Sunday, August 10, 2014

How to Build a Girl Week THE END: “I don’t think I was here at all.”

I’ve been concerned about Johanna all along, of course, but I wasn’t truly worried until she started doing Kenny’s bad speed (“even Shane McGowan from the Pogues won’t take it”—yikes) in a bathroom stall. It seemed to Johanna to be the only remedy for her unhappiness after an offended bass player threw his drink on her. It seemed to me to be another suppression of her Self.

And she’s been doing a lot of suppressing throughout this book. Really, whenever she’s not with John Kite or her family, she’s not so much building a certain kind of girl as pretending to be that girl already, at the expense of actually getting to know herself. This is what I meant when I said (somewhere . . . in someone’s comment section?) that faking it until you make it can be a dangerous game if you play it too enthusiastically.

When I look back through Johanna’s sexual adventures, beginning with The Kisser, she almost seems to disappear from the book in those places. There’s no room for her there.
The thought I can’t have is “I don’t want to do this”—because how do I know if I don’t want to do this? I’m still terra-forming me. I’m learning so many new things about me, every day. Perhaps this is the day I find I am secretly a masochist. (p. 259)

As it turns out

And that’s a common theme in Johanna’s coming-of-age story. Almost nothing she has done to date has been for herself, because it was the best thing for her. We can argue that she wanted to have lots of sex and decided she would do that, but in actual practice . . . what is she getting out of any of this?
“All my sex is done by me, and is silent.” (p. 262)
Those are not the words of a sexually empowered woman.

She is so out of touch with herself and so lacking in agency that she becomes one of those girls who drunkenly kisses another girl solely for the benefit of a male onlooker. And she nearly becomes one of those girls who engages in a threesome to gain said male’s approval (“I order myself to be OK with this”).

And the compromises extend to other areas of her life, too. Did you guys know that Johanna once had secret dreams of being an academic? No, and I’ll venture no one in her life did either, because this is the first time she’s lowered her façade enough even to think about an alternate path to the one she’s heading down full tilt:
In another world—where I had not run away from school to earn money—I would have gone there, I think. My mock-exam results were high enough, and I would have left Wolverhampton and entered that intellectual Gormenghast, where there are no boys standing on street corners shouting at you, no men threating to put an ax in your dog’s head. (p. 268)
Fortunately, the night of the almost-threesome and melancholy thoughts on the Path Not Taken was also the night when Johanna found her agency.
I feel excitingly . . . free. Things were going to happen to me last night that I did not like—and I stopped them. I have never prevented my own doom before! I have never stood in the path of certain unhappiness and told myself—lovingly, like a mother to myself—No! This unhappiness will not suit you! Turn around and go another way! (p. 279)
Oh THERE you are, Johanna.

And while that’s not the end of Johanna’s pain, it is the beginning of true self-discovery, helped along by a supportive family (thank you, Caitlin, for that companionable conversation between Johanna and her mum) and a gentle musician in a fur cape who has some growing up of his own to do.

This has been a readalong hosted by Emily at As the Crowe Flies (and Reads!) and made possible by the lovely people at HarperCollins. YOU CAN HAVE THIS BOOK. Preorder it from Odyssey Books or your favorite indie bookseller. Imma go read it again now.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

How to Build a Girl Week 4: In which I hold forth on the subject of lady-plumbing

I’ve been relating a lot with Johanna throughout this book, but this week—this week she became my Patronus.

Here’s the thing, friends: Most women get 1 urinary tract or bladder infection (aka cystitis) in their lifetime, maybe a handful if they’re not careful. I’ve had . . . somewhere closer to 50?

I started getting them in my late teens, and anything could set one off. In college, I figured they were flaring up more often because I was drinking too much coffee and not enough water and getting so engrossed with my studies that I sometimes forgot to pee in a timely manner. And when I got married, hoo boy did I level up because of reasons—to monthly UTIs and even the occasional kidney infection. My mom tells me that the propensity for this affliction goes way back among the women in her family.


