Tag Archives: feminism

The Friendship Cure by Kate Leaver

The Friendship Cure by Kate Leaver, a confusingly packaged but interesting read on the role of friendship in the modern world

They used to say that you can’t judge a book by it’s cover, but modern publishing relies on shelf appeal -be that in a physical or online shop- an invests so heavily in cover designs that generally you can do just that. For bigger releases, editorial, marketing, design and sales will all pitch in about the final cover and title of a book to make sure that it’s discoverable to the readers who are likely to be looking for it. They want you to know what to expect.

With that said, it’s rare these days to pick up a book and find that it’s been somehow mispackaged. The Friendship Cure: Reconnecting in the Modern World by Kate Leaver positively screams self-help book, from the title, to the subtitle, to the girly pink and purple crushed tablet of glitter which has bled into the font. But wait, why is the endorsement on the cover calling the author the new Jon Ronson?

The Friendship Cure by Kate Leaver, despite its confusing title, isn’t a self-help book at all, but a treatise on friendship in the digital age. Touching on a wide range of friendship related topics, it draws on social psychology, anthropology and a healthy dose of personal experience and annecdote to explore why most people’s social networks hover around the 150 mark, looking at different categories of friendship like the Bromance, The Work Wife, The Toxic Friend, The Virtual Friend and Friends with Benefits to resulting in an enjoyable exposition on why friendships matter as much as ever in our disconnected world.

Leaver has serious experience as a journalist, and the book tackles head on the hugely topical issue of the loneliness pandemic, and I’d say it does it very well. The writing at times leaned towards excessive self-deprecation, and there were a few sweeping generalisations in the chapter on whether men and women can ever just be friends which seemed to lend more than a little credence to the films of Nora Ephron, but I enjoyed reading this and found it informative. A solid book.

All the while I was reading it though, I couldn’t help but thinking that if this was a male journalist writing about the importance of friendship, reflecting on his own experience of friendship with men and women and how that had shaped his sense of self, the publishers wouldn’t have gone full throttle on the heavily gendered packaging. The non-fiction market is going from strength to strength in the UK, and it would be nice to see women’s writing being given the same consideration as men’s when publishers are thinking about how they promote books to readers.

We do tend to judge books by their covers after all.

Circe by Madeline Miller, a review

“He showed me his scars, and in return he let me pretend that I had none.”

Circe by Madeline Miller

I was a huge fan of Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles (read my review here) so you can imagine I was thrilled when I received a copy of her new book Circe to help while away the hours while I waited for my very overdue baby while I was on maternity leave earlier this year.

In Miller’s retelling of the Circe from Homer’s Odyssey, Circe is the unloved daughter of Helios, the Titan sun god, and Perse, a sea nymph. Overlooked by her mother for lacking the beauty that might secure her a marriage to a god, and thus her mother’s social standing, she is left to her own devices and mocked by her more attractive siblings. When the abandoned brother she has raised from infancy rejects her too, she is desperate for any affection and discovers that she has the power of witchcraft. But this sees her banished from her father’s palace and placed on an island in complete isolation, where she truly comes to know herself and her power.

While I very much enjoyed reading Circe, and Miller’s writing is on point as always, I thought it was interesting that it was branded as a feminist retelling of the Greek myth. For me, even throughout Miller’s version, much of our perception of Circe is derived from her interactions with the male characters. We see Circe’s struggle to find her place in her powerful and abusive father’s court; the terror she strikes into Glaucus, the human she falls in love with but who abandons her when she gifts him divinity; Apollo who takes her as a lover, but for the novelty more than anything else; the men who rape her and set her on her course of turning men into pigs…the only men she feels comfortable with are brilliant humans like Daedalus and Odysseus, but even then her relationships with those are complicated by the existence of their sons. Even when she seems to achieve a degree of freedom, it is always the result of having to bargain with the male world, I suppose that you could argue that that’s the system that every woman operates within but even when Penelope comes onto the scene and in scenes with Parsiphae, I’m not convinced that Circe would pass the Bechdel test.

As for the happy ending that Circe is said to receive in both myth and this retelling, her character certainly deserves it. But I couldn’t help but feel that it was another example of her giving something away for a man.

Oh and if this leaves you wondering, as I always have, “How do you say Circe?” The correct Greek pronunciation would be Kirky, but Miller says that she finds Sirsee to be more accessible to the modern reader.

Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, a review

Just in case you were ever in any doubt as to whether I’m the kind of person to come late to a party, this week I read the ubiquitous Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg.

