Book news galore; what's new in the world of Kerry and Bronwyn's reading lists. From The Guardian to Vanity Fair, from Bridget Jones to Thomas Hardy, from Heat to the New Yorker. Well written reviews and insights into our latest reads.

Saturday, August 28, 2004

NME in bed with Heat
The Overhauled Q (issue 248)

The cover promises New Look! Bigger, Better and Full of Flavour. I didn’t want flavour, I wanted substance and somehow Heat Magazine has jumped into the pages of Q, and we are mourning at our house tonight.

Q was always cooler than I was, and written for boys anyway so I really needn’t bother trying to keep up. But I lust after things that are cooler than I am. Q was a British boy with Oasis hair in magazine form, and to a girl from the middle of Canada, there is really nothing more romantic. If Q hadn’t been cooler-than-thou, I wouldn’t have taken its offerings so seriously. Poring over the new releases was a serious endeavour, the pop culture trivia was mined from dark caverns of geekdom, it compiled enough lists to satisfy my obsessive disorders. Perhaps therein lay the problem. I was hardly the target audience and so Q saw fit to overhaul.

The results are catastrophic. There is nothing new about the new Q. It’s NME in bed with Heat, and it’s tacky and disgusting. The lay-out, with flashy headlines running across red banners at the top of each page is culled from Heat, as is the questionably titled “News” section, with photos of Osama Bin Laden and Courtney Love (albeit not together) accompanied by a scant few sentences of text. Also shamelessly lifted is a two page spread, here called “Loaded”, of unflattering portrayals of numerous celebrities. There is “Personal Planner;” a monthly calendar of events thieved from Vanity Fair. A page called “The Enquirer” doesn’t even bother to hide its inspiration. There is now a seven-page section called “Rewind” which is devoted to that music heyday of the late 80s and early 90s. Wow. A feature on The Cure. Q’s sure got its collective finger on some button of currency.

My biggest complaint is the gadget mania, which has invaded its pages. Of course technology plays an important role in making and listening to music, but if the music is crap the rest is irrelevant. This month Q brings us “1010 Songs You Must Own.” Appealing to the lowest common denominator, amongst other things Q encourages me to download Babe by Styx and The Final Countdown by Europe. I love both of these songs, but this is a terrible secret I wouldn’t want to broadcast to anyone, and Q recommending them doesn’t change this. It just makes Q look undignified.

Perhaps this is tongue-in-cheek however, or Q has decided to face up to the fact that everyone actually likes If You Leave Me Now by Chicago whether they admit it or not. I don’t care. Q had a responsibility to be the cool older brother who had been a Nirvana fan since the late 80s or some such thing. And now they are telling me download Sonny and Cher.

They’ve let themselves down. It’s incredibly easy to make someone download God Only Knows by the Beach Boys, but to convince them to go and buy Pet Sounds on the other hand is more of a challenge and one that bears meeting. This isn’t a comment on illegal downloads, which I couldn’t get less impassioned about, but rather a comment on journalistic calibre. I appreciate the odd “What’s on my ipod feature”, and think the new Q20 (“The 20 essential tracks you need to have this month”) is great, but to devote an entire magazine to downloaded singles is a cop-out and also doesn’t make for a very interesting magazine.

Next month will prove the new Q, and hopefully won’t be themed “All the Best Places on the Net to find Peter Cetera.” I will reserve final judgement until then, but today I am just disappointed.

