Monday, 25 January 2021

When I think I'm reading one thing, and realise I'm NOT reading another - and it bugs me

Every now and again I fancy a story about implausibly wealthy people living their sparkly lives with constantly name dropped clothing brands.  Mostly I like them for the faraway places they visit and describe. I'm not going to really review this one or name it, as it's one of many like this out there, I just happened to remind myself of my annoyance by picking this one to read. 

 I was very bothered by this one because it visited South Africa, and I really wasn’t sure whether these white people should be living “in such glory” as the main male character put it. They have a female black servant called Anxious. There’s an episode of home invasion, dogs slaughtered, main male character shot, heroine and Anxious bound on the kitchen floor -- and the black men carrying out the crimes are complete afterthoughts in the story. They turn up, from poverty, that has been touched on, as his the prevalence of crime in Johannesburg, and the white man views it as the “price we pay” for the vast estates and beauty in which they live. The way there was no contextualising of the vicious crimes at all, committed by “bulging eyes” and somebody called “Somebody” – it was just something that happened. As if it was weather. That’s wrong. 

And if that was glided over in this way, it makes you remember what else was glossed over back at home, with the heroine’s husband a banker, and the financial crisis in full swing – the story is set in 2008. But it’s all just weather. None of it is grounded. The weather of the financial crisis stops the women spending so much, and they worry that their husbands are worrying; and out in South Africa a lovely interlude of passion is destroyed by violence that is never properly (or even a bit) explained. There is no explanation or suggestion of responsibility for either thing.  The empty gloss over is jarring.

I understand that this wasn’t a political story and didn’t want to grind those axes, but leaving such important parts of the story bare, not explaining even the smallest background information, perhaps assuming the reader just knows and has strong opinions already – which actually may be the case, in that there were several odd parts of the story where characters referred to themselves as having “British grit” or “British” stubbornness or stiff upper lippedness. A certain view of themselves as Britons. 

It’s not only Brexit that has soured me to ‘British’ as a chest beating qualification for anything other than my irritation; it’s when characters say things like this and we know they usually mean ‘British is Better’. An otherwise interesting, well-written and escapist novel, marred by areas of evasion and emptiness. A cake with nothing inside. Hopefully I'll pick my rest reading better next time.

Sunday, 6 September 2020

'Three Women' by Lisa Taddeo - absorbing, very sad, very familiar



This had much hype, which didn’t affect my enjoyment, but from reading the comments on the book itself and the comments of those in the BTM reading group, this book was very mixed in reception.  I found it very sad, and very true and oddly silent in places. 

Lina was gang-raped while still in school after being drugged, and seemed to idolise and stay stuck on an earlier crush from that era when she grew up, becoming obsessed with the perfect sexual experience and it’s meaning emotionally filling her life, for her to not be ‘disgusting’ , to be loved and seen – sex and desire were all mixed up with identity and absence.  She has an affair that becomes far more transactional than she can see it to be, with that same man, when they are both married to other people later.  He…treats her as a pet, an afterthought.  I wanted her to do better, but she was so obsessed with how he made her feel – I worried how she would feel when the affair eventually stopped – what scaffolding would support all the outward need she had to feel then? She had no good mirror reflecting back at her what was her own strength, only refractions of the past she played out in lurid emotion.  I really felt her.

Maggie had alcoholic parents and an early sexual experience that she was crucified in school about, followed by an affair with a teacher - at which point she got totally stuck and could not move on: it had been so intense and real and unfinished and then it was a court case and no one believed her [except a little old man, and a reporter, but after the fact].  We see her lose hope near the end, and her father has also killed himself; but not about this…that is a big silence in the book – Maggie’s reaction to her father’s death.  I hope she does ok.

And Sloane.  A rich girl who knew how it all should look on the outside and went to great lengths to make it look right, swinging when suggested by her husband, being the right level of agreeable – ‘optimal’ as the protagonist of Harrow Lake would have said.  An eating disorder to be prettily slender.  In many ways her story was the least interesting because we got to hear the least of it, and because she had/has perfected outward appearance – she’s preserved in amber for however long: the thinnest, prettiest, most agreeable wife sexually.  I felt Sloane needed friends. That you don’t compete with; just friends.

The book was supposed to be about the desires of women, how we feel it and what it does in our lives.  What I read, more than anything, was how empty we seem to be, how small and delicate our sense of self-worth, how we constantly seek to optimise, change, manipulate it for love and a sense of wellness or joy of LIFE of being AWAKE AND HERE!  It was very very sad, to read so many different lives and to see them all come down to the same basic thing: we feel unloved or unheard or unworthy, we are never enough, we must always change for others, our self is always mirrored from without, never self-sustaining.  We’re fossil fuel; we need to get renewable!

All the women seemed totally formed by the school age years and in Sloane’s case, a bit before, regarding sexual experience as formative for personality.  The early years are so important; so many of us get stuck with the identity we feel then, and subsequent change or layering is very much from that point, it felt. We don’t seem to realise we are stuck with the teen or tween we were, and a lot of our thinking about love and sex comes direct from feelings and experience of that era, not now. Stunted growth; sometimes poison, tumourous growth around incidents that happened then. Arrested emotional development.

