July 2006


This book is the (mercifully) unillustrated equivalent of violent hardcore porn.

Do not even open it if you are remotely female or otherwise prone to feeling physically sickened by reading graphic descriptions of the rape, mutilation, torture and murder of women (and some men, animals and children). I did slog through to the end (having wimped out of Trainspotting which was also deeply unpleasant but which at least did not feature horrifically mutilated corpses) but had to skip over great chunks of text, whole chapters in fact, in order to keep going.

Who votes for this kind of book, as their all-time favourite read? Are there that many people out there who like to read about women being tortured and killed?

The book is set in around 1989, and protagonist Pat Bateman is a yuppie type who works on Wall Street and has just about everything material that you could want. He is, like all his shallow Wall Street friends, obsessed with clothes, accessories and restaurant cuisine (I had to skip some of that stuff too, just because it was so boring). He is also, like all his friends, rampantly misogynist.

Only, unlike his friends, he is a twisted evil psychopath to boot, and becomes increasingly insane as the book progresses. We are not clearly told whether his horrifying sadism is actually enacted as he describes it in the first person narrative, or whether it is merely part of a twisted fantasy life (perhaps, he himself does not even know what is real) in which he plays the sadistic serial killer bastard. I lean to the latter view, although I don’t think it makes a great deal of difference to my appreciation of the book.

The plot? Missing in action.

The point? I guess Ellis (if we are to try and give him some credit for even having a point to this vile orgy) wanted to show up the emptiness and shallow vapidity of the Wall Street existence, and how a life in which all material wants can so easily be satisfied is inevitably going to turn bad in some way. Perhaps he wanted to create an unflinching analysis of what it means to be a psychopath. Maybe. Or maybe he is just a revolting misogynistic bastard himself, who likes to think up ever more creative ways of torturing women. Certainly, if he had any genuine desire to enlighten rather than merely to horrify (and/or titllate) then he could have cut the graphic torture scenes hugely. I was sufficiently nauseated even by what I did read – and I skipped or skimmed an awful lot.

I didn’t think this Big Read project would get any lower than Trainspotting. I was wrong.

Here’s an Amazon link.
I had a copy already because, get this, somebody recommended it to me. I don’t usually go in for book burning but, in this case, I might just make an exception.

Now I need to go read something clean and wholesome.

This book, subtitled Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture examines (primarily from a US point of view) the way that the sex industry has gone mainstream, how women are contributing to this trend, how we are responding to it, and the extent to which we are complicit in our own objectification.

It is, says Levy, “not a book about the sex industry; it is a book about what we have decided the sex industry means… how we have held it up, cleaned it off, and distorted it.”

To kick off, Levy takes a look at what raunch culture is and how it has gone mainstream.

She goes on the road with Girls Gone Wild, a video show in which ordinary women reveal their naughty bits, or fake lesbian encounters for the camera, in order to get free hats.

She discusses other examples of raunch culture: the mainstream success of books like porn star Jenna Jameson’s How to Make Love Like a Porn Star and Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ XXX: 30 Porn-Star Portraits; the nude or almost-nude shoots of female Olympic athletes in porn or semi-porn magazines; the appearance of pole-dancing and stripping as exercise classes; the pornification of reality TV; the explosion of plastic surgery; the smutting-up of fashion shows and pop concerts.

She interviews Christie Hefner (daughter of Hugh Hefner, Playboy founder) about her role in her father’s business. Hefner says – the “post-sexual revolution, post-women’s movement generation… has just a more grown-up, comfortable, natural attitude about sex and sexiness that is more in line with where guys were a couple generations before“.

Levy then surveys second wave feminism – the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s – and its uneasy relationship with the sexual revolution happening at the same time. Hugh Hefner, for example, supported sexual freedom for women when it came to contraception and access to abortion, but his support only went so far. He was happy for women to make a show of their sexuality, but they were not to permitted to actually be sexual: he would be delighted to see his daughter in Playboy appearing promiscuous, but she should on no account actually be promiscuous. He did not, however, view this as anti-feminist or anti-woman, taking the view that the only alternative to his ideal of female sexuality was a prudish, puritanical one.

This is a view that also seemed common among “sex-positive” feminists* and their supporters, and led to bitter divisions between factions of the feminist movement. If raunch culture is anything to go by – including “feminist” strip parties featuring live porn – the sex-positives won out. Women who identify as feminists now participate in the sex industry (as business owners and consumers) and see no disconnect: despite their inability to articulate how what Levy calls “raunch feminism” hopes to better the lot of womankind, or why sexual liberation can only be achieved in the presence of “taut, waxed strippers”. Raunch feminism wants women to feel free to feel sexy, it seems, but it only has one way of expressing sexiness: the patriarchal way.

