Review: How To Build a Girl, by Caitlin Moran

How To Build A Girl

How To Build A GirlI received this book for free from the publisher via Edelweiss. All content and opinions are my own.

I was inspired by this pre-publication readalong to seek out a copy of How To Build a Girl. And I’m glad I did.

Here’s a portion of the blurb:

What do you do in your teenage years when you realize what your parents taught you wasn’t enough? You must go out and find books and poetry and pop songs and bad heroes—and build yourself.

It’s 1990. Johanna Morrigan, fourteen, has shamed herself so badly on local TV that she decides that there’s no point in being Johanna anymore and reinvents herself as Dolly Wilde—fast-talking, hard-drinking gothic hero and full-time Lady Sex Adventurer. She will save her poverty-stricken Bohemian family by becoming a writer—like Jo in Little Women, or the Brontës—but without the dying-young bit.

By sixteen, she’s smoking cigarettes, getting drunk, and working for a music paper. She’s writing pornographic letters to rock stars, having all the kinds of sex with all the kinds of men, and eviscerating bands in reviews of 600 words or less.

Johanna. I’m still not sure what I feel for her. It’s something. Something between admiration and pity, leaning toward the admiration side. But, I think, more telling is that I apparently feel more for Caitlin Moran. Clearly, this book is based in someway on her own life, since she lived in similar circumstances as a teen and worked at a music magazine at a young age. It definitely felt more memoir-ish than novel-ish. There were also certain sections that became didactic (like the bit on cynicism), where it seemed the author stepped in and was lecturing. And I often felt that Johanna was not cognizant ad self-aware enough to make the observations she made. (She is, of course, slightly older as she writes the book, but that fact only enhanced the memoir-feel of it.) But I was willing to forgive most of this. It’s funny and blatant and well-written. I highlighted the crap out of it.

I still feel the burn of shame from when I interviewed a band and pronounced “paradigm” as spelled, and they mockingly corrected me. This is the terrible thing about learning everything from books–sometimes you don’t know how to say the words. You know the ideas, but you cannot discuss them with people with any confidence. And so you stay silent. It is the curse of the autodidact. Or “autodidiact,” as I said, on the same shameful day. Oh, that was a conversation that went so wrong.

Is this YA? Johanna is fourteen at the beginning and seventeen by the end. So, if the age of the protagonist is the defining characteristic, yes it is. But the subject matter and descriptions are decidedly not what you currently find in the YA section. Johanna is at once a child and an adult. Compare the following two quotes:

I dealt with this with all the coping mechanisms I knew: lying under the bed with the dog, reading Little Women and eating jam sandwiches dipped in instant hot chocolate.

In the end, I find what works is to stop thinking about what I am thinking about this particular sexual intercourse . . . and start thinking about what he’s thinking, instead. . . . There is very little female narrative of what it’s like to fuck and be fucked. I will realize that, as a seventeen-year-old girl, I couldn’t really hear my own voice during this sex. I had no idea what my voice was at all.

The idea in that last quote above is what really stuck with me from the book. There is very little female narrative about sexual experience. Johanna talks about masturbation and a number of sexual interactions. And it made me uncomfortable to read about it. It made me uncomfortable to include that quote above in this review. But I applaud Moran’s willingness to both include it and point it out.

So what do you do when you build yourself — only to realize you built yourself with the wrong things? You rip it up and start again. That is the work of your teenage years — to build up and tear down and build up again, over and over, endlessly, like speeded-up film of cities during boom times and wars. To be fearless and endless, in your reinventions — to keep twisting on nineteen, going bust, and dealing in again, and again. Invent, invent, invent.

How To Build a Girl was sad and, well, a bit painful. But I’m glad it exists, and I’m glad I read it. It’s about a teenage girl finding out who she is, building herself. It just made me wish she had had a bit more guidance, a few more friendly influences, and a little bit more help and understanding. Perhaps this book is meant to be a form of guidance to those teenagers who don’t have ready sources of it. I hope this book finds those souls.

How To Build a Girl is available today. Find Caitlin Moran on her website and on Twitter.


Banned Books Week 2014

Freadom 2014

Hey, kids (and adults)!  It’s Banned Books Week this week.  And I’m really feeling it this year.  I just recently finished (and enjoyed) three frequently challenged books – Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain and Maus I & Maus II, by Art Spiegelman.

