Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Freedom to Lit like Chicks

Image from the Bryant Library Teens (BLT) Blog - every library should have one
and their article on chicklit

My first week back from holiday is almost over and Mull almost a distant memory, but for the persistent reminders of long-haired highland cows.

Today was officially a good day. Some of the spread the happiness malarky must be really working because I was so chirpy in the office that the Chief asked if I was on drugs. Cynic.

The Chick Lit debate is raging on over at the Free Democracy blog in an article by Maureen Dowd. I find these kind of debates depressing, and about as futile as an academic discussion over whether or not a group of people like Eastenders. For the record, I don't care what anyone's reading - you can't judge a person by the book in their hand at any particular time.

Over the last week I've been reading:

Promethea - A graphic novel by Alan Moore (it was a recommendation in an article on Steampunk by one of the city librarians)
Slaughterhouse 5 - Kurt Vonnegut (he's brilliant, it's amazing)
Catch 22 - Joseph Heller (had no idea it was like an episode of Monty Python)
Hellish Nell - A biography of Helen Duncan, Britain's last witch (engrossing and fact-packed)
Are Men Necessary? - ironically, by Maureen Dowd (I posted on this last week)

Apart from Slaughterhouse 5 and Catch 22, which are both anti-war novels, my reading has almost nothing in common. I also have a penchant for young adult fiction and devoured, for instance the entire Buffy-like Mediator series by Jenny Carroll in one long and memorable week.

What is most notable to me about the categorization and dismissal of 'chick-lit' is how fundamentally self-defeating and utterly depressing it is. I would say it is probably a mistake to think of chick-lit (a label that I don't like personally because I think it screams Fiction Lite, but then anything associated with solely women will be associated with ditziness) as any more descriptive a category than Crime or Fantasy, into which thousands of entirely different books nestle.

And Dowd's point in this article that:

"“Looking for Mr. Goodbunny” by Kathleen O’Reilly sits atop George Orwell’s “1984.” “Mine Are Spectacular!” by Janice Kaplan and Lynn Schnurnberger hovers over “Ulysses.” Sophie Kinsella’s “Shopaholic” series cuddles up to Rudyard Kipling."

Well since when was it news that books I don't like 'cuddle up' (careful Maureen, that sounds a little too feminine, people won't take you seriously) with books I love? And yes, aesthetically and intellectually, it does offend me that putting a little pink bow on The Bell Jar is a publisher's best attempt to sell it to more women.

But it also makes me laugh that those women will get one hell of a shock if it was the little pink bow that was the clincher in that deal - The Bell Jar is not a book to 'cuddle up' with! It's like selling a shark as a cuddly toy, and I think Plath would see the poetry in that. She was, after all, a rather feminine shark herself.

Wasn't the feminist movement about the right for women to express themselves? Shouldn't we start from the supposition that freedom of speech will also include the right to disagree with one another and to have different tastes? How is the slamming of chick lit any different to the glorifying of 'proper' or 'classical' literature - a genre which is conventionally dominated by men?

Any adverserial slam-dunking between women, especially in the name of feminism, has to be a step backwards.

I don't read Sophie Kinsella, but many of the women in the Ministry do. They went to see her when she came to Portsmouth on a book tour and they still talk about that night now.

Am I any less delighted to work in an office where half a dozen women can spend an hour or more talking about books (as Clarky would say....the stuff of dreams.....) because they're discussing Kinsella and not Tolstoy? No. Because I haven't read Tolstoy either.

A poem for Shonagh today, and final proof that not everything Plath wrote was depressing.


Clownlike, happiest on your hands,
Feet to the stars, and moon-skulled,
Gilled like a fish. A common-sense
Thumbs-down on the dodo's mode.
Wrapped up in yourself like a spool,
Trawling your dark, as owls do.
Mute as a turnip from the Fourth
Of July to All Fools' Day,
O high-riser, my little loaf.

Vague as fog and looked for like mail.
Farther off than Australia.
Bent-backed Atlas, our traveled prawn.
Snug as a bud and at home
Like a sprat in a pickle jug.
A creel of eels, all ripples.
Jumpy as a Mexican bean.
Right, like a well-done sum.
A clean slate, with your own face on.

