Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “Sara Habein”

Sara Habein’s #CBR4 Review #54: How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran

How to Be a Woman
by Caitlin Moran

According to some corners of the lady-blogosphere, I’m supposed to be annoyed with Caitlin Moran for not being the “right” kind of feminist. As though our desiring equality is also supposed to be synonymous with with uniformity. Not long ago, Moran was asked, through Twitter, if she, during her interview with Lena Dunham had asked about “the complete and utter lack of people of colour in [G]irls.”

Moran, though she later said in this Salon interview that she should have been less “brusque,” replied to the tweet, “Nope. I literally couldn’t give a shit about it.”

I broke my own first rule: Be Polite. But I was frankly offended that this woman thought me and Lena Dunham were somehow conspiring in some undefined racist plot, simply by telling our stories about slightly overweight spotty girls just trying to get on in the world, and tell a few jokes about our thighs. I’m not going to wank on about the ethnic mix of my friends and, indeed, family, but I found that first tweet presumptuous, rude, and about the worst thing you could accuse anyone of. I’m bemused by the notion that there should be rules in story-telling that mean you should have to tell everyone’s story, all the time. Clearly that’s not the case. No one’s ever done it, and no one ever will. I wrote ‘How to Be A Woman,’ not ‘How to Be ALL Women.’ I would never presume to speak for 3.3 billion women. There is no ‘one voice of feminism.’ There is no ‘one voice’ of anything.

Yes, How to Be a Woman is promoted as a type of feminist manifesto, but it’s really more of a memoir. Moran talks about her experience of growing up in Wolverhampton, England during the 1980s and early ’90s, home-schooled and a bit overweight, crammed into her house with her parents and eventually seven siblings. She wants to talk about how she came into feminism, a feminism outside the the Women’s Studies World.

Again and again over the last few years, I turned to modern feminism to answer questions that I had, but found that what had once been the one of most exciting, incendiary, and effective revolutions of all time had somehow shrunk down into a couple of increasingly small arguments, carried out among a couple of dozen feminist academics, in books that only feminist academics would read, and discussed at 11 P.M. on BBC4. Here’s my beef with this:

  1. Feminism is too important to be discussed only by academics. And more pertinently:
  2. I’m not a feminist academic, but, by God, feminism is so serious, momentous and urgent that now is really the time for it to be championed by a lighthearted broadsheet columnist and part-time TV critic with appalling spelling. If something is thrilling and fun, I want to join in — not watch from the sidelines. I have stuff to say! Camille Paglia has Lady Gaga ALL WRONG! The feminist organization Object is nuts when it comes to pornography! Germaine Greer, my heroine, is crackers on the subject of transgender issues. And no one is tackling OK! Magazine, £600 handbags, Brazilians, stupid bachelorette parties, or Katie Price.

And they have to be tackled. They have to be tackled, rugby-style, face down in the mud, with lots of shouting.

Moran’s feminism is a populist feminism that concerns itself with the everyday shit women have to endure. She’s not saying that bigger issues like pay inequity and abortion are unimportant, nor is she saying that no one should be an academic, but rather that women need to decide how they feel about the things they encounter in their own lives. If you are an academic, a politician or activist, those bigger issues could very well be your everyday fight. But me, for example? My battles remain more in the realm of how can I feel good about what I’m doing, especially while raising my children. How can I direct my kids into being more compassionate, unprejudiced humans?

This isn’t just a “We need to teach our daughters to be strong” matter — it’s also about teaching our sons not to be the assholes who came before. And perhaps more importantly, I’m hoping that they will not fear or hate anyone who is different than they are. They will be imperfect, as we all are, and sometimes they will be contradictory in their worldview. No one is immune to this, but I figure it is better to make the effort, however incrementally, to improve. We don’t have to be one with the universe, but if we dislike, say, waxing our tender bits, then we should feel free to ignore whatever pressure we feel to do so.

