Tuesday, 17 April 2012

83/111 - Full Frontal Feminism by Jessica Valenti

I decided to read this fairly swiftly after reading the Nina Powers book, because she directly criticises Jessica Valenti and I wanted to make a judgement for myself. As I said, I have read some of her stuff already in The Purity Myth, so I was fairly confident that I would enjoy this, and I did.

It's quite different, and the style is very colloquial with a lot of swearing. At times I found that this was maybe a little distracting or trivialising, however on the whole I really enjoyed the style. She makes a really excellent point that I have definitely felt myself that a lot of academic feminism (or any subject, for that matter) which is very dense can be totally unaccessible to people. I found this a lot at university, and generally I'm unimpressed by people who can use big words and complicated sentences. If I can't understand what you've said at the end of a sentence then it's pretty much just bullshit, isn't it? I felt this in particular with one stuffy git of a tutor on a Samuel Beckett course that I then dropped out of (my general feeling was that if Samuel Beckett knew that we were studying him, he'd probably be rolling in his grave).

I had a similar problem with Gender Trouble by Judith Butler. I really wanted to read it, really wanted to feel enlightened or to be able to disagree with her, but the fact that I couldn't even dissect what she was talking about surely means that she's a failure? I think I remember reading somewhere that she has since acknowledged this, because it's all very well for well-educated people to get stuck into academic texts, but how about the women who have never had the chance to pursue further education, or whose first language is something other than English? High academic texts exclude more people than they include, in my opinion, therefore making them kind of worthless. So yeah, I was glad that this book was understandable, as well as likeable.

There were several points that Jessica made which really crystallised what I had been feeling in much better words, for example she talks a lot about the way that teenage girls having sex (and enjoying it) is seen as pretty much the worst thing ever. She says that it's not real concern for their safety or well-being, it's about "legislating morality" which is a really excellent way of putting it.

She also talks about the complications of being a feminist, but also enjoying things that come from the system that is oppressing us, for example make-up and high heels. Now I'm not such a massive fan of either, so maybe hair is a good example. I like for my hair to look good, and I like to wear it long because it suits me and I think I look good with it down, however Jessica makes the point that it's important for us to be aware of why we like the things we do, even if they are a product of that system, because we can never really be totally separate from it, nor would we necessarily want to.

The main audience for the book does seem to be middle class white women, however she does spend some time towards the end of the book talking about different kinds of oppression which intersect one another, such as class and race, however there isn't much mention of feminism on a global scale. I guess you've got to stop somewhere, but it would have been nice to have that side of things acknowledged, too.

The more that I read of this, the more that I disagreed with Nina Power's assessment of Jessica Valenti. Jessica's book is fun and accessible to read, and although I enjoyed Nina Power and agreed with a lot of what she had to say, I wouldn't say it was particularly inspiring or fun. This is one of the points Jessica makes towards the end of the book, too. When she talks about academic feminism and accessibility, she is also talking about inspiring a new generation of young women to become involved in and care about the aims of feminism. If all the fun is taken out of it, and if the young women are not allowed to be a part of the decision-making processes, then there will be no one to hand the torch to. Although I understand that there is a fine line between fun and flippant - it would be shitty to be involved in this fun movement and not get taken seriously, after all.

Anyway, I liked this a lot, and it did inspire me. I've signed up for some subscriptions to a couple of feminist publications, which will hopefully be arriving at my doorstep on a monthly basis, as I'm not a big fan of reading stuff on a computer screen. Go feminism!

Friday, 13 April 2012

82/111 - Before I Go To Sleep by SJ Watson

I bought this book around the same time that I bought Go To Sleep by Helen Walsh, which was totally balls. However, I had heard from a couple of friends that this was really good in a We Need To Talk About Kevin kind of way, and it was.

The story is a first person account from Christine, who wakes up each day not knowing where she is. She cannot remember anything from her life past her early twenties, and everything she learns each day, she forgets upon waking the following morning. She lives with her husband Ben, and each day he goes through the same ritual of telling her that he is her husband, that she has been in an accident, etc etc. Each day she is also contacted by a Dr. Nash who has been seeing her for a while as a patient without the knowledge of her husband. Each day he too has to explain who he is, and crucially he explains where she keeps her journal, where she has been keeping a record of their meetings each day. As she starts to piece together details of her life, Christine starts to sense that Ben is keeping things from her.

