouncers, bush drinking, young mothers, fake tan etc. This world was so evocative to me of my own teens, growing up in Ireland, it was all too familiar. The novella ‘Calm with Horses’ was beautifully crafted in many ways, but in some ways I felt the crime elements were too contrived. The language and plot were beautiful and in places merited quoting but I do not have a copy of my own. I hope he brings out a full length novel soon.

Honeymoon– Patrick Modiano (1992)

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This moody meditation on isolation, memory and history is set in Paris and Venice across three time frames. The shortest novel in review here, Honeymoon packed a huge punch for me and is a Nobel Literature prize winner. The story centres around Jean B, a film maker with ostensibly a quite happy and affluent life. Jean lives in Paris with his wife who doubles as his work colleague. He is aware that his wife is unfaithful to him and abruptly leaves her and his job to go and live an anonymous life in the suburbs, passing from hotel to hotel, retracing the haunts of his youth, where he and his wife spent time as younger people.

However, rather than wallowing in grief for the road untravelled, sadness over his wife’s affair or any imaginable thought process given his circumstances, Jean becomes obsessed with the story of a couple he met some twenty years before hand, Ingrid and Rigaud, who had shown him some kindness. In a bizarre coincidence Jean had been in Venice when Ingrid killed herself some years earlier, and subsequently decided to write a biography of Ingrid which he never got around to researching properly. Around half way through the book, the narrative loses touch with reality and seems to have become Jean’s imaginings of Ingrid and Rigaud’s shared history. He rents an apartment where they once lived and seems somehow to share deeply in their past. Honeymoon  is a deeply humane book, marked by the shadow of world war two. The sadness and stagnancy of Ingrid and Rigaud’s lives  is too great to simply die with them, it echoes through Jean B and through the Paris suburbs. The focus of this book is humanity’s capacity to feel for people and events who came before us. Or how we sometimes invest huge interest or significance in people who merely skim the surface of our lives, while passing over ones whose significance runs right to the core of our own stories. Maybe it is easier to romanticize these characters without ever truly having to know them. Another reading sees Jean B as inhabiting memory so as to escape our painful present. Perhaps the hurt that is not iterated here, the agony of his wife’s infidelity is really what haunts the novel.

I would recommend everyone to read this book, and am waiting to get my hands of more of his works in translation!

The Detour– Gerbrand Bakker (2012)

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This is a much lesser book than the other book of his ‘The Twin‘ which I loved. The narrative focuses on a female academic who specialises in the field of Emily Dickinson studies. She has abruptly left Rotterdam and her marriage after an infidelity with a student is discovered. In a strange move, she rents a rural farm in Wales where a slow deterioration in a mystery illness is mirrored by a gaggle of geese which are gradually killed by a fox. Coming to terms with sexuality and death seems to be the broader theme of the book, and the female protagonist has a strange relationship with a wandering student come cartographer who ends up staying at her property for a while. This book didn’t quite do it for me. The liveliest descriptions are of a gay policeman and Agnes’s husband who are roadtripping accross Europe in order to find her,. In these passages Bakker seemed back on form 100% with his strange black and wry humour, accurate depictions of awkwardness and even tenderness.

Girls on Film: Now and Then… ‘Bridget Jones’ versus ‘Frances Ha’

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Noah Baumbach & Greta Gerwig’s playful ‘Frances Ha’ (2012) chronicles the life of  immature dance graduate Frances, who, while living the hipster life in New York gets dumped by her sensible best friend. The plot is based around that moment in your life (circa 30) when you realize you can’t be young forever, or more precisely that if you try to remain young forever, no one will take you seriously.

Sitting in bed with her best friend Sophie, Frances pleads “tell me the story of us?!” “Again?” asks Sophie disbelievingly.”The story of us” – a cute dream of the future describes Frances and Sophie’s plans to achieve honorary degrees, have flying careers and so on. The difference between Frances and Sophie is that in Frances’s mind this world exists only in the future. Sophie is already trying to make it happen.

What made this movie interesting to me is that it shows a young woman making her way in the world almost completely unconcerned with dating and men. The breakdown of a female friendship leads to her reassess her life and wonder if she is making the right decisions. Dating happens in the movie but only on a light-hearted level. Frances says she is “not a real person yet” when her credit card bounces in a restaurant, making her a  different type of heroine than Bridget Jones was 14 years ago in another comedy.

Bridget Jones was created based on the novels of Helen Fielding, and was set in a 1990’s London- which had it’s own set of problems. Although Bridget is ostensibly a well-to-do professional with jobs in media, a central London property, a busy love and social life, she is distraught to find herself (shock horror) thirty, single and of an average weight. The movie’s world keeps making Bridget question herself in terms of her relationship status, whereas in Frances Ha, this hardly comes into the equation.

