Posted in Books, LGBT, Reviews, Women's literature

Book Review: The Silence of the Girls – Pat Barker

It’s always the women and children who pay such a high price when “great men” decide to play the game of thrones. Or so the great GRRM once wrote.

I’ve been immersed in all things Greek mythology lately, and I feel like its all been leading up to where it would always inevitably culminate: the epic Trojan War. Poems, novels, music and movies have been written about the ten-year siege of Troy, and of the notorious Helen, also known as the face that launched a thousand ships.

This book is unique in that it tells the story from the perspective of the women who were sold into slavery at the Greek camps when their cities fell to the mighty Achilles and his legendary army of Myrmidons. It focuses on one woman in particular: Briseis, former queen and now slave to Achilles, the man who burned her city and killed her husband and brothers in the process.

So, these reviews always seem to go on longer than I intend them to. I’ve yet to develop the skill of editing my own work, and I probably never will. But I will try to focus on two main themes for this review, for the sake of being “brief”.

The Spoils of War

I’ve always had a weird fascination for reading about war times, not because I’m particularly interested in weaponry and warfare, but because I’m fascinated by its effect on the people who are left behind. I don’t care much about how the war was won, because for me there’s no such thing. When a country goes to war with another country because diplomacy has failed them in every way, everyone loses.

It always breaks my heart to read about the very human stories behind every major war. And its always the same thing, over and over again, throughout the pages of history: the lost promise of youth, children growing up way before their time, young men who never lived long enough to fulfil the dreams their parents had for them.

Its the story of women who have lost fathers, brothers, husbands and sons; women who were never given the opportunity to fight the battles when they were every bit as invested in the outcome. I think if any government leader should ever take it into their head to go to war over something, they should take a good hard look at the women in their family, and to think about all that they would suffer, and decide whether its worth it.

This is the great thing about this book, because it really highlights all of that, and also how the women of the Trojan War were stripped away from their sense of self, from their identities and individualities, from everything that makes them a person, and were instead relegated into the role of objects.

It brings into stark relief all the humiliations and degradations that these women suffered in the hands of so-called heroes: Achilles, Ajax, Agamemnon (although I’ve always thought of him as sort of a prick), Nestor, and even Odysseus. This is an important book to read, and an important point to make, during these times of change when women everywhere are fighting for equality in every arena. Its a call to arms, a message that we will no longer allow this to happen. And for all of that, I salute you, Pat Barker. 

Love is Love is Love

To end this review on a more positive note, I’d like to revisit the story of Achilles and Patroclus. Despite numerous research into the matter, historians are still unable to agree on whether these two were lovers or just really really really close friends. After reading about them in Madeline Miller’s fabulous book, The Song of Achilles, and again here, I am of the opinion that at the end of the day, it makes no bloody difference.

Whether it was the love between brothers, friends or lovers, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that it is the kind of love that is strong enough to transcend labels, powerful enough to turn the tide of the Trojan War and so powerful that, in my heart, I am sure that it even defied death.

The Greeks, for all their brutal ways, had no hang-ups whatsoever when it comes to sexuality. Hercules had both male and female lovers, it did not make him any less of a legend in their eyes. I love reading about these stories, and I particularly love revisiting the story of Achilles and Patroclus, because it gives me hope.

It gives me hope that if a love like that can exist, there is a future for all of us to look forward to, one in which wars cease to be a possibility, and a world where you can just be free to love who you love, regardless of class, race, age or gender. And that is the kind of ideology that IS worth fighting for.

 

Briseis came to a conclusion towards the end of the book that, for all that she tried to defy and escape him, she was ultimately just another spoke in the wheel, just another supporting character to Achilles’ story. But that doesn’t mean that she does not get to try to write her own story and her own future.

Ultimately, this is what this book is about. We are all free to make our own choices, chart our own destinies and write our own stories. You don’t need to be a hero. You just need to be a person with hopes, dreams and, more importantly, the capacity to love…because long after all the songs have been written about battles and triumphs, its the human tale of love that will endure.

Fabulous book! 4 out of 5 stars. 

Posted in bloggers, Books, Feminism, Politics, Reviews, women, Women's literature

Book Review: Becoming – Michelle Obama

Its hard to condense in a few short paragraphs how profoundly good this book is.

