Monday, 21 July 2014

How To Build A Girl readalong: Part two

Chapters 5-10

This readalong has been organised by Emily at As The Crowe Flies (and Reads.)


Part one of How To Build A Girl ends on a very melodramatic note. After embarrassing herself on live TV, Johanna Morrigan dolefully concludes: "There are no two ways about it: I am going to have to die." Dun dun DAAAH! In part two, she is swift to clarify matters. She's not actually going to commit suicide. "I don't want to not live. I just don't want to be me any more. Everything I am is not working."

Oh man! As fiction it reads quite lightly, an amusing anti-climax: okay, I said I'm going to die but I don't actually mean die. However, it speaks to a feeling that comes right from the gut, a dissatisfaction I know all too well, and I am twice Johanna's age.


Instead, Johanna goes about reinventing her image as the dark and mysterious Dolly Wilde, named after a scandalous niece of Oscar. I'm not sure how one can use the name Dolly nowadays without bringing to mind a very specific Dolly! But Johanna, or Dolly, takes this transformation very seriously, and I really enjoyed reading about her inspiration collage on her wall. It's the sort of thing I'd have done at that age, though I was always dissatisfied with the results - they never looked as cool as the things my friends from real life, film and TV would come up with. "Dolly" is a very deliberate, studied effort at constructing a new personality, as the book's title implies. I think we all do that to a certain extent, according to where we are. Am I the earnest book-lover on a quest for knowledge, or the out-and-out geek girl? Yes.

So Johanna decides to become a music journalist - only problem being that she doesn't know a thing about music. Not that this stops her! I felt her awkwardness as she tried to get into her goth cousin's group, or browse a non-HMV record shop which seems as girl-friendly as the comic book store of The Big Bang Theory. I remember how as a teenager, your music tastes defined you, marked you out as cool or not. (Confession: I was obsessed with Boyzone.) Actually, in my experience I felt far more accepted among the goths and skaters than I did among the "ordinary" kids at school, even at fourteen, and the Hobbit in Southampton was the first pub I ever felt comfortable in.

Still, Johanna is nothing if not determined, and builds up her music knowledge with records ordered from the library and listening to John Peel on the radio, and eventually walks into the coveted job at the age of sixteen, with no qualifications.


We finally find out about Johanna's dad's disability - he was seriously injured in his work as a fireman. I wonder if Moran deliberately delayed telling us the details to challenge our reactions: though I fought against it, I did catch a treacherous thought crossing my mind: "so he's heroically disabled, that's all right then." PEOPLE ARE PEOPLE, PEOPLE! How does one earn one's right to be "deserving" poor, anyway? (Possibly not through drink-driving. These scenes made me very nervous.)



Johanna began her writing career as a means to "save" her family from poverty and disrepute, and yet even this early on I can see her getting caught up in her work and losing sight of her noble aims. Perhaps it's not surprising - she is sixteen, and probably every sixteen-year-old wants to put distance between themselves and their parents. I was cringing on her behalf when her drunken father came backstage to meet the Smashing Pumpkins with her. But I can see this independence becoming a huge source of conflict later on.


Key Quotes:


I am my own imaginary friend.
 Sometimes, and suddenly, these barrages of me-excluding noise part to reveal things I find astonishingly beautiful, and useful to me and my heart, in their current position.
We are not just poor people who have not yet evolved into something else: i.e.: people with money. We are something else - just as we are.
I can see where I have drawn Dolly Wilde on top of my own face - the two uneasily co-existing - but perhaps others can't.

21 comments:

  1. I think Moran is doing a fantastic job of bringing Johanna to life. I grew up in a different time period, but there's plenty of similarities in terms of teen emotions to make it recognizable.

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    1. Yes, she really evokes a particular time and place so strongly, but also captures what it's like to be a big ball of hormones and insecurity and dreams that is the universal teen experience.

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  2. You have really perfect gifs this week. Well done! The Anne one is even textually relevant, so you get extra points for that.

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    1. Thank you. I love Caitlin Moran for loving Anne!

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  3. Yes, backstage at The Smashing Pumpkins was THE WORST.

    I guess I didn't relate as well to Johanna's need to reinvent herself as much as others - not because I wasn't in constant reinvention mode as a teen - but because my reinventions were small. I was always in band - forever in band and at the two high schools that I went to - that was defining in and of itself. So a big part of who I was - was April: Band Geek, which was fine. :)

    Also glad that Dolly evokes Dolly Parton for everyone, everywhere. :)

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    1. I think she was remarkably restrained when her dad showed up like that! I still feel myself thinking about what image I want to take with me whenever I go to another town or city. I recently went on holiday on my own, and it was so refreshing NOT to take all these different "me"s with me, if that makes any sense.

