Tag: comedy

Review: Charm School

I first read Anne Fine’s MG novel Charm School years ago; I have no idea how old I was. Certainly old enough to be picking my own books out at Waterstones. I found my copy at my granny’s house a couple of weeks ago, and, well, here we are.

I’m reasonably impressed.

Bonny and her mother are new in town. It’s the beginning of the summer holidays and Bonny’s father is stuck in a layby with a broken-down removal van. Bonny’s mother is busy. Which all means that Bonny has to go, reluctantly, to Charm School, a sort of weekend club for pre-teen girls who compete for the Glistering Tiara by being the most beautiful, the softest-spoken, the most charming.

Bonny’s horrified by the effort these girls put into this, and the spite and jealousy they direct at each other. She decides that she needs to “save” them from a life of empty-headedness by making the competition a bit more exciting.

There are many surprisingly good things about Charm School! There are also, um, not so good things.

Let’s start with the feminism, because that’s what I’m all about. The book’s pretty on point about how the beauty industry perpetuates itself by setting women against each other, asking us all to waste our energy in competing for an impossible standard of beauty:

“One of them gets to come top and be the Supreme Queen. And all the rest go home feeling ugly, and think they ought to try harder. So they waste even more of their time shopping, and even more of their money on stuff to try to look nicer.”

and on how the system encourages women to police each other, so we end up doing its work for it, free of charge:

“Perhaps the pink frock suits your colouring better.”

“Are those split ends in your hair?…Maybe it’s time for a trim.”

“Your hem’s just the tiniest bit uneven.”

and even on the commodification of female beauty as a tool of capitalism:

“That’s what it’s all for, really, isn’t it? To make them buy more stuff. On and on and on.”

Entry-level feminist theory by way of The Evils of Capitalism! I clearly had excellent taste as a child. I really, really appreciate how aware Charm School is of how oppressive systems work, their self-perpetuating nature and their inescapability. (At one point Bonny has a conversation with the tea boy in which they theorise that the beauty industry is a conspiracy of “green glop men”, which is kind of perfect and I suspect has also fuelled my deep and abiding suspicion of anything a magazine might call a “beauty regime”.)

But. Of course there’s a but. In its haste to identify and condemn the systems that coerce women into wasting their energy in being rather than doing, I think Charm School overlooks how fashion and beauty are actually kind of important for most women. Through Bonny, it focuses its attack a little too much on the symptoms of institutional misogyny (spiteful, empty-headed girls) rather than the cause (the kyriarchy, woop). It judges these girls: there’s a sense that they’re obsessed with fashion not just because they’re being brainwashed by the green gloop men, but because they’re in some way less intelligent than Bonny.

If you’re a woman, what you wear to work, whether you wear makeup or not, how you wear your hair, can affect how seriously you’re taken by your colleagues – female and male, because the kyriarchy is self-perpetuating.

If you’re a woman, what you wear in public can dictate whether random men will hit on you, or worse. “She was asking for it” because her skirt was too short, her makeup too suggestive, her top too low.

If you’re a woman in cosplay, you might get unwanted attention from men who think they have a right to your body.

The point is that it’s not just women policing each other; it’s men too. And, unless Bonny is exceptional (and maybe not even then), a woman who dresses the “right” way is probably more likely to be promoted into “serious” jobs than she is, with her practical clothing.

Which is not a good reason to judge someone for not conforming; but it is a good reason not to judge someone who is – someone who chooses to play the game to protect herself. Because under the kyriarchy there are no good choices.

On a happier note, the book also glosses over the tremendous sense of empowerment the right clothes can give you: the pair of shoes that make you feel invincible, the necklace that gives you a little bit more courage to get you through the day, the outfit that makes you feel most you. Fashion may be a coercive, capitalist construct, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t value in coopting it for your own ends. Quite the opposite, in fact.

I think what’s actually most telling about my memories of reading Charm School (which I must have done several times, knowing my childhood reading habits as I do) is that I was far more interested in the dressing up than I was the feminism. (Even though I was not at all that kind of child.) Because even kids are capable of resisting the narratives that get foisted on them. Sure, women and girls are more than just decorations. Absolutely. But that doesn’t mean that we should be shamed for choosing to dress up on our terms.

