July 28, 2014

How to Build a Girl Readalong, Part IV: First Love, Pre-Internet Fangirling, and Crushing Poverty

It's Monday, which means it's time for the weekly readalong post for Caitlin Moran's How to Build a Girl.  A big thank you to the wonderful Emily over at As the Crowe Flies (and Reads!) and HarperCollins.  You can find the rest of this week's posts here.

Note: this week's post will contain spoilers for the third section of the novel.


I was not over-the-moon about last week's section, but this week really delivered.  Johanna falls in love!  Dolly Wilde is resurrected, and with red hair!  Her worst fears are realized!  There is teeth-pulling and kissing!  (Not at the same time.)  It's the 90s!  You can bring a full pint of Guinness straight from a pub and onto a plane!

You will be shocked and delighted.  

First things first:  John Kite.  When we last left Johanna, she was heading to Ireland to interview this elusive songwriting fellow.

Confession:  At the end of last week's section I googled 'John Kite' because I figured this was just one more 90s musical reference that was flying over my head.  And the first result that came up was a musician!  So Caitlin Moran has led me to listen to Cole Porter solo piano covers and wonder seriously about the musical consistency of the novel — if the editors at D&ME are so into classic broadway, why did none of them get her Annie joke??

But fortunately, John Kite turned out to be a completely fictional musician.*
John.  He was not a beautiful boy, nor a tall one.  He was round, like a barrel, in a shabby brown suit — and his hair was neither one color nor the other. His face was slightly crushed, and his hands shook a lot for a man of twenty-four — although, as he put it later, "In dog-years, my liver is sixty-eight."  He looked like Richard Burton, full of song.  [132]
Johanna is in love.  He brings her on stage while he plays a show, and the music moves her to shameless, snotty tears.  The night she meets him, she sleeps in his bathtub, covered in his motley fur coat.  When she flies back to Wolverhampton, she receives a letter from him ("Oh thank God thank God thank God, I think — I am not going to die having never received a letter." [143]) and progresses to the final stage of teenage love: she papers her bedroom wall with images of him, and writes a gushy article listing all the things she adores about him.  She says he is "more important than The Beatles." 

It's okay, Johanna, we've all been there.  But because this is the early 90s and the internet isn't A Thing yet, instead of posting it somewhere she can maybe get some commiserating comments from other sadsack teen girls in love (see: geocities, livejournal, tumblr), she sends it to be published in D&ME.  

So, after that happens, Johanna doesn't get a call from the editor of D&ME for a while, but she has more important things to worry about.  There is an investigation, and her family's benefits are cut by 11 percent, which is a huge blow to their already-desperate financial situation:
Eleven percent, by way of contrast to this utter ruin, seems ... manageable?  After all, if I cut off 11 percent of my hair, I'd barely notice.  Eleven percent isn't so bad, is it?  The difference here, however, is between the math of people on a "comfortable" income, and people who are on the very edge.  There are no investments to cash in, to tide you over this 11 percent dip  — no bonds, savings, or shares.  There are no "little luxuries" to cut back on, like going to the hairdressers, or a subscription to a magazine. [...] And there's no one we can borrow from — for one of the truths about the poor is that they tend only to know other poor people, who also couldn't afford an 11 percent dip, and can't subsidize ours.  [149-150]
I feel like this quote is too heartbreaking to follow with a GIF.  Ugh.  A lot of sad bits follow, like how some men come and take away their television, and Johanna breaks out because she's eating grilled flour cakes soaked in margarine all the time (supplemented with boiled cabbage and whatever the hell "salad cream" is).  And poor little Lupin has five of his teeth pulled because they've rotted through.

At first, when I read this part, I wanted to reach into the book and strangle Violet for informing on them.  But then I realized that, even though it was only about 100 pages ago in the book, it's been about two and half years since Johanna let slip to her nosy neighbor that they were on benefits.  So, did Violet let that little morsel simmer for an exceedingly long time, or is the British welfare department just really, horribly slow at following up on neighborhood narc tips?

I'm going to end this sobfest of a post with this last quote, in which Johanna impresses John Kite, the love of her young life, by casually smoking with him at a pub:
"You smoking now, Duchess?" he asks. 
"I thought it was time for me to get another hobby," I say with a daring air, trying to light it. 
Kite leans forward.  "It's just, most people smoke them the other way round." [183]
I cackled so loudly at that bit last night that I woke up my cat.  He was not so amused, but I was.

See you all next week!


How to Build a Girl will be released in September.   You can pre-order it through the wonderful Odyssey Books, or through your local bookseller.

*No offense to Cole Porter (or IRL John Kite — you have a lovely voice).