This is only one of many facets of women’s lives.  You don’t worry about emotional voids when you’re trying to pay the rent or you just lost your job, or your living situation is unsafe…But these are portrayals of states of mind and resulting actions that made sense, and felt familiar; done some, seen some. It makes me want, more than ever, to be more self-sustaining myself. The weird thing is, you ask people who are, and they can’t explain to you how it’s done, they just do it.  I’m not sure how much of the changing behaviour can be learned from books either.  But I keep looking.  

 Lisa Taddeo

Sunday, 26 July 2020

How Do You Like Me Now? by Holly Bourne - problematic, but really readable

I'm here a bit late for this book.  I can see why it got compared to Bridget Jones’s Diary a lot.  And I can see how really middle class it is – as Bridget Jones’s Diary was, in ways I couldn’t when I first read Bridget all those years ago.  You don’t see class so much when you’re younger, unless you’re in a very bad situation where it’s obvious.  Who ARE these people that have endless money to spend going to weddings?  And buying an extra £150 of hair and face product because their ‘facialist’ said so? [When did we stop calling them beauticians?  ‘Cos facialist sounds porny.]

The other thing here was that I really didn’t like Tori, I found her difficult to sympathise with even though I got her.  Her life was ultra modern - an autobiographical self-help book leading to a social media and speaking tour life.  It wasn’t that she was moany – that was honesty.  She was so…her life was so meaningless.  I know it was meant to show how she was enslaved to caring what others thought and how things looked and how that made her judgemental and cold as well as horribly vulnerable, because needing all that outside validation kept her forever open to high levels of emotional draining from everyone and every situation. 

Plus, her BF did behave like a dick, though I’m not convinced that was a portrayal of narcissism; more simple emotional unavailability and stunted emotional development.

I totally got what she said about pre and post baby women, and the sadness of losing someone to that change of internal weather.  It is that tragic when it happens to you.  It’s that tragic when you’re the mum and you are still on the wrong side of the divide – you are still your regular self, just with another human close by who needs care and attention, whom yes, you love unconditionally – but no, it’s not all wonderful.  I am still almost entirely ME. Which is a guilt that doesn’t get explored much.

There was enough in here that was universal that I got – who hasn’t experienced that blow job?; but the females I know of swallowed all of it. (EDIT: 2 days later: why did I write it like that?  Like its a competition - we swallowed it all and Tori didn't?  Like 'we' had it worse?  I didn't mean that; or that it's more normalized.  I think I meant the experience is a bit different but familiar to so many of us.) And yes, it’s very weird that men don’t like to taste themselves on us, in my experience.  What is that about?  Also, there’s a missing scene where a vibrator was going to be a problem, and that scene never happened and is never after alluded to.  Hopefully circumstances made it so Tori never had to go there, as she didn’t want to. But it was odd the way it was built up as a problem then just disappeared.  I got the feeling the scene was edited away.  But not why.

Anyway – an engrossing read, I cared, I wanted her to be happier, I was glad when she went off in the next hopefully better direction.  She had help many of us don’t – a seemingly excellent income; a home she could abandon, and somewhere else to go where they would be happy to have her and have space to put her up for a while.  She had the choice to make a change and the financial ability to make it happen there and then. 

For all my snarkiness, this needed to be told.  But it’s not the best book since sliced bread as many people have recommended it to me as; I see too much class in it – and not mine, so I feel prickly.  That’s not Holly Bourne’s fault.   

I’d recommend this, most people liked Tori as a character more than I did – plus, I usually can’t stay with books or TV/film where I don’t like the characters or at least am enjoying disliking them – but this one I stayed with because I wanted her to be happier.  I worried near the end that she might actually commit suicide, and was relieved it didn’t go that way.   

Also, about the end, when she wrote that letter to her editor, suggesting another book – did that mean she was going to be honest again as before, or that she was going to re-create exactly the same mistake again, by being honest and authentic initially and then lying ever after and becoming addicted to the social media look and like universe?  I wasn’t sure.  Was she saved, or not?  Maybe it was meant to be ambiguous, as we all know what it is to repeat and repeat our mistakes…

Oh, and this book was very funny too.  But the topics underneath that were so serious (underneath the facecream instructions and the shampoo that doesn't weigh down our damn hair) that it's easy for me to forget. 

Remind me to never attempt to be a social influencer, and to never try and know a heroine.  Just leave them where they are, with the book you read and re-read, the film you felt inspired by, the look you base part of your own on.  Take only what's given, don't claw more.  Our heroines are people too.

