Esther Freud’s Lucky Break

I have to admit here that I never heard of Esther Freud before getting a freecopy of this book from the Mumsnet [non-feminist] fiction book club. I have vague recollections of thinking that I might enjoy watching a Kate Winslet movie called Hideous Kinky but I don’t think I ever got around to actually watching it.

Clearly, this was a massive over-sight on my part since Lucky Break is fucking brilliant [and that’s not just because I’m still cranky about wasting my time reading the misogynist wankfest which was Paula McLean’s The Paris Wife last month]. It is well-written, funny, engaging with a host of characters that you might actually want to be friends with – as well as some men that should immediately put on the list of undateable wankers.Loved the fact that she left the ending open so I could choose their futures. It’s the only disappointing bit of Kris Radish’s The Elegant Gathering of White Snows. The epilogue was unnecessary and ruined my fun of deciding the happiness of the characters. I like the fact that Freud leaves us with an ending which isn’t really an ending. I like being able to believe that Jemma dumps the useless selfish narcissist Dan and waltzes off into her own successful career as a screen writer and actress with 4 children under ten in tow whilst he gets stuck playing a chicken in really bad ads which only air at 4 in the morning. Or, that Nell is actually the successful and incredible actress she deserves to be and finds a real partner and not the usual arsehat that successful actresses end up with in real life. I also hope she waltzes back to the “drama school” she attended and gets to make fun of the directors there who didn’t recognize the real talent when it was in front of them. I like the fact that I can believe that Charlie is finally happy with who she is instead of what she thinks should make her happy.
So, this is obviously an outstanding recommendation since it does deal with the issue of the “casting couch”; that lovely euphemism for the sexual exploitation of women within the industry and the total failure of the industry to take that exploitation seriously. It deals with being invisible for not being a “proper woman” and reading this in conjunction with Sheila Jeffries’ Beauty and Misogyny for FeMNist non-fiction book club this month was a real pleasure. They meshed so well with Freud demonstrating some of those very real harmful cultural practices outlined by Jeffries [and the suggestion of using spanx as rain gear is just genius].

Megan Abbott’s The End of Everything


Warning: Triggering and Spoilers

I bought this yesterday in the Jubilee Kindle sale on Amazon. I really have to stop buying books based on price because, so far, it hasn’t gone well [Christa Allen’s Walking on Broken Glass being a prime case in point; nasty misogynistic rape/ domestic violence apologist shite]. I did buy Helen Castor’s She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth for 99p in the sale. I have high hopes for that book.

The basic plot of Megan Abbott’s The End of Everything is the disappearance of a 13 year old girl told from the viewpoint of her best friend. The product description is this:

Lizzie and Evie are inseparable. They walk home from school together, sleep over at each other’s houses, even flirt with boys together. And they tell each other everything. Or at least, that’s what Lizzie thinks — until Evie goes missing, and Lizzie suddenly realises their friendship wasn’t quite what she thought.

I have to say I find this description quite creepy. They don’t “flirt” with boys together. There are several scenes of “small sexual assaults”; one in which Lizzie is bullied into allowing a 16 year old boy touch her breasts whilst he masturbates. That’s not “flirting”. It’s a criminal offence. Dusty, the older sister of Evie, is being stalked by not just one boy who insists of parking outside her house night after night but by several other boys as well. There are no healthy sexual relationships amongst the teenagers. It is a catalogue of sexual abuse by teenage boys who believe they are entitled to abuse the bodies of two barely 13 year olds. Lizzie is incredibly naive about sexuality whilst Evie knows more than a child should.

And, that’s what I find really troubling about this book. What it really is about is Lizzie discovering Evie’s “secrets” which amounts to the long-term rape of her sister Dusty by Evie’s father. Evie “runs away” [and both Dusty and Lizzie define it in these terms] because she is jealous of her father’s relationship with Dusty. Evie is an emotionally abused child living in a house poisoned by incest. It is not her “choice” to run away with the child rapist; nor can she “consent” to her rape as Evie tries to justify it to herself. Her mother remains peripheral due her drug dependency although it is quite clear that the mother knows what is happening to Dusty and only emerges from her drug haze to care for Evie after she has been raped by the man who kidnapped her. All the adults in Evie’s life have let her down. Her best friend Lizzie is trapped in a delusion of “love” and is too blind to see Evie asking for help.

