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Book Review: Dorian

7 Mar

Book cover: picture of Dorian Grey - a painting of a male, nude torsoDorian by Will Self

I Liked this Better Than the Original

A literary re-write is a difficult thing to do well, but Will Self does it. I think Self works better within the restraints of this form, (versus his bloated books The Butt or The Book of Dave) and the new twists Self adds to the tale work wonders.

There is no one picture – there is a modern art installation of multiple videos of Dorian – and he has to track down and hide each and every one – adding to the drama which was missing in the original. The debauched, druggy Lords and Ladies work brilliantly in a mid-80s setting, as does the masterstroke of using the HIV epidemic to hasten the aging process for all other characters. This also adds to the suspicion around Dorian’s miraculous escape from such a fate.

In retrospect – I realise a little more about what was implied in the original The Picture of Dorian Gray – why Dorian’s implied sleeping about was just so dangerous and evil (syphilis epidemic, anyone?) but, through no fault of Wilde’s, he couldn’t state those things emphatically, Continue reading

Kickass Princesses, Part 2

30 Jun

This article originally appeared in Bad Reputation – a feminist pop-culture adventure on 18 June 2012.

When I think about everything about womanhood that hamstrung me with fear when I was thirteen it all came down, really, to princesses. I didn’t think I had to work hard to be a woman (which is scary but obviously eventually achievable). I thought I had to somehow magically – through superhuman psychic effort – transform into a princess instead. That’s how I’d get fallen in love with. That’s how I’d get along. That’s how the world would welcome me.

– Caitlin Moran, How to be a Woman

Welcome to part two of Kickass Princesses – a look at some subversive female protagonists in children’s literature. You can read Part 1 here.

The more children’s books I read and the more princesses I come to know, the more I realise that ‘kickass’ probably wasn’t the best term to use. Some of these characters do kick ass, but the main feature is turning out to be simply that they make unconventional princesses.

As the archetype of a fairytale princess is so ingrained, it takes looking at a wide variety of ‘unprincessy’ examples to unpick exactly what some of our starting assumptions are. A closer look at the ‘unconventional’ princesses here, and in my previous post, reveals that these women and girls have agency, interests, and are more than just a beautiful, delicate, unsullied physical appearance. Sometimes they aren’t even beautiful at all. What they are – what, we realise, makes them ‘unprincessy’ – is often simply the fact that they are two-dimensional characters.

Ouch. This stereotype needs subverting roughly forever ago. On with the show…

The Ordinary Princess

The Ordinary Princess book cover Continue reading

Kickass Princesses, Part 1

19 Apr

This article originally appeared in Bad Reputation – a feminist pop-culture adventure on 28 March 2012.

Fairy tales! We all like fairy tales, right? They have both an air of comfort and adventure about them, and – as they’re something we first came into contact with as young children – there’s also an almost familial fondness for some of them. As they come from the oral tradition, folk/fairy tales have adapted slightly with each retelling to suit the world around them – but as Treasury Islands recently pointed out, the writing–down stage of most tales we know (i.e. when they became a little more set in stone) happened in deeply misogynistic times – and this carries through in even our most beloved fairy tales.

In the world of children’s books there’s a double-whammy of bad female role models and massive under-representation. There’s only one female character to every 1.6 male characters. One of the few regular traditional roles for girls in children’s literature is that of the princess, but it doesn’t take a genius to see that the traditional princess trope doesn’t give girls many positive or useful goals to aim for: look pretty, be born into or marry into hereditary privilege and… uh… that’s it. Happily ever after. Forever. Are you bored yet? I am.