Book challenges have been really catching my attention for the last several months.  Recent book challenges are summarized nicely in this round-up at BookRiot, which points out that the bodies (most often school boards) determining whether a book will be removed often do not even read the challenged book.  It is very disturbing to me when the views of one (or of a small group) result in the banishment of a book.  It is even more disturbing that book challenges frequently target books about minorities: “Diversity is slim throughout all genres of books and across all age groups — except when it comes to book challenges.”

But that is what Banned Books Week is all about – celebrating and seeking to protect the right and the freedom to read.  For some interesting and depressing information, check out the ALA’s frequently challenged books lists.  The top ten list for 2013 included the following:

  1. Captain Underpants (series), by Dav Pilkey
    Reasons: Offensive language, unsuited for age group, violence
  2. The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison
    Reasons: Offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, violence
  3. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
    Reasons: Drugs/alcohol/smoking, offensive language, racism, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
  4. Fifty Shades of Grey, by E.L. James
    Reasons: Nudity, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
  5. The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
    Reasons: Religious viewpoint, unsuited to age group
  6. A Bad Boy Can Be Good for A Girl, by Tanya Lee Stone
    Reasons: Drugs/alcohol/smoking, nudity, offensive language, sexually explicit
  7. Looking for Alaska, by John Green
    Reasons: Drugs/alcohol/smoking, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
  8. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky
    Reasons: drugs/alcohol/smoking, homosexuality, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
  9. Bless Me Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya
    Reasons: Occult/Satanism, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit
  10. Bone (series), by Jeff Smith
    Reasons: Political viewpoint, racism, violence

Of these, I have read (and really enjoyed) four. What banned books have you read and liked?

Head over to the official Banned Books Week website to find out more about banned books and this week’s celebrations of the right to read.  (My personal favorite is the Lawrence Public Library‘s banned books trading cards.  View the editions here: 2014 | 2013 | 2012.)


Facebook 100 Books

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I’m sure you’ve seen the Facebook viral status that asks users to list the top ten books that influenced them. Facebook analyzed the data to compile 100 books that have stayed with us. And there has been a lot of media coverage since then. I thought this one about whether people compiled their lists honestly was interesting. But I loved Jenni Elyse’s idea to post the list and note which ones she has read. So, I’m jumping on her meme bandwagon and doing the same. (Formatting from this Entertainment Weekly article.)

I have read the books and series in red. I have read part of the books or series in blue. Enjoy!