The book ends with Lizzie helping Evie and Dusty cover up the incest in order to protect their father [a man who tries to groom Lizzie after Evie disappears]. And, yes, it’s a book based on a 13 year old’s understanding of a situation that no child should have to understand but still the book read wrong to me. I was racing to finish it with a horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach hoping that the secret wasn’t what I thought it would be but it was. I really didn’t like this book. It just read false is so many ways. I can see what Abbott was trying to do but I don’t think she succeeded.I also remain incensed at how these books are advertised like with The Paris Wife. The sexual assault of young teenage girls by older boys is not “flirting” and its this kind of twaddle only serves to reinforce our rape culture.

Isabel Ashdown’s Glasshopper and Hurry Up and Wait

I read Isabel Ashdown’s Hurry Up and Wait first. It was one of those multiple-narrator-exposing-a-secret books which I generally enjoy. I wasn’t very sure about this one though. I’m never very fond of books which use school reunions as a plot device. It’s too tired a plot device and, unfortunately, the secret far too obvious from the beginning. I wouldn’t have bothered reading her other books had I not been stuck in the car and Glasshopper was the only book downloaded on my kindle app. It was GlasshopperGlasshopper was just wrong; in many ways.  Unlike Hurry Up and WaitGlasshopper had a male protagonist and that made the problem with Ashdown’s books obvious.

Ashdown really doesn’t like the women characters in her books. All of the characters are flawed but Ashdown seems to blame the women for not being able to deal psychologically with their trauma whilst the men are forgiven. In Glasshopper’, male violence isn’t even considered a reason worthy of exploring when the real problem is male violence. I would have snarled and then ignored had I not come across this blurb for Hurry Up and Waitwhich appears on Ashdown’s website:

In her eagerly anticipated second novel Mail on Sunday Novel Competition winner Isabel Ashdown explores the treacherous territory of adolescent friendships, and traces across the decades the repercussions of a dangerous relationship.

There was no “dangerous relationship”.  A violent sexual predator targeting teenagers does not enter into a “relationship” with them. He was a rapist. He targeted young, vulnerable girls. And, he raped them. The moment people start using phrases like “dangerous relationships” is the moment we start obfuscating child rape. Ashdown has done for child rape what Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife did for domestic violence.

I would like back the 3 hours it took me to read both books and the 20 minutes I spent writing this.

Hilary Boyd’s Thursdays in the Park

This is one of those books that I really wanted to enjoy. It is the story of a woman’s reawakening after an unhappy marriage to an unpleasant man. Unfortunately, the entire book is the minimisation of male violence both in the marriage of the main character, Jeanie, and that of her daughter. Like Paula McLean, who wrote The Paris Wife,  Hilary Boyd seems to have little understanding of the level of coercion and control that is common. Boyd also gives both husbands an ‘excuse’ for their abusive behaviour: one is the victim of child sexual violence and the other suffers from extreme jealousy. Obviously, neither man is responsible for their own behaviour to the point that Jeanie labels herself a bitch for wanting out of her unhappy marriage.

I would really like to read a “romance” novel, since Jeanie had to find a new man rather than be happy by herself, that actually understood the dynamics of domestic violence. Just one.

I love Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum!

I really do. I know they aren’t really the most Feminist-friendly of books but I love them. Stephanie has a shit job and no real qualifications and she stinks at her job. She’s constantly being rescued by either Ranger or Morelli but I still love her.

More importantly, I want to be Grandma Mazur. Okay, she lives with her daughter and son-in-law who isn’t exactly fond of her and she has an unfortunate tendency to disrupt funerals but she carries a gun, wants to be a rock star, runs about with all manner of leprechauns, thieves and doesn’t bat an eyelid at her granddaughter’s life. Grandma Mazur and Stephanie are both living their lives outside of the heteronarmative rules of their community and are happy doing so!

I don’t want to be a bounty hunter and I’m a huge fan of gun control laws but living your life in spite of the objections of the Patriarchy and being happy doing so is an amazing gift that not enough women enjoy. More importantly, I’d keep Ranger. Morelli is lovely and all but you know he’d expect his partner to do all the domestic chores. Ranger might not be around much but he pays maintenance and is good in bed. I’m all for matriarchal child rearing and sex on the side.

