Monday, 14 July 2014

How to Build A Girl readalong: Part one



So, today marks the first update post for the How To Build A Girl readalong! Hello to you all.

The novel starts memorably, to say the least! I read Part One on the train, and found myself glancing behind me to check no curious fellow passengers were reading over my shoulder.



Moran writes about young female sexuality in as frank and unabashed a manner as I don't, and shames me a bit for blushing. The subject is tackled in a very matter-of-fact way, not to shock or titillate or giggle, but simply to challenge taboos or double standards. So go Caitlin.

So our heroine, Johanna, is fourteen years old and part of a big, dysfunctional family. Her mum is suffering from post-natal depression after the birth of "Unexpected Twins," and the father receives disability benefits and is convinced he's going to be the next great rock star. It seems quite clear that his idea of his own talent is somewhat delusional - the description of his demo cassette makes it sound arty and weird and terrible.

When Johanna accidentally lets slip to an elderly neighbour that her dad receives benefits, the sniffy reaction - very much a "he doesn't look like there's anything wrong with him... why, I saw him cleaning his car just last week" - makes her terrified that the neighbour will report the family and all the family's support will be taken away. A child should not have to worry about this sort of thing. This novel may be set at the back end of the Thatcher years, and yet nothing has changed. There is a passage describing how Johanna's father will play up his disability because "people have different perceptions of what disability is." A cursory glance at Caitlin Moran's Twitter feed will show how this is a subject close to her heart, with statistics of thousands of people dying after being declared "fit for work." She treats the subject with elements of humour, but underneath it is a real sadness and anger that the most vulnerable members of society are those hit the hardest.


After her gaffe and weeks of terror, Johanna tries to make some money with her writing, enters and wins a poetry competition. As well as the prize money, she appears on live TV and, as one might expect, proceeds to humiliate herself with a Scooby-Doo impression. It makes sense in context... but is by no means anything resembling a good idea in anyone's mind ever. Oh, the awkwardness of being a teenager, of saying something that seems funny at the time. (If only it was limited to the teenage years!) Moran captures that embarrassment so well, that feeling that the whole world is pointing and laughing and will never grow tired of doing so.


Key Quotes:

He didn't look like the future. He looked like 1984. In 1990, that was an ancient thing to be - even in Wolverhampton.

"We lie in the shallow depression her ghost left behind," I sometimes think, in my more maudlin moments. "I am born into a nest of death."

Today, like every other day, I'm going to bed still a fat virgin who writes their diary in a series of imaginary letters to sexy Gilbert Blythe from Anne of Green Gables."*




*Of course any Anne references count as key quotes.

15 comments:

  1. YES. I think that the poverty and benefits are going to be some essential theme and we might get hit with ALL THE REALNESS later on in the book.

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    1. I think so. I'm rather worried for Johanna and her family. I know it's a subject close to Moran's heart, and even knowing as little as I do about her, I can see that she drew on her own experiences for this fictional family.

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  2. Well played with the Sherlock gif. And yes, I like the biting social commentary that we're getting. I'm sure I'm missing some of the nuance, being a Yank and not well versed in Thatcherism, beyond the broad strokes, but I look forward to learning more.

    I think it's deceptive just how smart and insightful Moran is, as the smarts and insights are layered underneath the funnies.

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    1. Although it's set in a specific context - Britain in 1990 - I see a lot on the internet from all over the world about similar issues. I'm very impressed with Moran's mixture of humour and anger and sadness, challenging you to think about issues without realising you're doing it!

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    2. Just want to chime in here and second everything Emily said. I don't know much about the state of benefits in Britain, but Violet's reaction to mentioning disability was very reminiscent of a certain kind of person here in the US, who is convinced people on welfare are just "gaming the system". I think I must have missed the mention of Johanna's dad having an actual injury, because I legitimately thought it was described as him just faking it. But then again, I read this section pretty quickly and I also get the feeling Moran is making a larger point that wouldn't stand up as well if the dad was actually not disabled.

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    3. She did say at one point that her dad was actually disabled and on bad days couldn't get out of bed - that the day he was seen washing the car was one of his few good days. She doesn't give any specifics about what the disability is, though. Certain of our "newspapers" take great delight in exposing benefit fraud and implying that everyone on welfare is just lazy, and unfortunately the less discerning readers take that as fact. The dad exaggerating his injury doesn't reflect well on him, but I could understand his reasons for it.

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  3. This is a fantastic wrap up and I love that you touched on the 'perceptions of disability' subject. I hope we continue to have this social commentary throughout the novel, because even though (as an Aussie) I'm not really in a position to talk too much on the subject with authority, there are clear parallels between what happens in the UK and what happens in Australia since we have such similar political/economic/social systems.

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  4. THANK YOU. The benefit thing really hasn't changed that much, and the hoops people have to jump through to get money they desperately need (and are entitled to) are nowhere near as flimsy as a lot of people seem to think. I've been there - back when my agoraphobia was at its peak, I couldn't leave my own house without feeling like the world was coming to an end, and my rampant stomach issues weren't yet under control - and even then I felt like I had to overegg everything when I had my assessment. They tried to stop my money at one point - money I needed for rent and food - and I had to ring HMRC and ask how exactly all of these things fit together to make 'not eligible'. Fortunately the lady I spoke to agreed completely. It's scary how easy it is for them to take everything away if you don't present 'just right' - and even if they admit they got it wrong, you can still be left high and dry for several MONTHS before they sort it out. I can't imagine how hard that must be for someone with a family to feed. :(

    Also that Doctor Who hug GIF is giving me feels. SO MANY FEELS. *sighs*

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    1. I'm sorry you had to go through all that, and at the worst possible time too. :( I've been lucky in that I've never experienced that sort of thing. *hugs to past you.* *Also present you.*

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    2. The worst thing was going into the Job Centre and having to sit in the waiting area watching a fully grown man sobbing on a chair because the JC had screwed up his money for that week and he had nothing to feed his kids. The Job Centre lady basically stood over him frowning and saying, "There's nothing I can do about it!" in this really aggressive way while he CRIED. I wanted to give him the biggest hug, it was one of the most awful things I've ever seen in my life. :(

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    3. It's horrible. What happened to compassion? There seems to be a marked lack of it in certain parts of our society. Poor man! I do hope he managed to get things sorted.

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  5. You make a very good point about the dad and how, yes, he is faking the limp and some stuff for the benefits, but then there are mentions of his ACTUAL pain and bad days the benefits are legit. And like you said, beyond any of that, this shouldn't be something that Johanna has to worry about. This shouldn't be on her at all.

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  6. I'm enjoying the way this book is already causing us to discuss social issues and check our personal misconceptions. It's like a social studies class...but with GIFs.

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    1. GIFS WOULD MAKE ALL CLASSES MORE AWESOME. That should probably be in an education handbook somewhere.

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    2. Agreed!!! Everything is better with gifs.

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