Monday, August 02, 2004

A Latitudinal Stretch
Six Mats and One Year by Alison Smith

Alison Smith goes to Japan and writes a book, and it is beautiful. She paints pictures and places and atmospheres with a careful hand. Six Months and One Year has an air of fragility, like a delicate paper crane folded just so. It’s constructed delicately from just pieces of her perceptions, which is a far most honest portrayal I think of this country that is so difficult to understand.
The first group of poems is based upon her experiences teaching English conversation in Tokyo. “I’m paid to pry throats,” she writes, comparing herself to an imported machine. Conversation Ticks demonstrates the tedious nature of such employment, and the rest of the poems settle down into the curious relationship between language student and foreign sensai. Smith beats out the poetry hidden in the actual conversations that emerge from conversation schools; “In tight groupings we phrase/ technology, hobbies, holidays/ but never loneliness./ Conditionals are usual:/ What would you do with a hundred million yen? I would, I would.”
It is difficult to explain the scope of this book. We get pieces; her perceptions of the places she has seen more than the places; the people she has met- I fell in love with Lu Ling who “laughs/ because she is pregnant/ and wants to be happy.” You get a sense of how the author is changing because of these experiences: “Me too, I’ve realised, I do/ want to be happy.” In a year, you can do many things if you are determined enough to do so. It was a joyous year, it was a difficult year. “I left as we do our childhoods:/ rushing to escape, without souvenirs.”
I enjoyed her images of being abroad, and the trial and triumph of going home. To be so far away from the world which you belong to, which in turn becomes irrelevant. She writes, “while balancing/ a latitudinal stretch/ across continents./ What is stranger than the self/ that does not live with/ those who suffer?” A telephone call from her father, who is concerned about a nuclear accident in the country where his daughter lives, in a city whose name he cannot pronounce.
She achieves an interesting balance of popular-culture and traditional images, both holding equal importance in Japanese life. Traditional festivals involve intoxication under cherry blossoms and Hello Kitty is holy.
Six Mats and One Year also features a beautiful and subtle design, the cover with the grooves of a six-mat tatami floor.
Her personal experience and the universal are meshed. There is so much here that I cannot understand. She doesn’t paint the entire picture, but the entirety is not so important. As hers and my own experiences are parallel in some ways, I revel in the esoteric bits I can understand, but think this book would appeal to anyone. It’s also quite accessible to those irregular readers of poetry, as the basic images sketched in her words are appreciable and remain so even without a great degree of introspection.

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

"When the war was over and the sun came out again"
Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself by Judy Blume

I read Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself last week after perhaps a ten year hiatus, and this twenty-seven year old piece of Young-Adult Fiction was absolutely enthralling. This was no simple novelty read. This book was freshness and poignant, not to mention recently familiar. Sally Freedman’s voice is Madeleine McCarthy’s from Ann-Marie McDonald’s The Way the Crow Flies; both characters written with a degree of sophistication and authenticity not usually allotted to child narrators. The similarities were astounding. Perhaps I might have let the brilliance of Blume’s writing go by unnoticed without this connection between two books, which are so well be suited as companions.

Sally’s frank observations of the world around her— much like Madeleine’s— are written in such a way as to subtly inform the reader of what the child doesn’t understand. To a young adult reader with perspectives similar to Sally’s, this would not be so clear but makes re-reading an incredibly rewarding experience as an adult, and lends great depth to the book’s humour. Sally perceives the recently ended World War Two and the Holocaust with a lightness typical of a ten-year old. Family relations and of instances of innuendo are similarly dealt with. However all of this is written with great sensitivity and honesty, and the reality of these situations is clear with their impact on the people around her, even if Sally doesn’t notice herself. Much like McDonald’s McCarthy family, Sally’s parents attempt to keep their own pain from their children, though the truths of their own situations are tragically obvious at times.

As “historical novels”, pop-culturally speaking, these books are valuable. Both depict the “technicolour” world that emerged, as McDonald explained, when “the war was over and the sun came out again”. Like the McCarthy’s, the Freedman’s are a loving family faced with the inevitable troubles of the world around them. It’s a prosperous time for the middle classes, and the technicoloured aspects in Starring Sally are emphasized through the story’s location in a Miami Beach full of pink stucco buildings and goldfish ponds. However this rose-coloured world is juxtaposed with the horrific legacies of World War Two, Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust, and the characters’ subsequent struggle to piece these tragic realities into their own sunny lives, now that the war is over. Similarly, the domestic bliss of Madeleine McCarthy’s family and their idyllic suburbia battles with the effects of WW2- even in the 1960s- as well as the looming shadow of the Cold War.

It would be easy to categorize Sally as an innocent voice from an innocent time, but would belie the complexity of the character, her era and Blume’s writing. Perhaps a younger reader would comprehend a sunny simplicity, but this is a book of many layers entirely worthy of an adult’s perusal. I would recommend that any fan of The Way the Crow Flies read this book for a further brilliant exploration into the narrative voice of a child.


