The skin I’m in looks good to me.
It will let you know one small way to trace my identity.

But then again

the skin I’m in will always be just a covering.
It cannot tell my story.

If you want to know who I am you have got to come inside.

This book has a quality I love in children’s books (well any books really, it’s just that it is so much rarer in books aimed at children): a slightly offbeat rhythm, half-rhymes – not quite the easy verse we are used to, but poetry nonetheless.

It isn’t a story as such, but it will be meaningful for – and a good way to start a conversation with – any child who has got questions about race, colour and identity, or who has experienced or witnessed prejudice or exclusion and is trying to make sense of why and how much race matters.

Ariel likes the pictures.
I do too: they are bold, bright and sassy.

(And fortunately the somewhat creepy line “you have got to come inside” will probably be lost on most young readers…)

George had absolutely no doubts whatsoever about how he was going to make his famous medicine. he wasn’t going to fool about wondering whether to put in a little bit of this or a little bit of that. Quite simply, she was going to put in EVERYTHING he could find. There would be no messing about, no hesitating, no wondering whether a particular thing would knock the old girl sideways or not. The rules would be this: whatever he saw, if it was runny or powdery or gooey, in it went.

Nobody had ever made a medicine like that before. If it didn’t actually cure Grandma, then it would anyway cause some exciting results. It would be worth watching.

Yes, I know, it’s Roald Dahl and kids everywhere doubtless love it – but – ewww. I can’t help thinking that this is such an irresponsible book! Put loads of probably poisonous and certainly inedible items in a pot and feed it to Grandma just to see what happens?

(And, yes, just one more story where it is a female relative who is wicked and/or comes to a sticky end. Ho hum.)

Here is an Amazon link.
This is already in my Dahl collection.

I remember that the Gabilan Mountains to the east of the valley were light gay mountains full of sun and loveliness and a kind of invitation, so that you wanted to climb into their warm foothills almost as you want to climb into the lap of a beloved mother. They were beckoning mountains with a brown grass love. The Santa Lucias stood up against the sky to the west and kept the valley from the open sea and they were dark and brooding – unfriendly and dangerous. I always found myself in a dread of west and a love of east.

In this novel, Steinbeck weaves the history of his own maternal family (the Hamiltons) and the place where he was born (the Salinas valley in northern California) into a fiction, a retelling of the story of Cain and Abel. The central character, Adam Trask, re-enacts that brotherly rivalry with his brother Charles: Adam is better loved by his father; Charles takes his revenge. In the next generation, Adam’s sons Cal and Aron follow that same pattern: Aron is better loved; Cal takes his revenge; and there is even a version of “am I my brother’s keeper?” worked in, somewhat inelegantly (the only inelegant thing, I think).

It is often said that this is a book about good and evil. I suppose it is, but primarily to me it was a book about redemption. A major theme is signified by the Hebrew word timshel, translated in the book as “thou mayest”. The point is, that this is what God says to Cain when he puts his mark upon him – not that you MUST overcome sin, not that you WILL overcome sin, but that you MAY. Must implies obligation, will implies inevitability but may implies choice. Timshel is a word of blessing which offers not a command or a predetermination, but hope and freedom – the possibility of true redemption.

Finally, I can’t let this book go without talking of sinful women, the Eves.

Adam’s mother abandoned him by committing suicide immediately after his birth. His stepmother (Charles’ mother) was a sick, passive woman who did what was required to survive her loveless existence, and no more. Adam’s wife, Cathy, the mother of Cal and Aron, was a more actively sinful woman. She is described variously as a monster, as missing some essential human quality, as impenetrable, as inhuman. Her sins are many and shocking, the primary among them (plotwise) being that she abandons her twins immediately after their birth and runs away to become a whore.

The only other women to really feature in the story are Liza Hamilton (Steinbeck’s grandmother) and Abra (Aron’s and later Cal’s sweetheart, of whom her father frequently says: I called another, but Abra came – meaning, he wanted a boy). I see these women as Rebecca figures – assertive, moral women, but women who ultimately submit unquestioningly to male headship.