Yet, when we meet a lady who does wax, who genuine feels better by doing so, or maybe she just isn’t over that particular insecurity hurdle? Well, she’s not instantly “anti-feminist” for doing so.

So, no, Caitlin Moran isn’t flawless, and she isn’t pretending to be either. She’s the first one to admit that it’s actually her husband who is a “better” feminist than she is. On a small scale, despite saying we need “lots of shouting,” on the very next page she says that we don’t need shouting to fight “patriarchal bullshit,” but we need to laugh at it instead. Does this make her inconsistent? Maybe, but I don’t view it as a fireable offense. There are days to be mad, and days to laugh while saying, “Are you for real with this ridiculousness?”

Besides, Moran is someone for whom humor comes easily — of course she’d rather make jokes. Making jokes does not inherently mean she does not take the subject seriously.

That’s not to say I’m with her on every point. For instance, her stance on strip clubs seems a bit short-sighted. She says they “let everyone down,” and that at them, “no one’s having fun.”

Now, it is true that a large percentage of strip clubs do not treat their dancers right, and that there are customers who do not treat them right, but I doubt that is 100% the case (as, again, there’s no “one way” of anything).

But what are strip clubs and lap-dancing clubs if not “light entertainment” versions of the entire history of misogyny?

Any argument in their favor is fallacious. Recently, it has behooved modish magazines to print interviews with young women who explain that their career as strippers is paying their way through university. This is thought to pretty much end any objections against strip clubs on the basis that — look! — clever girls are doing it, in order to become middle-class professionals with degrees! Ipso facto Girl Power!

[…]If women are having to strip to get an education — in a way that male teenagers are really notably not — then that’s a gigantic political issue, not a reason to keep strip clubs going.
She’s right in that it is a political issue that we do not have the same culture that would allow women to openly express pleasure at seeing a naked male form, in the same way that men have the opportunity to do so, but it is not a reason to get rid of strip clubs. The underlying misogynistic culture at some strip clubs should be changed, yes, but “change” does not mean the absence of dancing women. There are problems to be dealt with, but condemning (what I see as) a public form of sexuality isn’t the answer.

A couple of pages later, Moran says:

Just as pornography isn’t inherently wrong — it’s just some fucking — so pole-dancing, or lap-dancing or stripping, isn’t inherently wrong — it’s just some dancing. So long as women are doing it for fun — because they want to and they are in a place where they won’t be misunderstood, and because it seems ridiculous and amusing […]

Right. Because the other ways in which people make a living are all for fun, and there’s never any misunderstandings about who those workers are as people. Yep. Oh, and are you saying that pornography doesn’t have the same misogynistic problems in some venues?

No, she’s not saying that pornography is an exploitation-free zone, but if she’s generally okay with porn, I guess I don’t see why she should be so hostile towards the existence of strip clubs. Also, as far as the generalization that “gay men wouldn’t be seen dead” in your average strip club, but will support burlesque shows instead — Well, for one thing, your average strip club is mainly about getting aroused by women, an activity I’d venture that most gay men aren’t so interested in. It’s fine if you prefer the artistry behind a burlesque production, but that doesn’t mean everyone has to prefer it.

Work to change the problems within the venue, but don’t burn the place down and salt the earth.

There are other contradictory viewpoints that Moran holds, but you know what? I still really enjoyed this book. The stories that are specific to her life, particularly her relationship with her sister Caz, are great and often hilarious. I wholeheartedly respect that Moran remains unapologetic in her writing, and I think that just because How to Be a Woman exists does not mean she won’t one day change her mind or better articulate her thoughts on certain subjects. As we all do.

Some cranky writers have dismissed her work as “Feminism 101,” to which I’d ask, “Oh, you never had to take a 101 class? My, look at you! Sprung into this world so fully-formed and serious!”

Ladies and gentlemen, we all have to start somewhere.

Full Disclosure: Harper Perennial sent me this book as a review copy. I thank them for the gesture and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.