1) On Judy Blume: I have dealt with my parents’ recent separation with much reference to It’s Not The End of the World, though it was written about an eleven year old girl and I am twenty-five. Tiger Eyes still makes me cry. Deenie actually made me wish for scoliosis. I learned about the Vietnam War from Then Again, Maybe I Won’t, racism from Iggie’s House. I attempted breast enlargement exercises learned from Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret (which in the end proved to be very effective). I had a crush on Peter Hatcher, the Fourth Grade Nothing, I tried really hard to be a nicer person after reading Blubber (which was much less effective) and for a while believed I was the incarnation of Stephanie from Just as Long as We’re Together. It would be difficult to imagine an author who’s had such a profound impact upon my life as Judy Blume.

2) On YA Fiction: There is an enormous stockpile in the recesses of my mind of young-adult fiction long forgotten, from the days I used to borrow ten to fifteen novels from the public library every week. Books by Katherine Paterson, Norma Klein, Paula Danziger and Betty Miles were most formative, though perhaps far too socially conscious and connected to their time to retain their importance beyond the purely historical. But I was lucky to catch the tail end of that brilliant era in young-adult fiction, the books battered and the cover pictures long-dated by the time I got hold of them. I hope my future daughter can enjoy the fruits of similar renaissance in her own time.

Posted by Kerry

Friday, June 11, 2004

Constructing History
Living History by Hillary Rodham Clinton

In spite of her obvious brilliance, Hillary Rodham Clinton is unable to succeed in her autobiographical portrayal as an every-woman. Living History is well written and tells the incredible story of an incredible life, but her determination to prove she is one of “us” leaves too many gaps to be completely satisfying.

The book begins with her assertion that she was not born a wife, mother, senator, First Lady, human rights lawyer etc., but rather just another American, “in the middle of the twentieth century.” Of her family, she states that “We were middle-class, Midwestern and very much a product of our place and time.”

This trope is carried throughout her story, but she keeps finding herself in the thick of it. A staunch Republican in 1960 at the age of 13, she and a friend sneak into downtown Chicago to canvas neighbourhoods to verify the results of the presidential election. She discovers the limitations that society imposes on girls when she receives a negative reply from her request to NASA to volunteer for the space program after Sputnik. She campaigns for Goldwater in 1964, casually refers to The New York Times as “a tool of the Eastern Establishment,” and she watches the riots at the Chicago Democratic Convention in 1968 firsthand after a drive downtown in her best friend’s family station wagon. She just happens to be president of her student class at Wellesley during a year of tumultuous challenge and upheaval in American history, and of great change at Wellesley itself. She is the first student to speak at a Wellesley Graduation ceremony, and after the fact is profiled in Life Magazine. When rioters set the Yale International Law Library aflame in April 1970, Rodham Clinton is on-hand for a water bucket brigade.

She writes that this focus on her history is essential to understanding the person she would become, and I agree with this, because her life becomes fascinating very early. But this effort to paint this “product of place and time” idea detracts from her autobiography. She quite clearly was somewhat of an anomaly; there were millions of Americans born in the middle of the twentieth century and very few of them grew up to be like her. This couldn’t all be attributed to her participation in an excellent Church Youth Group during her teenage years, which preached the virtues of service. Her failure to acknowledge her obvious extraordinary qualities and abilities leave countless holes throughout her narrative.

A petty need for a “street cred” of sorts persists throughout Living History. Just as she omits key details for the sake of her ordinariness, she adds others that seem pointless. We are told time and time again- as no doubt New York voters were lectured- that indeed she was a Mickey Mantle fan and had always supported the Yankees as her American League team. Her mother had taken in girls from local children’s homes to help her with the housework. Hillary had black friends at Wellesley, and draws an uneven and uninsightful parallel in their experiences, that “just as [she] had come from a predominantly white environment, they had come from predominantly black ones.” In Arkansas, she and Bill filled their hours with barbecues and volleyball. Though she had made that “at home baking cookies” remark during the 1992 election campaign, she had indeed baked many cookies in her time. She has remained in her marriage because of the way Bill “makes her laugh,” this fact repeated so many times one suspects she is trying to convince herself.

It is when she becomes First Lady in 1992, and is no longer obliged to deny her singularity, that Living History is at its best. Her experiences in the spotlight- gaffes, inadequacies and all- are explained honestly. She acknowledges the steep learning curve she began when her husband became president. Anecdotes and reflections on the people she meets are interesting and amusing. Her passion for service and for liberal values is acutely demonstrated. Her intelligence is inarguable, and when she speaks her failed MedicAid Reforms, and welfare changes, it’s clear that America missed an incredible opportunity for positive change.