  1. The Harry Potter series—J.K. Rowling (21.08%)
  2. To Kill a Mockingbird—Harper Lee (14.48%)
  3. The Lord of the Rings—JRR Tolkien (13.86%)
  4. The Hobbit—JRR Tolkien (7.48%)
  5. Pride and Prejudice—Jane Austen (7.28%)
  6. The Holy Bible (7.21%)
  7. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy—Douglas Adams (5.97%)
  8. The Hunger Games trilogy—Suzanne Collins (5.82%)
  9. The Catcher in the Rye—J.D. Salinger (5.70%)
  10. The Chronicles of Narnia—C.S. Lewis (5.63%)
  11. The Great Gatsby—F. Scott Fitzgerald (5.61%)
  12. 1984—George Orwell (5.37%)
  13. Little Women—Louisa May Alcott (5.26%)
  14. Jane Eyre—Charlotte Bronte (5.23%)
  15. The Stand—Stephen King (5.11%)
  16. Gone with the Wind—Margaret Mitchell (4.95%)
  17. A Wrinkle in Time—Madeleine L’Engle (4.38%)
  18. The Handmaid’s Tale—Margaret Atwood (4.27%)
  19. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe—C.S. Lewis (4.05%)
  20. The Alchemist—Paulo Coelho (4.01%)
  21. Anne of Green Gables—L.M. Montgomery (3.95%)
  22. The Giver—Lois Lowry (3.53%)
  23. The Kite Runner—Khaled Hosseini (3.67%)
  24. Ender’s Game—Orson Scott Card (3.53%)
  25. The Poisonwood Bible—Barbara Kingsolver (3.39%)
  26. Lord of the Flies—William Golding (3.38%)
  27. The Eye of the World—Robert Jordan (3.38%)
  28. The Book Thief—Markus Zusak (3.32%)
  29. Wuthering Heights—Emily Bronte (3.26%)
  30. Hamlet—William Shakespeare (3.22%)
  31. The Little Prince—Antoine de Saint-Exupery (3.21%)
  32. Sherlock Holmes—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (3.15%)
  33. Fahrenheit 451—Ray Bradbury (3.15%)
  34. Animal Farm—George Orwell (3.12%)
  35. The Book of Mormon (3.08%)
  36. The Diary of Anne Frank—Anne Frank (3.05%)
  37. Dune—Frank Herbert (3.02%)
  38. One Hundred Years of Solitude—Gabriel Garcia Marquez (2.98%)
  39. The Autobiography of Malcolm X (2.83%)
  40. Of Mice and Men—John Steinbeck (2.78%)
  41. The Giving Tree—Shel Silverstein (2.72%)
  42. The Fault in Our Stars—John Green (2.68%)
  43. On the Road—Jack Kerouac (2.68%)
  44. Lamb—Christopher Moore (2.58%)
  45. Slaughterhouse-Five—Kurt Vonnegut (2.54%)
  46. A Prayer for Owen Meany—John Irving (2.53%)
  47. Good Omens—Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett (2.52%)
  48. The Help—Kathryn Stockett (2.45%)
  49. The Outsiders—S.E. Hinton (2.44%)
  50. American Gods—Neil Gaiman (2.42%)
  51. Where the Red Fern Grows—Wilson Rawls (2.41%)
  52. Stranger in a Strange Land—Robert Heinlein (2.39%)
  53. The Secret Garden—Frances Hodgson Burnett (2.38%)
  54. Little House on the Prairie—Laura Ingalls Wilder (2.35%)
  55. The Count of Monte Cristo—Alexandre Dumas (2.31%)
  56. The Pillars of the Earth—Ken Follett (2.31%)
  57. The Da Vinci Code—Dan Brown (2.29%)
  58. Brave New World—Aldous Huxley (2.24%)
  59. A Tale of Two Cities—Charles Dickens (2.21%)
  60. Les Miserables—Victor Hugo (2.21%)
  61. Great Expectations—Charles Dickens (2.16%)
  62. Night—Elie Wiesel (2.12%)
  63. The Dark Tower series—Stephen King (2.12%)
  64. Outlander—Diana Gabaldon (2.07%)
  65. The Color Purple—Alice Walker (1.92%)
  66. A Thousand Splendid Suns—Khaled Hosseini (1.89%)
  67. The Art of War—Sun Tzu (1.88%)
  68. Catch-22—Joseph Heller (1.85%)
  69. The Bell Jar—Sylvia Plath (1.85%)
  70. The Perks of Being a Wallflower—Stephen Chbosky (1.83%)
  71. The Old Man and the Sea—Ernest Hemingway (1.78%)
  72. Memoirs of a Geisha—Arthur Golden (1.76%)
  73. Tuesdays with Morrie—Mitch Albom (1.75%)
  74. The Road—Cormac McCarthy (1.73%)
  75. Watership Down—Richard Adams (1.72%)
  76. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn—Betty Smith (1.72%)
  77. Where the Sidewalk Ends—Shel Silverstein (1.68%)
  78. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo—Stieg Larsson (1.65%)
  79. A Song of Ice and Fire—George R. R. Martin (1.65%)
  80. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret—Judy Blume (1.65%)
  81. Charlotte’s Web—E.B. White (1.64%)
  82. The Time Traveler’s Wife—Audrey Niffenegger (1.63%)
  83. Anna Karenina—Leo Tolstoy (1.62%)
  84. Crime and Punishment—Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1.62%)
  85. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—Mark Twain (1.61%)
  86. The Shack—William P. Young (1.58%)
  87. Watchmen—Alan Moore (1.56%)
  88. Interview with the Vampire—Anne Rice (1.55%)
  89. The Odyssey—Homer (1.54%)
  90. The House of the Spirits—Isabel Allende (1.54%)
  91. The Stranger—Albert Camus (1.63%)
  92. The Call of the Wild—Jack London (1.63%)
  93. The Five People You Meet in Heaven—Mitch Albom (1.63%)
  94. Siddhartha—Herman Hesse (1.63%)
  95. East of Eden—John Steinbeck (1.50%)
  96. Matilda—Roald Dahl (1.50%)
  97. The Picture of Dorian Gray—Oscar Wilde (1.49%)
  98. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance—Robert Pirsig (1.47%)
  99. Love in the Time of Cholera—Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1.45%)
  100. Where the Wild Things Are—Maurice Sendak (1.45%)

Total (red) = 55

What do you think about this list?

