Review: Animal by Sara Pascoe

animalThe Premise: Sara Pascoe is a comedian; if you’re in the UK and like me, are subjected to panel shows by your taste-impaired partner, you’ve probably been forced to watch Eight out of Ten Cats or that one about lying and been relieved to see that she’s on because she is, unlike most of the participants, an actual human and very funny Animal: An Autobiography of a Female Body is an exploration of femininity, sexuality, relationships and why it is wrong to have to pay a tax on tampons. Sara Pascoe draws on her own experiences of disastrous relationships and deeply felt embarrassments to supplement the science bits.

Thoughts: my main thought on Animal is “I completely love this book.” Sara Pascoe is hilarious and astute, voicing many of the concerns and thoughts that I have (and any sensible human has) about sexism, attitudes towards women and the historical roots of these. Additionally, I want to be her best friend. I feel strongly that the universe wants this to happen. We are nearly the same age; we are both from Essex; we both got rejected by Cambridge university; like me, she spends too much time thinking about Sylvia Plath: what more does any friendship need? With a book like this, it’s important to be able to relate to the voice of the person imparting their wisdom and experience, and Pascoe’s voice is by turns delightfully irreverent and deeply heartfelt. The book is also very, very interesting, encompassing history, politics, anthropology and biology in its drive towards giving a complete picture of what it is to be a woman.

I’d compare Animal to Aziz Anzari’s Modern Romance in its approach to the subject at hand; Pascoe, like Anzari, has researched her topic in masses of detail and presents it in a digestible and accessible way, often relating complex or disturbing details in a way that remains readable (for example, detailed explanations of female genitalia, complete with diagrams). Both books also successfully juggle serious information with humour; I laughed a lot while reading Animal, mainly at the points when Pascoe related a cringeworthy story from her romantic history and I, in turn, related to it a bit too much. She’s very open about relationships, mental health and, notably, the abortion she had as a teenager, and I am full of admiration towards her for putting all of these things down on paper for the world to read. Aside from the comparison to Modern Romance, I’d describe Animal as a Girl Up for grown-ups (you can read my thoughts on that book by Laura Bates here if you like); in some senses, it’s a call to arms, with Pascoe including an appendix of charities and organisations the reader might wish to become involved with.

Animal is divided into three main sections: Love, Body and Consent. It’s impossible not to relate to all three, whilst at the same time feeling outraged by some of the injustices Pascoe discusses. For example, although we might all know that it wasn’t that long ago that the law didn’t recognise rape within marriage, it’s really pretty shocking that it was 1991 before UK courts changed the law. Pascoe also includes a discussion of the Ched Evans case and I related to her feelings about this and what it says more broadly about attitudes towards rape and towards women in our supposedly civilised and enlightened society. When Pascoe talks about starting fights about these issues in pubs, I nodded vigorously and wondered whether this is why I don’t get invited to the pub any more.

In Conclusion: I have probably made this book sound far more serious and bossy than it is. It is these things, and justifiably so, but it’s also warm and hilarious and something I now want to buy for every woman I know so we can start a revolution. When Pascoe describes her body insecurities, her dodgy relationships, her rage at the world, I feel like she completely gets it; she talks a huge amount of sense alongside I huge amount of humour. How can a book manage to be so vital and profound, yet also so bloody hilarious? I don’t know. But Animal is.

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Review: The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

the-thing-around-your-neckThe Premise: The Thing Around Your Neck is Adichie’s short story collection. If you’ve read her novels, the themes will be familiar: navigating familial and romantic relationships in Nigeria with a backdrop of post-colonial politics, as well as incisive ribbing of white condescension towards the whole concept of Africa. Marriage features heavily, with stories focusing on situations like a young woman leaving Nigeria for an arranged marriage and finding that her overly-Americanised husband is not what she thought, as well as wider cultural conflicts between Nigeria and America, not to mention the cultural divide between the different nations of Africa.

Thoughts: I am officially in love with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s writing. She’s so incisive, so uncompromising; you could pick up any of the stories here having read her other works and immediately know the writing was by Adichie, and her unique voice really appeals to me. Not that any of this is original; there are plenty of more qualified people out there who can rave about the tremendous worth and readability of this novelist’s work.

An art in which Adichie is highly skilled is the framing of individual experience within a broader cultural and political context. The tragedy of a mother losing her child in The American Embassy is juxtaposed with the oppression of the media in Nigeria, while On Monday of Last Week offers an intriguing contrast of child-rearing ideas in different cultures when it comes to discipline (something that also came up in NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names, which I read right before this). I don’t know how to explain my love for Adichie’s work without making some kind of annoying or misguided comment on learning about other cultures or something equally mundane, but I do find her representation of the flaws and triumphs of both Nigeria and the west really fascinating. I particularly enjoyed Jumping Monkey Hill, the only story in this collection which places representatives from different African nations together to highlight what divides as well as unites them. The patronising white dude in that particular story seems too awful to believe in, until you flashback to November 2016 and an old, white guy mansplaining racism to Adichie on live television. I could almost hear her eye-roll as I was reading.

Much as I love a really good short story, I tend to struggle with settling down to read a full collection by a particular author. I’m far more likely to enjoy an anthology, with stories by a range of writers (like the excellent YA collections Slasher Boys and Monster Girls and I’ll Be Home for Christmas); in a set by a single author, I feel that the quality is usually far more erratic. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie completely wrecks this philosophy; not only is every story here sublime, they all strike the delicate balance between giving the reader enough closure to provide a satisfying reading experience and leaving you wanting a little more.