Two comparable dinner party scenes make for an interesting contrast of  current and past preoccupations.In the first, Bridget is the only single woman at a dinner party populated by “smug marrieds” who openly discuss her biological clock and try to hook her up with a suitable partner. A silence descends on the room when she is rudely asked why so many thirty year old female professionals are single and childless ‘these days’..

While family life is referenced in the dinner party scene from Frances Ha by a parent passing around photos of a baby on a mobile phone, it serves merely as an indication for how out of touch Frances is with the possibility of children or settling down. The ratio of couples to single people is also notable, as there is only one couple at this dinner party compared to the Bridget Jones scene. The conversation that causes the whole room to  fall silent in this movie instead hinges on how Frances’s career is non-existent, leading her to divulge personal information about how she is only an apprentice at her job and lives on a friend’s couch. Other guests are preoccupied with travel, career, and family whereas Frances babbles mindlessly about her friend- group like a teen at a grown-ups supper. The reaction of the other guests is mild embarrassment and it is clear that Frances has violated the status quo by not having her career or finances in order. More importantly, Frances does not have the sense to remain silent on certain topics which could provoke embarrassment. Whereas in Bridget Jones, career/ money issues are hardly mentioned, the broad focus of Frances Ha is succeeding professionally and attaining the vestiges of wealth, culture and sophistication. Perhaps considering that we are on the far side of a recession, these themes are not purely in the realm of feminism but seep also into the economic.

Another comparison includes the ‘feel good’ sequence showing Frances dancing her way around Manhattan to David Bowies Modern Love. Frances is alone, totally absorbed in her own movements, in her own path through the busy streets. She is filled it seems with the joy of her youth and her body, flitting along the pavement. When she returns to her apartment, the reality of her situation hits her and she sort of winces a bit but seems light-hearted enough about it all.

In stark contrast in Bridget Jones  we see a pajama- wearing Bridget alone in her apartment, drinking and watching Seinfeld, before tearfully lip syncing “All By Myself” by Celine Dion. Surrounded by the fruits of her gainful employment – a cosy home with a fire, phone, television etc we see her isolated in a world in which none of her experiences are considered valid without someone to share them with.

Frances on the other hand has nothing but aspires to having what Bridget really has, a circle of approving friends, money and a job in her chosen field. Both women face the admonishment of their peers for not living up to expectations for their age/ social class. However in Frances Ha it is refreshing to see a movie with a female protagonist where a relationship is not the end goal and where the woman’s fertility/ status is not obsessed about.

Review: “A Tale for the Time Being” by Ruth Ozeki

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‘A Tale for the Time Being’ is not a new novel, having been on the booker short-list in 2013. I read the back of it in a bookshop recently and was hooked! It is difficult to know where to start, reviewing this novel- so panoramic in it’s view that it takes in subject matter as diverse as cyber-bullying, multiculturalism, the Japanese Tsunami, Mental Health, Ecology, Schroedinger’s Cat, the second world war, 9-11… I could go on…

The rather bizarre plot hinges around a diary discovered by protagonist ‘Ruth’ on a beach in British Columbia. The diary contains the poignant writings of Japanese- American teen ‘Nao’, detailing her family’s decline since the silicone bubble burst and she and her parents relocated back to Tokyo from Silicone Valley. Nao’s father, once a successful techie now sits alone, unemployed in their tiny flat entering origami competitions and failing in his copious suicide attempts. Nao herself is bullied mercilessly at the hands of her new Japanese classmates, and slides into an underworld of cos-play costumes and prostitution in between diary- updating sessions. However, help is at hand from a stereotype smashing grandmother- zen buddhist nun Jiko who is tiny, anarchic and bald.

Nao’s plot is offset by Ruth’s story, which is quite stagnant. Ruth is a middle aged novelist living with her artist husband on a remote island in British Columbia. The trajectory of the novel feels as though the two women’s stories will collide towards the end and that Ruth will meet Nao and somehow help her, but Ozeki opens up the ending and a possible interpretation is that Ruth writes the final quarter of the book, having found that the diary just ends half way through.