July 21, 2014

How to Build a Girl Readalong, Part III: Constructing the Walls out of Sass, Bad Decisions, and Shockingly Good Fortune

It's Monday, which means it's time for the weekly GIF-laden post about Caitlin Moran's How to Build a Girl.  A big thank you to the wonderful Emily over at As the Crowe Flies (and Reads!) and HarperCollins.  You can find the rest of this week's posts here.

Note: this week's post will contain spoilers for the second part of the novel (though most of this week's plot is already laid out in the back cover summary.)


When we left Johanna last week, she had proclaimed that she was going to have to die.  Of course, she, being a melodramatic teenager and us still having several weeks of this readalong left, is still alive.

So the first thing we learn in this second section of the novel — besides the fact that Krissie is my spirit animal ("He is on his bed knitting himself a bobble hat whilst listening to an Agatha Christie audiotape from the library.") — is that Johanna has decided, in lieu of killing herself, that she will reinvent herself.

And so, I just . . . start all over again.  I have read, many times, the phrase "a self-made man," but misunderstood what it meant.  I presumed it was describing not a working-class-boy made good in industry — smoking a cigar, in slightly overshined shoes — but something more elemental and fabulous instead.  Someone mage-like, who had stitched themselves together out of silver gauze, and ambition, and magic.   
"A self-made man" — not of woman born but alchemized, through sheer force of will, by the man himself.  This is what I want to be.  I want to conjure myself out of every sparkling, fast-moving thing I can see.  I want to be the creator of me.  I'm gonna begat myself. [62]

Thus begins Johanna Morrigan's transformation into Dolly Wilde.  She names herself after Oscar Wilde's niece, who "was, like, this amazing alcoholic lesbian who was dead scandalous, and died really young."  Given the fact that she was choosing between that and Belle Jar/Laurel Canyon/Kitten Lithium, I'd say she did okay with the fake name.

Two years pass, and Johanna/Dolly has landed her dream job as a music reviewer for a magazine.

Perhaps it's because I first entered the job market when the economy was at its worst, but this seems wholly unbelievable to me.  Johanna is 16, without a high school diploma, and has never seen a band live before.  Yet somehow, based on a few dozen reviews she's mailed in and an interview in which she wears a top hat and makes a few sad Annie jokes, she is immediately offered the job.

I know Caitlin Moran was a the host of a late-night music show at the age of 18, so this kind of thing can happen in the real world — but to have it happen to a fictional character after a two-year time jump and with no visible struggle or development just seems like a cop-out.  I can suspend disbelief quite a bit in a novel, but the novel in question has to have a concrete internal logic for me to do so, and this part really tripped me up.  It completely subverts the image Moran has created of Johanna as a sympathetic underdog, terrified that she will never escape the poverty she's been born into.

Of course, miraculously landing a job at a music magazine isn't without its negatives.  As any observant reader would expect, Johanna's father assumes that she will use her new job to propel his music to the top of the charts.  Fortunately for her, he seems to be content for now in accompanying her to gigs and getting trashed on the magazine's tab. But I'm sure we haven't seen the last of his request — Johanna is definitely going to be put in a hard spot by her father later on, and I'm already cringing to imagine it. 

The other thing readers discover about Johanna's father in this section is that he has decidedly not been faking his injury for disability benefits.  In fact, he was injured on the job, when he worked as a firefighter and was forced to jump from the roof of a burning building.  I honestly felt bad after reading this section, having assumed previously that he was faking it.  Of course, Moran sets her readers up for this one by showing them repeatedly that Pat Morrigan isn't above cheating the system in other ways (for instance, it's stated on one of the first pages that he has a fake grocer's permit so that he can buy produce at reduced rates).

At the end of this week's section, Johanna has dropped out of school (with her father's approval and her mother's concern) but she's off to conduct her first-ever interview!  Things are looking up!  How could anything possibly go wrong!

I am concerned.


How to Build a Girl will be released in September.   You can pre-order it through the wonderful Odyssey Books, or through your local bookseller.

July 14, 2014

How to Build a Girl Readalong, Post II: Pouring the Depressing Yet Somehow Still Entertaining Foundation

This is the second week of the readalong for How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran, but the first week in which we've actually read part of the book.  A big thanks to Emily and HarperCollins for hosting this shindig — you can find links to the other participants' posts here.

I imagine we're all going to start off our posts by talking about the opening scene of the book, in which the main character, fourteen-year-old Johanna, is masturbating in bed next to her sleeping six-year-old brother.  I have nothing to say about this except:

I mean, I'm sure Moran wanted to really grab the reader's attention from the get-go — and she succeeds — but why is her younger brother there?  Why, Ms. Moran, do you need to bring little Lupin into this otherwise in-your-face but reaffirming statement about female sexuality?  