This originally published in 2013, and the coverage it received in the media is difficult to overstate. Newspapers, blogs, TV, radio, it seemed like you couldn’t move without someone giving their take on what it means to lean in to the point that the phrase lean in seems to have slipped into common usage with its own prominent entry in the Working Woman’s Guide to Business Jargon. What do Lean In and Fifty Shades of Grey have in common? You don’t have to have read them to have a pretty good idea of the narrative arc of either book.

So why read it now? In the years after the book was released, Sheryl Sandberg was everywhere. And I’d read profiles in the paper, but I was never interested enough to seek out what effectively sounded like a careers advice book for women. But my friend recently got me into a podcast player, and I’ve started listening to Desert Island Discs (I know) and one of the people featured was Sheryl Sandberg. Not only were her choices of tracks strong, but hers was the most heartbreakingly raw and human interview I’ve heard on there, so I decided to read her book.

And wow. What can you say in a review of Lean In that hasn’t been said before? Barring George Monbiot’s books about our impending doom, I don’t think I’ve ever read something which has managed to inform, entertain and depress me in such equal measure. On the one hand the anecdotes about Sandberg’s own career are interesting, the statistics looking at gender disparity in the workplace are fascinating and the advice is, in part, so f***ing depressing. I mean really f***ing depressing. There’s some advice in the book which says that men can ask for payrises and promotions based on their personal achievements and individual performance, while a woman has to link it to the common good to make herself seem unthreatening, likeable and a team player. And I can see that it would be true. And that’s what’s so bloody depressing about it all.

Honestly, by the end of reading it I was pretty much ready to reject my place in the world of work and take up subsistence farming. I’m mostly joking. But seriously, it’s an important book to read if you want to gain a better appreciation of how little progress society has made since the 1950s.


The White Princess by Philippa Gregory

Philippa Gregory has some fairly outspoken critics, usually historians, who complain about the historical accuracy of her work. I’m not one of those, as I think her novels are usually very well written, fairly well researched, and don’t really see the problem with bringing a little imagination to the realm of history. Lots of archaeology programmes seem to be based around the art of educated guessing, so why shouldn’t fiction get to do the same? It’s not like if people who wanted a historian’s take on history wouldn’t buy an academic book by David Starkey, or a serious academic who spends their time doing proper research rather than shouting down women on TV…

Despite all that, I have to say I was truly disappointed in The White Princess, the final story in her The Cousins’ War series. Firstly, it covers a lot of the material that she’s written about in her previous Tudor and Plantagenet books, somewhat inevitably, but at times it’s a little frustrating. Even more frustrating is that it seems to assume that you’ve read all of her other books, so for someone who hasn’t read The Kingmaker’s Daughter, it was a little odd to leap straight into the story with Princess Elizabeth reminiscing about her sex life with her uncle Richard… it just made me feel like Gregory was being forced to walk a fine line between fitting the series format and not rehashing an excessive amount of content. There was huge potential to make this the story of Perkin Warbeck, and that really was a compelling part of the story, but to do so it really needed to be told from the perspective of another character and I assume that didn’t fit the publisher’s plans for the format of the series.

My biggest problem with the books though (and something of a trigger warning here) is that Elizabeth is raped by Henry VII to ensure that she is fertile before he marries her, leading to Arthur being born eight months into their marriage. I accept that rape happened, happens and, particularly in this time, women were treated like chattel and therefore it would be disingenuous to pretend otherwise, but what I find particularly troubling is the way this assault is followed up in the rest of the novel. Elizabeth ultimately finds herself falling for her rapist, who then forgets about her and turns his attention to someone else because (it is implied) she should have been a more welcoming wife when she had the chance. That is a really worrying presentation of rape, regardless of when a book is set.

Romantic Hero? I’d rather have a cup of tea

I’ll admit that I’m not the most romantic of people. Those marriage proposals with flash mobs and onlookers just make me cringe, and I prefer a cup of tea and biscuit from my boyfriend than the hearts and flowers grand gestures that I’m meant to be conditioned to want having grown up watching Disney. So maybe I’m not the best person to understand the appeal of the romantic hero. Moody, critical and more often than not just a tad misogynistic, these are the five romantic heroes that I just don’t get…


Mr Rochester

mr-rochester-jane-eyreI’m starting with Mr Rochester, because I read a blog post explaining how much the blogger needed a man like him in her life and it made me decide to write this post. Don’t get me wrong, I liked Jane Eyre well enough, but are you actually serious? I couldn’t go for Rochester as the romantic hero, nor am I sure what on earth would possess any woman in her right mind to. I meant, I’m sure that times were very different back then, but there’s just something about a man who locks his mentally ill wife in an attic and then tries to trick a naive woman into bigamy that’s never really tickled my fancy. Also, the moment when he dressed up as a gypsy fortune-teller in order to manipulate his house guests was just weird. I don’t need that in my life.