Another reading sees the diary as a allegory for inspiration and the artistic process. This reading suggests that Ruth’s character finds the metaphorical diary and is encouraged to write again after a period of writer’s block, just as a writer might find threads of a plot and work with them until a novel is completed. References to Proust’s In Search of Lost Time abound throughout the narrative; Nao’s diary is bound in an antique copy of the book itself, and some quotes are interspersed. An interesting quote that prefaces part two could be seen to back up the reading I am suggesting here:

In reality, every reader when he is reading, is the reader of his own self. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to permit him to discern what, without the book, he would perhaps never have seen in himself. The reader’s recognition in his own self of what the book says is the proof of its truth”

The doubling of the author (Ruth) and her fictional “Ruth” is too much of a co-incidence to be passed up. The character Ruth’s preoccupation with the diary, her endless research, and deliberation on each episode could then be seen as research for a new work; the diary washed up by the tide could simply be driftwood floating up from what Buddhists refer to as “the ocean of samsara” in other words, the material world. The internet and the ocean here have a lot in common- dumping grounds for vast swathes of stuff or information, complicated places that lonely people go to,in hope of finding solace. “There’s nothing sadder than cyberspace when you’re floating around out there, all alone, talking to yourself” says Nao when she realizes only 12 people have ever visited her blog.

Complexities aside, this book has a real heart and I found it very moving- I have grossly over-simplified the plot here, there are many twists and turns which are very enjoyable to read.If you have no interest or belief in spiritual things some parts might induce a eye-roll, however because the majority of the text is written by a character who is sixteen years old, surely even the most hardened cynic will soften. In some places the “Ruth” side of the story dragged, however there were some gems even in this department, mainly the little domestic tensions between Ruth and her artist partner which reminded me of my own home life- where two creative people are constantly vying to talk about their current project.

I have already lent this book to one person who loved it, and would recommend it to anyone who is looking for a contemporary classic!

Recent Reads: The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, The Atheists Guide to Christmas and The History of the World in 100 Objects…

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…..Apologies for the hiatus, my internet provider was being changed and I got left without internet from November to Febraury. That’s what it’s like living in Ireland in one of the main “cities” in 2015. Ahem. Anyway!

I’ve read a few books in the past few months, here’s a quick over-view..

The first book I happened upon was The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher  by Hillary Mantel. I was still in Mantel overload after the Cromwell trio, but couldn’t pass up on this when I saw it in the library. It is also very pretty in hard-cover, shiny black with a gold rose, red lettering and a little navy pagefinder thingy. Gorgeous. There were some great stories in there, Mantel is a really skilled writer, producing stories that ping with tension. One that stands out is the title story, probably the best in the book. This story posits an alternate ending for Margaret Thatcher’s life. Without giving too much away, the IRA are involved and an unlikely accomplice from a leafy London suburb. Another excellent story was “Comma”, which focuses on childhood adventure and memory. Two young girls spy on a local with a strange disability, the narrator is now much older, remembering the hot summer they were friends. The hot summer is a character all of it’s own- a mythic rural Britain where adults laze about heat-shocked and children run wild through the bracken. I loved this story because it shows the narrator remembering her unlikely friend, who in retrospect was from a rough family and was probably neglected. Their two lives are contrasted, and the two girls who spied in the bushes together are “comrades” until the world sends them on their opposing courses. The narrator is middle class, the other (named Mary Joplin) is sent away to “reform school” and ends up saggy-faced, vacant -looking and pushing dirty laundry through the street. After childhood’s “comma” she represents a “full stop”. Her life is fixed and what becomes clear is the predestination of both girls lives- social class defining them. Poor Mary Joplin who was depicted as full of life and guff, lived the best of her life in those hot summers.

A book I was given over the Christmas is The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas. I’m not really sure if I’m an atheist or not. I went to mass on Christmas day and felt like a hypocrite. I never pray and don’t really believe in God, but there is something very comforting about Christmas Day Mass. I thought the Guide would be a joyless thing. A selection of artists, comedians, scientists and philosphers feature essays and I thought, ick. A bunch of hyper intellectual atheists sitting around smugly laughing at the masses and their opium. However, I delighted in this little book, which detailed lots of experiences similar to my own, from parents wanting to tell bible stories even if they didn’t believe to atheist carol singing. The overall impression that I got was this book was for people who wanted to take part in Christmas in some way even if the meaning for them was entirely different and personal. The beauty and wonder of the universe is presented starkly by many of the contributors, the physicist Simon Singh, even encouraged readers to tune in their radios to hear the static echo of the big bang- the beginning of all life-between stations. I would recommend this book for anyone who isn’t sure they are allowed to participate in Christmas for religious reasons. The answer is a resounding yes!