Her handling of the Whitewater Investigation and the Starr Report is angry, and justifiably so. She draws a convincing picture of that right-wing conspiracy directed toward her husband. She addresses the claims against them both, and reduces them convincingly to petty politically inspired attacks. Hillary Rodham Clinton may not be just one of the girls, but she is clearly not evil.

Her decision to focus so much upon her international visits as First Lady makes for the greatest success of Living History. Any reader seeking insight into an interesting personal life cannot help but be educated by these experiences, particularly in South Asia and Africa, and that makes this book an extremely positive force. She speaks passionately about her commitment to microfinancing and economic independence for women. She speaks out against Female Genital Mutilation, corrupt governments, unwanted girl babies, human trafficking, dowry deaths, rape as a war crime and a lack of reproductive freedom. In spite of horrible realities, she also paints many hopeful pictures of love and life thriving in the unlikeliest of places, resulting from the socially progressive values that she preaches.

Rodham Clinton handles the issues of her personal life with grace and class. This book is to be a personal memoir, she explains, not a comprehensive history. However a personal memoir is complicated when one feels that their personal life is off-limits to the general public. She achieves a tasteful balance, and indeed this is a personal memoir of her public life only. Her husband’s infidelities are neither denied nor glossed over, but plainly stated. Her hurt and betrayal is demonstrated, but not analysed, and apart from some rather bathetic pronouncements of her love for him, and her obsessive need to assure us of how hilarious he is, we learn very little about the workings of their relationship. Nor is her daughter’s personal life exploited for any trashy end. Rodham Clinton leaves us with no more detail than the fact that she has enormous respect for both her daughter and her husband.

In her “I’m every woman” vein however, she rushes past the unusual personal choices she made. We learn that she didn’t change her name when she got married, but not why she made this (at the time) unusual choice. She lived with her husband before she got married, and also returned to work after the birth of her daughter. Though albeit personal, more reflection on these decisions would have provided interesting commentary on the changing situation of women during that time.

Living History is an inaccurate title. Rodham Clinton attempts to portray her history as a time of great social change, and she as just swept up in the whirlwind. Considering her intelligence and strong personality, that she had no agency in the extraordinary twists of her life is unbelievable. She could not have been merely living her history as much constructing it quite consciously. However this would be difficult to admit for modesty’s sake, and for the fact that she is still very much in the public eye as a Senator- for a politician to be such a politician would be in poor taste.

This is a worthwhile read, but an autobiography was premature. A more appropriate book at this time would have omitted the personal altogether and instead concerned the social issues close to her heart which arose from her experiences abroad and those prevalent at home in America. And then Hillary Rodham Clinton could have told a far more revealing personal story with the benefit of some more hindsight and at a time when she had much less to prove.

By Kerry Clare

Saturday, May 15, 2004

The Way The Crow Flies by Ann-Marie MacDonald

But I love the book. I keep thinking about it in reference to The Little Friend, as the narrators have such similar voices; also the murder at the
beginning. It's like The Little Friend without the Faulkner. This book
strikes a sentimental chord in me with all its Ontario-ness. I love the French peppering. It appeals to me immediately: “The sun came out after the war and everything went technicolour”. The popular culture of that era is stuff I eat up with a spoon. As well, the whole Cold War idea, which is something I get quite passionate about. So the stage is set. I find myself reading it extremely carefully. I am reading the quotation at the beginning every chapter (which is odd as usually I don't read anything in italics, which isn't a good thing I know). There aren't characters who bore me and whose passages I skim over. At the bottom of page twelve, there is "tenor saxophone light". What a strange image, and I spent forever reading the passage to understand what she was
talking about. The narrative voice switches between characters with such ease. I like Madeleine's excitement when her bike arrived. I love the idea that by this point (I have read up to Wilkommen, Bienvenue, Welcome) that the McCarthy's have "done it right". The parents are beautiful and loving, and that trickles down to the children. That idealism appeals to me, as my own family has been causing me much inner turmoil the last couple of weeks. But after I put the book down, and turned off my light last night, I lay
there with a sense of impending doom. Of course we know there is a murder of some sort, and there is that sinister house across the road, or perhaps I am just projecting my own problems onto Ann-Marie.