This was a really suspenseful and compelling book, and there was a point at which I thought it was totally going to lose me in a really stupid way. Throughout the book, Christine is always suspicious of Ben, and there is always a hint that something sinister is going on and that there will be some massive twist. However, towards the end of the book, Christine starts to try and convince herself more and more that Ben cares for her, and that he loves her - this is also what she has heard from the people around her. For a while, I thought that the twist might be that she is just paranoid and the resolution would be that she ends up loving and trusting her husband, which would have been super lame. I can confirm that there is a twist, and it is very gripping.

I read this in one day, and I really enjoyed it, however the book heavily relied upon the plot device that Christine is an unreliable narrator, so I'd be really interested to see what else this author can do.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

81/111 - The Men Who Stare At Goats by Jon Ronson

I saw the film of this when it came out at the cinema a couple of years ago - it didn't really leave much of an impression on me, but I'd heard that the book was a lot better. Also, after having read and enjoying The Psychopath Test, when I saw this for 99p, I couldn't really resist.

The book is definitely more interesting than the film, however in a lot of ways more frightening. I was most interested in the parts regarding non-lethal methods of interrogation, such as blasting music at detainees non-stop, and Jon is never able to get to the root of whether they US army have successfully implanted subliminal messages into audio.

One of the things that was really striking for me is that I can't really remember that being a part of the film at all. The film focuses more on the psychic soldier program, and I don't remember there being a sinister undertone - it mostly seems to focus on humour. This relates directly to what Jon talks about in the book - when the story first broke regarding detainees being played music endlessly as a form of torture, it was looked upon very lightly by the global media, almost as a joke. How could it be torture to listen to Sesame Street songs all day and all night, without any respite whatsoever, with a bright light constantly being turned on and off in your face? Really creepy stuff.

There was also some exploration into Guantanamo Bay and Abu Grahib prison, and the tactics used there to interrogate prisoners. It's kind of hard to believe that even today this kind of thing is going on, and it wouldn't surprise me if future generations looked upon these wars and prisons and compared them to the ways the Nazis treated the Jews during WWII. That sounds a little bit preachy I guess, but to me the similarities are obvious, and it's probably something that we'll look back upon with great shame. Hopefully, anyway.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

80/111 - Starters by Lissa Price

I'm reading a lot of fiction aimed at teenagers at the moment, partly because it's easy for me to read at the moment, and also because there's a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction out there, and I'm a total sucker for it. Funnily enough, I saw a trailer for this book in the cinema when I went to see The Hunger Games last week (waaaaay too long) and I was immediately interested with the idea. Now that I think of it, this seems to be the primary way by which I select my books - is the elevator pitch good? If so, then I'm sold.

Callie and her younger brother, Tyler, are orphans, just like most children. After a biological war, everyone between the ages of 20 and 60 is dead, because these people were the last to be vaccinated. Now, you have a world with Starters and Enders, being the young and the old respectively. If you had grandparents, then you were in luck and could stay with them, however if not, you take to life on the streets at the risk of being put in an institution. The Enders are in power, however their bodies are too decrepit to really enjoy life, so one company devises a rental scheme, whereby a young person can be put to sleep and an old person's consciousness is implanted in their body to inhabit for a rental period. The idea is that they get to have their fun, and the donor gets to wake up and take home a load of cash. Obviously, Callie decides to do this as she and her brother are in desperate need of food and medicine, and a roof over their heads, however the person renting her body has some devious plans.

I enjoyed this - the main character wasn't simpering and annoying, and although there are the two de rigueur love interests that she'll obviously have to choose between, it wasn't too overpowering to the whole book. Interesting, but maybe a little simplistic in places. I'll probably read the next one when it comes out.

Next: The Men Who Stare At Goats by Jon Ronson

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

79/111 - Highly Inappropriate Tales for Young People by Douglas Coupland

I bought this really recently because I can't resist a good Douglas Coupland book. I think The Gum Thief is my all time favourite of his, but I also really enjoyed Player One. I liked this too, but I was hoping for a little more than I got.

The book contains seven very short illustrated stories, all with a sort of child-like theme - two of the stories feature action figures as their main character, for example. They are all illustrated by Graham Roumieou, who I haven't really heard of before, but I liked the illustrations and they sort of reminded me of the illustrations in The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy. The stories also had this kind of feel to them, too.