Another lovely book I came across recently is “The History of the World in 100 Objects”, which details the history of human life through profiling 100 objects which are on display at the British Museum. This book gave me a great sweeping overview of the history of human life on this earth, history in general being something I am a bit ignorant of, especially ancient history. My favourite object was a simple pebble carving dating from 9000 BC known as the Ain Sakhri Lovers Figurine. Found near Bethlehem, this pebble shows a couple having sex. The book explains that around 11,000 years ago, things were changing for humans.  The way we were living was becoming more settled and was based around farming rather than hunting and following herds of animals. This was also the first time humans began cultivating grain for harvest, and making bread. This new domestic order in human life meant that man now had pause to think about life, instead of just desperately struggling to survive. The figure represents a new focus on human relationships rather than earlier depictions of animals which show a preoccupation with survival. This carving might be the earliest representation of love, and although it is all speculation really, it is a nice thought. It really is a beautiful object, it looks so smooth and lovingly made. There is a real tenderness between the lovers, who look as though they are looking into each others eyes.

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                                          The Ain Sakhri Lovers

Right now I am reading Swann’s Way  because I decided 2015 is the year I am going to read Proust. So far it is not going well, and I am being lazy about it. More updates to follow!

Review: ‘The Blue Hour – A Portrait of Jean Rhys’ by Lillian Pizzichini

Review

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Some thoughts on Jean Rhys- her personality, times and the biography ‘The Blue Hour- A Portrait of Jean Rhys’ by Lillian Pizzichini, Bloomsbury, 2009.

Dealing with the life of  anarchic writer Jean Rhys could not have been easy- how should one approach a life of such rebellion and not sound judgemental- how to face such torment without being patronising or wallowing in it. I found Pizzichini’s treatment of Rhys in The Blue Hour to be fair- if not slightly light. This book is a breeze to read and is not heavy and laborious in it’s detail- giving enough to maintain momentum, culling anything unnecessary or unavailable. I liked, furthermore the tone of this book- no judgement here , the reader is encouraged to sympathise or at least laugh with Rhys even at her most vile. Spanning Rhys’s life from Dominica, through Paris in the 20’s, wartime mainland Europe and London during the blitz, Rhys was blessed or cursed to be born into interesting times. However, she isolated herself, and was seemingly and believably just not able to interact with people in an acceptable way, becoming violently angry with life and humanity as she aged into a difficult drunk before achieving fame in her 70’s around the time when she was producing her masterpiece (and my all-time favourite book) ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’. Her late acclaim was acknowledged by her to be too little too late, and unfortunately, happiness always evaded Rhys.

Part of the ‘problem’ with Rhys seems to have been the inability to sync with the world, to put down roots or empathise with others in such a way that would inspire her to act in a compassionate way. Combined with a huge need to please and be loved, Rhys spent much of her long life in mental torment. This tortured nature was the root of her talent though, and an affinity with misery, and ability to plumb the depths and recesses of the psyche is what spurned her to create her best work which flowed out of her in a cleansing  cathartic rage.

Rhys is, we must recognize, someone whose quirks would instantly be forgiven if she had been a man of genius rather than a woman of genius. Refusing to settle, refusing to  carry a child, then later refusing to mother for her offspring, refusing to act in a ladylike manner, refusing to appear sane are just some of the ‘transgressions’ which earned her the ‘outsider’ status she internalized for much of her life.

Likened in later life to Johnny Rotten, Rhys comes across as having been incapable of suppressing the urges most people safely keep under wraps at all times. There are some hilarious descriptions throughout this colourful book of her escapades, including chasing a disabled child around a village, attacking her neighbours, clubbing in her 70’s in a pink wig, urinating on an eminent journalist, attacking a fence and publicly wisecracking about Hitler during the second world war. Some sequences are harder to take, including Rhys’s reluctance to bond with her son who subsequently died of pneumonia aged three weeks and Rhys verbally abusing and beating her elderly spouse who was lying in bed after suffering a stroke.

Although her work, especially Wide Sargasso Sea  has been appropriated by the feminist cause by literary theorists, Rhys absolutely did not sympathise with feminists. Women were only sympathetic to her when they were vulnerable. She was a ‘man’s woman’ through and through, seeing other women as merely competition, and hopping from one tempestuous affair to the next. To be without a man was annihilation to Rhys, and even if a lover was in prison, the idea of being his partner seemed enough to sustain her. This prizing of sexual love over platonic bonds can be seen on one hand as a manifestation of Rhys’ inability to communicate adequately with others vocally- preferring the immediacy of relationship over the uncertainties of female friendship, preferring written correspondence to talk. She also had a terrible need to be ‘wanted’, and suffered greatly in her old age when her good looks began to dwindle. Her vanity is referred to repeatedly throughout the book, and again these observations say more about a society that expects women to become grey and content as they age, than about a woman who connects sexual desirability with her persona at all ages. Sad to say, I loved the idea of the anarchic 70 year old Rhys cursing and ranting through suburbia in a pink wig, being arrested repeatedly. Rhys was unwillingly part of a dying breed of artists who saw it as their vocation to be wild, bad and mad, instead of the very boring caution of today’s P-C, PR sanitized artists.