Oh, yes, her little brother is named Lupin.  I don't know if this is some sort of throwback-to-the-future (the novel starts in 1990 before Harry Potter was published) or if maybe Johanna's parents are also somehow really into Roman mythology.  Her other siblings are named Krissie and David and Mavid, if that gives you any additional insight (although the last two aren't their real names — they're three-week-old unnamed twin boys).  I'll be keeping an eye on little Lupin, though, just in case he starts to sprout fangs and take this book in an entirely new direction. 

Anyway, Johanna is one of five children living with her father, a failed wannabe-rock-star and alcoholic, and her mother, who is suffering from post-partum depression and has become, in Johanna's words, a "ghost mum."  Add to the mix that Johanna has accidentally tipped off a gossipy neighbor that her father is faking an injury to stay on government disability, and that she's also being mocked all over the neighborhood for an embarrassing public poetry reading.  It's kind of bleak.

Luckily for the reader, How to Build a Girl's supremely depressing background is partially obscured by Johanna's earnest, blunt narration.  There is nothing she won't disclose, whether it's her fantasies of being beautiful and admired or her desperate desire to protect her family from financial ruin.  And she somehow, against all odds, manages to find levity in the most bizarre, unsettling situations.

So far, I am enjoying How to Build a Girl, though I fear I have made a fatal mistake: my library hold on Moran's How to Be a Woman came in this week, so I began reading the books at the same time.  And though there are some differences, Johanna's life is very, very close to the retelling of Moran's childhood.  At one point I thought there was a mistake in the book — surely they had mentioned only a few pages ago that the family's dog was a German Shepherd? — before realizing that it's the real-life teen girl I was thinking about.  Hopefully the stories will diverge quite a bit in the next section (or maybe the best Way to Build a Girl is to make her barely fictional).

If the above discussion points don't thrill you, you should know that this first section also contains schadenfreude via live television, serial-killer practice on snails, fancying elderly gentlemen, and striking a sex-related bargain with Jesus.

You know you're curious.


How to Build a Girl will be released in September.   You can pre-order it through the wonderful Odyssey Books, or through your local bookseller.

July 7, 2014

Moran-along Post I: Introduction

Today kicks off the pre-publication readalong of Caitlin Moran's first novel, How to Build a Girl, hosted by Emily at As the Crowe Flies and Reads.

I've never read any of Caitlin Moran's books, though I've heard good things from some of the lovely ladies participating in this readalong.  I tried to read How to Be a Woman before this thing started, but Caitlin Moran is apparently a very popular lady in the Mid-Hudson Valley, because none of the holds I placed in my library system have come through.  Harumph.

What is How to Build a Girl, anyway?  Well, having not started it yet — I am almost done with my reread of An Echo in the Bone and am not willing to lose my momentum on an 820-page book — I can say that it appears to be about a girl struggling to learn to tie her shoelaces while living in the complex world of a green instagram filter.  

Here's the actual synopsis:  It’s 1990. Johanna Morrigan, fourteen, has shamed herself so badly on local TV that she decides that there’s no point in being Johanna anymore and reinvents herself as Dolly Wilde—fast-talking, hard-drinking Gothic hero and full-time Lady Sex Adventurer. She will save her poverty-stricken Bohemian family by becoming a writer—like Jo in Little Women, or the Bröntes—but without the dying young bit.

By sixteen, she’s smoking cigarettes, getting drunk and working for a music paper. She’s writing pornographic letters to rock-stars, having all the kinds of sex with all kinds of men, and eviscerating bands in reviews of 600 words or less.

But what happens when Johanna realizes she’s built Dolly with a fatal flaw? Is a box full of records, a wall full of posters, and a head full of paperbacks, enough to build a girl after all?

Imagine The Bell Jar written by Rizzo from Grease. How to Build a Girl is a funny, poignant, and heartbreakingly evocative story of self-discovery and invention, as only Caitlin Moran could tell it.

If I'm honest, this summary doesn't quite thrill me.  The description of Johanna/Dolly sounds a bit too Manic-Pixie-Dream-Girl for my tastes, though if How to Build a Girl  truly does draw inspiration from both Little Women and Grease, I'm sure I'll change my mind.   

How to Build a Girl will be published in September by HarperCollins.  You can pre-order it through a bookstore near you, or through one of my local independents, Oblong Books.  (Oblong is a wonderful store, and they just happen to have been the first bookstore I ever worked at!)

Check out the other introductory posts here (links in comments).

Let's get this party started, yeah?

June 30, 2014

My Audiobook Conversion — and Seven Reviews

I'd never been an audiobook person.  For years my only associations with audiobooks were childhood road trips (Hatchet stands out in my memory thanks to one particularly jarring scene that scarred six-year-old me for life) and my friend who listened to all the Harry Potter books on audio and had never seen the chapter illustrations.

So when I got my first smartphone earlier this year, I decided to finally give audiobooks a try (with particular urging from Book Riot's podcast).