Sylvia Plath

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be. Abraham Lincoln

Image courtesy of Sam Logan's amazing website, Sam and Fuzzy,
which routinely makes me happy

After my rediscovered interest in the secrets of happiness and the spreading of love, I wander over to Gretchen Rubin's website, where I periodically hang out with the happy kids to make myself feel better. What I like about Gretchen most of all has been her continuing honesty that "happiness can be hard."

Gretchen's Happiness Project blog is actually one strand in a much broader project on happiness - a subject that I first came into contact through the Ministry's Artist in Residence, Jeannie Driver when she was doing a wellbeing project at my old library. The idea that happiness can be studied may have been news to me, but it was old hat to a lot of people. At the time I met Jeannie, for instance, there was a TV show called 'Making Slough Happy' which used the Happiness Priniciples of a man called Dr Martin Seligman, and Jeannie had used some of his questionnaires in her research.

Anyway, our Gretchen is working on a book about her experiences of happiness and working towards it, and her blog charts her progress, with both the project and the book. She's come up with 12 Commandments that I like:
  • 1. Be Gretchen.
  • 2. Let it go.
  • 3. Act as I would feel.
  • 4. Do it now.
  • 5. Be polite and be fair.
  • 6. Enjoy the process.
  • 7. Spend out.
  • 8. Identify the problem.
  • 9. Lighten up.
  • 10. Do what ought to be done.
  • 11. No calculation.
  • 12. There is only love.
I like lighten up best of all, and I love the sound of spend out, but am not entirely certain what it means.

What would your 12 Commandments be?

I'm going to work on some of my own, but Be Sarah is definitely at number one. Gretchen says in a recent post of this commandment:

"One revelation of my happiness project has been getting the dimmest sense of what this precept actually means, and why it’s so challenging to follow."

Isn't it strange (but true) that one of the most challenging things should be being yourself?

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Love set you going like a fat gold watch. Sylvia Plath

'Chelsea', from Youngest Indie. I hang out at the YI a lot -
you should also check out her 'What if OK Go were a girl band?' post

The Chief sets me thinking about spreading love to the Universe. Or maybe I could start with the local community and work my way up. I've been wrestling with some negativity lately (to visualize this, picture my negativity as a crocodile in an ill-fitting, dark brown, seventies suit. He always has a Camel cigarette hanging out of the corner of his mouth and he never breaks a sweat). The twin tasks of keeping my head above water and my feet on the ground have been occupying a lot of my time. It was good to think about love and positivity again, though a little of a struggle. However, I am a double water sign and bipolar impersonations are my middle name (there was a mix up when it came to registering the birth, it's a long story), so I think I'm ready to try it.

Coincidentally (or was it?), today my friend Clarky (who I am quite convinced knew I was going to the Isle of Mull, and in fact, in the history of my life rewrite that's always taking place inside my head, she was the first person I told at the special 'I'm Going to Mull Party' where she was the guest of honour - is it me, or are my posts getting more surreal? I should cut down on the absinthe) told me all about a book by Danny Wallace.

I had actually just mentioned Castaway and we were discussing whether it's reality TV for intellectuals or just the same formulaic horseshit, but on the BBC - incidentally, my favourite part of this conversation was when Lisa said she had Reality TV Fatigue, brilliant - and Lisa said she had a crush on Danny Wallace. The blankness on my face gathered itself into the word Who? And Lisa explained that Danny Wallace is a comedian and a writer (and pretty fine slice of man pie himself, apparently).

Danny (gorgeous name) Wallace wrote a book called Random Acts of Kindness: 365 Ways to Make the World a Nicer Place, which Amazon have very nicely synopsized (yes, I think I made that up, but it's working for me):

In his bestselling book Join Me, Danny Wallace instructs his legions of followers to perform a 'Random Act of Kindness' every Friday. As a result, his thousands of followers (dubbed the Karma Army), without warning, made people happier the length and breadth of the country. Now in Random Acts of Kindness Danny brings you a hilarious, well-meaning book to encourage you to perform Random Acts of your own.This book contains 365 real Random Acts of Kindness real people have done for real strangers- so read it, learn it, and start making your world the nicer place, today!'