I feel as teenage werewolves must, the first time they explain the hereditary nature of lycanthropy to their adolescent peers, the night after something awful happened with the full moon and a friend’s cat.
"It’s passed down from my mother’s side," they would say, apologetically—collar still hanging from their mouth, displaying a small bell and a disc bearing the legend TIBBLES.
Caitlin, if you’re reading this, I have tried and failed for half my life to describe the very particular agony of such an infection, often to a concerned party on the other side of the bathroom door as I drink my 10th bottle of water and my legs go hopelessly tingly from sitting too long on the toilet. I have often considered investing in a cushioned, heated toilet seat. I started AND finished The Poisonwood Bible whilst sitting in a tub of scalding water. And I have never, ever, ever seen the humor in any of this, but I can't very well ignore it now, can I? Also, I can mark this passage and present the book to people by way of explanation before I disappear into the bathroom for 8 hours:
I begin my tinkle, and have the exciting chance to watch my face contort in sudden and total agony. HELLO. This piss is apparently made of boiling poison. Boiling poison, a billion Lilliputian arrows, and a wildly rotating whirligig, made of Satan's pinlike teeth.
Shhhh...pain is your home now.

I also really enjoyed the focus on Johanna and Krissi’s relationship in this section. When they hung out in Johanna’s room, bonding over music, it made me miss my brother. (Hi, Ryan, if you’re here! Sorry about when I talked about my bladder.) We never really had any discussions about music, as the elder Morrigan siblings do on this occasion, but some of my fondest memories of my brother come with a specific musical soundtrack: the day we hung out in his attic bedroom at my grandparents’ house, listening to Smashing Pumpkins and Rage Against the Machine and feeling grievously misunderstood; the times I snuck in to clean his room while he was out (cleaning is my love language, yo), singing along to his copy of No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom or Green Day’s Dookie; any number of occasions that warranted our top-of-the-lungs belting of songs by a Star Wars theme band called Twin Sister (WE DON’T SERVE YOUR KIND HERE, WE DON’T SERVE YOUR KIND).

But aside from these two points of personal significance that I spent all my time talking about this week, Johanna was really busy in this section getting her first kiss and then kissing all the kisses, pretending to be sexually liberated, writing brazen letters to John Kite (who's still wonderful, BY the way), making poignant statements about the nature of cynicism and the most important aspect of sex (“You get a whole person to yourself, for the first time since you were a baby. Someone who is looking at you—just you—and thinking about you, and wanting you, and you haven’t even had to lie at the bottom of the stairs and pretend you’re dead to get them to do it.”), making oblivious comments to her obviously gay brother about the Bee Gees being so gay and how if there were any gay people in Wolverhampton they would probably be shot . . . very busy INDEED.

All that’s left now is to finish the book, and I simultaneously cannot wait and am so sad to see it end.

This continues to be a readalong hosted by Emily at As the Crowe Flies (and Reads!) and made possible by the lovely people at HarperCollins. Look, you. Stop mucking about and preorder the book from Odyssey Books or your favorite indie bookseller.

Monday, July 28, 2014

How to Build a Girl Week 3: “A chrysalis is hung in the dark.”

This week's low came when the hammer finally dropped and the Morrigan family’s benefits were suspended pending an investigation into their situation. This can only mean that their meddling neighbor took it upon herself to report Dadda for washing the car that one day.

Oh the damage wrought by misguided do-gooders

The family income will drop by 11 percent until the powers that be determine whether they qualify for continued assistance.
Eleven percent is not very much—but, when you are very poor, it may form the bedrock of your survival.
And now you are standing on so much less than you were before. You are unstable. You are liable to fall.
Johanna reminded her parents that she'll be getting some money from the reviews she’s written and can help supplement that deficit. But the elder Morrigans put on their Responsible Parent hats and insisted that she open a savings account and put aside half of everything she earns (“You don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, Johanna”). This was a redeeming moment for Johanna’s parents and further evidence, I think, that they're just people, trying to do their best and occasionally succeeding.

As for the high, Johanna’s trip to Dublin to interview John Kite was a doozy.

Let's DO.

