Tag Archives: women

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.


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.

The Dovekeepers- Alice Hoffman

Set against the backdrop of the siege of Masada, The Dovekeepers is a haunting tale of four women who fight to write their own stories in a society which expects that their men should speak for them. Yael, the assassin’s daughter, is a single mother who having committed the ultimate taboo finds solace and belonging with the other dovekeepers. Revka, the baker’s wife, serves justice to the men who stole her grandsons’ voices. Fearless Aziza, the warrior’s beloved, is lost in the girlish role she has been forced into since coming to Masada while her mother Shirah, the witch of Moab, begins to find that even the ancient powers handed down from mother to daughter aren’t enough to protect the ones she loves.

Beautifully researched and immaculately written, this book had me yearning to visit Jerusalem and Masada to visit the site. Seriously, I spent most of my Christmas looking for flights out and transport to the Dead Sea. Each character is beautifully constructed with an authentic voice. The lyrical prose and historic back drop really made me feel like I was listening to the voices of women who lived through the siege.

Numerous Guardian reviewers recommended this as one of their best books of 2011 and I cannot recommend this book highly enough, except to say that as soon as I read it I bought a copy for my sister as a Christmas present and insisted that Jon bought one for his mother as well.

The Discovery of Jeanne Baret- Glynis Ridley

I made a vague new year’s resolution to read more non fiction. I like to keep my resolutions vague because it means that failure is less of an option. However, I am making an effort with this and kick started my non fiction year with The Discovery of Jeanne Baret by Glynis Ridley, an English professor at the University of Louisville.

Jeanne Baret was the peasant born mistress of William Commerson, the botanist, who disguised herself as a man to enable her to join her lover on the first French circumnavigation of the globe. On this trip she helped discover the Bourgainvillea. In her book, Professor Ridley attempts to offer “a forgotten heroine a chance to bloom at last” if you’ll forgive the pun in the blurb (she was a herb woman/botanist). I couldn’t really. I’m just like that.

While Prof. Ridley’s book was certainly well written and engaging, I found myself very frustrated by it.  For me it suffered from the same problem that plagues so many books about the less famous mistresses of famous men- the majority of historical records associated with the woman are actually about her more famous and powerful lover. In Baret’s case there are contemporary records which tell some of her story but they are of questionable integrity (which Ridley addresses very well) and require a degree of interpretation. Ridley’s methods for interpreting these records involve detailed exploration of the lives of Commerson and Bougainville in order to contextualize the records about Jeanne Baret which is really the only way to proceed under the circumstances, but results in a book which, for me, was more about Commerson than his mistress, making the title The Discovery of Jeanne Baret something of a misnomer.

Working in academic publishing, I read a lot of books like Ridley’s as a part of my day job and I think that my expectations as a result of this may have tainted Ridley’s book for me. It’s a dangerous strategy as a publisher to bring out a book with a very academic tone which attempts to cross over for the general reader. The book is poorly referenced throughout and though it includes some passages by way of evidence, much of the time I found myself muttering to myself “Where’s your evidence for that? What are you basing this on?” to the point where I felt that sweeping of (admittedly quite lovely prose) were pure conjecture which could easily have been remedied by replacing phrases like “Jeanne would have felt” with “Jeanne might have felt”. I’m not a fan of speculation presented as fact in these books, it read more like an exercise in gender studies than a historical account.

This is worth a read if you are happy to skip over the material which is presented in the footnotes of more academic texts. It has been well written and well researched, but I felt that by attempting to be a hybrid text it overlooked the level of detail and integrity its readers might look for.

Have you read this book? Would you disagree?

Scribbling Women- Marthe Jocelyn

Scribbling Women book cover

I know I shouldn’t think this way, and I know I’ll be punished for it, but I just love it when bad things happen to people I can’t stand.

Though we might not care to admit it, I’m sure that many of us have felt like this at some point or another in our lives. There’s nothing especially remarkable about the sentiment. What is remarkable is that this quotation is taken from the diary of Sei Shonagon, a tenth century lady-in-waiting at the Imperial Court in Japan. Scribbling Women is a book of remarkable women. Remarkable because of the times they lived in, remarkable because of the stories they wrote down, remarkable because their experiences resonate with the women of today.

Marthe Jocelyn became interested in the legacy left by female diarists when researching her book A Home For Foundlings which introduced her to the importance of the letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who helped to cure smallpox in Britain by writing letters home from Turkey explaining how the disease was treated there. What knowledge then might be found in the diaries and letters of less prominent women in history? And how would they relate to the experience of modern women?

Taking its title from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s frustrated outburst to his publisher, “America is now given over to a damned mob of scribbling women,” Scribbling Women is a whistle-stop tour of women’s writing in history aimed at, though not exclusively for, young adults. Some of the women may be known to readers, other names will be unfamiliar but all have extraordinary stories to tell. From the letters of Margaret Catchpole, a deported female convict who became one of the early settlers in Australia, to Hatty Jacobs whose story of life as a slave challenged the conscience of America almost every woman has something profound to tell us about her historical period and attitudes to women at the time when she wrote.

I say almost every woman, because I disagree with the inclusion of Daisy Ashford, who wrote The Young Visiters, a novel, as a nine year old. I don’t think that this fitted with the rest of the book which focuses on the experiences of women who lived incredible lives and recorded their memories in non-fiction formats. It’s almost as though Daisy’s story was included as a novelty piece, or curios, and I think that this is reflected in the length of text that the author dedicated to this.

Despite this, I loved this book and my main criticism would be that I think Jocelyn could have taken the concept further to include the stories of even more remarkable women. There are many remarkable women whose stories could have filled the pages, and I would like to see an extended edition, as I think that there would be a market for this book with a greater depth of exploration without it wandering into the scope of an academic text.  I especially liked the way that the story of each woman was linked to the next, comparing their situations or biographies to allow the distance, both physical and chronological, to flow away between the pages.

Zlata Filipovic

A diarist that I really think should have been included: Zlata Filipovic

I noticed that all but one of Marthe Joyce’s women have died, and I think that it would have been good to include some living writers. Zlata Filipovic was a teenage diarist during the war in Sarajevo, and has been compared by many to Anne Frank. However, unlike Anne, her story has had a happy ending. Not only is her diary an important historical record, but Zlata went on to study at Oxford University, and now lives in Dublin. She still writes in support of freedom, and has collaborated on works for children affected by conflict and has been involved writing forewords to projects such as The Freedom Writers Diary, which helps teenagers help themselves and the world around them through writing.

A big thank you to Tundra Books and Marthe Jocelyn for offering me the opportunity to read and review this book. Please check out the Tundra Books website for the chance to win some great Scribbling Women prizes.

Scribbling Women

I am very excited to be taking part in the Tundra Books Scribbling Women blog tour later this month. Check it out here. I understand that if you follow all the blogs in the tour you can win some pretty exciting prizes, so do check it out.

In the meantime, which women writers have you found most inspirational?