Picture of a children's toy tiara covered in glitterYet plenty of little girls are still obsessed with princesses and being a princess. It might not appeal much to the grown-ups, but the trope remains strong – as does the lure of pretty things. (Personally, I still have to suppress a twinge of jealousy when I see a kid going by in a really good princess dress – with the layers of skirt and the faux-stays bodice and WHERE WERE THEY WHEN I WAS SMALL, HUH? – but it’s fine. I’m not jealous. I’m writing this wearing a £3 Claire’s Accessories tiara so it’s all OK.) Continue reading

Book Review: The Satanic Witch

1 Apr

Tired Pervy Unenlightened 1960s Cliches

The Satanic Witch by Anton LaVey

Book cover of The Satanic Witch by Anton LaVeyI read this shortly after finishing The Satanic Bible because I was a teenage prat and still wanted to shock the people sat opposite me on public transport. For these purposes this book doesn’t work as well as The Satanic Bible. Though it still has the inverted pentacle on the cover, the friendly pink colour lowers the impact.

As for contents: Ha! Holy shit it’s terrible. The ‘magic’ referred to is all about seduction – this whole book is basically an egotistical straight man’s ideas for what women should do to pick up guys. It’s The Game but written for women in the less-slick 1960’s.

Its advice goes from the neanderthal: ‘don’t wash – pheromones are your body’s natural magic’ to atrocious deception based on cod-psychology. Apparently all men and women have a ‘demon’ self which is the opposite of their outer self, and it’s the ‘demon’ self you have to pitch yourself to. So if he’s macho on the outside he’s whimpering on the inside, and so as to not scare off the whimpering ‘demon self’ you’ve decided he has, you should make yourself as soft and gentle as possible, even perhaps giving yourself a softer, gentler-sounding name. If he seems really straight-laced perhaps affect an exotic accent to appeal to the opposite him.

Genius. What could go wrong? (Except for that little awkward patch when he realises you’re not Sabrina from Paris but Gertrude from Scunthorpe and he thinks you’re a derranged ’cause you’ve been lying about everything…)

The whole book is basically advice for a woman on how to get a one night stand. If she wants anything more she’s a bit screwed once all the deception comes out, surely?

(Also: if you’re a straight woman who wants some no-strings sex – correct me if I’m wrong – but isn’t that the kind of thing it’s incredibly easy to get? Try saying to a dude in a bar “would you like to have some no-strings sex?”)

As well as recommending lying wherever possible to get laid, LaVey is also apparently a big fan of gender binaries. He advises women should be as curvy and distinctively feminised as possible – don’t go for any of this unsexy jeans rubbish – and men should be butch. In this way each gender plays up their own ‘natural magic’ as much as possible.

So: be smelly, lie a lot, put on pantomime shows of gendered behaviours…You know, even reading this as an inept and slightly confused virgin – I still knew this was a load of bull.

Book Review: The Satanic Bible

30 Mar

Relies on Shock Value, then De-Mystifies All Shock Value

The Satanic Bible by Anton LaVey

The Satanic Bible by Anton Szandor LaVeySo, I read this when I was about sixteen and liked to see the looks on people’s faces when they saw me reading it. Look at that big inverted pentacle. OoooOOOooooh. It wasn’t completely without merit as I then went out and read its even more tired sister book The Satanic Witch, but the fact that I was reading a book called The Satanic Bible – and pissing off people around me as I read it on public transport – was worth far more to me than anything I was actually reading in it.

The one bit I found interesting was about ‘psychic vampires’ also known as people who use you up. This phrase does seem to have been adopted more widely. One point to Mr. LaVey.

However, for the majority, this book is part gibberish, part self-aggrandisement and part nihilism. Takeaway morals were pretty much ‘do what you want, but don’t be an idiot: the police will still come after you if you do a murder.’ It’s also disappointingly thin on magic. It claims pheromones are magic, acting sexy is magic, ‘psychodrama’ is magic, and that any kind of big satanic ritual thing has power if the people involved are getting off on it – but that’s where it begins and ends. So… no magic then?

While this is probably true, if you’re sceptical about the existence of any occult powers then why bother with all the occult imagery? If you don’t believe Satan even exists then why call yourselves ‘Satanists’? It’s some unpleasant philosophy paired up with some shock value images and a smugness that anyone who is shocked just doesn’t understand you ’cause they were too stoooopid to read the disclaimer.