I’ve been sitting in front of my laptop for a while now trying to process what I just read and the things I have learned. I have thought of little else since finishing Becoming at 1am this morning, and more than 12 hours later I’m still at a loss as to how to start reviewing it.

I can’t pinpoint the exact time I became a Michelle Obama fan. Maybe it was when I saw her on Carpool Karaoke with James Corden belting out Beyonce hits like nobody’s business.

Maybe it was when I saw a photo of her opening up the White House to kids and hula-hooping with them on the South Lawn.

I was definitely a fan when I heard her speak during a commencement rite in one of the high schools in America whose name I have now forgotten, encouraging young people, and young women especially, to pursue their dreams despite the odds stacked against them.

She knows what she’s talking about when it comes to the latter. She’s not just paying lip service when she talks to the marginalised and the disenfranchised about overcoming adversity, she’s talking from experience. Because their story is her story.

Most people would think that Becoming is the story of how a young black girl who grew up in the South Side of Chicago eventually made it into the White House, the sort of modern-day rags-to-riches Cinderella story that people love to read about.

Well, Michelle Robinson Obama is no Disney Princess. She would not be caught dead feeding birds and baking pies simply waiting for her prince to come. She’s just as likely to slay the dragon herself than she is to ever wait for a man to come and save her.

Hers was not an easy life. Her parents had to work hard to provide for their family, her mother sewed her clothes and she shared a room with her brother growing up because their entire apartment was smaller than her walk-in closet in the White House.

She grew up in a less tolerant America, where racism was widespread and people still held strong beliefs and prejudices against people of colour.

She talks about what it was like to grow up in that kind of environment, to know that you have to work twice as hard as anyone in order to be given the same recognition, all because of the colour of your skin.

Instead of falling victim to the narrative that seemed to be set out for her, though, she chose to rise above it, excelling in her studies, getting into Princeton and, later, Harvard.

She would also work at one of the top firms in Chicago where she’d meet the man who would eventually become her husband, and the leader of the free world.

Despite the gravitas of her story, and despite the weight and importance of the role she once held, Michelle Obama managed to come across as incredibly down to earth.

The book is written in such an engaging way that I didn’t realise I was nearing the end until she was talking about soaking in the last few moments of her life as First Lady.

At that point, she honestly felt less like the icon that she is and more of a friend.

For someone who’s been one half of the world’s most high-profile couple for the better part of the last decade, she is refreshingly candid and relatable.

She doesn’t gloss over her faults, like her tendency to go apoplectic with rage whenever she gets into an argument with her husband, or her need to put things in some kind of ordered lists that she can later tick off as being done.

She doesn’t deny that she has moments of self-doubt, days when she felt like she wasn’t good enough. She talked about how much it hurt when something she says is misconstrued or disproportionately blown up by the pundits and the media.

She was very open about the personal struggles she went through with her marriage, her  aversion to politics and her moments of resentment over the fact that she has to share her husband, and the father of her children, with the rest of America.

Through it all, she remained relentlessly optimistic and hopeful. Rather than dwelling on the things she can’t change, she chose to focus on the things that she could, finding things she was passionate about and pursuing them with gusto.

Time and time again she would butt heads with her own staff and opposing parties just to implement something she thinks would be good for a lot of people. And while there’s a lot of politics involved in that, I’m happy to say that politics did not play a major role in this book.

Instead, the struggle for equality was the central theme in this memoir, both for women and for people of colour.

I know it might sound trite or corny, but this book really resonated with me as it hammers home what it means to be a woman, of a different race, trying to make it in a city that is predominantly white.

When I first came to the UK, I met people who would always comment, with a tone of surprise, on how fluent my English was. I had a colleague who was shocked that I was interested in Caravaggio paintings and Bernini sculptures. One of the surgeons I used to work with expressed surprise that I’ve read Dickens.

They have this preconceived notions of Filipinos as people who receive limited education, who speak broken English, who are not interested in culture beyond our adobos and karaokes, and who form pockets of communities wherever they go because they don’t want to socialise with people who are not Asians.

I wasn’t conscious of doing it at the time, but I set out to shatter all of that just to prove that I come from a country that, for all its faults, are full of hardworking and intelligent people that are just as capable as any Westerner in any job or any role.