Sara Habein’s #CBR4 Review #53: The Boys of Summer by Ciarán West

The Boys of Summer
by Ciarán West

(This review originally appeared on Glorified Love Letters.)

When some writers are busy procrastinating on the the projects they are “supposed” to be working on, they turn to the internet and instead write about, discuss, or shake a fist over the State of Publishing/Reviewing/Words. Many an article deals with the pros and cons of self-publishing, the pros and cons of negative reviews, or the pros and cons of reviewing the work of someone you know. We all get wrapped up in what we’re “supposed” to talk about, how writing is “supposed” to work, and often forget that, while a method may work for a large percentage of people, it is not the be-all, end-all of anything to do with writing.

See: MFA programs, large publishing houses, indie publishing, using social media, agents.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that what the crowd thinks is right may not feel right on a personal level. And that’s OK. So is changing our mind.

This is the part where I say I knew Ciarán West before he self-published The Boys of Summer, and while I’m not planning on self-publishing a novel, I have no quibble with other people doing it — as long as that book is really good. Once again, I found myself understanding why people do not want to review the books from people they know because, well, what if it’s awful? But West is a big boy, and he can presumably handle anything I have to say.

You know what? The Boys of Summer is really very good, better even than some novels I’ve read this year that were published in a more traditional manner. Is it perfect? No, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

The book takes place in 1989 Limerick, Ireland, during a very hot week in which almost-twelve-year-old Richie South finds himself in love with the new neighbor girl, Marian, and sucked into the mystery of who killed five-year-old Tommy Kelly. Richie and his friends think they know who did it, but their investigation brings dredges up conflicting feelings of terror, responsibility, and a strain on their formerly close-knit group. Richie’s older brother Chris is the one who breaks the news:

‘Fuck off, really?’ Shane couldn’t believe what Chris was telling us. I couldn’t either, but I was keeping quiet; he’d know I was wrecked if I tried to talk; he’d tell Mam, straight away. The whitener was wearing off, but still.

‘Really, yeah. Fin was down in Frazer’s this morning with his da. Tony served him a Carling and everything; didn’t say nothing.’ Fintan Kelly was older than us, but he was still only fourteen. Tony Frazer wouldn’t sell you a pack of fags without a note from your mother.

‘Tom, though? Small little Tom. How? He’s only a toddler, shur.’ Dermot looked like he was angry; he was nearly crying. I wanted to be in bed. I was too young to be drinking or smoking gear, and I just wanted Mam. I kept looking at Chris, then looking away before he looked back.

From there, the speculation and rumors only escalate. Shane, the leader through a strong-arming personality, talks the others into investigating. Richie doesn’t know how to feel. Despite wanting desperately not to be seen as a little kid anymore, he’s not so sure he likes being thrust into the world of adults in this way.

When it comes to Marian, he’s also thrilled and confused by her attention. She’s a couple years older than him, yet is completely uninterested in his brother Chris. Richie tries to play it cool, but she takes an odd delight in exploiting his nervousness, his desire:

‘D’you want to do something naughty, Richard?’ She put her hand down the front of her shorts. Jesus Christ, she was going to take her fanny out and show me it and everything!

‘Sorry about the squashing, I had to find somewhere to put them.’ She’d pulled two fags out of her knickers. Thank God!

‘Have you a light?’ I did. I stayed standing up; she was sitting on the grass. The fag tasted gorgeous, cos I was smoking it with her.

‘It was funny when yer man in the shop asked was I your girlfriend, wasn’t it?’ she said, dragging on her fag.

‘Yeah.’ I said. No it wasn’t funny; I’d nearly gone purple.

‘Have you a girlfriend, no?’ she said, in a little quiet voice. I liked all of her voices.

‘Ah, not at the moment, no.’ Not ever.

‘Awww. Why not?’

‘Dunno,’ I said. I didn’t like how she’d said ‘Awww’. Like she was feeling sorry for me.