(I still like the book. It does great work. I would just like it to have done even greater work!)

Advertisements

Review: The Alchemaster’s Apprentice

I found thinking about Walter Moers’ The Alchemaster’s Apprentice hard, and not very rewarding, work.

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it, exactly: it was fine, and occasionally quite entertaining. It’s more that it did a few quite interesting things which failed to go anywhere.

Take, for instance, the first line of the novel:

Picture to yourself the sickest place in the whole of Zamonia.

This is an instruction that’s impossible to follow. First: where is Zamonia? (Readers of Moers’ other books will know the answer to this, but The Alchemaster’s Apprentice plainly doesn’t expect you to be such a reader.) Secondly: what does Moers mean by “sickest”? Cruellest? Best? Most disease-ridden? It’s a sentence that destabilises the author/reader relationship from the start; it unsettles us, it invites us in.

The sickest place in the whole of Zamonia, it turns out, is Malaisea. Everyone is ill in Malaisea, with all manner of exciting diseases ranging from the common cold to tuberculosis. This is the doing of the town’s resident alchemist, the titular Alchemaster, Ghoolion, who creates noxious fumes in his noxious castle above the town to oppress the people of Malaisea.

The story follows Echo, a talking cat. His owner has recently died, and he’s close to death from starvation, until Ghoolion offers him a terrible bargain: he’ll be fed the most luxurious meals for a month, at which point Ghoolion will murder him and use his fat in his alchemy.

Echo takes the bargain, goes to live in the creepy castle, and spends the rest of the novel trying to find a way out.

Now, Moers’ Zamonia is a place at once whimsical and dark. It has talking cats. But it also has Anguish Candles: candles that have been made (by Ghoolion) to experience terrible pain when they’re alight. And what use is a candle if it’s not alight? Ghoolion provides lakes of milk for Echo, but he also renders down rare and innocent creatures for their fats. Zamonia is a world that contains vampire bats called Leathermice and trees that can move and a city made entirely of iron and steel.

The novel’s full of lively pen and ink illustrations by the author which contribute quite a lot to how this world feels: just familiar enough that the whimsy destabilises us, pulls the rug out from under our feet. It’s also full of plot reversals: the characters tell stories within stories in which star-crossed lovers are separated for ever, pointlessly, in which plucky underdogs are crushed by powerful monsters. Moers wants to keep us on our toes. He never gives us quite what we expect.

And yet. For all the work the novel is doing upfront to destabilise us, defamiliarise us, bring us to a place that’s cruel and unsettling, there doesn’t seem to be a coherent project underpinning all of this. There’s no point.

Well. There’s something of a theme about “the miracle of love”, but Moers’ “miracle of love” is…well. Everything that is wrong with Western conceptions of romance, for a start. There’s a grand total of two named female characters in The Alchemaster’s Apprentice, and both of them exist only to have pointless and doomed romances with Ghoolion, of all people. One of them tests his love for her by telling him she’s going to marry someone else, only to be heartbroken when he disappears off forever. The other is a witch who is Ghoolion’s literal opposite (she cultivates nature rather than destroying it) and whose people have been relentlessly persecuted by Ghoolion since the word go – only she finds his cruelty and complete disregard for other people’s feelings alluring rather than disgusting. She abandons her whole moral system because she’s in luuurve. And then she feeds the object of her affection a love potion to make him love her back.

So “the miracle of love” is beginning to look more like “the miracle of manipulative, not to say self-destructive, behaviour”. Which would be fine if I thought that that was Moers’ point, but the novel literally ends with Echo heading off to the mountains to seek out this miracle.

In other words, Moers is deploying all that destabilising potential, the talking cat, the darkly whimsical villain, the first line you cannot obey, the stories that end in unexpected tragedy, just to repeat old stereotypes. Which, I’m sorry, is just lazy storytelling. It makes for a novel that’s much less than the sum of its parts; a fantasy set in a secondary world that’s only superficially different from our own. And what’s the point of that, really?

The Last Ten Books That Came Into My Possession

Not counting library books or books lent to me.