Of the stories, one of my favourites was featuring an action figure who is a homeless Vietnam war veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder. He gets kidnapped and imprisoned by a boy, and has flashbacks of his time in 'Nam, and when he escapes, he blows the boy's head up. Another one I liked was the last story of the book, whose main character is an alcoholic people-carrier who lures children into his interior and then shakes them down for money and small electronics. He then takes these to a liquor store and gets his tank filled with cheap vodka. Both quite bleak stories. I also liked the story about the juice box who is a bully to the other juice boxes, and he lures them outside to get crushed under the wheels of passing cars. He also likes to pierce their foil holes, which is a huge taboo.

I liked this, but I don't really have any strong feelings about it. It felt a little bit diluted, and I would have liked to have seen the stories be a bit longer and more detailed, and with more traditional Douglas Coupland in them. It's a gorgeous book, but I was a little unsatisfied at the end.

Next: Starters by Lissa Price

Monday, 9 April 2012

78/111 - Drive by James Sallis

I bought this book quite recently on an impulse because I saw the film last year and had enjoyed it a lot. The book is also good, although quite different from the film, and there are obviously some parts that they've altered to make the film seem more 'whole' I guess.

I really liked the narration in this, it's sort of told from the first person, but in a detached kind of way. I forget the actual term for it. Driver is the main character, and like in the film, we never find out his name. There is also a lot more insight into his background and his character in the novel - we find out that his mother murders his father, and that he comes to LA penniless and moves from place to place while doing stunt work and getaway driving on the side. In the film we don't get any of this background info, which I didn't mind at all when watching it.

One of the most striking things about the film (and also about the book, to a lesser extent) is how little dialogue there is in it. Driver barely speaks at all in the film, although he's a little more chatty in the book. Another surprising point about the film is that there is almost no driving in it. There are only a couple of scenes where the driving is the pivotal point, and whilst it features a little more heavily in the book, it's still not as prominent as the title might lead you to believe. In fact, someone in the US actually tried to sue the studio for misleading her because she assumed that the film would be something closer to Fast and Furious.

Where the film also puts more emphasis on the relationship between the driver and Irene, which I liked, not because it was romantic, but because it was unusual. In the book, he still has strong links with them however it's more as though it's mentioned in passing. Another big difference is that in the novel, Irene is shot and killed, and Benicio is taken to live with his grandparents, which was a little sad.

In all, I'd say that I preferred the film over the book, however I also really liked the book a lot, especially the narration. I read it in one sitting, and it just sort of slid over me very easily.

Next: Highly Inappropriate Tales for Young People by Douglas Coupland

Thursday, 5 April 2012

77/111 - Feminism: A Very Short Introduction by Margaret Walters

I bought this book quite recently as it was on special offer somewhere. I have a growing collection of books on the subject of feminism and it occurred to me that although I would consider myself a feminist, I don't actually know all that much about its history. I'm not convinced that this is essential to being a feminist, but it's always good to know nonetheless.

I've read a couple of books in this series before, and so I was prepared for a crash course and also prepared not to understand quite a lot of it. There is a huge amount of facts in here, and sometimes not a lot of detail, but you can't really get that deep in only 130 pages. The book primarily concentrates on feminism in the UK, however later also talks a lot about women across the world.

I was surprised to find out that feminism has been a derogatory term since the 1800s, and that many women who we look at as feminists (like Virginia Woolf) actually wanted to distance themselves from the term itself. Early British feminists were concerned with enabling women to vote and also with passing laws which gave women equality with men in terms of marriage and property rights. I was also surprised to hear about the direct action taken by first wave feminists fighting to get the vote for women. Some of their actions included breaking windows and setting fire to houses of politicians who opposed the vote for women.

The other parts I found really interesting were the explorations of what feminism could mean to women of different social classes, races, religions, sexual orientations and cultures. The type of feminism which is dominant here is, as I've mentioned before, concerned with body image, balance between work and family life and the pornification of young girls. It's really easy to forget that in many cultures, women are still fighting for basic human rights, let alone feminist rights like voting. In cultures where girls are less valued than boys, if they are not killed at birth, then they are fed less food which hinders brain development, and then they are married off, some as young as ten years old. They have no education, live in poverty and then they too have children very young, possibly dying in childbirth and then whole cycle repeats itself once more.

Within western culture too, there is a large divide in what feminists want. The desires of middle class feminists seem trivial when compared to working class feminists whose struggles keep them in poverty, and sometimes this is even enabled by middle class feminists (think about a white woman who employs an immigrant maid, or an au pair from overseas).