In the end, all anybody really needs is for someone to take notice and to give them the opportunity to prove they can do it.

I have never really felt like a victim of racial discrimination, and that’s because I’ve never allowed myself to be.

In the end, the colour of my skin is not the central plot of my story. The central plot is my hopes, dreams, aspirations and the many things that I still want to achieve, that I believe I can achieve.

Its very affirming to know that someone of Michelle Obama’s calibre has gone through the same thing, has been on the same journey.

To say that it is exactly the kind of book we need to be reading right now is an understatement. For women especially, it sends a message of hope and empowerment that is sorely lacking from the increasingly gratuitous and pretentious era of social media.

This book will hopefully encourage everyone to use whatever platform they have, whether its a small instagram following or a larger political stage, to tell their story for the purpose of inspiring others as this book has really inspired me.

Her story is our story. Her becoming is a message to all of us, but especially for young women, that we too can become.

Posted in Books, Feminism, Reviews, Women's literature

Book Review: The Natural Way of Things – Charlotte Wood

Last year, Hollywood was rocked by a continous stream of scandals that saw well-known actors and producers accused of everything from harassment to molestation and even outright rape.

Suddenly women in show business were either speaking up about their own experience at the hands of these predators-masquearing-as-gentlemen or calling out their male counterparts whenever they felt like women weren’t being given fair and equal treatment.

All of a sudden there were a lot of hashtag “me too’s” going around all social media platforms, finally culminating in Oprah Winfrey’s powerful and rousing speech during this year’s Golden Globe ceremony.

I always think of myself as a baby feminist. Certainly I appreciate all the comforts of being a woman in the progressive 21st century; I don’t think I could have borne being a Stepford Wife wannabe. I do not have it in me to sit at home, do household chores and have dinner waiting for my husband when he comes home from doing a full day’s work. I think we’ve already established that I do not subscribe to the school of thought that your worth as a woman is somehow diminished because you’re neither a wife or a mother. I firmly believe in ever woman’s right to make her own choices and that being an attractive woman doesn’t give any man the right to assume she welcomes unwanted attentions. 

So yeah, in that sense, I am all for feminism. So when I saw this book by Charlotte Wood on the counter of my local Waterstones with a glowing review saying that this book was the height of feminist literature (high praise!), I could not help but be intrigued. The blurb seemed eerily similar to The Handmaid’s Tale.

Ten women suddenly find themselves imprisoned in the middle of nowhere with no phones, no modern conveniences and no clue why or how they got there; the guards have shaved their heads, have had them changed into the most unbecoming and uncomfortable clothes and basically have them living in the worst conditions possible.

All the while they are being subjected to hard, manual labour and constant abuse from the guards and the one “nurse”. They eventually figured out that all of them have been involved in some kind of sex scandal with a powerful man and that that was probably the reason why they’ve been taken from their homes and family into, well, hell on earth really.

I didn’t realise when I picked this up that this had been written by an Australian author and that it was set in Australia. There were a lot of words, slangs and descriptions of wildlife that I’ve had to ask some of my Aussie friends to translate just to make sure I did not miss any context. But apart from that minor hitch in my reading, I went into this with full speed ahead because I was just so darned intrigued.

There’s a reason why we have a lot of books with this subject matter: simply put, sex and infidelity sells. Since the beginning of time, people have loved to read about lurid scandals and the consequences that befall those who dare to give in to their sexual desires, propriety be damned. Initially I was a little confused as to how this is a feminist novel because I really felt like there was a whole lot of slut-shaming going on. Those women were being judged simply because they made the mistake of sleeping with men who were either married, extremely powerful or in the case of one girl, a pillar of the Catholic church.

I also had to sort out my own feelings about these women because I always find it hard to relate to women who have been involved in any form of cheating. I fervently believe that there is a special place in hell for women who don’t respect their fellow women enough to not steal their man. However, I’ve always hesitated to unequivocally condemn those women because I am of the opinion that you never really know how you’re going to act in any situation until you’ve faced it yourself. So no one can really say for sure that they won’t be tempted to participate in infidelity, especially if love and lust are involved. I’d like to think I’d be able to resist temptation but we all know love (or the illusion of it anyway) can make people do stupid things.