There is no depth to these women. There is no reality to them. There is a certain note struck in the sketches, a certain likeness to an underlying reality, but no interest in their stories or to what shaped them. Indeed of Cathy we are repeatedly told that there is no possibility of understanding her, not even for the author who created her and who therefore knows what happened to her from the day she was born. The author cannot understand her, and so she cannot be understood. Or redeemed: Steinbeck puts the mark of Cain upon her, yet she is Eve, and for her there is no redemption.

One more thing. There is another character, Lee, a Chinese servant to the Trask family whose wisdom, learning and care nourishes them throughout, in some ways replacing the absent mother figure. Perhaps I am struggling to hard to fit him into the Biblical theme, but I see him with his ng-ka-py as a kind of Holy Spirit, an intermediary between what is, and what ought to be – perhaps a kind of angel.

Hmm. Overall, a fine novel – if you like to have your men at the centre, and if Steinbeck’s portrayal of whores (as, on the whole, willing sluts doing a job of work) does not make your my skin crawl.

Here is an Amazon link.
I already had a copy, although I had not read it until now.

Mrs Henderson (Judi Dench) is a recent, very rich and somewhat eccentric widow of 1937 who decides to take up theatre owning as a more interesting occupation than embroidery or po-faced charity work. When the initial success of the venture fades, she suggests female nudity as a way to revitalise ticket sales and manages to persuade the Lord Chamberlain to agree, as long as the nudes do not move. So far, so blah.

The good news is that the film could be worse. There are various layers of themes and sub-plots, which is just as well, since the main plot – the development of the relationship between Mrs Henderson and her theatre manager (Bob Hoskins) – is somewhat understated. The dancers and nudes are not stupidly thin. Better, there are no het coupling happy-ever-afters. And Judi Dench is so wonderfully good at playing stubborn batty old women. I want to be a stubborn batty old woman when I grow up.

But there are certainly things not to like.

First, there is Mrs Henderson’s grand speech near the end of the film, intended to save the theatre from closure under wartime regulations about too many people congregating together. She claims to be doing it all for The Soldiers, Our Boys. Because Heaven forfend that, like her own boy Alec, they should be sent to their deaths without having seen a real woman naked.

It isn’t clear whether we should believe her about this. The story to date suggests not, because she apparently bought the theatre on a whim and suggested taking the performers’ clothes off only as a way of boosting audience numbers. And Mrs Henderson is a great dissembler, to put it politely*. Yet somehow you do believe her. You believe that this is, if not the purpose with which she set out, at least a justification for her actions in which she sincerely believes and with which the audience is intended to sympathise. That the mere sight of female nakedness will bring joy of a kind that no soldier should be denied.

(* In one entertaining scene, she out and out lies to her friends in a speech inviting them to the opening night, explaining that her dead husband was very keen on supporting stage artists, that the whole thing is done to honour his memory.)

About that – doing it for the boys. It is the same ideal that motivates her in other things. There is a key sub-plot in which Mrs Henderson engineers a romance between one of the show’s stars, Maureen (Kelly Reilly), and a young soldier. Mrs Henderson is moved to pity by the sweet young boy on his way to the Front, and wants Maureen to show him a little compassion. She, despite her misgivings and wariness about any kind of falling in love, falls for him anyway, becomes pregnant and then gets a letter from him, saying that he is going back to his girlfriend… And so it goes. She rushes out of the building just before an air raid starts and is killed at once. All very tragic, but why is Mrs Henderson held to blame right until the end of the film? OK, so she rather naively fell for the boy’s sweet charms and urged Maureen to go out with him. She might possibly be accountable for the fact that Maureen got carried away and fell pregnant, given what she knew about Maureen’s tendency to go falling in love with people at the drop of a hat. But how on earth can she be blamed for Maureen’s death? It’s bizarre.

I’d heard some good things about this film, which is the only thing that would have induced me to watch a comedy about strippers in the first place. But ultimately it all came down to female bodies and male pleasure.

Entertaining – yes. Uplifting – decidedly not.

We drank and threw our cups into the water. She leaned on the rail, her face half in the light, half in the shadow, as perfect as a statue. The ruby earring flared as the sun struck through it, and her white shirt billowed out in the freshening breeze. That is how I will remember her.