This book is well worth a read for anyone looking for a readable biography on Jean Rhys.

 

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Jean Rhys. From the Fay Godwin Archive at the British Library

Review: ‘A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing’ by Eimear McBride. (Contains plot spoilers).

Review

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After hearing rave reviews on this for quite a while now, and recently missing it’s stage adaptation in Dublin I decided it was high time to read this. I had to be noted on the waiting list at the library and couldn’t find it at the local bookshop, so the anticipation was strong!

For ages I have been reading blockbusters and things that are tame and non-demanding. This book blasted away my safe zones, and felled me, emotionally. I feel totally drained and empty after reading it; but with a new-found appreciation of Irish writing and the first -person ‘train of thought’ style. A debut novel from Eimear McBride- an Irish writer who won a pile of prizes since its publication in 2013, including the Baileys, Goldsmiths and Folio prizes.  After waiting almost nine years to find a publisher, this book I fear almost never made it to the bookshop shelf at all, which is a horrible thought as it is easily the best thing I have read in years, if not, ever.

The plot hinges around an un-named female narrator; as she tells her life in real time from earliest memories onwards. Gut-wrenchingly honest, this narrative deals with something common to literature – the sad life story- the Irish abuse -ridden catholic childhood- the guilt, the violence, the drink, addiction, shame, the absent father, the cruel mother. An apt review likened the narrative to a camera strapped to the heroines forehead. But she’s not a heroine really, she is a damaged girl, “half formed” maybe half-grown, left not nourished to fend for herself, while her over-zealous mother prayed for her son who suffered a childhood brain tumour.

Irish society is given a lashing and to be honest many of the characters were all too familiar and real. The schoolyard bullying of the disabled boy called ‘spastic’ to his face, the very Irish truisms of you’ll be grand, the Irish middle class- the golf, the gloat of small wealth, the outer smile thinly covering the rotting core.. our traditions, our songs, our old religion, our sleazy old men and young ‘madams’. It is nearly impossible to peg the time-frame of this story but it could be any time in rural Ireland over the past thirty years or so.

Female sexuality is another mainstay of this book. Following an early violation, a pattern is established in the sisters life ; sex to numb, followed by shame. She is damaged and rails against a controlling mother and religion that appear almost as one. But this rebellion is sadly not empowering, it is pitiful. Love has no place in this book or tenderness (except between the siblings). The childhood scenes are brutal and terrifying, paving the way for the teen that emerges, desperate, so isolated that she doesn’t ever even try to fit in.

Wanting to leave the rural backwater of their home, the days and hours are counted to the end of the leaving cert, brother and sister both. Brother wants the army having failed his exams, but his hopes are dashed when he fails the induction. Stacking shelves becomes a metaphor for the stagnation of rural Ireland, going nowhere after the sad years of bullying, her brother eats himself fat and plays computer games living at home with the mother who is giving in more to depression, hopelessness and religion.

The sister gets college and her leaving cert, but fails to make anything of her life away from home. She plays the city, hunting for men, drinking, it seems to drown out the noise of her family, the noise that will not go away.The train journeys frantically up and down the country, the phone’s bring -bring make escape from the epicentre of the damage impossible. Her brother’s health deteriorates and any wish of escape or transformation become memories that wash faintly away. Youthful optimism is replaced by surrender to her fate, repeated abuse, physical, psychological and sexual are commonplace- death becomes the light at the end of a nightmare -like life.

The experimental form worked for me, highlighting the immediacy of pain and making escape from the protagonists life impossible.I think the form was executed with real skill as normally experimental things make for laborious reading. Here’s an extract to give you an idea of the form. The sister knows at this point her brother has not long to live..

“You have fallen down my brother, my brother and my love. For you’re the first one I ever had. And we’ll be good as good we ever were. Gold. Children with running noses and straggly hair and cheeks all chapped and braised by the wind by the sea[….]We were not meant. I know. Meant to go wrong. How could we not. How to avoid that I can’t discover. When do you think I will see you again? Do you think that I will. I will. I will. For I won’t let go even when you’re gone. See it in my clock head. Ticking until you are run down. And I am frightened and I am afraid of the cold. Of the dark. Of the sea.” (p152-153).

I can’t praise this book highly enough.