Mr Darcy

mr darcy colin firth“Mr Darcy!” simper and fawn the women of _______shire, leading to generations of women to believe that single men in possession of a good fortune, especially the arrogant and remote ones, must be good husband material without tasting a drop of Austen’s intended satire. Reader, he may claim to be properly humbled, but given his previous performances, how long would it take Darcy to drop jibes about their disparate social status into domestic arguments.  I can only imagine what Christmas dinner with the Darcy family would be like…sister-in-law Georgina sat opposite Mr Wickham who attempted to seduce her before succeeding in seducing your sister and then being bought off by your husband. A little too Regency Jeremy Kyle/Jerry Springer for my tastes.



leonardo di caprio romeoRomeo, Romeo, let’s not forget Romeo… this little chap (and let’s remember he would have been little more than a child) is basically a seducer and who likes to make smutty jokes about his well-flowered pump. He goes to Capulet’s party and meets Juliet when he’s been moping about being knocked back by Rosaline who he’s been trying and failing to bed, then proposes to Juliet when she is shocked at his demands for satisfaction…not to mention kind of causes the death of his best friend and wife’s cousin.  Yes, yes, teenaged love is very sweet and all that, but I’m just not sure I’d want to throw my life away after a child who was chasing someone else literally a few hours before.



tom hardy heathcliffOh Heathcliff, he’s Romantic with a capital R… a force of nature, running wild, gnashing his teeth at the world, a rebel at heart… and a cold, manipulative man who abuses his wife, weak adults and any children unfortunate enough to find themselves in his company. While Heathcliff and Catherine’s relationship is an amazing work of literature, examining an obsessive love between two truly damaged individuals, I’m not sure that a love affair that ends in corpse exhumation and haunting is really something we should aspire to.


Edward Cullen

edward cullen twilight romantic heroFollowing on from Heathcliff (because Stephanie Meyer couldn’t be any more desperate for her readers to pick up on that subtle as a sledgehammer allusion…) creepy Mr Cullen secretly watches his love interest while she’s sleeping, romantic or stalky? I’ll let you decide, but I can’t help wondering whether he couldn’t have done something a little more useful with his time. If a vampire ever decides to waste their time watching me sleep, they should know that my kitchen probably needs cleaning, and I wouldn’t mind if they paint the spare bedroom. If housework isn’t Mr Cullen’s thing, now that he’s mastered the world’s languages and the piano, could he maybe use his scientific knowledge and excess of time to do something useful like cure cancer or develop an antivenom to his vampire venom? Just saying. Nothing attractive about this one.


What about you? Is there a character that you were meant to find attractive but just found repulsive?

How to Be A Woman- Caitlin Moran (And a rant about magazines from me)

It took me a while to get around to reading Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman. The reviews were a positive but seemed to focus on hilarious anecdotes about leg shaving. It promised to be a take on modern life which explained why all women should be feminists, but sounded a little bit 211 Things a Bright Girl Can Do or Nigella Lawson’s not quite ironically titled How to be a Domestic Goddess. I needn’t have worried. Having picked it up in Waterstone’s buy one get one half price summer offer (they need all the help they can get after getting into bed with the company James Daunt denies ever having called the devil…) and practically inhaled it yesterday.

Caitlin Moran has pretty much explained in book form why I’ve stopped buying Women’s Magazines. A few months ago I still bought Easy Living but gave up when I saw the “let’s make it another Cosmopolitan” direction the new editor took it in with its makeover. Pressure to whip off body hair that PRACTICALLY NO ONE is going to see most of the year around, typical media discourses about your choice of when to have children or get married which one way or another read like an apologia, the prefacing of any interview with a successful woman with a description of her hair, make-up and outfit at the time of the interview… she covers it all in a way which is sometimes hilarious, sometimes serious but always warm and frank. I couldn’t, wouldn’t put it down until I finished, and as soon as I did I stuck it in the post for my sister.