That and the strength of the relationships between the women: Stephanie with her sister, mother and grandmother and Stephanie with her friends Lula and Connie. What makes these books special is the emphasis on women’s friendships: on their unconditional love and support for another. That is Feminism.

Judy Blume’s Wifey

I love Judy BlumeAre you there God? It’s me Margaret remains one of my favourite books. I still have my falling-to-pieces dog-earned copy I got when I was 12. I’ve slowly been buying my daughters copies of her books as they’ve gotten older: FreckleJuiceHere’s to You Rachel Robinson, Forever and Tales of a 4th Grade Nothing featuring the bloody brilliant Fudge.

 

Like many women of my age, Forever was my first foray into the adult world of sex. It was the first book I’d read where two non-married people have sex without getting pregnant or an STD. I bought it for my daughter because it is the story of two responsible teenagers choosing to have sex without being struck by a thunderbolt. When I started writing this blogpost, I googled Blume for a link to her website, as I do with all the books I’ve written about. This is what Blume has to say about the reason she wrote Forever:

This book was first published in 1975. My daughter Randy asked for a story about two nice kids who have sex without either of them having to die. She had read several novels about teenagers in love. If they had sex the girl was always punished—an unplanned pregnancy, a hasty trip to a relative in another state, a grisly abortion (illegal in the U.S. until the 1970′s), sometimes even death. Lies. Secrets. At least one life ruined. Girls in these books had no sexual feelings and boys had no feelings other than sexual. Neither took responsibility for their actions. I wanted to present another kind of story—one in which two seniors in high school fall in love, decide together to have sex, and act responsibly.

The seventies were a time when sexual responsibility meant preventing unwanted pregnancy. Today, sexual responsiblity also means preventing sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS. In this book Katherine visits a clinic and is given a prescription for The Pill. Today,she would be told it is essential to use a condom along with any other method of birth control. If you’re going to become sexually active, then you have to take responsibility for your own actions. So get the facts first.

 

This is precisely why Blume remains one of the best writers of teenage fiction. It’s because she’s honest with her readers about the complexities of sexuality and doesn’t privilege abusive relationships as “romantic” like the current shite of Twilight.

Which is why I wish I’d read Wifey as a teenager. It is the soul-destroying tale of a woman who ends up married to a dull-witted man who doesn’t know her or has even bothered trying to know her. Sandy is living the 50′s dream of 2 kids, a car and a house in the 1970s. Her husband Norman is a social-climbing pillock who doesn’t bother trying to satisfy her sexually; the description of their wedding night is beyond depressing. Sandy embarks on a couple of piss-poor affairs and ends up still stuck with Norman whose only attempt at knowing his wife is the suggestion that he might try oral sex but only if Sandy shaves her vagina because pubic hair is gross. 30 years on, and this relationship remains the norm.
I’ll be passing this book onto my teenager immediately. Hypocrisy has no place in relationships and we need to give our daughters the courage to aim higher than “socially acceptable”. Sex is too precious to waste on losers; as are our lives.

 

Lt Eve Dallas: A Feminist Heroine

J.D. Robb’s “In Death” series are some of the most popular mystery novels and regularly make the New York Times Bestsellers List. Their popularity is partly because Robb [a pseudonym for Nora Roberts] is a brilliant writer and partly of the because of the romance. What differentiates them from “normal” romance/ detective series like Janet Evanovich’sStephanie Plum series is the way Robb treats the issue of Violence against Women.

Robb doesn’t treat Violence against women and children as voyeuristic plot device. Instead, she writes about VAW as systemic and endemic; it is constant, continuous with consequences rippling through families and communities. Women and children are victims of homicide, rape and torture because of the institutional misogyny which treats women as subhuman. They are victims because they have “no” value in a society which values masculinity above all else. The main character is Lieutenant Eve Dallas: a woman who became a police officer as a way to heal after systematic physical, emotional and sexual abuse by her father which culminated in her killing him at the age of 8. It’s not uncommon to have female leads in detective novels who are “unusual” but one who is a victim as well as a survivor and a strong, intelligent, compassionate woman fighting for justice for other women is different. She is heroine not because she is violent but because she is real; a real woman struggling to rebuild her life and learning to love and care for other women in a way that the patriarchy loathes.

