DNF: How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran

how to build a girl

How to Build a Girl – Caitlin Moran
Harper, September 2014

Review Copy provided by the publisher

Two years ago, I read How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran, which left me with mixed feelings. Reading my review now, I feel I am quite mild in my judgement of the book. Or perhaps, I started feeling more uncomfortable with Moran’s vision of feminism as time passed.

Knowing this, you might wonder why I requested a copy of How to Build a Girl when it was offered to me for review. To be honest, in hindsight I ask myself the same question. But I can answer it: Given the fact that I quite enjoyed Moran’s more personal reflections in How to Be a Woman, I thought a novel might suit her better, as it would leave her with more room for anecdotes and less for general ideas on feminism. That being the case, I was likely to enjoy it more.

Now I should state that I think my patience with books is a lot shorter now that I have so few moments a day in which I can read, and that being the case I tend to abandon books more quickly (I usually persevered until the very end), and am irritated a lot easier. The fact that I did not finish a book as such is less strong a judgement than it used to be.

You can probably see it coming from miles off: I did not enjoy How to Build a Girl more. Instead, I was irritated much more quickly, and abandoned the book hardly 40 pages in. The first reason being that instead of the novel format working to the advantage of Moran, it felt like it did not fit the writing at all. From the first I was asking whether the writing should be read as fiction or a form of autobiography. The preface explicitly states it is not – and yet the style seemed to suggest it somehow? Secondly, I just do not seem to share Moran’s sense of humour. Whereas I found her suitably funny in How to Be a Woman, the observations and puns in her text (of which there are a lot) fell entirely flat for me.

And so I gave up. Rather too quickly perhaps? After all, I was just 40 pages in.. Tell me, should I give Moran another go? Or is this simply a case of bad fit between author and me as a reader?

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender – Leslye Walton // Walker Books, October 2014 // Review copy kindly provided by the publisher

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender combines a number of things that appeal to me: a beautiful cover (though that might be a shallow reason), an interesting title (same), a multigenerational story that for once is told from the perspective of one person, and most of all it being the story about a girl with wings, it made me think of Eep by Joke van Leeuwen which I read and enjoyed two years ago. I was curious how this very different book would compare, because in some ways it does tackle the same themes of difference and love — themes that cannot help but be interesting, right?

To many, I was myth incarnate, the embodiment of a most superb legend, a fairy tale. Some considered me a monster, a mutation. To my great misfortune, I was once mistaken for an angel. To my mother, I was everything. To my father, nothing at all. To my grandmother, I was a daily reminder of loves long lost. But I knew the truth—deep down, I always did.

I was just a girl.

Ava Lavender is born with the wings of a bird. The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender traces the story of her grandmother and mother, as well as her extended family, as Ava tries to understand what makes her who she is. Love plays a key role in that history: familial, unrequited, long ignored, returned, and any other form of it.

Maybe it was because I had only recently finished The House of the Spirits by Allende, but Walton’s book reminded me a little of that: it shares the multigenerational storyline, the influence of magical realism as both deal with the intervening and lasting force of people who have died, and the engaging and sometimes poetic style. Mind you, I am not saying Walton writes like Allende (or that that is a bad or a good thing). It is just that I found both books to offer a very engaging style that draws you in right away. And in contrast with Allende’s book, my attention didn’t wane after the 100 page mark. Instead, it increased. Where at first I had to get used to Walton’s occasional use of repetition of certain phrasings throughout chapters, wondering if it didn’t feel awkward at times, I began to appreciate it more as it started to feel like a fitting portrayal of the echoes along generations from time to time. The book itself, the story, but also the style, drew me in along the way, and by the end I was loath to put it down at the end of a nursing session or because other work needed to be done.

Besides all the reasons I noted earlier on why Ava Lavender appealed to me from the start, upon finishing I can say that it has other things going for it as well: the worldbuilding, the characters (particularly Ava, Henry, Cardigan, and Rowe), the narration, and definitely the way in which the “weird” and otherworldly is portrayed as part of everyday life, or in a sense, really is regular like everything else. The only drawback for me? The very last pages had me a little confused. It certainly has that kind of ending where I am not sure what I am supposed to think. But in a way that fits the book perfectly as well?

Perhaps I appreciate the book more now that I sit down to write this post. Returning to the first words of the book, quoted above, upon having finished it, it is lovely to see the story comes full circle — or to see that a very brief version of it is actually told in that first paragraph. That may make it seem rather too simple or stylised, but instead I think it is quite an accomplishment to have such an image reverberate throughout the book — lovely, really, as is the whole of Ava Lavender‘s story.

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

I have quite a number of books by Isabel Allende on my shelves. Most of them unread. I do not know why, but I always feel a little hesitant to pick them up. Am I intimidated? Or am I scared I might not like them as much as I expect to? I think it is a mixture of the two. When I read Island Beneath the Sea, the first and only book by Allende I had read until last month, I vowed I would get over those feelings and finally dedicate some reading time to her work. Because I did really like the story and the themes it explored. Despite this vow, it took me quite some time to pick up another one of her novels, this time her classic The House of the Spirits.