I'm halfway through Wilkommen, Bienvenue, Welcome and agree that there is a sense of impending doom, what with the murder at the beginning and all. Is it Madeleine or her mum or someone we haven't met yet? I love the descriptions of Madeleine's relationship with her older brother because that's exactly what it's like to have an older brother. Sometimes he wants to play with you and then everything is the best and other times he's moody and distant. So with that and the Ontarioness I can relate (except I didn't
grow up on an air training base).

this weekend i had to work (blah) but i also threw a dinner party... i didn't get much reading done though but i'm still loving atcf. i'm just starting "muscles" and madeleine has just started school (which is making me miss textbooks and notebooks).

I have been reading The Way the Crow Flies compulsively and am at Indian Summer. I won't comment too much, because I am ahead of you. But I really enjoy the book. The characters are so rounded and the history is fascinating. The only criticism being that sometimes people (mostly Jack) talk like they're reading from a text book. I guess giving us background is important, but it reminds me of television shows where they have to give
you background from the last episode and you get characters saying things like "So Darlene, why are you walking down the street with Rob, your dodgy boyfriend of three years who is rumoured to be unfaithful?” So Jack often sounds like he is giving a lecture. This doesn't mean my crush on him is over. Far from it. I also find that MacDonald has done an Atwood Cat's Eye in terms of presenting such a realistic and brutal portrayal of the little girl social structures- she also paints a good picture of the childhood grotesque (intrigue toward wheelchairs, people who smell like
pee). I am so glad I bought this book! Beyond narrative similarities, this book and The Little Friend also have length in common. I think this book wears its bulk more successfully. The Little Friend was in need of a good edit, but this book is not as dense, which I appreciate.

Mr. March is a very bad man! I'm halfway through Duck and Cover. Granted, the stuff with Mr. March isn't unexpected (especially if you've read Fall on Your Knees, AMM has a thing for incest/child abuse) but it's still disturbing to read, mostly because of the shame/guilt that Madeleine feels. And I fear that things are going to get much much worse before they get better.

Mr. March is indeed very bad, would go far as to say he is vile. I think AMM does a very good job at keeping you caught up with the action and engaged with character's experiences. With Mr March, I was tempted to shout at the book "Tell someone Madeleine, run away! It's not your fault!" in the way that people used to yell at matinee movie screens.

I got to the murder. It made me cry. But now there are all these overlapping circles of secrecy and lies, and it's driving me mad because I know who the culprit is and no one else does! I also see parallels between Simon Crawford and the character Paul Bettany played in A Beautiful Mind (John Nash's roommate who turns out to be a figment). I have a terrible suspicion that Jack McCarthy is schizophrenic and all the espionage lives in his own head. I also know this isn't the case, but the two characters are a bit similar, as no one knows about Jacks' dealings with Simon so it might as
well be imagined by anyone else's account. I love Madeleine. I think childhood (a happy childhood) is presented so painfully real. The way that she feels guilty and has her dad walk her to school because she doesn't want to let him down, and feels bad when her parents give her things she doesn't like as much as they want her to. I remember those feelings as being some of the worst guilt I have ever felt in my life.

i'm just starting "big wars and little wars". i love madeleine too (i also love her
name and would consider naming my child that). and colleen, i want to know what her story is. gah, i'm sorry, it's nuts right now so i can't fully delve into my comments right now, even though i'd really prefer it. i just want to finish this book! which is great because i didn't expect to be so engrossed in it.

I have reached a point where I am getting a bit frustrated with ATCF. This does not mean that I love it any less, but I have flipped ahead to see what happens. Just quick glances on random pages. It's clear that we get to meet Madeleine as a grown up, and something about that scares me. What is happening is frustrating to read, and I have no assurance that the matters clear themselves up. I did get to hear the story of Henry Froelich though, which was interesting. There are some really interesting characters in the book. Something I think MacDonald does well is showing the legacy of war. I really never thought about how WW2 would be so alive in the consciousness of people in 1963. As surprising as when I learned that Vietnam played such a role in the American election of 1988. I guess never having known war myself, I had this idea that it just ended and that was that. The war ended and the sun came out, etc. Not so much. I think McDonald has done a good job of creating interesting images that a child would actually construct. I will omit details because I don't know where you are, but Madeleine is talking about the murder victim a few days after the incident, and how no one could have seen it coming. She thinks "Last Wednesday no one knew that *** was on the edge of a cliff". I love that.