Mazel tov, you little scamps. And what will you be doing for your A-levels?

Meh. If you’re a teenager in the suburbs then by all means consider having this on your bookshelf to shock & annoy, but for the intellectually curious there are better books you could read on just about any topic this touches on: philosophy, sociology, psychology, the history of the occult, magic, Christ – even read Marilyn Manson’s autobiography if you have to.

This book is the textual equivalent of those 1950s B-movie posters that promised so much and delivered so little.

The Spinster Book

13 Mar

This article originally appeared in Bad Reputation – a feminist pop-culture adventure on 28 February 2012.

This was going to be a very light and fluffy post, raising an arched eyebrow at an interesting find, but over the course of writing this article I made some discoveries which made it seem less of a frippery. But more on that later. Let’s start at the beginning: I was browsing in a charity shop when I found a 1901 book (okay, fine, the 1903 reprint) with the incredible name The Spinster Book. Even brushing aside, for a moment, the hilarious and wonderful title – it’s amazing.

An old clothback book. It is a lavender coloured hardback with a hand mirror inlaid in gold leaf on the front. The mirror has the text THE SPINSTER BOOK inside it. Image by the author.

Published in New York by the Knickerbocker Press

I mean, just look at it. Look harder! It’s all lavender and embossing and gold leaf and a looking-glass (wonderfully implying ‘it could be YOU’). It’s an absolutely sodding gorgeous book: rough uncut paper edges on two sides, gold leaf on the top, strange red-and-black printing on the pages which reminds me a little of the Kelmscott Press facsimile I own (made by William Morris. The most beautiful books since illuminated manuscripts. OHMIGOD read his Chaucer… *cough* Excuse me, I seem to have bibliophiled all over the place).

On closer inspection, The Spinster Book is basically a dating/courtship guide, which very much assumes that one should never, ever attempt to talk to the opposite gender like a normal human being. Indeed, it even seems to suggest that too many friendships with men put a woman in the ‘friend zone’ forever:

“To one distinct class of women men tell their troubles and the other class sees that they have plenty to tell. It is better to be in the second category than in the first.”

It’s a bit like Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, but due to being 111 years out of date it’s even more laughable. (And I absolutely love dated dating advice anyway.)

The chapter titles are a treat in themselves:

Contents page of The Spinster Book, laid out in red and black typeface. Photo by the author.

  • Notes on Men
  • Concerning Women
  • The Philosophy of Love
  • The Lost Art of Courtship
  • The Natural History of Proposals
  • Love Letters: Old and New
  • An Inquiry into Marriage
  • The Physiology of Vanity
  • Widowers and Widows
  • The Consolations of Spinsterhood

(… note that even in 1901 courtship was considered a ‘lost art’. When precisely were the good old days, anyway?)

“There is nothing in the world so harmless and as utterly joyous as man’s conceit. The woman who will not pander to it is ungracious indeed. Man’s interest in himself is purely altruistic and springs from an unselfish desire to please.”

– Chapter 1, Notes on Men

Hannah reading in front of a rainbow flag. Photo: the author.

Why I am I still unmarried? Enquiring minds want to know

Buh. Duh…. whu? A man being self-centred is actually selfless, because he’s only doing it to be adorable. So lighten up and adore him some more, regardless of how conceited he is? Can… can I get an irony check on this?

My instinct when dealing with writing from the past (rightly or wrongly) is to assume the chance of satire is reduced the longer ago the text comes from (Jonathan Swift, forgive me). However, for most of The Spinster Book, I’m realising a grain of salt is the way forward. This book does appear, at times, to be Jane Austen-wry, and puts forward some things with a fanciful glibness:

“After the door of a woman’s heart has once swung on its silent hinges, a man thinks he can prop it open with a brick and go away and leave it. A storm is apt to displace the brick, however – and there is a heavy spring in the door. Woe to the masculine finger that is in the way!”