That was a really fantastic day. But she’s fallen HARD for this man who’s really just a motherless boy and still perhaps a little too old for her. And we don’t yet know whether he’s interested in her the same way she’s interested in him. Or if we even want him to be. Because as sincere as he seems (“Duchess, this is one of those great afternoons where you make a friend for life, isn’t it? We just seem to be . . . a lot the same.”), he’s not the picture of stability and that fur coat probably smells not-good.

But I think the most important thing about him as he relates to Johanna’s story is that he’s the type of person who allows others to be just who they are. And Johanna is getting drunk on that, because she’s not used to that level of acceptance, to the idea of someone (a man, no less) being unreservedly delighted by who she is.
John Kite was the first person I’d ever met who made me feel normal. That when I talked "too much," it was not the point where you walked away, going, "You’re weird, Johanna," or "Shut up, Johanna,”—but that that was when the conversation actually got good. The more ridiculous things I said—the more astonishing things I confessed—the more he roared with laughter, or slapped the table and said: "That is exactly how it is, you outrageous item."
I felt some of Johanna's giddiness as I was reading that chapter because it took me back to my own youth, when I was equally starved for male attention and uncertain whether I was even acceptable to the opposite sex. I know how much a day like that would have meant to me then.

I also remember how much of a naïve idiot I was at her age, and I’m in constant amazement that my crippling insecurity, paired with a naturally trusting nature, didn’t land me in a shallow grave before I reached adulthood.

What comes to mind is one particular concert I went to when I was about 16. There was no stage, so the band were on the same level as the audience, and we were all just standing in a circle around them. I was front and center on the inner ring of that circle, and the guitarist/singer, during an instrumental portion of one of the songs, showboated around a little and landed directly in front of me, where he lingered for quite some time, pressed right up against me, his front to my front. I remember that he looked me straight in the eye the whole time he was standing there, and the back of his pick hand as he played the guitar was quite literally in my crotch. But instead of recoiling at being singled out for a ritual groping by a man in his mid-20s who was a complete stranger to me, I was flattered. The sweaty musician had picked me.

The thing about hearts for eyes is that they impair your vision.

After the show, I somehow ended up in the band’s RV. (I KNOW.) But in an absurd twist of fate, in their offstage lives these guys were sober vegans and perfect gentlemen. They sat me at the pull-down table with a pile of potatoes and a knife. They (literally) armed me against a threat I hadn’t even registered.

So Past Me and Present Me are arguing with each other as I read Johanna’s adventures in Dublin and London, in pubs and at parties. I understand both sides of that coin now. Sure, every night out seems brimming with excitement and possibilities. But I see a little too much of my foolish streak in her. And then there's this:
I have made my notes, now, you see, on how to build a girl, and put her out in the world. Everyone drinks. Everyone smokes. . . . You come into a room and say things, like you’re in a play. You fake it till you make it. You discuss sex like it’s a game. You have adventures. You don’t quote musicals. Whatever everyone else is doing, you do that. You say things to be heard, rather than to be right.

Just hoping for the best at this point
This continues to be a readalong hosted by Emily at As the Crowe Flies (and Reads!) and made possible by the lovely people at HarperCollins. Are you convinced you need this book? Of course you are. Preorder from Odyssey Books or your favorite indie bookseller.

Monday, July 21, 2014

How to Build a Girl Week 2: “They’re making new kinds of girls in America.” YEAH they are.

This week’s reading brought us additional disheartening information about life in the Morrigan house, but also FEMINISM.

Johanna told us about her parents’ issues, but now we’re beginning to see the bare facts for ourselves, without the benefit of a green Instagram filter (joke stolen from Rayna).

Mrs. Morrigan isn’t too deeply ensconced in her postpartum stupor to interject a remark or three on Johanna’s weight, comparing her, in her all-black wardrobe, to a big fat crow and quipping that she doesn’t need drugs because she has a whole plate of sausage rolls. In front of company she says these things. To a 14-year-old girl with body-image issues.

Got the whole negative self-talk thing covered, thanks.