I'm at New Year's Eve in ATCF. Ricky, Colleen and crew are babysitting Mike and Mads. I'm not looking forward to Madeleine getting older. I think that's difficult to pull off (but I'm sure AMM is capable of handling it). I do feel as though I'm learning more about the war, which is good because my knowledge of history is pathetic. I might get the new book on Dresden but it's 800 pages and perhaps not the best starter read.

Madeleine is grown up. It is disappointing, she's still good but the scenes where she is walking around Toronto reminds me of the novel I wrote in 4th Year and that can't be a good thing. She was just such a perfect child to read the inner thoughts of, and she's less interesting grown up. There aren't a lot of books where I would think that though. I typically enjoy adult narraters a lot more, so perhaps its just that the early parts of the book were extremely good and the end is just a bit more average. However the element of suspense hasn't lessened. AMM has written an amazing mystery book. I have been page flipping madly for nearly 600 pages to get to the bottom of this murder business, and I think unlike the murder of poor Robin of Donna Tartt fame, there will be answers. I will admit that I impatiently flipped through the pages (regretfully) yesterday and glimpsed some huge surprises. Hasn't completely ruined it though. I can't wait to get to the end and see how it goes.

I have finally reached the murder part. I got halfway through it on the tube and almost missed my stop I was so engrossed. I agree about the page flipping. I wish I had a free block of three hours so I could finish it but alas, that is not possible quite yet.

I've finally reached the part of TWTCF where Madeleine is a grown up. I don't find it annoying (yet) but I do find the marriage of Jack and Mimi heartbreaking. When I read the bit about how they reached a point in their life when they never turned the TV off I cried on the bus. Mads has just started therapy and I have 130 pages to go.

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Now Reading Nothing

It wasn’t actually until a month or two after I decided to move to Japan that I realised the media withdrawal I would have to endure. I had sort of assumed that English was one of those things people were born innately appreciating regardless of their native tongue and that my print fixes would be freely available everywhere. Certainly this had been the case the last time I moved abroad, but that time abroad was England, and maybe this is what broadening your horizons is all about.

In my city now, there is one shop that sells English books, and the selection is limited and overpriced. The magazines available are Time and People. There are two English newspapers that come out daily, and both leave me wanting. On a recent trip to the much larger city of Kobe, hours were devoted to searching for an English language bookstore that in the end had gone out of business. In the end we found the world’s smallest used bookstore on the outskirts of nowhere, and that discovery was like coming home again.

How one’s life can change in just a few short months. Was it only February that I was reading The Guardian, The Observer and The Sunday Times every weekend? When purchasing 3 for 2 books at Waterstones was just a past time? In Britain, I happily suffered from a media overload that I was convinced could only make me smarter. (This was a welcome change after Canada, where although the bookstores are so lovely, you would have to mortgage your house just to buy one volume.)

And so I prepared for the changes Japan would bring because I’d been through that sort of thing before. Once upon a time, I had been caught in Vienna with nothing at all to read except The Assassination of Marilyn Monroe, which was the only book I could afford in an astronomically expensive English bookshop. Never again.

Before Japan, I bulked up on 3 for 2s and I managed to save my first book until halfway through the flight. My reading pace would be slowed. Whereas before, books were devoured, I would have to learn to savor. Rather than complete a book at a marathon pace, toss it aside and begin another, there would be time between to actually think about what I have read.

And now, I have one book left from the original batch I brought over. But I have three books from the used bookstore in Kobe, the internet at home for all things newsworthy and I have discovered an English language library in Himeji, which consists of just a shelf but still gifthorse, mouth and all that jazz.

It’s really not so difficult. How nice it is to read a book leisurely and then actually recall it. It’s inspiring to have your mind so free from a tabloidy deluge of stuff that there is room in there for original ideas. To be actually thirsting for knowledge and good meaty knowledge at that is so refreshing and inspiring. I have not given up the love of the printed word, but I believe that this diet is so healthy. I am thinking and learning in the wildest ways these days and it is wonderful.