[* By which I mean feminists who either approve of or at least condone pornography (and/or prostitution). This is the meaning of the term as used by Levy, and was apparently coined by feminists seeking to distinguish themselves from the anti-porn faction.]

Raunch culture is not, Levy argues, just the expression of one way to be sexy or have fun. It is an all-encompassing, inescapable model of the way to be sexy, the way to have fun. It is also all about the commercialisation and commodification of sexuality. “It’s about endlessly reiterating one particular – and particularly commercial – shorthand for sexiness.”

And, she argues, it isn’t even that sexy. The women who participate speak again and again in Levy’s book of their non-sexual feelings about sex. They are passionate about looking sexy, they revel in sexiness and say that it makes them feel powerful, but the actual sex part they don’t much enjoy: they don’t feel sexy. So why do they do it? The women Levy interviews are not sex workers, they are women who run the sex industry, make money out of it, the women who go to strip clubs, the women who tie themselves in knots to reproduce the sexiness that raunch culture demands of them. They aren’t forced into this: they choose it. Why?

Some of these women are what Levy calls Female Chauvinist Pigs. They are the women who are like the men who we used to call Male Chauvinist Pigs. They are the women who want to succeed in their chosen field and see that the only realistic way to do it is to act like a man. To act more like a man than men do: to be a cartoon man. What do men do? They objectify women, lust after women, place absurd demands on how these women should look and act. So the women who want to be like men do the same. Only more so. They turn these women – the strippers, the glamour models, the porn stars, the customers – into Other, and they treat them absolutely as commodities. Then they set out to go further, treat women worse, sex them up more and more – more than ever men have managed to do.

(What these women do not realise, or more probably do not care about, is that setting out to “be like a man” leaves us exactly where we were. There are still women acting one way and men acting another – the only difference is that some individuals are crossing the line from one camp to the other. There are still two camps.)

Thus Sheila Nevins (a very highly regarded programme maker for HBO) can say of her decision to commission a titillating docu-soap about strippers called “G-String Divas” – I love the sex stuff, I love it! What’s the big deal?… Everyone has to bump and grind for what they want. Thus Mia Leist (Girls Gone Wild tour manager) can yell “We want boobs!” at girls on the beach and can justify herself by saying – It’s a business. In a perfect world maybe we’d stop and change things. But we know the formula. We know how it works. Thus Mary Wells Lawrence (a highly successful advertising agent), responding to criticism by Gloria Steinem of her advertising campaigns objectifying women, can say – What a silly woman. I wanted a big life. I worked as a man worked. I didn’t preach it, I did it. Thus, Jennifer Heftler (co-executive producer for horribly sexist TV programme “The Man Show”) can explain – One of the perks to this job was that I wouldn’t have to prove myself any more… It’s like a badge.. If you can show you’re one of the guys [by being able to say “I worked at The Man Show“], it’s good.

Thus a self-proclaimed feminist can say of strippers – I can’t feel bad for these women, I think they’re asking for it. Thus women who reject femininity, rather than become feminists, can disdain “girly-girls” who do not reject it* and try to join the ranks of men instead, showing their allegiance with, and approval of, men by an interest in raunch that might otherwise seem paradoxical. Thus women everywhere can follow the Sex In The City model and decide to go out and have sex like a man – as much as possible, as often as possible, with as many different partners as possible – regardless of whether they actually enjoy it. (They may even, on some level, use sex workers as their models for living – and we know how much a prostitute enjoys sex, right?) Thus a sexually aggressive woman can wonder why it is that If I stop being really attracted to someone then I can’t have sex with them. As if not wanting to have sex with someone you don’t fancy is somehow inexplicable!

[*In the not so distant past I have been dangerously close to this trap myself, although not I hasten to add anywhere close enough to embrace raunch culture!]

Thus, in the GBLT scene, there is an increasing trend for women to act more and more like men. Women who in the past might have been butch lesbians and left it at that are now calling themselves “bois” and treating the other women they date as badly as we are used to Male Chauvinist Pigs treating the women they date. Moreover, the urge to “be like a man” is manifesting itself in an explosion of FTM transexuals – women who go that one step further and take hormones, have surgery, adopt a new gender so that they can literally be men.