And those of us who delighted in Johanna’s dad last week had a particularly hard go of it this week. He is, in fact, deserving of the benefits he receives. It doesn’t even seem like he’s gaming the system now that we can see how severe his injuries were. And the fall that broke his body changed his personality as well. It made him bitter over unachieved goals and mean on the days when the pain is the worst. And while I can pity him for the unexpected turn his life took, I mostly pity his kids, who have to navigate around the landmine plunked down in front of their TV.

But Dadda is there. And although his advice has been harsh, it’s gotten Johanna off her arse and into action at two critical moments in her life already. This last time, the message came loud and clear from a place of anger and frustration (probably because he was thinking of himself and his unobtained dreams…and worrying that she’d repeat his mistakes), but he’s right. If you want to be a writer, then stop talking and start writing. If you want to reinvent yourself, then get to it already.

Fake it till yow make it, kidder.

Now that Johanna is entering the boys’ club of music journalism, she’s becoming more aware of gender dynamics in the outside world. Despite growing up with Krissi (“He is on the bed knitting himself a bobble hat whilst listening to an Agatha Christie audiotape from the library. A big, pale boy hunched over a tiny pair of needles. Krissi becomes very angry when you tell him that knitting is for girls.”), she knows there are certain places where women don’t feel welcome (also some places where a bold chapeau isn’t appreciated, but that’s not till later). Her first visit to the record store confirms that notion.

No worries, though. Mouthy American lady-rockers to the rescue.
All my life, I’ve thought that if I couldn’t say anything boys found interesting, I might as well shut up. But now I realize there was that whole other, invisible half of the world—girls—that I could speak to instead. A whole other half equally silent and frustrated, just waiting to be given the smallest starting signal—the tiniest starter culture—and they would explode into words, and song, and action, and relieved, euphoric cries of “Me too! I feel this too!”

And it may be due to this revelation—courtesy of Courtney Love and Bikini Kill and Riot Grrrl—that Johanna is able to hold her own during her first meeting with the men of Disc & Music Echo in their office that is “essentially built out of trousers, confidence, and testicles.”

Things are leaving off fairly well for Dolly Wilde this week. Let’s all enjoy it while it lasts.

This continues to be a readalong hosted by Emily at As the Crowe Flies (and Reads!) and made possible by the lovely people at HarperCollins. Are you convinced you need this book? Of course you are. Preorder from Odyssey Books or your favorite indie bookseller.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

We Learn Nothing: “I’ve demonstrated an impressive resilience in the face of valuable life lessons.”

My first introduction to Tim Kreider was on a book podcast where he was the guest author. Right away he told a story about a performance art exhibit he attended at the MOMA. The piece featured a live, nude woman, and the art made eye contact with passers-by, probably to send a message about the power of gaze. Well Tim was no match for it, and he fled the exhibit. But on his second visit, he decided he would not quail and planted himself in front of the art, making eye contact with the model for 20 minutes. This connection was broken only when she stepped down to be replaced by a different model. In this interview, Tim said he felt as though he knew the woman intimately after that experience, better than he would if they had gone on a date, which led to a conversation about the inherently empty nature of first-date conversations.

A noble pursuit.

I paused the podcast and put his book on hold at the library. I could tell that Tim was, as the protagonist of Sara Levine’s Treasure Island!!! might put it, “a noticing kind of person.” And I wanted to see what else he had noticed.

We Learn Nothing is a collection of essays intermixed with occasional cartoons (Tim’s also a satirical cartoonist). There’s no theme per se, but each essay begins on the premise of a personal anecdote and then almost imperceptibly pans out to reveal a larger, shared human experience.

One of my favorites, “When They’re Not Assholes,” starts out as Tim’s fairly predictable jaunt crashing a Tea Party rally (“At first glance, the crowd at the Tax Day rally unhelpfully confirmed all my snottiest liberal stereotypes about conservatives.”) but ends up as an insightful analysis of the enmity between two political extremes.
Red and Blue bash each other with the hysterical homophobia of the closeted because we recognize in each other our most loathed secret selves. We’re the Red States’ feckless, ineffectual, faggy compassionate side that they like to think they’ve successfully quashed, just as they . . . are our more credulous and aggressive selves, whom we’re too inhibited to own up to. . . . We are one another’s political Shadows. We may hate each other, but let’s at least quit pretending we hate hating each other; we love hating each other.