So I guess the highest praise that I can give this novel is that it will raise questions and generate discussions; it may confuse the hell out of you while reading it but goodness knows that you it will get some kind of reaction out of you. Its hard not to be affected by these women’s experiences and even harder not to sympathise with them despite what you know about their past. You might even find yourself rooting for them as they struggle to survive and escape their imprisonment. In the end, its really not about who they’ve slept with or the journey they’ve taken to get where they are; its about the journey that they will take to get to a better place.

I particularly like the idea of exploring how human beings will react and respond to being placed in extreme situations. Its almost Darwinian really; only the fittest can and will survive. And as seasons changed and food rations became shorter and shorter, some people emerged as leaders, others simply fell apart whereas other people did things they otherwise wouldn’t have done – all in the name of survival. In a way, its ironic; we become the animals that scientific theory says we originated from when circumstances require us to survive. What does that say about us?

While I did not like the ending and I didn’t think it made any particular sense (it left so many questions unanswered!) I did like the overall theme of the book. I think it was worth my time to read it; it was thought-provoking, atmospheric and hey, I was on holiday and had nothing better to do with my time.

Overall: 3 put of 5 stars.

This book is getting a lot of word of mouth recommendations so let me know what you guys think if you ever decide to read it. Check it out on Amazon by clicking the image below!

Cheers, bookworms! xx

Posted in Books, relationships, Reviews, Uncategorized, Women's literature

Book Review: Where’d You Go Bernadette? – Maria Semple

Its funny. 

We never really think of our parents as being people. To us, they’re Mum and Dad: the people who know all the answers, who can make the scary stuff go away, who will always be there to bandage every hurt and dress every wound. Growing up, we see them as these superhuman creatures that we can always count on to catch us when we fall. That’s how I saw my parents anyway.

Until I moved away from home and embarked on my own “adulting” journey, it never occured to me to think of my parents as two people who are probably just as scared as I am about the responsibilities that come with being an adult. No one really gives you a set of instructions for these things; there’s no set objectives like, year one month one: set up a bank account: month two, make sure you have health insurance. You kind of figure it out as you go along. You fake it and hope to God you make it (I imagine parenthood would be the same but magnified because you’re actually responsible for another person).

So why am I waxing lyrical about mum and dad? Well, that’s kind of the key theme of ‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette?’. Bernadette Fox is many things to different people: an architectural legend,a brilliant but troubled wife, an uncooperative neighbor and the menace of the local parent-teacher association. But to her daughter Bee, she’s really just Mum. Until Bernadette disappears and Bee has to put together the pieces of her mum’s life to really see the dynamic, complex woman beneath the Mommy mask.

This book is told primarily through letters sent to and from Bernadette and letters about Bernadette. These letters were collected by Bee to help her in search for her mum. I always find this epistolary style quite clever. Its hard to give a full picture of a story through letters and emails but I think if done well, it really works. I actually think this novel loses a lot of steam once we got to the more linear kind of narration (from Bee’s point of view).

The blurb is a little bit misleading because I thought the journey to ‘finding’ Bernadette would involve a lot more, well, travelling. Especially to places that relate to her past. I thought the novel would explore her past more because there was a big build up about this ‘terrible thing’ that happened to her which had such a huge impact on her life. But the actual search for Bernadette seemed a bit anti-climactic. It was pretty obvious where she went and I never really understood why she went there, why she stayed and if anything was resolved at the end of the book.

I’m not sure if we readers are meant to sympathise (and like) the titular character. She seemed a mess to me and while I can see why that is, I think I agree with her husband when he said that we shouldn’t let past failures keep us from trying again. Its how you pick yourself up after a fall that matters after all. While this book is intended to be a satire or a dark comedy, I think Bernadette is a really tragic figure in that she never really realises all her potential. Towards the end its hinted that there might be some resolution but as I said, it wasn’t really clear. Maybe this is intentional, I don’t know. I’ve never really been a fan of books that leave the ending open to interpretation.

What’s evident throughout though is the fact that as troubled as Bernadette may have been, no one can doubt that she tried to be a good mother to Bee. She allowed Bee to be whoever she wanted to be and made everything an adventure. She probably wasn’t the most dependable of parents, but she was there when it mattered. It reminded me of that episode of Modern Family when one character said that 80% of the time, being a good parent meant simply showing up.

