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.

51RWZWgUNmL._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_

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.

tumblr_np1d7rst9Q1qihp55o2_500

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!

 

 

 

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

Review: The Handmaid’s Tale and what it means to be a woman

I went through a phase last year where I suddenly felt like I should start reading books that are grounded in reality, books that will actually teach me something rather than books that merely perpetuate the myth that a woman needs a man to feel complete (ahem, romance novels). It then got me thinking about feminism, how far we’ve come in terms of achieving equality between the sexes. At the same time, there’s a sense that there’s still so much more we’ve yet to learn.

The Romance Novel: One step forward, two steps back?

Take romance novels, for example. To be fair, they’re no longer the bodice-ripping rompers that they once were. There are less plot lines of women being captured by barbarians-masquerading-as-heroes who are then imprisoned in some castle in the middle of nowhere and virtually raped. Johanna Lindsey is an author that gets a lot of flack for her love scenes, and to be honest when I was younger I never even thought about what her books meant or what message it sends to young girls like me. On average, girls of my generation probably started reading Ms. Lindsey’s books at around 13-14. That is a very impressionable age, and its around that time period that we form a mental image of what kind of woman we would someday like to become. Its at that age where we need strong positive influences more than ever.

I loved Johanna Lindsey’s books when I was younger and to be honest, I don’t think I’m the kind of girl who would internalise whatever it is that I read from these books. I was fully aware that these books are fantasies. I also had strong role models growing up. My aunt is unmarried, but she’s achieved so much in her life that no one would ever say her life is somehow less just because she’s not a wife or a mother. She’s worked for 30-something years, on her own I might add, in the United States to provide a roof over her brother’s heads (including my dad) when their parents died. When our family business was failing about 15 years ago now, she came out of retirement, went back to the States and resumed her career as a teacher even though she was nearly 50 and dammit, deserved to be relaxing in a beach somewhere after all her efforts. But she unselfishly took on the problems of the family on her undeniably strong shoulders, and I am where I am now because of her courage and selflessness.

The point is, not all girls would have role models like that. For some girls, these heroines that they read about in books form the backbone of their mental image of what it means to be a woman. So I get the backlash now, with the maturity that comes with age. Books like Prisoner of My Desire are not appropriate for young girls to read, and thankfully, young girls these days are so conscious about feminism that those kind of books would probably have less of an appeal anyway. We’ve come that far at least.

Johanna-Lindsey-johanna-lindsey-6737653-408-345

 

Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale

This brings me to Margaret Atwood. I would recommend her books not just for women but for readers of every gender because they deal with subjects that are so relevant in society today. The best book to start with, and undoubtedly her most famous published work, is The Handmaid’s Tale. There is so much discussion surrounding this right now because it was recently adapted for television on Channel 4 (in the UK anyway). I’ve never seen the series but I read the book late last year and it gave me the creeps. That was my first impression of this book: it gave me the creeps51VHe12RxJL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_

This story was described by Margaret Atwood as not so much science fiction as it is “speculative fiction”. By doing that, she’s basically saying that it doesn’t take much of a stretch for this book to become our new reality. In some developing countries, it probably already is. The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives in a time where birth rates are falling and where women are basically useful only for their ability to give birth to a child. They are sent to some kind of school that teaches them to handmaids. It teaches them to be submissive, to be obedient and subservient; it basically stamps out any sense of individuality they might possess and turns them into nothing more than vessels of procreation. When they ‘graduate’ they join an official’s household and takes on the name of that official. So Offred is literally of Fred. In that household, she might as well be just a uterus. She exists only for the monthly ‘ceremony’,  where she engages in sexual activity with the ‘husband’ while his wife holds her hand.

The alternative to this demeaning existence is exile and death. A woman has no choice but to submit basically. In addition, there is a finite number of years for her to achieve the goal of childbirth because these women are not taken into schools in the first blush of youth as I initially thought. Through flashbacks, it turns out Offred was previously married and had a child of her own. Then some kind of war or revolution happened and the whole world changed. Anyway, they’ve got about 5 to 6 years before menopause happens and they outlive their usefulness in society.

There are so many themes to explore that I don’t even know where to begin. I guess the overarching theme is that of the woman’s place in society. Its like the novel is saying, who are you if you’re not a wife or a mother? In this world that Margaret Atwood has created you can only be either one or the other. This really resonates with me because I’m nearing 30 and I am in no hurry to settle down and procreate. Never mind the fact that I’ve not met anyone I can imagine spending the rest of my life with, I just feel like there are so many things I still want to do. I haven’t even found my life’s passion yet. I don’t think nursing or even teaching is my passion, although I am quite passionate about the latter. All I really know is, I would like to have the opportunity to explore what it is that gives meaning to my life.

It would be easy to vilify the wives in this story. After all, they seem like they have a cushy position. They don’t live in fear and they don’t have to submit themselves to a demeaning ‘ceremony’ every month. However, they are just the other side of the same coin. All the women in this book are victims. The handmaids because of the role that’s been set for them, but also the wives because of the sheer nothingness of their existence. They are barren and therefore useless. They can’t even be partners to their husband because they don’t get to have a say, or to make decisions. They’ve given up their right to expect fidelity from their husband because of their inability to bear children. So, what are they really? I don’t think there’s anything more painful than a life lived in perpetual inconsequence. 

