Tag Archives: book review

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

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Book Review: Picture of Dorian Gray

7 Mar

Penguin Classics book cover of picture of dorian Gray featuring a young attractive-ish man with a high neck victorian collarPicture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Luscious and Badly Paced

Beautiful descriptions, beautiful quips, next to no editing going on here. Two whole pages dedicated to lists of the pretty things Dorian buys himself is definitely self-indulgent – but then what else could we expect of the great Oscar Wilde?

I loved this novel for its concept and for its myriad witticisms, though I didn’t find it had much going for it in suspense or horror. I haven’t read enough else from around this era to know if it’s just of its time, or if it’s just not Wilde’s strong point. Either way, it is a shame. Also, I think Wilde missed a trick in neither making Gray that scary a character (amoral, of course, but never really that menacing to the audience), nor showing more of the world from Gray’s point of view – which could have been fun.

The character of the theatre owner is where Wilde really lets himself down as a narrator. All Wilde can do to convey how unpleasant this man is, is talk about how revolting and Jewish he is. Reading this as a Jewish person Continue reading

Book Review: An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein

7 Mar

Book cover An Adult Evening with Shel Silverstein. It is a plain pink cover with black text.An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein by Shel Silverstein

A Forgotten Classic

I am forever grateful to my university’s drama society for putting on An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein, and opening my eyes to the wonder of Uncle Shelby’s adult stuff.

Quick word of warning: this is a lot closer to Freakin’ at the Freakers’ Ball than The Giving Tree.

It’s a series of dramatic shorts, each one riffing around two or three characters interacting in a dark, twisted, well observed, and often hilarious situation. Yes, it’s a script, and I don’t normally read scripts in my spare time, but this is what writing should be, Continue reading

Book Review: Scar Tissue

7 Mar

book cover Scar Tissue by Anthony KiedisScar Tissue – by Anthony Kiedis

Cliff Notes to Anecdotes

I’m about halfway through and I’m reconsidering how much I like the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Their front man is such a douche.

Anthony Kiedis did a lot of wild/asshole things, but as he re-tells them he runs through each anecdote at a bored, breakneck speed – only sketching the barest of facts: “I did this substance and I did that substance, I caused X bit of destruction in Y place and then I cheated on my girlfriend with this sweet, dark-haired girl. I like dark haired girls. Then my girlfriend was mad at me…” 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