So yeah, this book was a good read. While I never really connected to the characters or the plot, I can’t deny that I was thouroughly entertained. Maria Semple’s writing style just flows and I would definitely read her other books if the plot sounds interesting. 

I’d like to end this post with a photo of my mum. Whatever else she may have been in the past, I am happy for the combination of whatever fulfilled dreams, untold failures and twists of fate that led her to being my mama, the wind beneath my wings, my anchor and my rock. 😘

Posted in Books, friendship, Reviews, Women's literature

Book Review: Eleanor Elephant Is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman

How to describe Eleanor Oliphant in five hundred words or less?

She’s 29 years old and thinks telling people she works in an office is the fastest way to get them to stop asking questions about what she does.

She can go days without ever talking to another living soul. And no, her potted plant – for all its photosynthetic capabilities – does not count.

She’s got a decided opinion on a lot of things. In fact, she reminds me of a female version of Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory. She takes things literally and portions of human interaction just stump her in its sheer stupidity. To illustrate my – or shall I say Eleanor’s – point, I present to you Eleanor Oliphant’s List Of Inexplicable Things Other People Do:

They choose things like plates, bowls and cutlery – I mean what are they doing at the moment: shovelling food from packets into their mouths with their bare hands? I simply fail to see how the act of legally formalising  a human relationship necessitates friends, family and co-workers upgrading the contents of their kitchen for them.

Eleanor on the madness of a wedding gift registry 

 

I have yet to find a genre of music I enjoy; its basically audible physics, waves and energised particles, and, like most sane people, I have no interest in physics

Eleanor on the tortures of music

and my personal favourite:

I started to wonder why the band was singing about, presumably, the Young Men’s Christian Association, but then, from my very limited exposure to popular music, people did seem to sing about umbrellas and fire-starting and Emily Bronte novels, so, I supposed why not a gender- and faith-based youth organization

Eleanor on Y.M.C.A. by The Village People 

Bits and pieces of this book truly were laugh-out-loud funny; so much so that its easy to overlook the many messages that its trying to get across. Its hard to put into words just how much this book and this character has affected me. At the heart of it, its a story about a woman’s journey to discovering that you don’t go through life just trying to survive from one day to the next, you want to truly live. And to do that, we have to be able to forge connections with other people. People who pretend that they don’t need other people are deluding themselves. Neediness is a part of human nature, deal with it.

The trouble is, people sometimes are more trouble than they’re worth. They’ll judge you based on your appearance, talk about you behind your back or laugh at you. What I admire about Eleanor is how she handles people likt that. I mean clearly she doesn’t interact with or relate to them in the normal way. But who are we to say what’s normal or abnormal? Eleanor just gets on with things; she ignores the people in her office and doesn’t give a shit about what they think because she’s already gone through the worst thing that a person can experience, something she doesn’t fully remember until near the end of the book. Compared to that, office gossip and ridicule is a walk in the park.

By helping out an old man who suddenly has a heart attack, Eleanor is gradually drawn to new acquaintances, especially Raymond Gibbons who works in IT in the company where she herself works. She gains new experiences; its absolutely hilarious to witness (or read) her first forays into things that are normal for most women: manicure, a haircut and a head of highlights, waxing! I had tears in my eyes from laughter.

Towards the end, I had tears in my eyes for a different reason. Eleanor Oliphant’s message on unconditional love and friendship is powerful. We all need someone who will love us for who we are; who will comfort us when we’re sick because they care, not because they’re expecting anything in return; who will see your faults and be able to accept them. 

Eleanor is adamant that no matter how many new things she tries, she will make it a point to be true to herself, and that is something that I think I can do a bit better. One of my favourite quotes by Erasmus is when he said that “it is the chiefest point of happiness that a man is willing to be who he is”. I could not have put it better myself.

At the end of this book, Eleanor’s past is revealed and we come to understand why she is the way she is. There’s a twist at the end that I should have seen coming and I thought it was not only clever but necessary to the plot. There’s also a sense of a new beginning for our girl, even a hint of romance. By the way, I really liked how this book didn’t make romance the central plot but rather, was injected just enough to drive the narrative forward. The way relationships and love were used in the story is something that we can all relate to, especially where the author points out our tendency to idealise someone in our minds and our need to believe that the “perfect” someone exists. 