Some of the women embracing raunch culture are not FCPs. They are what Levy calls Pigs In Training. They are the girls and young women who embrace raunch culture not because they have chosen it as something they think is empowering or profitable, but because they do not even know that there is another way to be. The media bombards these girls and women with raunch culture, and rarely if ever with anything else, leaving them without the tools to even make an informed choice about their acceptance of this definition of, and demand for, sexiness. They are, of course, immature and impressionable, and they have no protection from such an onslaught.

Thus underage girls are dressing slutty, wearing Playboy-bunny thongs, giving blowjobs on the school bus, having sex without really feeling sexual – just because they feel it is what is expected of them and are taking, understandably, the path of least resistance. Thus one girl was astonished to hear from Levy that in her day girls would have been embarassed to dress slutty and could only respond: So how did you get the guy?

This part of the picture is the most disturbing and depressing: the sexualisation of girls and young women, in a culture where there are no other options on the menu. What does this say about the future of womankind? Levy offers no solution to this depressing saturation of raunch, no suggested method of escape for grown women, let alone for adolescents.

She only offers the clear insight that:

If we believed that we were sexy and funny and competent and smart, we would not need to be like strippers or like men or like anyone other than our own specific, individual selves. That won’t be easy, but… the rewards would be the very things Female Chauvinist Pigs want so desperately: freedom and power.

This book is a must-read for any young woman. It is a must-read for any parent who has a daughter. Because if we cannot open the eyes of our Pigs In Training, there really is no hope.

Jacqueline Wilson writes prolifically for and about young people – mainly girls around the age of, say, 8-12 years. Her books always tackle difficult issues and almost always feature people coming to terms with changes or problems in their home and family – divorce, re-marriage, being part of a single parent family, being in care or being fostered / adopted.

In The Suitcase Kid, Andy’s parents have split up and have sold Mulberry Cottage, the home that she grew up in and that she loved. She is devastated and, because nobody can agree where she should live, she ends up with a nomadic existence trotting back and forth between Mum and Dad and their new partners and her new step-families. Neither place feels like home, neither family seems to accept Andy, even her parents seem to care more about their new lives than they do about Andy – and all the while she continues to grieve for what she has lost. Her unhappiness spirals out of control, and all she wants to do is to go home.

As always, Wilson’s tone is light but serious and respectful, her voice is absolutely authentic, and her message is clear: it isn’t going to be perfect, but it’s going to be OK.

Here’s an Amazon link.
I got my copy “free” with a copy of Girl Talk magazine (price £1.40).

Girl Talk magazine, incidentally, has the merit of being produced by the BBC and therefore lacks much in the way of actual advertising – if you ignore the features on which flip-flops to buy, which clothes to buy, which popstars are hot (buy their songs) and what Stuff! to buy for your bezzie, that is.

However, even apart from the comsumerist-gone-mad mini-shopaholic mentality, it has very little to recommend it. There is plenty about how and what to consume, plenty of reinforcement about what constitutes “girliness” (pink colour scheme, gossip and celebrity-obsession, lots of giggling with your mates, pretty hair and clothes and make-up – jeez, 8-yr-old girls are being told to buy beauty products to keep their feet looking nice) and that’s about it.

Nothing, not even a nod, to any girl who isn’t a “girly-girl”. Even at a time when the whole of the BBC was going crazy to promote the Sport Relief Mile, the best that Girl Talk can manage is a photostory of some girly-girl friends who desperately want to do the mile because they heard they might get a chance to meet someone called Dani Harmer*. WTF?!

*I Googled her. Apparently she plays Tracy Beaker in the TV adaptation of Jacquiline Wilson’s Tracy Beaker books. So there you go.

Silas Marner is a weaver who, unjustly condemned for a crime he did not commit, abandons his former identity and moves to the country. There, he isolates himself, buries himself in work and almost loses his personhood, his only passion being the gold sovereigns that he earns and hoards. When his gold is stolen from him and, as if in return, a little golden-haired orphan child finds her way to his house, it is the start of a recovery for him, and a new life.

One little moment that I enjoyed thoroughly (perhaps because it echoed so strongly my own little Baby M) occurred when Eppie, the little girl that Silas adopts, was a little older than Baby M is now. Silas has been instructed in discipline by a kindly neighbour, Dolly – with one punishment option (the most lenient) being to shut up the errant child in the coal hole. One day, Eppie steals his scissors, cuts through the linen band that keeps her safely at home, and runs off from Silas, straying over local fields.