Friday, 29 May 2020

The Water Cure, by Sophie Mackintosh - not so small review thoughts

SPOILERS! If you haven’t read the novel and want to, probably don’t read this…

It’s difficult to know what to say about this one.  At first I didn’t like reading it at all.  It was a deeply alien environment, these women’s minds, and it felt unpleasant – I didn’t want to keep learning about their lives, where their parents hurt and abused them for love and to keep them safe from an outside world that’s contaminated.  I suspected it wasn’t really, or not to the extent they were told; that their parents were really running a mini cult with their girl children as the unwitting members…It’s never quite made plain, what happened in the ‘outside’, beyond the barbed wire ‘border’. It may have been climate change accelerated, and they may have been in an area where there’s less rights for women anyway [a forwards-backwards time line of a situation set-up].

But then the small chapters and spare sentences grew on me.  I wanted to know what was really going on.  It was almost like a thriller, told very slowly and obtusely, with slow footsteps in sand, and lots and lots of salt and semi-drownings.  The revelation that the mother is dead – sanctioned by the father you thought was dead but isn’t, who sent the men to bring the women back ‘to the mainland’, as their lives isolated had been ‘a failure’ – “our lives are our lives” Grace thinks – the angriest woman in the book.  Lia, so often the least-loved [and how fucked up is the ‘choose who you love by lots for the year’ system?], falls for the charms and meat-presence of the men the quickest, so desperate for love: “love enough to make you sick”.

So many truths in this book: Lia watches Llew move and thinks –

There is a fluidity to his movements, despite his size, that tells me he has never had to justify his existence, has never had to fold himself into a hidden thing, and I wonder what that must be like, to know your body is irreproachable.

Instead, Lia knows: ‘The body is the purest sort of alarm. If something feels wrong, it probably is.’ But then, she cuts herself often, to make sure her pain equals that of her sisters, so that they will still love her and see her as one of them.  The things we all do, this thing, or other things.

It’s a book not just about the difference between men and women – they are meat, solid, strong, dangerous; the women had been carefully and deliberately brought up to be vitamin deficient and weaker than need be, to keep them in the ‘utopia’ their parents had been trying to build.  It’s also about the cruelty women do to other women because love can be unsafe, between men and woman, between women.  All those semi drownings, part baptism, part controlled revenge.  The way their emotions were denied or funnelled into physical acts designed to show them how fragile their bodies were.  The more I think about it, the more I feel the parents were monstrous.  King toward Grace – ‘love of family, magnified’. Mmm. 

Lots of other reviewers describe the book as luminous and haunting, and it is that, the language is controlled and beautiful and deadly – it hits you and you feel the attenuated lives they lead, the suffocation of it, the need to break free, but the fear always there.  Which is why the sad scenes near the end, where the male characters are killed feel so inevitable and hurtful:  Gwil, by cruelty and loneliness [lack of a mother?  But the only mother in this book is not a good one, she is fighting an internal war through her children’s bodies and lives]. James, who tells the truth to Grace and expects womanly comfort – he gets revenge for being a man in on keeping them in the dark, he is removed as the beginning of their escape and path to adulthood; and then Llew, who has proved deceitful and opportunistic, is executed by Lia….it’s why those scenes are even sadder.   

Given their upbringing, the women would react this way to the men. A very true to life blending of self-defence and pre-emptive action against a whole group of known aggressors.  What they did made perfect sense, in the story.  Then men had hurt them - just as they had been brought up to expect.  It was why Gwil was treated badly as a little man, too small yet to be of harm, but unloved by the women because he would become One of Them. Sad and needless, his death.

I keep wanting to call them ‘girls’ as I write, because so much about them was kept in a state of false childhood dependency by their parents – all those exercises to make them strong were also a regime to divide and conquer them, keep them down.  Sky wasn’t even allowed to be taught to read; King and Mother saw how quick to respond Lia was getting and there went her younger sister’s future reading chances.

It was needless, is what’s so sad.  The violence.  And the mini cult - where other ‘damaged women’ used to come till one of them drowned; another killed herself...medicine and trauma close in effect.  And then the ending, where the sisters brave the outside world – a bit reminiscent of The Truman Show – another story of someone lied to for life who goes off to see what the real world was like…Or a reverse Picnic at Hanging Rock; the girls had been living a reality totally real to them, but not the same world a lot of others were in. So they go off, after one last baptism to take away fear and that has rebound them together, without the awful parents, off hopefully, ‘without fear’ to the rest of the world. 

And also without money, passports or a real clue what the world they are going to is like…I worry. Almost like they were the fabled children raised in the forest by wolves: it makes you fierce, but can you speak the language of everyone?  Can anyone communicate with you? Will you be able to make a place for yourself outside?  But I speak as an outsider myself, so I’m probably projecting.

There’s so much more that could be said about this book and all the comparisons and links in life now, to come, in the past – I’m sure more will come to me when I think more (which I will be doing) – but I came straight here to try and understand what I initially thought.

Got a horrible feeling this wonderful dystopia will stay with me.  There’s a reason I don’t read dystopian novels – and it’s not just that they are grey in colour, futuristic, usually mechanised and just depressing…this is the first I’ve read with beaches and sunlight and birdsong.  It’s because most of them are horribly plausible, and there’s enough to worry about right here right now, already.  It’s as if this book already happened somewhere.  Or is happening.

The Water Cure