A slow and painful death

There’s this one scene in the book where Offred is just staring at the walls. I think she was carving something on the bedposts for lack of something better to do, I can’t remember what exactly it was she was doing. The only thing I remember was the overwhelming feeling of boredom that I felt when I read about how she spends her days. I think about the days when I don’t feel like going out, I just want to stay in bed and be alone for once. But then, I have the option of watching television, or reading or writing a blog. Because I am allowed to cultivate my mind and to enhance my knowledge. The women in this book are barred from anything that might stimulate them to think. God forbid they should have one original thought, or any thought. They can’t even read magazines, for crying out loud, not even Cosmo? You would think Cosmo would be encouraged. Isn’t it all about pleasing men? Buy this product, wear these clothes, learn this sex position and the man will be your slave. I could be totally wrong here, I haven’t read Cosmo in a while, they could be all about empowering women now for all I know. I just make it a point NOT to read fashion magazines anymore because it just does nothing for my self-esteem.

God, I can’t imagine a world where I am not allowed to read. But then, wasn’t it only in the last century that there was a big to-do about women being allowed to enter into universities? In the 1950s, weren’t there separate colleges for women in universities such as Oxford and Cambridge? Even now,  I sometimes get comments about hiding my intelligence when I meet a prospective date because apparently an intelligent woman intimidates and drives away men. That’s absurd. Any man that I would even consider dating would have to be strong enough to handle the fact that I have a brain and am not afraid to use it. I don’t suffer fools.

What’s in a name?

The women in this book are not allowed to use their given names. They are instead identifies by the name of the head of the household that they enter. So there’s Offred (Of Fred), OfWarren etc. I would like to say with conviction that I find this demeaning. But then I remember a conversation I had with one of my Italian friends about taking on your husband’s surname when you get married. I was raised in a culture where I just assumed that this was an automatic thing for you to do. You get married, you take your husband’s name and so do your future children.

Apparently, in Italy (and other major European countries) this isn’t a given. You have a choice to keep your surname (or hyphenate). At the time, this was a major revelation for me. It made me think about how I would probably rush to change my name and how proud I would be to wear my husband’s name. Is this a step back from feminism? Am I somehow less of a feminist because I see nothing wrong with changing my name when I marry? Is it somehow seen as a mark of ownership, that I am a property of my husband or something?

I don’t see it that way. Maybe I do still have an idealised view of marriage and being a woman. Those Johanna Lindsey novels may have influenced me more than I thought. I just think of marriage as having a sense of belonging, like you entrust your life to this person who you know will support you, keep you safe, cheer you on, celebrate your achievements and will always have your back no matter what. Taking the name of your husband is a symbol of that trust and that joining. I don’t know, I could be totally wrong here, but that’s how I feel. If my feminist card gets revoked because of it, then so be it. I can’t pretend to change my opinions to please anybody.

Feminism and fighting for women’s right to make their own choices

The Telegraph published this great article about why The Handmaid’s Tale has made such an impact. The truth is, this book hits closer to home than we would like to think. An Anti-abortion bill is now either being passed or has been passed by the Trump administration in the US. In the Philippines, the church is still adamantly against any form of birth control other than the calendar method. The use of a condom is akin to murdering an unborn child, never mind the fact that its just safer these days to use one. I suppose because the church is still under the impression that people don’t have sex outside of marriage (let us all laugh). Women have been fighting for control of their bodies for ages and its a fight that doesn’t seem to have an end. For as long as women can bear children, men seem to think they have a say in what we do with our bodies.

Okay so women are educated now; they can even have careers. But when they marry, they’re still expected to prioritise taking care of the child. I get that, but shouldn’t the husband have equal responsibility? Here in London, I know couples who work on alternate days so that one of them will always be around to care for their children. I suppose that’s because no one can afford to raise a family in London if only one parent is earning money. I find that practice admirable. However, in the Philippines, I know a few women who, back when I knew them in school, were one of the smartest women in our class. They graduated with honours in university and had several prestigious job offers. They gave all that up because their husband was earning enough money and expected them to stay at home to take care of the children. Meanwhile, my other friend postponed her wedding to her rich boyfriend because she insisted on going to Canada and getting her residency there. She refuses to waste 4 years wherein she studied Nursing, just to become a housewife.

It all comes down to choice

All these women that I know had one thing that the women in The Handmaid’s Tale didn’t: the right to have a choice. I think for me, that’s the kind of feminism that I’d fight for: the right for women to make their own choices. Do you have what it takes to make it as a lawyer? Great, apply to university and get a degree. Its your choice. Don’t want to marry? Don’t. Its your choice. Don’t want to take your husband’s name? Don’t do it, its your choice. Don’t want any more kids? Have a tubal ligation, its your choice. Accidentally pregnant and don’t want a baby? Have an abortion. Its your choice. I may not necessarily agree or see the reason behind why women do the things they do or make the decision they make, but I absolutely agree that it should be the woman’s choice. No one should get to coerce or make these decisions for them.

Make the choice to read The Handmaid’s Tale if you haven’t already. Enjoy, bookworms!