He feels that some form of punishment is necessary to impress on her the importance of not repeating the experiment (lest she come to harm), so resolves to put her in the coal hole:

Naughty, naughty Eppie,” he suddenly began, holding her on his knee, and pointing to her muddy feet and clothes – “naughty to cut with the scissors and run away. Eppie must go into the coal-hole for being naughty. Daddy must put her in the coal-hole.”

He half-expected that this would be shock enough, and that Eppie would begin to cry. But instead of that, she began to shake herself on his knee, as if the proposition opened a pleasing novelty. Seeing that he must proceed to extremities, he put her into the coal-hole, and held the door closed, with a trembling sense that he was using a strong measure. For a moment there was silence, but then came a little cry, “Opy, opy!” and Silas let her out again, saying, “Now Eppie ‘ull never be naughty again, else she must go in the coal-hole – a black naughty place.”

The weaving must stand still a long while this morning, for now Eppie must be washed, and have clean clothes on; but it was to be hoped that this punishment would have a lasting effect, and save time in future – though, perhaps, it would have been better if Eppie had cried more.

In half an hour she was clean again, and Silas having turned his back to see what he could do with the linen band, threw it down again, with the reflection that Eppie would be good without fastening for the rest of the morning. He turned round again, and was going to place her in her little chair near the loom, when she peeped out at him with black face and hands again, and said, “Eppie in de toal-hole!”

This was a much lighter novel than I expected. For a nineteenth century novel by such a famous author (and one I have only ever tried to read once before, and not got on with), it was a refreshingly easy read.

This is not, however, to say that it did not deal with serious themes. Eppie’s mother was the discarded, secret wife of the local squire’s eldest son, and an opium addict. Godfrey, Eppie’s father, refuses to own her even when her mother dies and the child comes into the house of his neighbour Silas as an orphan – a decision which he must later come to bitterly regret. He does find happiness with his true love, Nancy – but remains childless.

Nancy herself is a sweet girl who becomes rather prone to “excessive rumination and self-questioning” – to the extent that she even denies herself the right to look over the things she put away for her dead baby, lest it should be wrong of her to pine for what was not meant to be. This is, Eliot says:

… perhaps a morbid habit inevitable to a mind of much moral sensibility when shut out from its due share of outward activity and of practical claims on its affections – inevitable to a noble-hearted, childless woman, when her lot is narrow. I can do so little – have I done it all well? is the perpetually recurring thought; and there are no voices calling her away from that soliloquy, no peremptory demands to divert energy from vain regret or superfluous scruple.

I did find myself wondering, time and again, how people can have taken George Eilot for a man, pseudonym or no pseudonym.

Here’s an Amazon link.
My copy came from the library.

This novel follows the story of Tashi, an African woman of the fictional Olinkan tribe, who chooses to undergo female circumcision (female genital mutilation, or FGM*), examining the reasons for her decision and the consequences that flow from it.

*In case you didn’t know, this is the practice of cutting out a woman’s (girl’s) sexual organs and closing her vagina. The practice varies, but involves cutting out some or all of the vulva (labia and clitoris) and then sewing up the vagina to leave only a tiny hole. The reason appears to be, at bottom, to make sexual activity of any kind difficult and pointless, and indeed as painful as possible, thereby simultaneously (1) preventing women from wanting sex with anyone that they don’t absolutely have to have sex with i.e. their husband and (2) giving husbands the opportunity to show how manly they are in being able to penetrate their sewn-up wives and enlarge the hole by force to custom-fit their own penis. Yes, really. Really.

The central theme of the book is the cause and effects of FGM as a cultural practice, and on this the book is horrifying. It shows you how and why the practice is allowed to continue, how women can allow their daughters to be mutilated, how women can mutilate the daughters who are brought to them – and how and why men’s actions ensure that it continues to happen. It shows you the physical consequences of FGM, the risks and dangers of the mutilation itself as well as the permanent damage that it does even when “successful”. It shows you the way that women are emotionally deadened, locking up a weeping child inside their hearts, because it is the only way that they can survive. It is harrowing.

As a personal account of one woman’s story, Possessing the Secret of Joy is heartbreaking. Tashi herself is not “bathed” at the proper time (as a baby or in early girlhood) but chooses to undergo FGM as an adult woman. The physical and emotional consequences for her personally, and the trauma of her earlier experiences when her older sister had bled to death following FGM, reach out across her whole life. Damaged physically and in her soul, the rest of her life is a struggle to come to terms with, even to acknowledge, what she has done. In the end, she triumphs – but, of course, that cannot mean that she lives happily ever after. She cannot.