Let's Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson turned out to be the best possible pick for my first-ever audiobook.  Subtitled "A Mostly True Memoir," it details the author's unusual and hilarious life, beginning with a childhood in rural Texas.  It's been a few months since I finished listening to this, so I'll list out the highlights that spring first to my mind — presents of dead animals from her taxidermist father, tales of torture and mockery from a career in HR, terrible wedding dresses, and a chapter written entirely in post-it notes to her husband.  

I listened to this while on a road trip to my brother's wedding, and it even managed to make 1,500 miles of I-95 fun.  Even if you don't get Lawson's humor, it will at least make you appreciate the relative normality of your own childhood.  Five out of five stars!


God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut was the first novel I listened to on audio, and, if I'm completely honest, it barely made an impression on me.  Though I've enjoyed some of Vonnegut's other books, including Slaughterhouse-Five  and A Man Without a Country, this one missed the mark.  

Centered around Eliot Rosewater, the oddball heir to the vast Rosewater fortune, it lampoons corporate and political greed in America.  Perhaps this was due to the audio format, but trying to make sense of Vonnegut's plotting and characters seemed almost impossible.  In the end, I decided to not try to understand which Rosewater ancestor was which and just get through the audiobook to the end.  Two out of five stars.  


 Wild by Cheryl Strayed is the author's account of her attempt to walk the Pacific Crest Trail alone.  After the death of her mother and a harrowing bout with addiction, Strayed decided she needed some major alone time.  So she spent almost all her money on hiking gear and set off into the wilderness.

I began Wild in the hope that it might come close to one of my favorite books, Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods.  Though the two memoirs feature extended hiking trips on famous trails, there's little else to compare.  Bryson undertakes his trip with a friend, so his miles are filled with a constant stream of banter and buddy hijinks.  Strayed, in contrast, is for the most part alone with her thoughts (and the occasional menacing animal), and much of the book centers around her grief for her mother.   

Wild wasn't really what I was expecting, but it was somehow just what I wanted.  I especially loved experiencing it on audio, as I listened to it several times while walking the rail trail near my home.  Four out of five stars.


Bossypants by Tina Fey is one of those books that was clearly just meant to be experienced on audio.  Fey narrates her memoir, and it's a good thing, too  — I'm not sure another narrator could properly bring to life the situations she describes.  There are parts about SNL, others bout 30 Rock, and a fair amount about her family and upbringing.  I laughed aloud at some jokes and cringed at others.  Much of the humor in Bossypants relies on tired stereotypes or cliches about Hollywood, and at points it felt like the book was suggesting a bah-dum-chhh noise after each line.  Three out of five stars.


The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan explores the relationship between humans and plants by telling the history of four specific plants: tulips, apples, potatoes, and marijuana.  Each of these plants, Pollan asserts, have shaped human history in a significant way.  In the course of telling their histories, Pollan relates each plant to its present iteration, and illuminates how humans have changed the plant itself  — sometimes for good, sometimes for ill.  Listening to this book on audio was a good choice, as it felt more than anything like an extended NPR story.  If you want some light reading that mixes science and history with a few laughs about Pollan's failed attempts to grow pot, this one's for you.  Five out of five stars.


Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling is, like Bossypants, a comedic memoir about working as a writer and actor in Hollywood.  Also like Bossypants, Kaling's stories fell mostly flat for me.  I didn't know much about Kaling going in, besides having seen the occasional episode of The Office, and perhaps I would have enjoyed the book much more if I were already a fan.  Some of her anecdotes were funny, but overall most of them felt like filler.  There was a great chapter about why she finds the prospect of one-night stands to be terrifying, but other than that I can't remember many particulars.  Two out of five stars.


Paris in Love by Eloisa James is a quick memoir about the year James spent living in Paris with her husband and two children.  Early on, she states that much of the book was pulled from her frequent Facebook posts about her year abroad, and this admission works well for setting the reader's expectations on what's to come.  The Facebook-status nature of the book isn't necessarily a bad thing, however.

If you're looking for deep explorations of Parisian society or extensive reflections on culture class, this is not the book for you.  But if you want an audiobook that you can put on while you clean or run errands, the kind of book that doesn't necessarily demand your full attention, Paris in Love is perfect.  Luckily for me, I was in the mood for the latter.  (However, I have a sneaking suspicion that I would have roundly hated this book if I had attempted to read it in print.)  Four out of five stars.


Right now I'm listening to Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff, and am enjoying it so far.  I do wish audiobooks could come with things like maps and family trees, however  — one point to the written word for that.

What are some of your favorite books on audio?  Do you tend to listen to just fiction or non-fiction, or a combination of both?  Do you consider listening to an audiobook to be "reading" or not?  I'm curious.