  1. The War Poets: an anthology. You know how grandmothers always try and give you random crap when you go visit them? That’s where I got this, a couple of weekends ago. Because poetry. (Actually Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et decorum est” has been one of my favourite poems since I read it out in assembly at school. Like all the best poetry, it dictates how you read it aloud; it makes you dramatise its fury through how you sound it out.)
  2. Sisyphean – Dempow Torishima. So apparently the last time I bought something in a bookshop was in April? In New York? Which seems unlikely, but I can’t think of anything I’ve actually bought since then. Sisyphean was okay, a bit organic for my taste.
  3. Space Opera – Catherynne Valente. This was part of my New York haul. I was ridiculously excited about this, as I bought it around the time Amazon sold out and the only copies left were scattered around various Barnes and Nobles and I GOT ONE and it’s lovely.
  4. The Refrigerator Monologues – Catherynne Valente. Yeah, I basically treated America as a chance to buy all the books that are fiendishly difficult to find over here. This included ALL THE VALENTE.
  5. Saga Volume 1 – Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. I read this a couple of years ago, but I’ve been wanting to own it for a while – the art is so lovely and MY HEART ALANA’S FACIAL EXPRESSIONS. Plus, it actually seemed to be cheaper in New York than over here.
  6. S.  – J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst. I actually cannot remember exactly when I bought this, except I know it was definitely in the Oxford Blackwell’s shop. I haven’t read it yet, because of the vagaries of my TBR pile, but I can’t wait.
  7. What Are We Doing Here? – Marilynne Robinson. This was an emergency buy when I was stuck in Bologna without anything to read, and it was a great choice if I do say so myself: engaging, thought-provoking and empathetic.
  8. Imaginary Cities – Darran Anderson. I bought this in Oxford in January. It was rainy and cold and we were looking for somewhere to hide for an hour before dinner, and Blackwell’s rode to the rescue (not literally, although that would be impressive). I read the first couple of chapters of this fascinating book curled up in one of their armchairs.
  9. The Compleat Discworld Atlas – Terry Pratchett and the Discworld Emporium. This was a Christmas present from my sister! It is, physically, a lovely book. It is very geeky. It is also…a bit problematic, and nowhere near as fun as the actual Discworld novels, or even some of the older companion books.
  10. The Book of Dust – Philip Pullman. Also a Christmas present, also from my sister, more interesting than the Discworld Atlas even if it’s not quite what I wanted from a His Dark Materials prequel.

(The prompt for this post comes from the weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Top Ten Books I’ve Read So Far in 2018