Another key aspect of this novel is to expose the myth of choice.

Tashi chooses to undergo FGM. But in reality, she has no free or informed choice. She does it to fit in, to stop the teasing of other women, to become a proper woman herself, to honour the traditions of her people and their culture, to mark herself out as distinctly Olinkan, to give herself the chance of becoming a wife. She believes that it will improve her lot in life. She does not know what far-reaching, terrible consequences FGM will have for her health and wellbeing. It does not occur to her that she can lead a life without marriage. She does not realise that she has been lucky to escape FGM in her youth.

At no time does this novel speak of regret over Tashi’s choice. There can be no regret, because in reality there was no choice – all was inevitable, all was arranged and she herself had little to do but to follow the tracks laid down for her by others.

As a novel, I am unsure whether the book quite works. The story and the characters are powerfully drawn. The shifting viewpoint and the flashback/flashforward method of storytelling are apt, and well managed. But.

There is a sense in which the political purpose of the book – to make FGM come alive and show its full horror – trips over the story. The characters sometimes find themselves having to do what I call “a Judge John Deed”, that is they speak with the author’s words to make the author’s point, and it doesn’t come across quite right. It sounds as though the reader is being lectured, being told a story, being given a peek at the author’s agenda.

Another, connected problem for me is that this work falls between fiction and polemic. It is clearly intended to be polemical, but I do question whether its presentation as fiction undermines its persuasive power. How much of this, you wonder, did Walker make up? If that is true, you think, then it is horrifying – but is it true? Or is there an element of poetic licence in this?

These questions I will need to think about. At present, having only just finished the book, my response to it is perhaps only half-formed.

Thanks to Erika for putting me onto this one. Whether it will radically change my life it is too early to say – but, yes it really is a Book You Have To Read!

Charles Pooter, the eponymous Nobody, is a suburban clerk living in Victorian London with his dear wife Carrie and at times their rather reckless son Lupin.

Pooter is absurdly pretentious and pompous, and heartwarmingly innocent, and prone to amusing misfortunes which he recounts in his diary with a completely straight face. He is continually having minor mishaps, falling out with people over small misunderstandings, and worrying about Lupin’s future, and he does it all in such a charmingly incompetent manner that nobody could help but feel affection for him.

I wouldn’t go so far as to describe this as “hilarious” – you don’t emerge from the book guffawing and holding your sides. But it is certainly a work of gently comic genius (the perfect antidote to Trainspotting) and one that no home should be without.

Here is an Amazon link.
I already had my own copy.

Well, it’s not often that I give up on a book (jeez, I even finished The Unbearable Lightness of Being) but this one was unreadable.

I got through about 100 pages and then decided to spare myself the pain of reading any more. Written in a thick Scots accent, and all about junkies and their unattractive pals, it was never going to be that fun to read. Right from the opening paragraph, it signals what the rest of the book is like:

The sweat wis lashing oafay Sick Boy; he wis trembling. Ah wis just sitting thair, focussing oan the telly, trying no tae notice the cunt. He wis bringing me doon. Ah tried tae keep ma attention oan the Jean-Claude Van Damme video.

If that’s the kind of thing you like, read on. It just keeps on coming. Another near-random paragraph:

Amazingly, Tommy still husnae mentioned smack. Even wi ma works lying aw over the place, n he can probably tell that ah’m bombed. Normally Tommy’s daein a bad impersonation ay ma auld lady in such circumstances; yir killin yirsel/pack it in/ye kin live yir life withoot that garbage, and other such shite.

Add to the mix an array of unappealing, deeply unsympathetic characters – and all the characters of significance are male, in case you were wondering. Sprinkle on chapter titles like: Cock Problems; Inter Shitty; The First Shag in Ages; and assorted Junk Dilemmas. Stir in a confusingly shifting viewpoint (I rarely had a clue whose voice I was reading)…

What do you get?

You don’t get what I would call “The best book written by man or woman” (Rebel, Inc thought so, apparently). You have something totally unreadable.

I did think, after I’d got the hang of reading the dialect, and started to think I might have worked out who was who, that perhaps there would be something embiggening in this book. Perhaps I would come out of the experience with a new understanding of, compassion for people who have drug problems. No, I haven’t. The characters in this book do not invite compassion: they are, to a man, horrible people with no discernible redeeming features whatever. Nothing doing.

Ugh!

Here’s an Amazon link.
I got mine from the library. My advice? Read something else. How this got into anyone’s top million reads is a mystery, never mind the top 200.

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