– Chapter 4, The Lost Art of Courtship

But at the same time, it treads the difficult line of mocking some concepts whilst also giving some advice very seriously. I mean, come on, we’re playing for keeps. ‘Do you want to be a spinster? No? Then listen up. No talking at the back. It could be you. It could be YOOOU.’

There’s also a lingering assumption throughout this book that both parties are playing a pretty nasty game of chess:

“He who would win a woman must challenge her admiration, prove himself worthy of her regard, appeal to her sympathy – and then wound her. She is never wholly his until she realises that he has the power to make her miserable as well as to make her happy, and that love is an infinite capacity for suffering.”

– Chapter 4, The Lost Art of Courtship

(Also: lucky girl. Jesus.)

A lot of the book has this kind of masochistic, ‘love is pain’ tone throughout – sometimes in understandable ways and sometimes completely out of the blue. Advice, advice, advice… misery and masochism sneak attack! For example, the final sentence of the ‘love letters’ chapter is “So the old love letters bring happiness after all – like the smile which sometimes rests upon the faces of the dead.”

So, yes, I was unsure what to make of this tone. Then our lovely editor Googled the author, Myrtle Reed, and some more information fell into place. By all accounts, Reed was well-known and admired in her own time. She was the author of some thirty books, which included cookbooks (published under the name Olive Green) and novels under her real name – the best known of which is probably Lavender and Old Lace.

Quick Bio:

1874: Born
1899: First novel published (she continued to publish at least one a year, sometimes more)
1901: The Spinster Book was published when she was 27
1906: Married James Sydney McCullough, a penpal, at the unusually late age of 32
1911: Died of a deliberate overdose of sleeping pills/powders aged 37.

Her suicide note, addressed to her maid, stated “If my husband had been as good and kind to me and as considerate as you, I would not be going where I am”. Horrible and sad, but also increasingly eerie from an author whose most famous epigram is this:

“The only way to test a man is to marry him. If you live, it’s a mushroom. If you die, it’s a toadstool.”

Threads of Gray and Gold (pub. 1913)

No one on the outside knew of anything bad within their marriage. Indeed, according to Annie, Myrtle Reed’s maid, she “had never heard Mrs McCullough [née Reed] quarrel with her husband during the four years she had been at their home.” It’s useless to guess what lay behind it, at how much was a depressive tendency (which certainly seems to show in The Spinster Book), how much was a bad relationship and how much was a clearly intelligent and ambitious woman feeling desperate and trapped in a society which didn’t have many roles for women.

illustration to the chapter Concerning Women. A line drawing of a woman gazing into a vanity mirror, an open book in front of her on the table.

I don’t really know how to end this post. It started with a brilliant charity shop find which had me so hyped I that was reading passages aloud to my flatmate on the tube until he pretended he didn’t know me… and it’s ended with a bit of a reality-check, I suppose.

Although she never states in as many words that she herself is a spinster, Reed was writing the book at age 27 – five years past a woman’s usual marrying age. By the standards of her time, she was now a spinster, and was presumably preparing herself for the future. The advice I saw as laughable – that being a spinster isn’t so bad as a woman might yet find herself a nice widower – was, presumably, Myrtle Reed’s actual hope.

The chapter ‘The Consolations of Spinsterhood’ does mention “the dazzling allurements offered by various “careers” which bring fame and perhaps fortune”, but it quickly goes on to show just how little consolation Reed considers these to be:

“The universal testimony of the great, that fame itself is barren … it is love for which she hungers, rather than fame…. If she were not free to continue the work that she loved, she would feel no deprivation.”

Although she was a successful and prolific novelist in her own time, the stigma of spinsterhood would have seemed to erode the achievements she had rightfully earned. Reed implies heavily in The Spinster Book that she would have traded it all in for a husband. Except that when she did eventually marry, that clearly didn’t make her happy either.

Book open at the chapter The Philosophy of Love, with a line drawing of a cherub in spectacles writing in a book with a quill. Photo by the author.