Finally, reading this book made me wonder just how many times a day British people say “are you alright?” It’s like the standard greeting apart form ‘hello’. After five years of living here, even I’ve picked up that habit. I’ve always wondered how people will actually react if someone unburdens their life problems when asked that question. Are we really interested or are we just being polite? It seems like all we really want to hear is that they’re “FINE” even when they’re not. 

No one is really truly completely fine. There’s good days and bad days, and days that make life worth living. Live life so that you have more of the latter. I would truly recommend this book to anyone! 

Check out Eleanor Oliphant here

 

Posted in Books, relationships, Reviews, Women's literature

Book Review: The Robber Bride and the world’s fascination with infidelity

An abundance of mistresses…

What is this fascination we have with infidelity? We gossip about it over morning coffee, talk about this person’s marital woes over a glass of wine after work and discuss the nuances of a failing relationship over supper. For those of us who’ve never experienced being cheated on, we think we have the right to criticise or pass judgment. Those who are seemingly secure in the strength of their own relationships even condescend to give advice about how to keep your partner happy. Others have the audacity to say ‘leave him’ as if its as simple as returning an unwanted Christmas present.

Shortly before I left the Philippines to come to the UK, infidelity seemed to be the most popular subject in my country’s entertainment industry. Movies with titles like ‘The Mistress‘, ‘The Other Woman’, ‘No Other Woman’ and television series like ‘The Legal Wife’ were all the rage back then. The public lapped it up; it was the topic of many a Facebook posts and internet memes, lines were quoted and the inevitable confrontation – and ensuing hair pulling and inconsolable crying – drew a million viewers, myself among them. I remember a couple of year ago, a movie called ‘Etiquette for Mistresses’ came out and the hue and cry along the 7,107 island of the Philippines could be heard all the way to Europe. Critics claimed that it glorified cheating; its a movie that suggests to idealistic little girls that being a mistress is glamorous and fun, something to be considered as a lifestyle choice, like choosing to be a vegetarian.

 

SERIOUSLY. SERIOUSLY?!

Intelligent women degrading themselves into this role. And for what? The illusion of love. Love is not love if you can’t shout it out from the rooftops. What is the point of love if you can’t be there for another person because you’ve even relegated to some sordid background role where you can only care for the person in secret? I can hardly claim to be an expert on relationships. And I always think it doesn’t do to air your lofty views because you never really know how you’re going to respond to temptation until it actually comes your way, and you don’t want to be known as a hypocrite after. But I’d like to think that if I were ever in a situation where I was seriously tempted, I would find the self-respect to say no. Because I respect myself and my fellow woman far too much to ever be a mistress.

Zenia: The Robber Bride AKA The Anti-Mistress

The Robber Bride is the last of the trio of Margaret Atwood books that I’m reading and reviewing. Out of the lot, I found this the hardest to read, digest and make sense of.41y7iBx7i2L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

Ros, Charis and Tony all had one thing in common: at one point in their lives they’ve been brought to the lowest of lows because of Zenia, this fascinating creature whose primary talent was to draw men into her company; to tempt and seduce them until they succumb to her charms. She wants what she can’t have. actually no, that’s not accurate. There is nothing that she can’t have. It would be more apt to say that she wants what she doesn’t have and when she inevitably gets it, she despises it. So she seduces these men, sucks their souls dry and then leaves them when she tires of them. And they’re left in a daze, wondering what happened, a broken shell, a pale shadow of the men they used to be.

When I read a book, I feel so much sympathy for the main characters that sometimes their pain becomes my pain. I knew going in that this book would be about cheating, so I was already in tenterhooks, waiting for the other shoe to drop, waiting for the inevitable infidelity committed by these women’s husbands/partners. And when it does, I do feel so sorry for them.But I have to admit I also feel enraged. Enraged that they would tolerate it; that they would condemn the deed and the other woman but forgive their husbands. I think Zenia is right. Towards the end of the book, she tells Ros that she should put more responsibility on her husband’s shoulders because at the end of the day, its not about what Ros or Zenia did or didn’t do: her husband did exactly what HE wanted to do. Its so easy to blame the other woman, but actually as cliche as it is, it DOES take two to tango.