(Since March 17: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller, The Enchantment of Lily Dahl by Siri Hustvedt, Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs, Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre, Orientalism by Edward Said, The Watch that Ends the Night by Hugh MacLennan, The Liar by Stephen Frye, The Japan Times every Saturday and one issue each of BUST, The New Yorker, Harpers, Vanity Fair and Heat)

By Kerry Clare

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

The Offending Nature of “Chick-Lit”
(upon reading My Life on a Plate by India Knight)

Jenny Colgan bemoans the inherent sexism of the chick-lit label. “If they could get way with calling it slut-lit or clit-lit they would” she says in the current issue of Mslexia magazine. Which might be true, as I have yet to come across the Dick-Lit genre, though can think of many books are worthy of inclusion. All female-generated media has a tendency to be pigeonholed as of interest to just fifty percent of the population, and really only the simpler minds of that lot.

Though it would be false to say that all books written by women are brilliant and misunderstood. Clearly there has been a deluge of post-Bridget Jonesian rubbish in the last few years. However this notion that women’s fiction is somehow unequivocally unimportant, shallow and derivative is frankly insulting. In particular, British novelists India Knight and Colgan herself are worthy of more than cartoon pastel covers.

Jenny Colgan writes novels about quirky single women with complicated (or non-existent) love lives (and yes, so did Helen Fielding). Her fiction is light and female-centric with a fairy-tale paced plot twist at the end. A bit formulaic then, but this alone hardly warrants the relegation of Amanda’s Wedding or Talking to Addison to the dustbin. Colgan’s comedic talents are substantial. Her writing is strong; her characters are consistent and identifiable. Albeit of a more popular genre, her work deserves attention, especially as it voices the ideas and concerns of a significant portion of our society.

India Knight writes novels about quirky married/divorced women with complicated (or non-existent) love lives. This Sunday Times columnist knows how to write, and she is not one to shy from zeitgeist. Upon reading My Life on a Plate, it comes as no surprise that her latest book is “A Guide to the Shops”, as descriptions of material objects and their name brands are rife in the novel. This truly is a woman’s book, though any man with comedic tendencies couldn’t help but enjoy it.

My Life on a Plate is about real life, but the absurdly ridiculous truths of real life where other people’s babies can be grossly repulsive, your children are lousy with nits and you and your husband concoct wild insults for each other in an attempt to horrify straight-laced dinner guests. Knight’s book is anything but boring. Characters are appropriately eccentric in the Bridget Jones tradition, but their conversations rendered me hysterical. The twist at the end is as much a shock for the reader as for Clara, the main character, and her reaction to this is heart-wrenching. The narrative voice was easy and conversational like a good friend, even recommending a good hair de-frizzer, but by no means shallow. The average reader would be well able to detect the depth of emotion and experience in what Clara lets go unsaid.

The “chick-lit” label is typically assigned to literature dealing with this minutia of women’s lives, their fears, weaknesses and insecurities; those books which have readers laughing “because it’s so true” and leave the average woman feeling she’s more normal than she thought. This is offensive, because it relegates women’s concerns as frivolity, but one couldn’t really argue with the fact that these books aren’t exactly “literary”. However meatier books, by authors such as Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro and Carol Shields (because Canadians have made chick-lit into an art form) are similarly dismissed due to their focus on women’s lives. And there is no excuse for this.

If one was being overtly sunny, one could look at “chick-lit” is as “a book of one’s own”, which represents exciting possibility. However this view is simplistic for three reasons; the first being a lack of focus on publishing women’s work and the decline of women’s presses in recent years, the second being the amount of crap that does get published, creating an umbrella of mediocrity which Colgan and Knight are urged beneath. Finally, the fact that “women’s books” are considered unimportant in the context of the canon.

I have read some “Dick-Lit” (Shakespeare, Hemingway or Bret Easton Ellis for a selection) because I was told it was important to. It didn’t mean I necessarily liked it, but that avoiding it would have left a gap in my knowledge. Women’s work is not usually attributed such importance, and it is astounding to me that contemporary women’s writing continues to be disregarded in such historic fashion.

We can rest with the knowledge that we have many of these “books of our own”, but it will mean little until those books are considered on par those written by men.

By Kerry Clare

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