I'm not saying that white middle class feminism is less important, because clearly it's important to a lot of people, and as a white middle class woman it speaks to me because these are issues that affect me directly. However, clearly I have a lot of learning to do. The issues that white middle class feminists are concerned with are intensely personal, and I think they're kind of a distraction from larger global issues. I also see this connection with what's going on in American politics (and also recently, British politics). There is this huge HUGE focus on reproductive rights for women, and whether gay marriage should be legal. Both of these issues are massively important, and I fully support full reproductive rights for women as well as any kind of marriage. However both of these issues are personal ones - I have a real problem with politics that wants to tell me what to do on a personal level not only because I don't think it's anyone's business, but because there are issues that are MUCH more important. How about that fact that in some countries, being gay is punishable by death? Or how about that we're in several global conflicts? Or that a huge percentage of the population don't have access to basic things like healthcare and clean water?

The conspiracy theorist in me wants to say that these personal issues are being beefed up to distract us from larger issues. Yes, it's important that full reproductive rights are available to women, but there are bigger problems I think. It's so difficult because these have become such divisive issues. On the one hand, I would vote against any party that threatened to take away my reproductive rights, but what if that party also had incredible policies in place for fixing the economy, or pulling out of conflicts, or investments in the environment? I guess it's got to be a compromise, but it's ridiculous that these issues are the ones which will ultimately get the votes one way or the other.

That's all for now.

Next: Drive by James Sallis

76/111 - In Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan

I bought this book a while ago, and have only recently gotten around to reading it. I bought it after I had read Andrew Kaufman's All My Friends Are Superheroes, and absolutely loved it. A colleague of mine at the time recommended a couple of other slim novels of a similar feel - little hidden gems, I guess, and so I bought them. One of them was Fup, by Jim Dodge, which I read around a year ago, which was also kind of weird and funny. This was the third one he recommended to me.

I began reading it without really knowing what it was about, the back sounded sort of Douglas Coupland-ish and I had fairly high hopes considering how much I had enjoyed the other two. I could NOT finish it. Hated it. I had a look on Amazon to see what other people thought of it, and it has shitloads of rave reviews about how incredible and life-changing this book is. Really? I'm seriously guys, I could barely make it past the halfway point.

The book seems to be about a nameless kind of dude who lives in a weird world, much of which is made of watermelon sugar (I looked up 'watermelon sugar' on Wikipedia and Google, and it's not a thing), and I think he's having some sort of affair. There is a group of people and they all live sort of communally I guess? I don't know, I didn't reach the end. I guess it's a metaphor of some kind, but it didn't really say anything to me.

There are a lot of books I can think of that have a similar sort of feel to this, like Light Boxes by Shane Jones, for example. It's also told in this very detached style, but the narrator didn't come across as such a boring fuck. I really felt like it was trying too hard to be nonchalant, and yet meaningful, like, 'yeah whatever babe, I'm deep but I don't give a shit'.

Because of all these rave reviews and the cult following, I feel like I might be missing out on something, but it's not the first time a supposedly amazing book has disappointed me - I also couldn't stand reading Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut. I've tried to read it two or three times, thinking that perhaps I haven't been in the right frame of mind to like it but I haven't had any success so far. Maybe I'll try both of them again one day, but for now I have bigger and better things to get on with.

Next: Feminism: A Very Short Introduction by Margaret Walters

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

75/111 - Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

I've read this book before, but I decided to watch the movie recently so I decided to read it again and see how it compared to the film. It's an autobiography of a young woman who is admitted to a psychiatric hospital back in the sixties. She goes for what she thought would be a couple of weeks and ends up staying there for almost two years, and the book is partly about her time inside and partly about her efforts to make sense of the journey that led her there now that she is older. The book is also pretty critical of the institution of psychiatry as a whole.

It's a very short book, and I read it all in one sitting but it definitely packs a punch. It's incredibly easy to read, which was great after Jasper Fforde, and each chapter is kind of a vignette which is loosely knitted together with the other chapters of the book. Through these, we are introduced to Susanna's situation and to  some of the other patients in the hospital. There are a lot of sad bits, but also a lot of funny bits too, and even though the glimpses into the world are very brief, I thought they did an excellent job of illuminating the whole story.