Moran shows why feminism isn’t just an esoteric interest of a few select academics, but a matter of equality. I especially liked a passage in the book when she describes being at a meeting and talking to another feminist about pornography and how shocking it would be for an eight year old girl to accidentally click on a link to hardcore anal sex. When Moran pointed out that it would be shocking for an eight year old boy as well, the feminist nearly bit off her head because the boy would feel comfortable as the man was in a position of control. What bollocks, any normal child would be freaked out by it. Regardless of gender. And surely true equality is what it’s all about?

I bought a copy of Easy Living in Tesco today, just to see if it was still heading in the direction that had annoyed me. It’s not the worst women’s magazine by a long shot. The ones my little sister reads which inform impressionable young women that the massively attractive Kim Kardashian hates her body too, or the magazines which advise you on how best to pleasure your boyfriend are up there as the worst (the most worrying thing I’ve seen in that respect being a magazine which allegedly promotes safe sex advising girls who, in the absence of decent sex education in our schools, read these things and take them as gospel to use two condoms to delay their boyfriends orgasm. No, that would increase friction between the layers and make BOTH condoms more likely to split thus increasing the chances of unwanted pregnancy or STI). But Easy Living which I used to read for the lack of this rubbish and the variety of articles they used to have has still annoyed me.

Here are some of the ways it managed this in the July 2012 issue:

  • Letters page- The star letter- typical tropes about pregnancy and motherhood. “No one would wish to return to the days when a married woman’s lie was dominated by pregnancy, but, just occasionally, I find myself wishing the decision had been taken out of my hands.” Seriously? Are you freaking kidding me?! Because you now regret not having children you wish that you had a child thrust upon you at a time when you were unable or unwilling to look after one. It’s one thing to regret the choice that you had the freedom to make, but to wish, even in retrospect, to  lose that choice and for a women’s magazine to choose your wish to lose that choice as their star letter and thereby endorse the sentiment? Bloody shocking. There are no words for how disgusted I am with that.
  • Also letters page- A nurse who will be voting for Nadine Dorries (a politician who is campaigning to reduce the legal abortion time limit in the UK as well as introducing abstinence as a form of sex education in UK schools) because “I think many women opt for the procedure without a real understanding of what happens”. I have been lucky enough never to need an abortion, but I’m pretty sure that many women who do are intelligent enough to understand the procedure, as they would with any medical procedure they were about to undertake. Because we’re not stupid. And better sex education, rather than preaching abstinence is what is needed if there is a problem with a lack of information.
  • Why Women Such an Easy Target? A frankly weak article. Samantha Brick attracted a lot of criticism from women AND men because she wrote a nonsensical article which then had a Daily Mail edit. Giselle Bundchen caused controversy because she suggested that there should be a law which dictated that women should be forced to breast feed, as in suggested that we should no longer have the right to decide how to use our own bodies. What do you think the reaction would have been if a man proposed that law? Oh yes, there’d be outcry then too. You can’t claim that everyone is ganging up on women if they are being criticized for saying something stupid just like a man would have been.
  • Charlize Theron article, opens with an article about what she looks like, what she’s wearing before going on to tell me that she sometimes feels fat. Oh yeah, the feeling fat bit has been dragged out and highlighted as an important text bite, one paragraph on her humanitarian work which I didn’t know about and would have been interested to read about before going on to tell me about her love life. Standard female celebrity discourse.
  • We then have the now regular fashion feature “The School Runway” which photographs mothers on the school run in fairly affluent areas to allow people to judge their outfits or compare themselves to the women. Unusually for this new feature, lots of the mothers are wearing high street (it was pretty much solid designer the last time I read it) and all look absolutely lovely in leafy suburbia. But seriously. Should we be encouraging people to feel that the school gate is a potential fashion shoot in which they will be judged? God save us all from the pressure to be yummy mummies unless that’s what we want. I for one don’t want to read about it every month.

I could go on indefinitely, those are some of the worst things in there for me. But this is an absolute clanger from the summer reads feature. Underlining is my own:

Park Lane by Frances Osborne (Virgo, £14.99)

Fans of upstairs-downstairs dramas will adore this pacey page-turner from the wife of Chancellor George. As Britain enters the First World War and the Suffragette movement gains momentum, lady-of-the-house Bea and her intelligent maid Grace struggle with their positions in society. In both love and politics, they find themselves not just crossing social lines but redrawing them. An entertaining reminder of how hard women fought to be heard both politically and in their private lives.

And yet, despite the subject matter and the success of her previous books, you thought the most important thing that you could say about the author was that she is married to the Chancellor? Depressing.