  1. The Stone Sky – N.K. Jemisin. The conclusion to the Broken Earth trilogy, and I think the only book that’s made me cry so far this year. In an airport. It is devastating and hopeful, bleak and beautiful all at once. It’s a book about climate change and motherhood and the trauma that systematic oppression inflicts on its victims and its perpetrators alike. It’s extremely unusual, to say the least, to find a fantasy novel that’s even half as ambitious and important.
  2. Tipping the Velvet – Sarah Waters. I finished this just today, in fact, and it came pretty close to being the second book to make me cry this year. It’s a novel about a Victorian oyster-girl who falls in love with a male impersonator at the theatre, and follows her to London. Waters is amazing at romantic suspense, at writing the sweet painful bliss of seduction, and I spent the four days it took me to read Tipping the Velvet utterly under its spell.
  3. Rosemary and Rue – Seanan McGuire. The first novel in McGuire’s Toby Daye series was exactly what I hoped it would be: smart and fun and not afraid of dealing with darkness, and set in a version of Faerie that’s magical without being twee.
  4. What Are We Doing Here? – Marilynne Robinson. This is a dense book, a collection of essays delving into the depths of philosophy, theology, history and aesthetics. But it’s worth taking the time and the care to engage with it: it’s a book that advocates empathy, and thorough engagement with the world, and the importance of the humanities in this career-obsessed society.
  5. Green Earth – Kim Stanley Robinson. 2018 for me has so far been marked by a growing awareness, and a concomitant grief, of just what a parlous state we’ve brought our planet to. Green Earth contributed to that awareness, but it also gave me some hope: hope that maybe we can fix our broken social system and find the political and social will to do something about rampant climate change before it’s too late.
  6. Space Opera – Catherynne M. Valente. Space Opera’s rather grown on me since I finished it and found it a little insubstantial. Sure, it’s a story about Eurovision in space. Sure, its ending is schmaltzy as all get-out. But it’s hard to resist its glitter and its goodwill and its generous, inclusive approach to the aliens who inhabit the galaxy – as well as the humans fighting for Earth’s survival.
  7. The Refrigerator Monologues – Catherynne M. Valente. While I was reading it, I enjoyed The Refrigerator Monologues a lot more than Space Opera. But…it’s faded a little in my memory by comparison. Partly I think that’s because it’s a collection of short stories about superheroes, or, rather, the girlfriends of superheroes, women who are “fridged” to advance the stories of men. I see Valente’s point, and it’s well and beautifully made, but I just don’t find superheroes that interesting. And the collection as a whole is a little one-note.
  8. Imaginary Cities – Darran Anderson. This is just a fascinating look at how cities have been portrayed and conceived of throughout human history, romping through sources as diverse as Thomas More’s Utopia and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, looping round and round its points in a kind of collage without ever quite saying what it means. I’m fascinated by the connections between architecture and literature, so this was absolutely perfect for me.
  9. The Real-Town Murders – Adam Roberts. This is a novel I admired more than liked. I mean, I enjoyed reading it; but not as much as I enjoyed nearly everything else on this list. But, like all of Roberts’ writing, it is doing complex, interesting work with genre, and genre expectations, and the headlong splintering of our shared culture.
  10. Provenance – Ann Leckie. Provenance has this fascinating double structure – just when you think you’ve got to the bottom of things you find a whole nother world behind them. Like Leckie’s Ancillary series, it places a lot of emphasis on identity politics and cultural norms and etiquette. And it does some very heavy lifting in imagining a culture that’s genuinely different from our own Western one, especially when it comes to gender norms and family structures.

(The prompt for this post came from the weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Review: From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor

I feel like I say this more often than not, but Jerry Della Femina’s From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor was not quite what I expected.

It was the subtitle that drew me in: Front Dispatches from the Advertising War. Advertising is my field, so to speak. When I’m not overthinking pop culture, I’m a bid writer, which is a specific kind of advertising that calls on you to hold someone’s interest over pages and pages of technical information. It’s tough. It’s fun. If you want to write for your living but also want, you know, financial security, check out becoming a bid writer.

The point being that advertising, the process of advertising, of getting inside your audience’s head and staying there till you’ve said what you want to say, fascinates me. So a memoir about America’s golden age of advertising, by the founder of a major advertising agency, seemed just the thing for a holiday in Norfolk.

(“The cult classic that inspired Mad Men”, says a little silver circle on the cover of my library copy. I haven’t watched Mad Men, but I do love me some 1970s glamour, and so! here we are!)

Here we are, in New York, 1970. The first thing you need to know about From Those Wonderful Folks is that Della Femina is, well, a bit of an arsehole, even by the standards of his time. You can’t read a page, practically, without stumbling on a sexist or homophobic or (as you might have guessed from the title, a tongue-in-cheek suggestion for a campaign for Panasonic) racist remark. Fairly unusually for me, the detail of the book was interesting enough that I could tune this out after a while – but your mileage may well vary.

The second thing, the more surprising thing, is that From Those Wonderful Folks doesn’t really have a coherent shape as a book. It doesn’t have a story. It’s not about a man who sets up an advertising agency (though presumably it could have been). It’s not even about a man who starts a career in advertising one day. It’s just…pages on pages of anecdotes, grouped loosely into chapters, written in slangy, repetitive and kind of terrible prose, like Della Femina has just talked at a dictaphone for several hours and some poor ghostwriter has tidied it up a bit and thrown it at the page as-is.

(Come to think of it, that’s probably exactly what happened.)

Another surprising thing: it’s nowhere near as scandalous as the cover copy would have you believe. Della Femina is very keen to establish that there’s nowhere near as much drinking or sex at the advertising agencies as the pop culture of the 1970s says there is. There are some delicate creative types (one anecdote is about a copywriter threatening to push his desk out of a high window), but delicate creatives have existed since Apollo killed Niobe’s children, so.

