summer book exchange #7: How To Be a Woman

I am not, nor have I ever been a woman. I have, however, known many women, slept with a few, married one and fathered two.

Until I read this book, I don’t think I ever really knew anything about what it takes (or means) to be a woman. After reading it, I probably don’t KNOW – but now I have a bit of a clue.

photo 3How To Be a Woman, by Caitlin Moran (2011)

This is, without doubt, a feminist manifesto and Moran’s test to determine if one is a feminist is quite simple.

“So here is the quick way of working out if you’re a feminist,” she writes. “Put your hand in your underpants. A) Do you have a vagina? and B) Do you want to be in charge of it? If you said ‘yes’ to both, then congratulations! You’re a feminist.”

By now, you’re probably thinking, “Why the hell would Wes read a feminist manifesto?” and “Once he read it, why on earth would he write a review of it? After all, he said he was only going to review the Summer Book Exchange books he LIKED.”

Liked it? LOVED IT. This is hands down the funniest nonfiction book I have ever read in my life. Ever. Nonfiction. Period. I started laughing – and learning – on page 1 of chapter 1 and while the laughing peters out late in the book, Moran’s style is so easy, so free and so utterly funny that you can’t help turn the page to see what kind of mischief she’s going to get herself into on the next page.

Her approach to feminism is what appeals to me. It’s not about separating the sexes, it’s about bringing them together.

“Don’t call it sexism. Call it ‘manners’ instead. When a woman blinks a little, shakes her head like Columbo and says, ‘I’m sorry, but that sounded a little…uncivil,’ a man is apt to apologize, because even the most rampant bigot on earth has no defense against a charge of simply being rude.”

In Chapter 1, 13-year-old Moran gets her first period and explores the relationship she has with her sister Caz and her mother. We meet most of her family – all 7 or 8 of her siblings and her clearly tired parents. Neither her mother nor her father are particularly helpful (or useful) in her journey to learning how to be a woman, but we certainly can’t hold that against them. They’re also fat, as is Moran, something which she reminds us of quite often.

Chapters 1 (I Start Bleeding!) to 14 (Role Models and What We Do with Them) are funny and poignant, and it’s easy to follow Moran’s feminist narrative throughout. I feel it’s important to note that she’s not a man-hating feminist – she says so herself – but that’s because she feels a man-hater isn’t a feminist, really, and needs to figure out better their place in the world. The funny comes to a screeching, crushing halt in Chapter 15, when she discusses her abortion and the final chapter isn’t really a barrel of laughs, either, though it is a reprieve from the rather loaded topic of abortion. If I’d stopped reading after chapter 14, I’d give this book 5 stars easy. As it is, I have to pull back to 4.75, because even though I think abortion needs to be discussed more openly in our society, it really is a total bummer to do so and the previous chapters are so funny that it’s a real left turn as far as the book goes.

I think the abortion chapter is so …abrupt… simply because Moran has brought us along so merrily and willingly in her free flowing style that when it stops (and it DOES stop), it’s just hard to see it as a cohesive total. The last two chapters of the book stand out, stand apart from the rest of the material, so much so that they give the last quarter of the book a disjointed feel. This doesn’t mean they’re not well written, because they are. For example:

“I cannot understand antiabortion arguments that center on the sanctity of life. As a species, we’ve fairly comprehensively demonstrated that we don’t believe in the sanctity of life. The shrugging acceptance of war, famine, epidemic, pain, and lifelong, grinding poverty show us that, whatever we tell ourselves, we’ve made only the most feeble of efforts to really treat human life as sacred.” (author’s emphasis)

Not even George Carlin could have said it better, and it’s a sentiment that somehow has more power coming from a woman. Perhaps that’s because women are the source of life, sanctified or not.

Humor aside, the two best chapters in the book are the companion chapters 12 and 13 – Why You Should Have Children and Why You Shouldn’t Have Children. Moran’s insight into the human condition – for men AND women – is so acute and powerful that these two chapters alone make the book worth reading.

The most powerful chapter, however, is 14: Role Models and What We Do with Them. In this chapter, Moran viscerally excoriates somebody called Katie Price, of whom I had no knowledge until I read this book. (I had to google her to get a basic rundown.) Moran holds Price up as the worst kind of woman, or at least the worst kind of feminist – one who has turned her looks and her marriages into her “career.” She contrasts Price’s existence with that of Lady Gaga, who – if you’ve been paying attention to the book up to this point – is clearly the best kind of feminist, male OR female. Not being a fan of Gaga’s music, I developed some respect for her just reading about some of the things she’s done and the way she expresses herself. It’s an eye-opening part of the book for a lot of reasons.

The joy and laughter in reading the books comes from Moran examining her own life and describing how it all comes together even while it’s falling apart. Her description of the 48-hour labor leading up to the C-section that brought her older daughter into the world is horrifying, but you barely have time to be horrified because you’re so busy wiping tears off your cheeks because you’re laughing so hard you can hardly breathe.

Yes, that’s right, I just said her horrifying description of birth is side-splittingly funny. This is how Moran reaches you – man or woman, child or adult (not that I’m recommending children read this book). She lays open the human condition so well that you follow her right down the rabbit hole, holding on for dear life, and the book is so good you’re compelled to ride the wagon all the way to the bottom.

I highly recommend this book – for adults. Maybe older teens if they’re very mature. There’s a lot of frank discussion of risky behavior, including smoking (heavily), drinking (heavily), and sex (um… heavily?) of all sorts and Moran’s vocabulary is quite vulgar (of which I heartily approve). I think men especially could benefit from reading this book – it may not turn a man into a feminist, but it will certainly allow a man to gain a little insight into how many women are affected by bras, menstruation and bridesmaid’s dresses.

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1 thought on “summer book exchange #7: How To Be a Woman

  1. Somehow I missed that you’d posted this review. Glad you enjoyed it! I don’t remember thinking the end was such a bummer, but I’ll have to re-read. When I finished the book I had a feeling like “everyone I know MUST read this book!” which honestly I’ve never felt before. I hope your review inspires a few more folks to check it out.

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