In Conclusion: look, it’s just brilliant, okay? Which is a very obvious thing to say, but it’s true. The whole thing is sublime. I am now saving Half of a Yellow Sun, the last Adichie book for me to read, in the manner that you might save a really good bar of chocolate for a day when you really need it. Sadly, my experience of this is that I usually end up eating the chocolate three seconds after buying it, so I will probably have run out of Adichie’s wonderful work by tomorrow.

As a side note, if you share my love for Chimamanda, may I take the liberty of recommending Ayobami Adebayo’s Stay With Me, which comes out in March, as well as Yaa Gyasi’s glorious Homegoing? Trust me: if you haven’t read them, you should.

Review: Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

norwegian-woodThe Premise: Toru Watanabe is a pretty standard, largely sexist dude at college in Tokyo. Not that he’s actually bothered about that; he’s clearly one of those intensely annoying people who does no work at all for three years and then gets a 2:1. He spends a lot of time moping about over girls, being sexist and receiving intimate pleasures which are described in frankly excruciating detail. Also, nothing really happens.

Thoughts: seriously, what in the name of Lucifer is this book actually about? Why is it popular? In the endnote, I learned that Murakami left Japan after Norwegian Wood was published, because it made him so amazingly famous and popular. Did it though? Or did he have to move because all literate people and anyone who objects to seven thousand references to oral sex in a book were camped outside his house waving placards?

Basically, I think this is one of the most annoying books I’ve ever read. It’s ridiculously repetitive and the only things that happen are cringeworthy sex scenes and masses of people killing themselves. Probably because Toru is such a crushing bore. Toru is a ridiculous character; I felt like Murakami wants him to be a Holden Caulfield type, but really his love of The Great Gatsby is ironic because Toru is much more like Nick Carraway: responding to the comparatively exciting lives of other people while doing very little himself.

I was going to have a rant about the presentation of women in Norwegian Wood, but it’s not like Murakami does men any favours either; when Toru and his stupid, misogynist friend joked about swapping girls, I wanted to throw the book at my own head to hopefully knock myself out and take a break from reading. Toru is completely obsessed with his dead friend’s girlfriend, Naoko, in literally the creepiest way imaginable; at one point, he’s spying on her while she sleeps and, by an amazing coincidence, she chooses that moment to show her naked body and Toru, in a display that should put him in prison rather than in his own book, says something repulsive about her flesh being like a newborn’s and isn’t that really hot? Umm, no. Please report to your nearest secure facility.

In Conclusion: I remain very annoyed by this book. I read Kafka on the Shore a few years ago and remember enjoying it, so I now don’t know whether I was experiencing some sort of psychotic episode when I read it or whether Norwegian Wood is just a really, really bad book. Wait, I do know. It’s a really bad book.

Review: Saint Death by Marcus Sedgwick

saint death.pngThe Premise: Arturo lives in a shack near Mexico’s border with the USA, with no tangible hope of a better future. When his friend Faustino reappears after several months’ absence, it is with a dangerous request; having stolen from his gangster boss, Faustino needs Arturo to win a card game to help him repay the debt before it’s discovered, because the consequences will be a painful death. A large part of the novel centres on this card game and the catastrophic decisions Arturo makes in the pursuit of money and, with it, an escape.

Thoughts: the opening chapters of Saint Death are quite extraordinary; Sedgwick begins by describing “a girl floating in the river,” whose death will be dismissed by the police as “just another wetback…drowned while trying to cross the river.” It’s a brutal way to begin a story which only gets more horrendous in its subject matter. From here, the narrative moves to describing the area of Anapra as looking like “a three year old god three together some cardboard boxes and empty coffee tins and Coke bottles in the sandpit of the Chihuahuan desert, and then forget it. Left it to its own devices.” It’s a starkly effective way to introduce a merciless landscape and it means that, by the time we meet Arturo, we’re already aware of the challenges he faces. With current events as they are, it’s a spookily prescient novel, forcing to the surface the terror of illegal immigration, with characters transported to “El Norte” only to be forced to act as drug mules, while life on the other side of the border is an endless cycle of death and destitution. It’s not the cheeriest book I’ve read.
So the setting and background are astonishingly realised. The vastness of this cultural and political backdrop means that Arturo’s story seems incongruously small, but it presumably represents that of many desperate people in real life. The story is simple, really; he needs money, but then he gets greedy and things get very scary. There’s a horrible sense of inevitability to events once Arturo has demonstrated his appalling decision-making skills, but then the fate of everyone in Anapra seemed predestined at the start.
Aside from the harrowing nature of the plot and its context, Sedgwick really immersed me in the culture of Anapra, particularly in the superstitions surrounding Santa Muerta, or Saint Death. I love to read something that shows me a completely different culture, and Saint Death certainly did that.

In Conclusion: it’s fair to say that Saint Death is a somewhat depressing read, but, in putting a human face on the massive issues of immigration and inequality, it’s supremely effective. I found Sedgwick’s writing extraordinary in places, even in describing the most horrific circumstances. It’s a sobering but very worthwhile read, and it says a lot about our world that you would probably think it was a fictional dystopia if you didn’t watch the news.