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2014 Booker Shortlist

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Today, the Man Booker Prize announced the 2014 shortlist, culled from the original longlist of 13 novels.

The Shortlist
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, Joshua Ferris (Viking)
The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan (Chatto & Windus)
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler (Serpent’s Tail)
J, Howard Jacobson (Jonathan Cape)
The Lives of Others, Neel Mukherjee (Chatto & Windus)
How to be Both, Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton)

The Rest of the Longlist
The Blazing World, Siri Hustvedt (Sceptre)
The Wake, Paul Kingsnorth (Unbound)
The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell (Sceptre)
Us, David Nicholls (Hodder & Stoughton)
The Dog, Joseph O’Neill (Fourth Estate)
Orfeo, Richard Powers (Atlantic Books)
History of the Rain, Niall Williams (Bloomsbury)

Two of the three women on the longlist moved forward, and I’m a little surprised that The Bone Clocks did not. Whoever wins will be a new-to-me author.

As I mentioned in the longlist post, this is the first year that novelists from countries other than those in the British Commonwealth have been eligible for the Man Booker Prize. Now to qualify a work must simply be written in English. The winner will be chosen from among the shortlisted titles and announced on October 14.

Have you read any of these? What do you think about the shortlist?


Review: The Children Act, by Ian McEwan

The Children Act

I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley. All content and opinions are my own.

I love Ian McEwan. Well, more accurately, I love his writing. He could write about almost anything, and I’d read it. But his newest book, The Children Act, seems to have been written for me. It’s about Fiona Maye, a judge. (I’m a lawyer.) She works in the family division. (I used to practice family law.) She plays the piano. (I play the piano.) Okay, you get the idea. Plus, the similarities end there.

When a court determines any question with respect to . . . the upbringing of a child . . . the child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration.
–Section 1(a), The Children Act, 1989

Fiona and her husband Jack are nearing sixty and are at a turning point in their marriage. Fiona is forced to reevaluate everything, it seems, especially the decision not to have children and to focus instead on her (very successful) career. In the midst of this, she is called on to adjudicate the case of a seventeen year old boy who is refusing blood transfusions that might cure his leukemia on religious grounds. (In Britain, apparently, medical professionals can bring such a situation before the courts and argue that treatment should be ordered despite a child’s or his parent’s wishes.) Not a stranger to difficult and nuanced cases like these, Fiona would typically hear both sides and make a clear, calculated, and legally sound judgment. In the midst of the new fog surrounding her life, she makes an impulsive decision to visit the boy in the hospital prior to making her ruling.

I was fascinated by the accounts of Fiona’s previous cases and her judgments in those cases. The little legal dramas are told in such interesting and tightly woven ways that they cannot help but to fascinate. McEwan describes family law perfectly: “The Family Division teemed with strange differences, special pleading, intimate half-truths, exotic accusation.” I felt I was there, in the family division, in Fiona’s apartment, in her head.

Woven on top of the legal layer is the marital layer, the aging layer. Fiona and her husband are getting older: “[n]ot the full withering, not just yet, but its early promise was shining through.” This aging, both personally and maritally, is a hefty if background piece of this story. It is Fiona’s personal life that makes her professional life – and her choices throughout the book – all the more compelling.

[N]ow came another old theme: self-blame. She was selfish, crabbed, drily ambitious. Pursuing her own ends, pretending to herself that her career was not in essence self-gratification, denying an existence to two or three warm and talented individuals.

McEwan is a masterful storyteller and writer. The characters intrigue me every time. And here, again, I found that the descriptions, like this one, made me tingle with recognition and relish: “a silent young woman with heavy amber beads and a taste for the kind of stilettos that could wreck an old oak floor.” I thoroughly enjoyed this novella (it clocks in at around 55,000 pages). While others of McEwan’s works remain my favorites, The Children Act is a lovely addition to his oeuvre.

Blind luck, to arrive in the world with your properly formed parts in the right place, to be born to parents who were loving, not cruel, or to escape by geographical or social accident war or poverty. And therefore to find it so much easier to be virtuous.

The Children Act is available today. I know I’ll be snatching up a copy to add to my Ian McEwan shrine shelf.

My reviews of other books by Ian McEwan:

Amsterdam
First Love, Last Rites
On Chesil Beach

* I haven’t reviewed Atonement or Sweet Tooth, but I loved them both.