What From Those Wonderful Folks does have is some lovely insight into 1970s ad campaigns. This was a time when big, stuffy, old agencies with huge overheads were being threatened by younger, leaner, more creative operations, and were becoming more careful, more conservative, as a result. Della Femina looks at campaigns and pitches and business practices from across the industry, at why they worked or why they didn’t. There’s Volkswagen’s famous “Think Small” advert; the Jolly Green Giant; a disastrous campaign for low-calorie beer that failed because 1970s beer drinkers couldn’t give a fig about losing weight. It’s all this precise detail, this fine-tuned understanding of the psychology behind capitalist consumption, that, for me, made it worth wading through that terrible and decidedly unenlightened prose. It’s certainly not my favourite read of 2018 – not even close – but it’s pretty interesting, and worth a read if you’re into advertising and can look past the rampant 1970s prejudice.

Review: The Gospel of Loki

The Gospel of Loki is Joanne M. Harris’ first foray into adult epic fantasy; you’ll probably know her better as the author of Chocolat. It’s a retelling of the Norse myths, all the way through from creation to Ragnarok, from the point of view of Loki, trickster-god, god of stories and fire and generally pissing off The Man.

It should by rights be brilliant fun. It should be witty and irreverent and rich with meaning. I’m thinking Neil Gaiman at his darkest, most fairytale, least sexist best.

It is…not.

A disclaimer before I dive in: my knowledge of Norse mythology is limited to the brilliant Ragnarok/Cthulu mashup that is steampunk band The Mechanisms’ The Bifrost Incident, and a vague osmotic awareness that there are characters called Thor and Loki inhabiting the Marvel universe. Oh, and a sense of the uniquely Scandinavian grandeur of Norse mythology: mountains that hold the sky on their shoulders, relentless days and weeks and months of snow and ice, and gods to match – menacing, inscrutable, cold and above all huge. If there’s one thing Norse mythology should be, it’s awesome. It should inspire awe. That’s my feeling, anyway.

With that in mind: my overwhelming sense about The Gospel of Loki is that Harris isn’t clear on what she’s trying to do. As far as I can tell, she’s stuck pretty closely to her source material – apart from Loki’s voice. And therein lies the rub. Loki inhabits a world in which women – even goddesses – are things, domesticity is oppressive, femininity is insulting, and gay sex is banned. I think this is Harris’ idea of pre-modern Scandinavia. I don’t know whether it’s accurate (although given the 1950s-style prudishness of it all I suspect it isn’t really); it’s certainly plausible that all of this is in the original texts. But I don’t understand what the point is of repeating it all when Harris has already gone to the trouble of updating Loki’s voice. Why not use anarchic, disruptive Loki to interrogate the sexism and racism and homophobia on which the Norse myths are based (if indeed they are so based)?

That’s the thing, though: Harris’ Loki has no sting for all his talk. In a word, he’s boring. His wit and sarcasm is mainly limited to rote phrases like “so shoot me” and “it wasn’t an easy sell” and metaphors involving cookie jars and terribly misjudged jokes about women and mixing bowls. His cynicism doesn’t revitalise the Norse myths for a modern audience, which I think is what Harris is going for here; instead, it flattens them, makes their great dramas into dull soap operas. Even Ragnarok is boring when it’s narrated by this Loki, and if your apocalypse is boring then, I submit, you’re doing something wrong.

The Gospel of Loki isn’t a rewriting, a deconstruction or an interrogation of Norse mythology. Nor is it a direct translation that’s faithful to the spirit of the original. It’s a weird and pointless halfway house that doesn’t, despite its title, have anything useful or interesting to say about modernity or myth. It repeats harmful stereotypes which the author presumably doesn’t share. And the writing itself is flat, empty and superficial.

In short: I didn’t like it. Your mileage may vary. But probably not.

50-Word Review: Space Opera

Space Opera, Catherynne M. Valente

A new Valente novel, and the second Hitchhiker riff I’ve read this year: humanity’s singing for its life in the galactic version of Eurovision. A meditation on what counts as sentience and the transcendent power of pop music. Fun and fabulous, but a little…slight for Valente.