Taking on a completely different subject, “An Insult to the Brain” provides a literary analysis of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, interweaves that with a mother/son story, and concludes it all with a boy-and-his-dog moment that made the backs of my eyeballs prickly.

And the other essays diverge just as widely as these two in their subject matter.

This book found me right in the middle of a season where interacting with those I don’t agree with is so distressing that I flinch at exchanges that could make me a more informed and compassionate person. Either my emotions get in the way of my reasoning skills or I have one too many drinks and make a spectacular argument that no one hears because bars are NOISY and drunk people don’t usually care about birth control in more than just the immediate sense that it might come in handy in a few hours. (What? No . . . that didn’t just happen to me. I like to be specific with my examples, is all.)

I didn't always agree with Tim Kreider, but I could always relate with him. AND I was able to discuss portions of his Tea Party essay with my politically conservative mother without either of us yelling or crying.

Right. Good. Baby steps.

Monday, July 14, 2014

How to Build a Girl, Week 1: I will NEVER outgrow Gilbert Blythe, I tell you

Well we’re off and running with How to Build a Girl, and Caitlin Moran is here to serve as our tour guide through the teenage retrospective. First on the agenda: wanking.

While I have some reservations about discussing my own sexual hinterland on the Internet, I would hazard a guess that there is no woman (or man) who can’t relate to Johanna’s personal . . . habits. You don’t soon forget what it feels like to be in the throes of puberty.
My hormones are rioting like a zoo on fire. There’s a mandrill with its head ablaze unlocking other animal’s cages and screaming, “OH MY GOD—FREAK OUT!”
Yep, that's pretty much how I remember it.

I still feel a little jolt when I watch certain movies from my youth. And I think that’s why we list those movies among our favorites no matter how old we get (it certainly can’t be based on individual merit, because for every 10 Things I Hate About You, there’s a Ladybugs). We want to remember how it felt to be young and constantly fighting that unbidden blaze in our underpants. For SOME reason.

Me, the first time I saw Newsies.

But there are other aspects of teenage-girlhood that Moran wants us to remember, too, such as the way we took on burdens far beyond our ability to bear, and how we believed we were so much more mature than everyone else thought, if only they would let us prove it for once.

Johanna actually does have to contend with some serious Life Stuff. She is one of five children. Her father is an alcoholic with delusions of musical grandeur whose disability benefits keep the family afloat. Her mother has severe postpartum depression after giving birth to twins (“Currently we don’t have a mother. Just a space where one once was”). Johanna has never been kissed and is not optimistic that she ever will be, because she is missing one crucial requirement, she thinks.
I want to be beautiful so much—because it will keep me safe, and keep me lucky, and it’s too exhausting not to be.
Her parents aren’t exactly well-adjusted human beings or the most effective parents, but their love for each other and their family is evident. They aren’t villains. And their interactions have been one of my favorite aspects of the book so far.
“Angie!” he yelled. “Where are my trousers?” 
My mother shouted back from the bedroom, “You haven’t got any!” 
“I must have!” my father shouted back. 
My mother stayed silent. He was going to have to work this one out for himself.
Caitlin captures that feeling of invisibility so common to teenage girls. It’s a feeling that drives Johanna to carry on a running joke in which she pretends to have died quite suddenly, once posing as if she had fallen down the stairs and broken her neck just so her parents would come over and have a look at her, because knowing they were looking made her feel safe and loved. It sounds pathological, but there are few things more natural.

I, myself, often packed a bag and then hid in the backyard until my mom noticed I was gone and set out in search of me (she always found me immediately because I badly wanted to be found). It was a thoughtless cruelty to my parents, but it seemed logical when every cell in my body was crying out for confirmation that I was loved. That's a fun side effect of puberty: You feel everything 100 times more acutely than regular people, which leads to off-the-charts bouts of melodrama and serious hate-feelings toward the very people you count on to love you unconditionally.