‘You never know, eh?’ she said, winking at me.

West rides the line of child/teenager well, and Richie’s voice doesn’t fall prey to “adult who thinks he’s writing in the voice of a child” that I’ve seen in other books. This isn’t “eleven and three-quarters” filtered through retrospect; it’s simply the voice of a kid who will describe himself as that age.

Because of that voice, and the speaking style of his friends, the text is very Limerick-slang heavy. Part of me says that some of it is overdone, and that readers could get a sense of it without quite as much “that’s pure rapid” and whatnot. A good editor would know the proper balance. Still, the other part of me says, Have you spoken to any kids lately? They fixate on words. Yesterday, my son sang a made-up song about pumas all goddamn day. And almost-teenagers are going to do up the swearing, the inside jokes and slang because they can. So without spending an extended period with this book in editor-mode, I can’t say for certain what the right level of Limerickness is, so to speak. On a side note, an editor would have also caught a few formatting and typo issues, but that’s a small complaint when compared to the effectiveness of the story.

The story, its pacing and content, is absolutely enthralling. Normally, I am extremely slow about reading e-books because I have no reader for them other than my laptop, so they don’t make for good before-bed reading. Instead, I tend to catch up on them while I’m folding laundry. I hate folding laundry, so I only manage a handful of pages at a time.

Reading The Boys of Summer, my laundry was exceptionally folded. The kids could find matched socks, and the mister wondered why he couldn’t find any clean workshirts, until he realized I’d actually washed, folded and put away all of them. Clothes not in a laundry basket? What is this madness?

So if you know me, you know that I’ve just given West a major compliment. He wants to make you uncomfortable, yet you want to press forward. The narrative speeds along breathlessly, all culminating in an ending that’s simultaneously inevitable and unbelievable.

If this book were published by Harper or some other big publisher, I am confident that it would get scores of attention. As a small release, I’ve seen it well-received, and I hope that my review directs at least a few more readers its way. Yes, I know the author, but I do pride myself in being fair. The Boys of Summer is worth your time and money.

(You can read the first chapter at Amazon, and the book is also available through Smashwords.)

Sara Habein’s #CBR4 Review #52(!): The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch

Friends, Romans, Cannonballers. Today, at The Quivering Pen, is my 52nd review aka my Full Cannonball. Go read what I had to say about The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch.

An excerpt:

The thought that most often occurred to me while reading was that The Chronology of Water is perhaps the truest thing I’ve ever read. Even if I have not personally experienced the same things, I know many who have, and in the parts where Yuknavitch and I overlap, her words feel so true that they hurt in the same way a massaged, sore muscle does. I wince for a moment, then think, Please keep going. And within all the turmoil, I find a certain amount of peace.


Sara Habein’s #CBR4 Review #51: Wayne of Gotham by Tracy Hickman

Wayne of Gotham (cover)Turns out that Wayne of Gotham is actually quite good, once I readjusted some of my expectations. I had to remember that certain over-dramatic language is traditional comic book storytelling and, well, Batman’s a dramatic dude.

Some of the gadget/tech talk can get a bit tedious and over-lengthy, if you’re not into that sort of thing, but there’s plenty otherwise to like here.

(My full review appears at Glorified Love Letters.)

Sara Habein’s #CBR4 Review #50: This Will Make You Smarter edited by John Brockman

This Will Make You Smarter (cover)Editor John Brockman posed the question “What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?” Leading scientists, psychologists, writers and general advanced “thinkers” responded with the short answers that make up This Will Make You Smarter, and the result is indeed thought-provoking, but not always interesting.