I have, of course, already ordered this from the library. I could have had it on the spot, but they are all reserved for a promotion called Bibliotherapy and so the most helpful librarian in the building (I don't even know the lady's name) took the order for me and vowed to find out when the title could be mine. I'll keep you posted.

Whilst in the library, I had another random act of kindness enacted on me when an exceptional librarian recommended a new fantasy genre to me called SteamPunk, which is now my current fascination (everyone should read Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen - it is not at all what you think and it's dirty - who could ask for anything more).

All of which goes to show, good things happen in libraries. Love amongst the stacks and all that.

Monday, March 12, 2007

The intermediate stage between socialism and capitalism is alcoholism. Norman Brenner

It's never too late to start asking questions about the grassy knoll...


I know when the sun is in China
because the night shining other-light
crawls into my bed. She is moon.
Her eyes slit and yellow she is the last
one out of a dingy bar in Albuquerque -
Fourth Street, or from similar avenues
in Hong Kong. Where someone else has also
awakened, the night thrown back and asked,
"Where is the moon, my lover?"
And from here I always answer in my dreaming,
"the last time I saw her was in the arms
of another sky."

Joy Harjo

It's strange to be back home. I go to the dentist who puts two gargantuan golden crowns (memory of chinese food from my childhood - explanations available on request) in my mouth. I tell the Chief later by text that I feel like Metal Mickey (does anyone else remember him??) and I look like a gangsta - albeit only when I laugh (no, I am not H-A-P-P-Y - though memories of eighties tv are flooding me this evening).

Kate and I go walking down by the waterfront in Bosham (pronounce it however you like, but I won't understand if you say Cosham differently). We talk about depression and directionlessness (particularly about whether this is actually a word) and about exactly how a swan can break your arm. Kate later writes to tell me that they actually do it with their feet. Don't be fooled however, as this turned out to be a thinly veiled lie. After our stroll around the posh Bosham pond (there's a song in that, you could sing it to the tune of Fat Bottomed Girls by Queen), we head into a cafe and drink tea. I have scones that make me feel slightly sick.

Does anyone find that too much dairy makes their chin smell of baby sick? Of course, if the answer is no, then neither do I.

On the culture side of things, I have been reliably informed by Scott, my ex, that Banksy has a new show in London, details as follows:

Until Mar 24, Andipa Gallery, 162 Walton Street SW3, Mon to Fri 9.30am to 6pm, Sat 11am to 6pm, free. Tel: 020 7589 2371. Tube: South Kensington

I may be taking a trip to Londoninium on Saturday and if I do, this will definitely be on my list.

Await my review with bated breath, disciples of culture's wonders. Or not.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

A Tale of Two Islands

Grasspoint Cottage, Isle of Mull, where Kate and I spent the last week

A very lovely hello to Steve Hender for his lovely comments on a blog from yesteryear, and yes, the earth most definitely moved for me! And a big thank you to Lou, for the link to even more Danny Dyer, just when I thought a Google image search had satisfied my soul. The stills gallery has dominated more of my time than is strictly moral.

After a nine hour journey home from Oban yesterday, I'm back in England. G has done an admirable and unforgettable job of maintaining the blogosphere while I have been off, orbiting the Inner Hebrides on the Isle of Mull, this week.

Mull was almost entirely another world for a city girl like me. I could relate to Mull before our arrival there, as a fellow islander. Yet Mull is entirely dominated by its self-determining, rich, bare landscape, its weather, its small population, in a way that I had not conceived of from my experience on our intimate isle.

I have yet to discover the relative difference in size between our two islands. I suspect they may be similarly sized. Yet Portsmouth has a population of approximately 186,000 and Mull has 2,500.

When I sat at my window this afternoon, drinking a glass of wine - I am, technically still on holiday, after all - across the Common I could immediately see about fifty people. After a week in a cottage where I would be unlikely to see five sheep from the cottage window, it's a huge change.

Is Mull a place I would want to live in for a while? Without a doubt. How many months would it be before I went completely insane by modern standards? Possibly not many.

But I'd go back in an instant.