I think Tony really captured the essence of what Ms. Atwood wants us to feel when we read this book, especially for us women (I reckon men would be a bit frightened of this one). As much as you want to hate Zenia (and you do, she’s a conniving little viper), you also want to cheer her on for having the balls to take on the men of this world and beat them at their own game. She calls no man her master, she gets what she wants from them and they can’t hurt her. To a wife, someone who is always burdened by the weight of expectations that come with that role, that must seem exhilarating.

It also seems incredibly lonely.

Lately, I’ve been wrestling with the feeling that I’m missing out on something by continuing to pursue my independence and not seriously thinking about settling down with someone. It might be nice to come home to someone and to have a partner in all my endeavours. But do I really know what that means or am I still looking through rose-coloured glasses? Am I really ready for that level of commitment to another person? I’d like to think so. But I’m afraid that I’m probably a little like Zenia myself, going after what I want (though I’ve yet to be a home wrecker lol) and to hell with the people who judge my choices.

Goodbye Ms. Atwood

Its been a real eye-opener, reading all these books about women and feminism. I think Margaret Atwood really is one of the premier author of women’s literature, and there’s a lot we can learn from her books. They tend to be long and sometimes overly descriptive; I’m sure I could have done without all the descriptions of foliage, scenery or the really wonky spiritual metaphors that just went over my head. She also has this habit of digressing and writing a whole paragraph about something that I thought did not contribute to the story at all. But then, maybe the whole paragraph was a metaphor for something the character was going through and I’m too shallow to see it. I don’t know.

But when you get to the heart of the story, when she starts weaving the tales of these women, its transcendental. This isn’t light summer reading; she’s one of those authors whose books  you read, put down and digest, maybe read something fluffy in between chapters, and then read again. You won’t finish it in one sitting and neither should you, because you will need time to understand the implications. But give it a chance, do not DNF her books. Forgive the metaphors. Its worth it.

 

 

Posted in Books, Feminism, relationships, Women's literature

Review: Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye and the dynamics of female friendship

There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women
-Madeline Albright

This is the second in my series of reviews of Margaret Atwood’s books. The more I skim through her body of work, the more apparent it becomes that women – their roles, their relationships with men and with each other, and their daily struggles – are central to her writing. Cat’s Eye is heftier than The Handmaid’s Tale and it took me longer to finish this book. It also took me a while to sink my teeth into the writing, but when I did I was hooked. There were moments when I wasn’t quite sure what I was reading, but the prose was so beautiful and lyrical that I just felt compelled to continue.

The quote above was famously posted by Taylor Swift during her beef with Tina Fey (who wrote Mean Girls, interestingly enough) after the latter made a joke about her during the Golden Globes. I confess that I myself don’t have a lot of close female friends. I don’t know why, but I’ve always gravitated towards male friendships because I just find it more…simple. I’m not sure I’m using the right word. Let me try to explain.

I always feel like I can be fully myself around men. I have a lot of female friends and some of those are friendships that I know are for keeps. However, its not always easy for me to open up and be vulnerable with other women because I’m always afraid of being judged and found lacking. I get that that’s probably a symptom of some unresolved issue, possibly from my childhood, rather than a reflection on the kind of friends I have. But its the truth nevertheless.

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Cat’s Eye tells the story of Elaine Risley, a somewhat famous Canadian painter who’s come back to her hometown of Toronto for a special exhibit. While there, she’s haunted by memories of her childhood friends, particularly Cordelia, who was the little ringleader of their group.

The story alternates between the present and flashbacks of Elaine’s childhood, starting with the day her family moved to Toronto after a sort of nomadic lifestyle (her father, I just learned from Wikipedia, was an entomologist. I don’t know why this was never clear to me while reading the book). Elaine’s a bit awkward when it comes to social situations probably because she’s only ever had her brother to play with. She also seems to be more comfortable playing with boys than with other girls.

After about a year of living in Toronto, and just when Elaine probably felt like she was finally getting her sea legs with it comes to her friends, Cordelia moves into the neighbourhood and becomes the Queen Bee of the group. I think she must be like a young version of Regina George from Mean Girls.