Throughout the book, there are also copied records of Susanna's medical files from her admission to the hospital until her release date, which she struggled hard to get. I would have liked to have seen these in more detail, but I have a crappy edition of the book and so everything is pretty fuzzy. Throughout the book she critiques the medical side of things, for example there's a quite chilling question that Susanna has been struggling to answer. Before her admission, she was seen by a doctor she never met before who admitted her almost immediately to the hospital. According to his notes, he examined Susanna for three hours, however according to her recollection, it can't have been more than half an hour. Once she has her medical records she goes back in and tracks the timeline from the rest of the paperwork, admitting along the way that she could be an unreliable witness. However the outcome is that her timings add up - in just half an hour and she is institutionalised for almost two years.

She also critiques her diagnosis of borderline personality disorder, which, according to the literature is 'more frequently diagnosed in females' and the characteristics of which are more prejudiced against 'female' activities, like shopping and self-harm. One of the 'symptoms' is promiscuity, and Susanna makes the point that none of these symptoms are quantified - how many men would I have to sleep with to be considered promiscuous? How many women would a man have to sleep with for the same label?

Lots of interesting stuff.

I can't say I enjoyed the film as much. It was good, but a little too different. I thought that Winona Ryder was good as Susanna, and Angelina Jolie was good as Lisa, but they expanded her role in the film a lot. Same with Whoopi Goldberg, who plays the head nurse, Valerie. In the film, Susanna's and Lisa's relationship is seen very much as a kind of power struggle, and bordering on obsession. They escape together and kiss in the back of a van, for example. It's all a little too dramatic. Towards the end, there is also an awful montage scene where we see Susanna magically getting better, and it seems like once she has seen how low mental illness can bring you, she is snapped out of it and just sort of 'decides' to get better. The scene contains shots of her laughing and sitting on a couch gesticulating while her psychiatrist looks on with a knowing smile, and fading in and out is her voice, narrating.

I thought the film was a little harmful in a way - in several places Susanna is described by others as 'not being crazy' and just being a 'selfish little girl' - clearly she must have been more ill than she realised to be institutionalised?? I very much disliked the idea that she was just 'slightly troubled' and just had a few silly ideas, because I think this really trivialises things.

Good book, average film.

Next: not sure yet.

74/111 - One of Our Thursdays is Missing by Jasper Fforde

So I finally got round to reading the last Thursday Next book! I've been putting this one off for quite a while now, because even though I always enjoy reading them, they are very cerebral and quite complex to read. I found that I really needed to fully immerse myself in them to get the best out of them. Some books are easier for dipping in and out of at different times, but this series has required a lot of concentration.
This was a little different from the other books, because Thursday is not the main protagonist of the story. Thursday has gone missing, and it is the written Thursday who has to look for her, and this is a kind of coming-of-age story for her, I guess.

In this volume, the Bookworld has also been remade somewhat, and books are now grouped together in different genres in a physical way - there is designated land for crime, suspense, horror etc. The books themselves can all be moved around if necessary - for example a book from the island of vanity publishing could be moved to published fiction if it gets picked up by a publisher in the real world. In fiction, there is even a section for conspiracy theories - on the rare occasion that a conspiracy theory is proven to be true, they are then moved to non-fiction, which causes somewhat of an identity crisis. I also really liked the idea that comedy is a dangerous genre to go into, and there is a great scene where the written Thursday is attacked by a hoard of mimes.

That's all for now.

Next: Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

73/111 - The Killables by Gemma Malley

I saw this book only the other day and the premise looked interesting so I thought I'd go for it. It was on an 'adult' table in Waterstone's, but I got the feeling from reading it that it's really aimed at teenagers, and I'm pretty sure that the author is also a teenage author.

It's an idea very similar to a lot of the books I've read recently, but it was quite poorly executed. It's set in a world where evil is the worst thing possible, and must be eradicated. All the citizens are monitored constantly and they aren't allowed to leave the city, and are told that anyone dwelling outside the city is evil and to be feared. Basically, it's exactly like the plot of the Lauren Oliver series about love, but substitute love with evil.

The plot of this book was pretty similar, the main character does her bit in the society, but is never quite sure that it's right for her and always feels a bit out of place. She meets up with a guy called 'Raffy', whose name I can only remember because it's so shitty. Raffy is the brother of some other dude, who the main character is 'matched' to and will have to marry.

I'm not going to explain any more because it's basically the same exact book.

I really didn't like the writing in this, in parts there was a lot of superfluous detail, and in others it moved ridiculously quickly. The main character has basically no personality to speak of and is pathetic and weak (no doubt in the second book, she'll be 'stronger') and the other characters are painfully cliched. God I sound like such a bitch.

This was dreadful, I've learned my lesson, and now it's back to Jasper Fforde for me.