As much as I love mocking dating advice (old and new) for any hint of gendered assumptions, Myrtle Reed didn’t ‘opt in’ to play by those rules. In 1901 there wasn’t an ‘opt out’. And shame on me for finding the topic so hilariously trivial in the first place. Check your 21st century privilege, Hannah. If I’d lived in a time and a society where marriage was my home, my job, my finances, my legal rights and my love life all rolled into one – you bet your arse I’d agonise over it. I’d probably buy a few books on the topic too. For every snide, ironic, 21st century reader, there were probably dozens of contemporary readers poring over this book’s advice and worrying about their futures. I do have freedom and choices and don’t have to play nasty games to secure a man to secure my future stability – but you don’t have to go back even half as far as Reed’s time to find women who did have to work within this crapshoot of a system. Whilst artefacts like The Spinster Book make interesting time-pieces, we should never forget that many of us who stumble across it now are the lucky ones – and that our privilege is incredibly rare.

And I guess that’s one of the main reasons why I’m a feminist in the first place.

Opening layout of the chapter The Consolations of Spinsterhood, with a line drawing of a woman gazing out of a window. Photo by the author

The Schadenfreude Review

2 Nov

As a reviewer I find the hardest reviews to write are of books which just strike you as ‘meh.’ The okay books which you neither love nor hate are difficult to get a handle on. You often wind up describing plots rather than reactions to it because you barely had any. The ‘Meh’ review is often doomed to be as bland as you found the book: ‘here is a description of a book I have read and didn’t mind.’

Conversely the easiest reviews are of things absolutely you hate. Imagine, then, my Schadenfreude-laden/masochistic delight when I discovered a book so bad I could start a rant about something on almost every single page. (In fact, I frequently did start said rants because chewing the ear off a nearby friend was preferable to wading through more of this grandiose-uncle’s-speech-at-a-wedding prose.)Albert Pierrepoint

So – who wrote this absolute stink-bomb of a book, I hear you ask? Albert Pierrepoint. And I’m absolutely allowed to be mean to him because he killed lots of people. For money.

Put this book out of its misery

Pierrepoint, Britain’s last hangman, used a system of variable drops to snap the convict’s neck instantly – killing them as humanely as possible. I only wish he’d found a method for dispatching his sentences as painlessly.

There is no ghostwriter and oh boy does it show. I’m not entirely sure there was an editor, either. In describing his childhood, every conceivable detail is named: two pages on the embarrassment and ‘indignity’ of not being allowed long trousers when he was a boy, half a page on the way his aunt took the lid off a bottle of gingerbeer. I wish I was kidding.

I’d already seen the movie Pierrepoint when I spotted this book in a charity shop. I’d read that Pierrepoint came out as an advocate against the death penalty in his later life, and that (at one point) he lived in my old neighbourhood. These two factoids were enough to get me reading – but once I was reading… oh dear.

I know ‘it sent me to sleep’ is overused, but seriously I’ve been using this a sedative for a fortnight or more. I’m barely a third of the way through it. It’s turgid, dull-dull-dull and just screams “look at me using big words and gazing at my own navel ’cause now I’m a writer.”

The interesting bits – i.e. his attitudes to life and death, and taking another’s life, and why the hell he was drawn to that kind of work – he seems unwilling or unable to engage with. Only that it’s about dignity, but most men don’t understand, and ladies never understand. And he is forever grateful to his wife for her ‘discretion’ in never ever mentioning the fact that he was, y’know, bumping people off for money on the side.

If I were to attempt psychoanalysis I’d say that Albert Pierrepoint was a man who desperately craved the status – or in his own words the ‘dignity’ – which he perceived in adulthood and seriousness. Given that being a hangman was by definition a very serious job, and his father had been one too, I think he saw it as a way to responsibility and adulthood. I do not think Pierrepoint was a particularly perceptive or self-aware man. I don’t think he had many easily-articulated answers for why he did what he did – and therefore he was especially quick to dismiss others’ questions as their not understanding it. Well, they didn’t – and neither did he.

The past is a different country. A weird, emotionally-repressed one with extremely long sentences.