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    2. I was walking through town yesterday, and the local radio station was playing "Jolene," blaring from several different shops and cars. I heard other people singing along, and joined in a bit myself. Dolly never fails to make me smile.

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  4. "I just don't want to be me any more. Everything I am is not working." I totally got this too. I think it's why I enjoyed the book so much - because it's so tied up with invention and reinvention, which is pretty much exactly the point I'm at again right now, post-bookshop, post-misery, pre-everything else. I wish I had Johanna's focus though, I have no Dolly Wilde in my head to pour everything into!

    Moran did this interview where she said that noone ever tells you that this is how your whole LIFE goes, not just your teenage years - you build yourself up and tear it down and rebuild yourself and tear it down, over and over, gradually finding the pieces that belong and filtering out the ones that don't. You are your own lifelong project. I LOVE THAT WOMAN.

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    1. It's so true. Though I'm often quite happy bobbing along with life as it is, this is not how I'd expected my life to turn out, and 30 doesn't seem so far away and I'm wanting to ask, "can I have another bash at my 20s please?" And I know that's still young, but ARGH! I think I've got being me sorted, though, even if I have different sides to me that don't sit quite comfortably together. I guess that's what being human is.

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    2. I'm reading L. M. Montgomery's journals at the moment (she who wrote Anne of Green Gables) and found a quote that really resonated with me:

      "If any person wants to see clearly just how much she is changed - whether for better or worse - let her revisit after some lapse of time any place where she has once lived. She will meet her former self at every turn, with every familiar face, in every old recollection. She will see, in sharp contrast to the present, her old ideals, views, hopes, beliefs, as she would never see them any other way." THIS IS SO TRUE! My sister lives near where I went to university, and sometimes I walk down those streets and, with a pang, expect to see past-me walking the other way.

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  5. "Sometimes, and suddenly, these barrages of me-excluding noise part to reveal things I find astonishingly beautiful, and useful to me and my heart, in their current position."

    I highlighted that part too :)

    Her dad sucks... the drinking on her company's dime and then driving her home drunk made me grit my teeth. UGH.

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    1. I'm surprised she didn't rebel against letting him come along with her, but I guess at sixteen you're still very reliant on parents for transportation (you can't get a driving license until 17 in the UK.) It's details like that which I forget about being a teenager. Even though I still don't drive, I can hop on a train or a bus and go wherever I like. I pity Johanna's dad, but I do feel a bit of revulsion towards him at times too - and drink-driving is the worst.

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  6. I definitely do think Moran wrote the reveal of Johanna's dad's disability to challenge her readers' perceptions. But I don't think she gave her readers even a chance of not judging him, when he's so totally fine with drinking on Johanna's boss's dime and also has that grocery permit that lets him get food at discounted rates. And ARGH the driving his child around drunk made me want to punch things.

    I did feel bad about judging him, though. Caitlin Moran is manipulating my feelings all over the place.

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    1. He's a tricky character - not likable or admirable, but pitiable nonetheless. NO to drink-driving EVER. That's happened a couple of times, and it's going to end in disaster, I'm sure of it.

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  7. Adding in the bit about her Dad's disability seriously threw me off course. I was all kinda hating on him a little bit so it came as a shock and then I realised I hated myself a little for thinking, as you put it, that you can be 'heroically disables'. So many mixed feelings!

    Loving the gifs (STAR WARS!), and the quotes you've highlighted are just perfect.

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    1. People can be such a muddle of contradictions. I don't much like Johanna's dad, though I pity him, but I guess people aren't intrinsically good or intrinsically bad, they're just... people. So in that way I guess she's done a good job of bringing him to life. I'll be interested to see if the main impression of him is more positive or negative at the end.

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    2. And I think that's kind of the point. You can be deserving of disability pensions and still an irresponsible asshole. The two aren't entwined, you can't deny someone support just because you don't like them.

      Although I do like Dadda. Maybe not most of the time, but there are these brief moments that shine through where he seems like an interesting, passionate, caring man.

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    3. Too right, you guys. I do like that her parents are fleshed out and complicated. Still mad at both of them, but at least they're not the stock bad parent characters only in place to rebel against.

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  8. Katie! The Hobbit! I freaking love The Hobbit! Damn, I miss that place.

    Anyway... I don't think her dad genuinely being disabled changed how I feel about him at all- I think he's kind of epic, but I really really fucking hate the drink driving. It's making me super sad.

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    1. YOU KNOW THE HOBBIT?! Come to Southampton and drink Tolkien-themed cocktails, they are the best!

      I was pretty sure he was genuinely disabled anyway, but it doesn't let him off the hook for the drink-driving. NO Mr Morrigan, it is NOT OK.

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