When I wasn’t "hiding" under a bush, hugging my Barbie duffel bag and hoping it didn't rain before my mom found me (or that it did rain because then I could feel truly forlorn and cast-off), I channeled my Feelings into what I believed was truly brilliant poetry. This one is a little more self-satisfied than Johanna’s poem about her dog, but I think we were basically on the same wavelength.
“The Real Me," by Megan Speer (1999, age 14)
I am plain, I am simple, I am no beauty,
And even for those with much heart, it is plain for the judging eye to see.
No one ever sees deep enough to see the REAL me.
The real me lies hidden, deep within my being. 
The real me is shy and compassionate, but not without fault. 
It is loving and caring, but not without sin. 
It hurts when you hurt, it is glad when you’re glad, 
But even the real me overlooks the beauty within. 
The beauty in you. The beauty in those who love, trust, care, and feel. 
The reality in anyone is difficult to see. 
The reality in you, the reality in me. 
But if you look hard and carefully, you see, you believe, you trust.
You finally see the REAL me.
Angsty girl-poets UNITE.

This post is part of a readalong hosted by Emily at As the Crowe Flies and Reads and made possible by the lovely people at HarperCollins. Are you convinced you need this book? If yes, preorder from Odyssey Books or your favorite indie bookseller. If not, tune in next week. I've only just begun to convince you.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

San Francisco: Because I missed my Hufflepuff scarf

Do I talk about traveling on this blog? Not really. BUT LOOK AT THE BOOKS I BOUGHT.

These turned out to be eerily prescient re: the ensuing events of our trip,
complete with a fight between two men in a grassy field.

This was my third visit to San Francisco, and it came just in time for us to escape the heat wave currently enveloping Los Angeles in its smoggy embrace. Of course, I quickly forgot how much I dislike being hot when I was reminded how much I dislike being cold.

We drove up to one of the highest points in the city, called Twin Peaks (because of two hill-type protrusions, not because of David Lynch), where you can sometimes get a good view of the surrounding area. I say sometimes because when you go in a direction that is up in San Francisco, you will usually find yourself in the middle of a cloud.

The melancholy, dream-sequence kind

But if you don't mind being physically assaulted by the wind, the fog might dissipate just long enough to give you a view that makes you feel like a Care Bear.

Caring is what counts.

We also did a liiiittle bit of drinking. Our favorite bar in the Mission is one block over from my favorite bookstore in the Mission, both with cat in their names. At one I can get brand-new paperbacks for under $8 or used books for way cheap, and at the other I can get a PBR (shut it) and a Bulleit bourbon for $7 total. So far, I have succeeded in not getting the two places mixed up.

I'll have the new David Mitchell, please,
with a Joan Didion. No ice.

We went to another bar, Dogpatch Saloon in a neighborhood called Dogpatch. There's no graffiti on the tables there and the bathroom has a mirror and hand soap, which is FINE, if you like highfalutin' accommodations with your alcohol. The real perk is that people bring their dogs into the bar. So I spent most of the night thinking of excuses to leave our table and make meaningful eye contact with a dog until it abandoned its owner and allowed me to hug it with my whole body.

Fourth of July itself was a bit of a dud. We didn't plan ahead well enough to complete our obsessively ritualistic, three-day viewing of Independence Day, so we tried to watch the whole thing that morning. As if cramming arrival, attack, and fighting back into one day wasn't bad enough, we only had time to get through July 3, which does not end on a victorious note for humanity. That set a bad tone for the rest of the day.


We went to a friend's backyard BBQ in the afternoon and then dove headfirst into the maelstrom to see the professional fireworks over the bay. I've heard good things about this particular display, but I can't tell you from experience that any of them are true. Thanks to a heavy fog, what we saw was basically a very expensive thunderstorm with occasional twinkles.

I had to wait until Monday to see Tika because she had acute bronchitis all weekend. (The NERVE of that woman's bronchial tubes. I mean, really.) While we were waiting to meet up with her, we strolled around AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants.

But then Tika and I locked eyes across a busy intersection, and I hummed "Chariots of Fire" quietly to myself as she ran across the street in heels, narrowly avoiding death by Smart Car.

We drove her home and topped off the trip with Pho and kitties and peering coyly over books.