Shelf-Life

Books, reading & writing


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Not what kind of girl?

Proviso: Before reading the below post it is important that you know its author (i.e. me) harbours feelings of resentment, envy and jealousy towards any person in two (or more) of the following categories:

  1. Young people
  2. Successful people (where success is measured by external factors such as wealth)
  3. Successful people (where success is measured by internal factors such as self-confidence)
  4. People who can survive on the fruits of their own creativity
  5. People who have a clear sense of their life goals and have pursued these goals through hard work and dedication.

‘Not that kind of Girl’ by Lena Dunham – the 28 year old creator, producer and star of the HBO series Girls, winner of two Golden Globes and now bestselling author – is definitely not the kind of book I would choose for myself. I tend to avoid biographies. I’m not sure why. Most likely it is bitterness (no-one wants to write a book about me – harrumph). So I approached this one with some caution. However, I also approached with a sense of curiosity. The book is made up of a series of essays, diary extracts and anecdotes focusing on the author’s growth from awkward young girl to awkward teenage girl and on to awkward (but successful) woman. Having been none of those things myself, I was interested to see if this would give me new insight into the mysterious world of woman/girlhood.

So did it? In short, no.

In long, I feel like this book has been cast as something it is not (whether this was by me or generally I am not sure). The title, the author’s style and her focus, suggested a book with a distinct gender divide: here are some uniquely female experiences that have shaped my development as a person. And yet to me, the feelings of awkwardness, of being lost and unsure of yourself, of trying at once to prove yourself and at the same time worrying you will be exposed as some kind of fraud, are less related to gender and more to age. This is a book about being in your twenties and not knowing what to do with your life, or how you ended up where you are. Boy or girl doesn’t really matter. It is on this level that I related to it.

The one bug-bear I did have with it, which I can’t remember having with any other similar book (although note above my avoidance of biographies), is that a lot of the time I simply didn’t believe the author’s stories. Dunham herself admits at points that earlier stories may not have happened exactly as she said, and gives altered versions later. However, by introducing doubt into the truthfulness of the telling she undermined my confidence in her side of the story. To expose oneself on the page is a difficult and brave act – one that I certainly wouldn’t be prepared to do – but I can’t help feeling there is another book behind this one, one that contains the truth and I would have rather read that version than the one I did.

Next up is Margaret Atwood’s  Oryx and Crake.

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The Poisonwood Bible

The first book of my female authors challenge is finished and if the objective of the exercise was to better understand the female experience (although I’m not entirely sure if that is the objective) then in Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible I got a lot of bang for my buck. The story of the Prices 1959 missionary expedition from the state of Georgia to the village of Kilanga, in the heart of the Belgian Congo, is told in an interweaving series of first person reflections by the five women in the family (mother Orleanna and her four daughters Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth-May). Whisked up in the storm of the religious zeal of their husband/father Nathan Price, they find themselves stuck in a land they don’t understand and a culture they cannot comprehend. Told against the backdrop of Congolese independence, the charting of the coming of age and loss of innocence of the Price girls is reflected in the turmoil and struggle for identity taking place in the nation around them.

There is a great deal I could say about what is good about this book (because there is a great deal of good) however I am trying to avoid writing reviews per se on this blog. So instead I’m going to write about what this book made me think and made me want to do.

Let’s take the second task first. This book made me want to learn more about the Congo. The extensive bibliography presented at the end of the book shows the depth of research Kingsolver completed while writing her book – covering history, language, culture and religion – and while I admit to rushing onto Wikipedia on finishing the book rather than down to the library to pick up one of the listed works, I rushed nonetheless.

Now, first things second, what did the book make me think: That if my objective is to find truths about ‘the female experience’ I’m not going to find them, just as I wouldn’t find truths about ‘the male experience’ in books written by men. I may however find truths about people’s experiences in books written by people (i.e. books).  [check me being all profound and stuff]