However, the most interesting portion, to me, is that this was published before the self-plagiarizing/Bob Dylan quote fabrication scandal of Jonah Lehrer. Lehrer’s contribution to this book, “Control Your Spotlight,” has to do with a study conducted with small children. The children were in a room with a bowl of marshmallows and told that if they could wait a short period of time alone, they could have more than one to eat. The study looked at impulse control, mainly, and the children who were better able to resist taking a marshmallow early were the ones who put their attention elsewhere. Some kids sang songs, others covered their eyes, etc. But what I find rather amusing is this bit from Lehrer:

Willpower is really about properly diverting the spotlight of attention, learning how to control that short list of thoughts in working memory. It’s about realizing that if we’re thinking about the marshmallow, we’re going to eat it, which is why we need to look away.

So, am I to understand that he gambled on the working memory of Bob Dylan fans, and hoped that they were looking at other things when he made up those quotes? That’s a pretty big gamble, that spotlight “control.” He didn’t have the smarts suggested in David G. Myers’ contributing essay, “Self-Serving Bias:”

Being mindful of self-serving bias beckons us not to false modesty but to a humility that affirms our genuine talents and virtues and likewise those of others.

In other words, work with what you’ve got, and work it well. Don’t be a self-serving jerk who tries to make his book better with fake quotes. Also, never underestimate a music super-fan’s skills.

(My full review appears at Glorified Love Letters.)

Sara Habein’s #CBR4 Review #49: The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

The Talented Mr. Ripley (cover)If it’s odd that one of my favorite books centers around a sociopathic murderer, I don’t care.

My review of this excellent book is now up on Persephone Magazine.

Sara Habein’s #CBR4 Review #48: She’d Waited Millennia by Lizzie Hutton

She'd Waited Millennia (cover)How about some poetry? Over at Persephone Magazine, I talk about the quiet and circumspect She’d Waited Millennia by Lizzie Hutton.

Sara Habein’s #CBR4 Review #47: SPARK by Courtney Elizabeth Mauk

SPARK is a somewhat disorienting little book. What starts out as a fairly straightforward story — a woman takes in her pyromaniac brother after he is released from prison — turns into a darker, mysterious world.

The trouble I had with these mysterious occurrences was that I wasn’t entirely sure that they were real. Now, maybe the issue is that I was reading the book while tired, before bed, and maybe there were clues that I did not notice. If Mauk intended to makes these experiences surreal, I cannot say for certain if that’s how they come across.

I’d be curious to hear other readers’ impressions. SPARK is definitely a novel that merits discussion, and I hope that it gets it.

(My full review appears on Glorified Love Letters.)

Sara Habein’s #CBR4 Review #46: Alison Wonderland by Helen Smith

Alison Wonderland
by Helen Smith

I do not pick up books I think I will dislike. Unlike some more traditional reviewing positions, I am not “assigned” books, and there are more out there that I want to read than I ever will be able, so every book I decide to read has promise. Something about it struck me as interesting, and in the case of Alison Wonderland, it was probably the London location mixed with a bit of mystery that made me open the cover. Unfortunately, this book turned out to be a hot mess. If it had been any longer than its 189 pages, I don’t think I would have finished. And while of course no author wants to hear that — and there are readers out there who think that unfavorable reviews of small press books are bad form — I think that Helen Smith is capable of a better book. I know she has others (I have not read them) and that this is an early book of hers, but Alison Wonderland suffers from a lack of focus both in character and plot. The writing itself is not bad, nothing extraordinary, but not overly cringe-worthy and cliché-filled either. Still, somewhere along the line, someone needed to say, “What, exactly, are you trying to accomplish here?”

(The rest of my review can be found on Glorified Love Letters.)

Sara Habein’s #CBR4 Review #45: Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith

How do I even begin to tell you how wonderful Life on Mars is? Tracy K. Smith’s poetry fills me with peace and such fullness, even when she writes about how inhuman we can be. Her poems are almost meditative — I really enjoyed slowing down and focusing on her words, their rhythm, and the overall picture of the poem before me. Part space opera, part elegy, part wartime commentary, Life on Mars exceedingly deserves the Pulitzer it received, won on Smith’s birthday, no less.

(My full review appears at Glorified Love Letters.)

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