Set in the early part of the eighteenth century, this is the story of two young women escaping disaster by joining a pirate crew together. Nancy Kington is the 15 year old daughter of a Bristol trader on the brink of ruin. When he dies, her brothers ship her to Jamaica to be sold as the wife of a black-hearted man who makes her flesh crawl. Minerva Sharpe is a young house slave in Nancy’s Jamaican home, who becomes her friend and then finds herself in grave danger from the equally cruel overseer of the Kington sugar plantation. The story has everything – pirating, swashbuckling, treasure, danger – and the impossible search for a place to be: a place of safety, a place of dignity, a place to belong.

A great novel for young (and not so young) women, spoiled only by the author’s insistence on running the story through with heterosexual romance. Oh well…

In theory, this could have been so great.

It is the story of Andy, an aspiring journalist who takes a job as a PA in a fashion magazine out of desperation, hates the whole idea and every second of her ultra-demeaning worklife, but decides to stick it out in the hope that it will lead to better things. Will she be seduced by the glamour and wealth of the fashion world, impressed by the dedication and hard work of her colleagues, will she come to appreciate the joy of fashion and shine in her new-found vocation, leaving behind her stolid, unfashionable friends? Or will she continue in her idealistic integrity, hating every second, but surviving with her soul intact?

This was an opportunity to show the shallow, self-obsessed, self-loathing, woman-loathing fashion and beauty industry in a true, cold light – it could have been a scathing attack, a ruthlessly honest exposé. Of course I didn’t seriously expect that the film would deliver on such promises, which is just as well.

Andy (Anne Hathaway) starts off as an ordinary college graduate with (if the newspaper clippings that she is shown fondly looking over in the opening scenes are anything to go by) feminist leanings. If anything, her clothes get frumpier as she spends time in the presence of fashion slaves until her magical teen-princess style fashion makeover slowly begins to earn her the grudging approval of evil boss from hell Miranda (Meryl Streep) and the resentment of chief PA Emily (Emily Blunt), who loves to be kicked about by Miranda, as long as there is Chanel.

At first Andy can hardly bear her humiliations, but at least she can see them. Slowly, like a good wife, she turns native and embraces her slavery. She becomes rather good at anticipating Miranda’s every need and whim and seems to get an actual kick out of her success at what is still a hideously degrading job. She even starts to get a kick out of her own degradation – as we see when, for example, near the end she is teased by a colleague about being OMG a size 6 fatso, and proudly and happily announces that she is now actually a size 4 and therefore human. Of course, she is not seen in any way dieting or exercising to achieve this amazing feat of self-improvement (indeed, poor old Emily who will do anything to disappear for the sake of fashion, is mocked for her refusal to eat properly) and so must have done it by sheer dint of wearing fashionable clothes and running about on Miranda’s errands.

The moral of the tale? The insightful conclusion?

Andy packs in her job, goes back to the boyfriend who dumped her when she became one of them, and gets a job on a real paper. Good call. Except maybe the part about going back to the boyfriend, who seemed pretty dull. And the part where she stays thin and carries on wearing clothes that she cannot afford because hey at least that job taught her how to look good. And the part where you wonder whether Andy will ever stand up for herself again.

But what really irks is the treatment of Miranda. The very end of the film shows her resplendent, unmoved, unchanged. Why are we left with this wistful, admiring vision of Miranda? It is with Miranda that we are expected to leave our hearts, because it is Miranda who has touched our lives – and Andy’s.

Demanding she may be, impossible to work for it’s true – but still she is, if the producers have their way, to be admired. The film does not just show us Miranda’s human side as a counterpoint to redeem her inhuman coldness and ruthlessness in pursuit of the top of an ignoble profession: it expects us to appreciate and admire her, to see her coldness and ruthlessness as necessary tools for an end worth reaching. It does not condemn the fashion industry. It practically ennobles it by showing its worst excesses in a sympathetic light, by portraying fashion as important, by repeatedly asserting that what these people are working so hard to achieve actually matters.

People? Fashion isn’t important. It’s a cruel fantasy, perpetuated by propaganda like this – a film that purports to be incisive and ends by giving Big Fashion a big love.

