Reviews: M

Review: “Your Skirt’s Too Short: Sex, Power, Choice” by Emily Maguire [2010]

Your Skirt’s Too Short is a dissection of the current situation of the female sex in the world today. Yes, sexism still exist. Maguire, having already written an earlier version of this book entitled Princesses and Pornstars, explores the various aspects that threatens and prevent the female sex achieving sexual equality. The book also looks at what feminism means since society’s perception of feminism still recalls the movement in the 60s and of women burning bras:

To be clear: feminism never says that men and women are exactly the same. But the vast majority of gender differences are socialised, not natural, and are not significant enough to justify unequal legal and social treatment of women. A common misconception about feminism is that it means taking something – power, rights, status – away from men. But feminism is about restoring the rights, power and status of women so that they match those of men; not taking, no giving, simply restoring the natural order. And it is the natural order unless you believe that men are inherently more deserving than women. – p. 181

This is one of the best explanations I’ve read. Feminism is not about aggression, unshaved legs, burning bras or ‘acting like a man’ but simply restoring rights to women that had been systematically stripped away from women over the centuries simply because they menstruated and had a vagina. Of course, it is easier said than done.

There is also the ever persistent double standard of sex where Maguire likens society’s perception of a woman’s vagina to that of a used car: it goes down in value with every use/man. And yet, virginity has become somewhat of a shameful badge to carry around. Too many lovers, the girl is a slut. Too little, she’s a prude.

Men believe women don’t really like sex, they complain about it to their mates, they contrive ways to convince the women in their lives to go to bed with them, and they lament the unfairness of having to work so hard just to get laid. And then they meet a woman who’s totally into it, and they collapse into misery and confusion … And women play along, going home frustrated every night because he hasn’t performed enough money-spending, movie-romance rituals to allow her to sleep with him without feeling like a ‘slut’. Or they stop playing the game, sleep with whomever they want whenever they want, and end up stigmatised or pitied. – p. 32

Alongside the recurring debates about women and the portrayal of their sexuality, Maguire also discusses sex education. The focus on sex education is to explain the changes in the body, safe sex and how to prevent pregnancies. However, Maguire argues that it should also include all the other aspects generally involved with sex: the emotions in play, how to say no, masturbation and advice for those dealing with their sexuality.

Emily Maguire discusses other issues that are hounding the female sex that I can’t do justice to in this pithy review. However, I do highly recommend this as it did leave me rather enlightened although also a little more disheartened that we still have to battle our way through socially ingrained sexism. Most of these I believe are due to laziness (household product commercials – I despise you). Maguire doesn’t blame only the male sex for the ongoing oppression of women but women also partly carry the blame. To achieve gender equality, it is ultimately up to all individuals to not socially discriminate according to their gender.

Feminism does not treat men as stupid, worthless, uncontrollable, savage, dangerous or expendable. The system that does that is called patriarchy and we live under one. It’s a system that relies on restrictive gender roles as a means of keeping us all under control. If the men stay in their place and the women in theirs, and if when they do meet they are filled with misunderstanding and bitterness and resentment, then maybe they will never recognise each other as friends and allies, and they will never join together to make things better for everyone. – p. 194

Review: “The Cement Garden” by Ian McEwan [1978]

The Cement Garden is about four children from a slightly unusual family who are suddenly orphaned during one hot summer. We follow the eldest boy, Jack, who is at the awkward and confusing teenage stage and torn between wanting to be the boss of the house and being mothered. Jack adores his older sister, Julie, and his adoration splits between familial love and sexual lust. This may sound repulsive but when contained within the nature of the story and the isolation of the family, it seems almost like a natural progression. When they were younger, Julie and Jack used to play a game with their younger sister, Sue, where they would strip their sister naked, lie her on the bed and pretend to be doctors examining an alien, prodding and poking her. It is only when they become older that they realise the game is quite sexual. Soon after their father dies, their mother quickly follows and the children, along with their seven-year-old youngest brother Tom, decide to dispose of their mother’s body secretly so that authorities won’t separate them.

As the summer progresses, time seems to slip away and Jack pushes his mother out of his mind. He becomes listless and aggressive while Sue locks herself in her room. Tom misses his mother and comforts himself by cross-dressing or pretending to be a baby and Julie allows the family isolation to be invaded when she gets a boyfriend. The cracks soon spread as it would undoubtedly do so in a household run by teenagers and the novel ends on a rather bizarre note.

As the novel is quite short, I can’t say too much in this review without giving away the entire story but Ian McEwan’s debut novel is simply a marvelous and intriguing read and could possibly be one of the best first novels I’ve read. The word ‘polished’ comes to mind when I try to describe the writing. The repressive long, hot summer must be McEwan’s favourite environment to set his stories of the unusual suburbia in as he uses it again in Atonement but hot summers is undoubtedly one of those times that cause people to act in strange ways.