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The title of the book was taken from a special kind of marble (the toy) that Elaine has and proceeded to keep in her little red purse, which gave her comfort whenever she felt like life was getting her down. It was her little secret, something that no one else has and no one else knew that she was keeping it, and especially not Cordelia.

Sweet little girls, my butt.

Cordelia’s presence changes the dynamics of the group. Elaine, because of her obliviousness and awkwardness, becomes a target for bullying. And its the kind of bullying that girls at that age seem to specialise in. I know this because I was probably once one of those girls. When I was 10, I was a part a group that consisted of the most popular girls in our year. Other girls looked up to us, they all wanted to be part of us. I always felt like a fraud back then because I could not see what was so special about me. The other girls in the group were all prettier, richer, funnier. I was just the smart one. I was too young to realise there was power in being smart and clever. I always felt like I wasn’t good enough. And just like what the other girls did to Elaine, there were times when I was deliberately excluded and alienated because I did something that the group didn’t approve of. One time I apparently got too friendly with a guy our queen bee just happened to have a crush on, I wasnt even aware of this and yet they made me feel like rubbish for a week. I think that was my first insight as to how hurtful group think among women can be. 

And just like Elaine, I knew that the worst thing in the world would be to tattle. I mean, I was never driven to it. I eventually grew a pair and started to come into my own power. The worst thing was that when I did, I perpetuated this cycle of bullying by turning into one of them. We zeroed in on the other vulnerable members of the group and just teased them mercilessly. Wow, this is the first time I’ve ever had the chance to recollect these memories and I am really ashamed of myself.  We made other girls cry. We called someone fish-face behind her back and proceeded to spread the nickname to the other people in the class, and it caught on like fire. We got the telling off of our lives when the girl we were calling “fish-face” cottoned on to it and decided to do the right thing and tell her mum about us. I suppose we were contrite, not because we felt bad for calling her fish-face but because we had been caught doing it. We then proceeded to ignore her afterwards. She became a pariah for like a month (which is like a year when you’re in middle school).

Elaine went through a more traumatic experience when the group decided to throw her hat into a ravine and when she was then forced by Cordelia to fetch it. They had all been told tales of bad things that happen when someone goes down into those ravines. But nevertheless, it was hard to stand up to peer pressure. So Elaine went and nearly freezes to death. In her delirium, she thought she saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary which enabled her to stand up and somehow get home. Her mum suddenly became fully aware of how much the situation has disintegrated, and the girls eventually apologised albeit insincerely. There was the sense that Elaine had betrayed the group by bringing a grown-up into the situation. It was after that that Elaine finally had the courage to “break” with the group.

You never really get over it

Elaine kind of repressed the whole episode. She would eventually move on to high school, do quite well, get into art school, do quite well, have a husband, get divorced – you know, the cycles of life. Throughout all that she would meet Cordelia sporadically, and the repressed experience would influence most of her life choices and especially her art. You know that girl we called “fish-face”? There’s no telling just how much we’ve altered her life because of that episode. God only knew whether she had fully internalised the whole thing. I can only apologise for making her a victim of my attempt to cover up my own insecurities back then. Because if they were busy bullying her they wouldn’t be bullying me. 

What it all comes down to…

I have a somewhat simplistic credo in life that I apply in all my interactions with other people, but particularly with other women; and its that I will never say anything about them behind their back if its a thing that I can’t say to their face. I also now choose friendships on the basis of whether I can truly open up and be myself when I’m with them. However, it is my belief that – just like love – you can never really be open enough to give something of yourself if you’re not whole. Like, allowing yourself to be bullied or to pretend to be someone you’re not just to be accepted is a symptom of someone who’s not comfortable in their own skin. You have to love yourself first before you become involved with others, whether its relationships with men or friendships with other women. If Elaine had loved herself more, she would never have allowed her life to become what it was. She would not have needed to use her relationships with other men as a crutch for when she was feeling unhappy or empty. She would never have allowed herself to be defined by who she was to others. She would be happy just being Elaine.

I guess the greatest compliment I can pay this book is that it will make you think, and it will mean different things – and be given different interpretations – by different people. It will resonate with anyone who’s ever had to go through the dynamics and politics of childhood friendship.

Happy reading, bookworms!