[Note: I originally blogged this in December 2006, only to find now that it’s in the BRP . So I’m changing the date, bumping it up and adding links at the end. Easy game!]

The Color PurpleI think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.

What it do when it pissed off? I ast.

Oh, it make something else. People think pleasing God is all God care about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.

This book was on my mental to-read list for ages – and with good reason.

It is a novel telling the story of Celie through her letters to God and, later, to her sister Nettie. She writes these letters because of what her Pa told her: You better not never tell nobody but God. It’d kill your mammy.

The letters tell, in Celie’s own language – the voice it seems of black people in the southern states of the US – of her life from the time when her Pa first rapes her through her loveless marriage to an abusive husband, her discovery of her own sexuality with the beautiful singer Shug Avery (short for “Sugar”, I think, and presumably not pronounced to rhyme with “slug”!), the missionary life of her sister Nettie who escaped the family home to live with the couple that adopted both of Celie’s children by her Pa. We follow her as she gains in strength and comes to know, against all odds, both contentment and happiness.

The women in the story are amazing. Apart from Celie herself, there is the powerful magnetism of Shug, the hardworking loyalty and determination of Nettie, the uncompromising Sofia, the blossoming Mary Agnes (“Squeak”) and others. They each shine out from the pages.

As for the men… Walker received a great deal of criticism for her portrayal of black men in this novel* – although I’m not remotely convinced that such cricism is justified.

[* I should point out that much – but by no means all – of the criticism followed the release of the film version which, I understand, misses out some of the nice bits about men. That criticism affected Walker so greatly that she responded by writing a book about the film about The Color Purple – The Same River Twice: Honoring the Difficult.]

It is true that there are some bad men in the novel. Celie’s Pa treated her mother badly, turned his attentions to Celie, and would have treated Nettie in the same way but for Celie’s intervention. Celie’s husband also mistreats her: marrying her purely as a worker to care for his children, beating her and using her sexually. Celie’s stepson Harpo would have gone the same path had he not been married to the extraordinarily tough Sofia.

But these characters are not one-dimensional, they have their own journey to make, and the negative portrayals are balanced by portrayals of better men. There isn’t much to redeem Celie’s Pa, it is true. But her husband (known through the book mostly as “Mr -“) learns the error of his ways, and he later becomes a dear friend. Harpo is straightened out by the women in his life and becomes a valued member of the family. Sofia’s brother-in-law Jack is a quiet man who loves his children and honours his wife. The adoptive father of Celie’s children, Samuel, is a good and respectful man who takes Nettie in and effectively rescues her. Celie’s son Adam grows into a fine young man.

This novel is about abuse that poor black women suffer when living with poverty and racism and misogyny. It is also about sexuality, spirituality and survival. But the backdrop is one of overcoming, and flourshing in spite of, abuse: and a big part of that abuse is that these women are treated badly by black men. That is not the only part, but the part that is closest to home. Walker could not have written this novel, or expressed what her characters go through, without showing some men* in a bad light.

[* And not just black men, either. For example, Mary Agnes is raped by a white man when she goes to him to try and seek help for the imprisoned Sofia.]

In the circumstances, the positivity with which many of the men in this novel are ultimately portrayed is remarkable. Yet what was remarked upon was, instead, the negativity with which the abusers were portrayed. How can one write about abuse without abusers? And how can one write about abusers in a wholly positive light? One can’t. The fact that some people have chosen to condemn the negative portrayal of abusers rather than condemning the abuse merely shows, to me, where their sympathies lie. It is evidently better for women to remain silent about the misogynist abuse they and their sisters suffer, than to talk about it and to risk an accusation of misandry.

And now well over half of my post about this book is taken up with how it is NOT a man-hating novel. Damn those MRA goons.

This book is wonderful. Everyone should read it.

PS Many of the characters in this book appear in others. For example Tashi, the protagonist in Possessing the Secret of Joy is a part of Nettie’s story – and the Olivia and Adam who appear in that novel are Celie’s children. I’ve got to go back and read it again now to see what other links I can spot!

Here’s an Amazon link
I own a copy.