It was Aarti’s A More Diverse Universe event that finally gave me the push to give this one a go. I never even thought of Allende as an author nor about this title as a book that might count towards a challenge to read more diversely, but yay for her including it on a list of suggested titles and for me realising I actually owned a few of her suggestions and that now might be the time to start reading them. Sadly, I only made it through one book due to the time restraints of giving birth and taking care of a small baby, but at least I read one book, right?

The House of the Spirits – Isabel Allende // Vintage, 2011 // First published in English in 1985

The House of the Spirits is a family saga situated in an unnamed South American country which can easily be identified as Chile. The story concentrates on three generations, but mostly on the first and third in the form of Clara and Esteban Trueba, and Alba Trueba. Intermixed with the narrative of the personal lives of the Trueba family are elements of the supernatural (the magical realism component of Allende’s work), the social and the political. It also carries an undertone of gender criticism, though not always as explicit as I might have liked as I will explain below.

There is something about Allende’s style that appeals to me. I flew through the first 100 pages of this book. I found her prose very convincing and I immediately felt part of the world of the Trueba family. I had fully expected to continue reading the other 400 pages in the same vein. However, something made me slow down. And while, in the end I continue to feel that Allende’s worldbuilding and narrative is very convincing and I can still vividly imagine her characters a week after finishing the book, I cannot say I feel head over heels in love with this book, as I expected from those first pages.

The main thing holding me back from a declaration of outright love is the gender angle that I briefly mentioned before. I should add that this is more a matter of personal taste than me finding fault with Allende’s argument or gender perspective in the book.

Allende definitely argues for a less normative and patriarchical society in her book, which I think is illustrated by the fact that the book begins with Clara and not with Esteban, and that it is the women who take the lead even if Esteban is the narrator for much of the story. Yet, because Esteban is the narrator for part of the story, I felt uncomfortable with some scenes. It is an accomplishment that Allende manages to write from the perspective of many characters and not apologize for any of their feelings or deeds, and part of me appreciates that. Another part of me couldn’t help but feel incredibly uncomfortable with the many rape scenes and Esteban’s overbearing and masculine-centred behaviour. It just.. made my skin crawl at times. Particularly because Esteban’s character didn’t even bat an eye. True, Allende makes up for these scenes by drawing such wonderful women in Clara, Blanca and Alba, but I could never quite shake this discomfort at the character of Esteban, or maybe the masculine society as a whole. Is Allende’s protrayal of this realistic? Possibly, or even probably. Does she hint at acknowledging the discomfort this portrayal might make the reader feel? I think so. She also hints at disagreement with it. And yet… part of me wishes for more, or perhaps a little less of the brutality, or perhaps simply less details. Or maybe to have Clara do more than hint at her knowledge of Esteban’s former behaviour, or be more outspoken about it from the outset. I don’t know.

In short, I both admire and hesitate over Allende’s ability to draw such a realistic brutal history that is cushioned and mirrored in the personal entanglements of a family, but I also shrank back from the sharp edges of it. Are they there by necessity? Very probably. And therefore I feel I have no right to complain. But these sharp edges.. they made me uncomfortable nonetheless.

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A More Diverse Universe is a blogging event hosted by Aarti over at her blog BookLust in a effort to promote reading diversely, providing insight into the fact that reading diversily does not require you to change your taste in reading, only to search more actively for diverse books within your favourite genre(s). For more information and other reviews, please visit this dedicated post on Aarti’s blog or follow the hashtag #Diversiverse on twitter.

Four Weeks Later…

Pim is one month old today. I cannot believe that it has been four weeks already!

Meanwhile, Pim, Bas and I are semi-quietly enjoying our time together. Bas has began working again, I am still on maternity leave (thank god, because I wouldn’t survive nursing every 3 hours while going back to work yet). We are happy and healthy, even if our new schedule takes some getting used to at times. It is weird how on the one hand it feels completely natural that Pim is here, as if it has never been otherwise, but how on the other hand you realise that your life has changed so much. I wouldn’t have it any other way though, even with the minor difficulties of colic and breastfeeding issues that play up from time to time. I would never have expected to feel so much a mother from the outset, never having been the type to want to hold babies or anything, but it is all surprisingly easy and just sort of happened overnight. Just like Pim’s arrival sort of happened with a very fast delivery.

We’re at this stage where we feel Pim is growing so fast, while everyone who visits tells us how small he still is. And he is, if you think of babies of 6 months, or even of one month older. But he has changed so much already! I am constantly divided over wanting to hold on to this small baby and wishing to see how he will develop further, and dreaming about all the things we will do in a few weeks to a few months time. I guess that’s all part of being a parent, right?

I could write a thousand more words, but I still feel a little awkward talking about my child (and posting pictures of him) in such a public setting. On the other hand, I desperately want to share and discuss. I haven’t quite decided how I feel about that yet, or how I want to handle these questions. Perhaps one day? Or perhaps next week, when and if my laptop finally gets repaired.

Pim

On Sunday, at 8:13 am, our son Pim was born. We are happy and proud and doing well.

More to follow…

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