Review: “Tropic of Cancer” by Henry Miller [1934]

Well! Where do I begin with this? Set in Paris in the 1930s, this story follows an American expatriate as he struggles with being down and out and with finishing his first novel. It is, as it is largely known now, a fictionalised autobiography of Henry Miller’s own experiences during his time Paris. The narrator in the novel remains unnamed throughout except for one instance when he is called Henry.

The narrative is written in a stream of consciousness style as he recounts and takes us through his days. Broke and unemployed, he relies on the kindness (or stupidity) of his friends, acquaintances and strangers to stay sheltered and fed. It is quickly made known the narrator’s three top priorities – food, sex and writing. His days are filled with preoccupation of getting his next meal, his next lay and when he would finish his novel.

In between the detailing of his attempts to fulfill his top three priorities, the narrator also tends to go off on a tangent and rant about philosophy of the world and life. There is also a display of torn devotion to the cities of Paris, which the narrator clearly both adores and loathes, and New York, his home town. He admits to romanticising Paris, as do we all:

Paris is like a whore. From a distance she seems ravishing, you can’t wait until you have her in your arms. And five-minutes later you feel empty, disgusted with yourself. You feel tricked. – p. 211

Tropic of Cancer is a pretty intense read. It is also filled with contradictions. The narrator is, impossibly, simultaneously liked and hated. He is an ambiguous figure and remains detached and unemotional to everything, even his own poverty, except to his writing. The language is crude, and at times it may be considered misogynistic although we should remember that the book was a product of its time, but is constantly juxtaposed by comedic moments. There were numerous times on the train when I sniggered out loud. Miller’s, or the narrator’s, crude and rough language is contrasted against some very beautiful and rather poetic prose:

Imagine these bloody no-accounts going home from the concert with blood on their dickies!

Sleep is the keynote. No one is listening any more. Impossible to think and listen. Impossible to dream even when the music itself is nothing but a dream. – p. 84

And this is one of my most favourite passage in the book:

I have found God, but he is insufficient. I am only spiritually dead. Physically I am alive. Morally I am free. The world which I have departed is a menagerie.- p. 104

I enjoyed the book but I can’t say that it was an easy read. There is not a lot of reason to Miller’s narration as it basically just flows from story to rant then back to story. The diversions were a bit more difficult to handle and, at times, I felt like throwing the book across the room because I had no idea what the point was and was getting frustrated and a little bored. Having said that, even after I’ve finished the book (and reviewed it too!) I still don’t have much of an idea of what the book was about besides sex, food and writing. This may be a book that needs to be re-read in the future to fall into place. This might completely horrify some people, or delight many, but at times it felt like I was reading a grown up and very sexed up Holden Caulfield. But if you can get through the book, it is ultimately a very rewarding read.

Review: “The Garden Party and Other Stories” by Katherine Mansfield

Is mother right? … am I being extravagant? Perhaps it was extravagant. Just for a moment she had another glimpse of that poor woman and those little children, and the body being carried into the house. But it all seemed blurred, unreal, like a picture in the newspaper. I’ll remember it again after the party’s over, she decided.¬† – The Garden Party.

Since finishing this slim volume of a collection of Katherine Mansfield’s stories I finally understand why she is frequently called the master of short stories. Despite the slightness of the book, and that most stories are no longer than five pages, this collection packs a punch.

Beginning with the longer two stories, ‘At the Bay’ and the titular ‘The Garden Party’ sets the tone for this collection. Mansfield deals with a wide variety of themes that ranges from family relationships, life and death, love and the coming of age through quiet musings and monologues. Underlying themes for this selection of stories are social and class issues. Mansfield selects characters who are outsiders to explore social predicaments.

There is the strained young father (‘At the Bay) and a young girl’s dilemma of continuing a garden party after a poor man is run over down the street (‘The Garden Party’). There are the elderly spinster daughters who are finally attempting to make their own way in the world after their domineering father dies (‘The Daughters of the Late Colonel’) and a young man hoping to propose to a girl in a class above his (‘Mr and Mrs Dove’). Then there is the heart wrenching monologue of a maid’s hard life (‘Life of Ma Parker’), a young wife’s obsession in becoming part of the new bourgeois class (‘Marriage a la Mode’) and an elderly patriarch who is being emotionally shunned by his family after providing them with wealth (‘An Ideal Family’).

Each story is so vividly drawn and it is amazing that Mansfield manages to deftly create each character in such a small amount of space. Each story explores the way of life mainly set in one moment of a character’s day. This volume is a wonderful introduction to Mansfield’s work and something you can pick up and put down again easily. Perfect for musing on your thoughts after each story.