The only other fictional books that I have come across which have treated VAW as systemic and endemic are the Shakespeare books by Charlaine Harris. The main character in those is Lily Bard and she is the victim of a serious gang-rape. Her healing involves strengthening her body through martial arts but she also heals by helping other women. Harris’ most famous creation are the True Blood books and they are very definitely feminist. They are also a searing critique of the misogyny, racism, homophobia and disabilism rife in society and the hypocrisy of those who use “manners” and “tradition” to cover up their destructive and violent behaviour.

Obviously, Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room, amongst many others, also write about VAW as it actually exists within the patriarchy. The difference with Robb and Harris’s books are that they are mass market fiction and they reach an audience that feminist literature simply never attracts. Robb and Harris are also incredibly sympathetic and supportive of the women in their books. They both write very triggering stories but they are necessary stories. We need more women writers discussing VAW as systematic, systemic and continuous. We need more women writers not using serial killers as plot devices because they are “abnormal”. We need more women writers using strong, intelligent female characters. Male violence against women is not abnormal. It is daily. It is everywhere and it is committed by normal men. I have no idea if Robb intended this to be the effect of her books but they have brought the issue of VAW into the public sphere in a non-confrontational manner that has, hopefully, made more women cognisant of its destructive consequences.

Sexualised Violence Against Jewish Women in the Holocaust

In December 2010, a fairly significant text on the experience of Jewish women in the Holocaust was published to little to no fanfare. The book, Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women During the Holocaust, wasn’t the first text to address the issue of sexualized violence in the Holocaust. After all, survivors started writing about their experiences in diaries during the war and testimonies published in the immediate post-war era. However, and as with the experience of women in history, these stories were subsumed and eradicated under a Patriarchal discourse which suggests that if didn’t happen to men then it wasn’t important [which is fundamentally bizarre because men were raped during the Holocaust. Rape during warfare is gendered and most victims are women and children but to pretend that men weren’t raped is equally problematic.]. Rape, during the Holocaust, was not a systemic part of the genocide but the frequency with which it occurred suggests, at the very least, a policy of mass-rape as a by-product.

Since it’s inauspicious publication, Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women During the Holocaust hasn’t exactly been getting lots of publicity; partly because its an academic text and academic texts don’t usually make the New York Times Best seller list but, mostly, because of the subject matter. That is until Gloria Steinem, one of the original reviewers of the book, got properly involved. Her outrage at the failure of sexual violence to be located in and considered part of genocide and modern warfare partly inspired the founding of theWomen Under Siege online project. Women Under Siege is possibly the most important piece of feminist activism of 2011. It features 6 conflicts during the 20th century in which rape is used as a tactic of war: Holocaust, Bangladesh, Rwanda, Darfur-Sudan, Egypt and Libya as well as blog posts on sexualised violence in other war zones in the 20th century. The erasure of the gendered experiences of women in war from mainstream political and historical analysis is shameful and the most concrete example of Patriarchal-Capitalist Misogyny in practise.

This International Women’s Day, we need to stand up for these women and make sure their voices are heard; that their experiences are no longer white-washed out of history in order to support the aims of the destructive military-industrial complex and the Patriarchy.

Jewly Hight’s Right By Her Roots: Americana Women and Their Songs

Right by her Roots

The problem with this book is that it is just one book. It should be nine separate books: the eight singer-songwriters that Hight adores so much:

And, Jewly Hight herself; because Hight might claim to be writing the stories of these eight women singers-songwriters and their examination of “their geographical, cultural, familial, and religious roots in their music” but Hight’s actually written herself into the text. I want to know more about the 8 female artists and Hight.  A longer book would have allowed the inclusion of more of the lyrics by these talented women but also more of Hight herself.Right by Her Roots is a love affair with these talented women singer-songwriters and it’s love-affair that just isn’t long enough.It’s all fascinating but at 200 pages, there simply isn’t enough space to really examine these issues and fully explore the back catalogues of the music of these women. I want to know more about all 8 women but equally I want to know about Hight. I want to know about how Hight traces her roots and I want more of Hight’s personal responses to these women.

I definitely recommend this book but with fingers crossed that Hight writes more in-depth books about these women (and herself).