Book Review: Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Being a feminist can be exhausting. There are only so many times you can hear someone say ‘but we have gender equality now, why can’t you just shut up, why do you hate men?’ before you start to daydream of a world where the problem just doesn’t exist at all. Don’t deny it, I know you’ve thought it. My boyfriend, obviously a man himself, has even said it out loud. It’s very difficult not to when you’re faced with a constant stream of unending privilege, arrogance, sexism, racism and classism from half the people you come into contact with. I’m not saying we should think it, or that it’s a good thing. I’m just being honest about how shitty being a feminist can feel sometimes.

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Well, lucky for me, 19th century feminist author Charlotte Perkins Gilman shared my guilty daydream. Herland is a story about three male explorers who happen upon a civilisation formed entirely of women. As they explore this utopian society full of harmonious, selfless citizens, the explorers teach them, at the women’s request, what it’s like in the real world full of men. Unsurprisingly, the women are not happy about what they hear. Perkins Gilman’s clever way of pitting the brutality and selfishness of our world against the serenity and beauty of Herland are almost upsetting in parts, because of how terrible they make our world seem. However at the same time you are rewarded with the understanding that she is absolutely ripping the piss out of the male protagonists.

Herland sends a very clear message about being wary of the affect that competitive, exploitative, selfish behaviour has on a society. While it’s easy to see the story as just an expression of frustration, I do think it goes a lot deeper than that. I also think that it is a must for any man to read. You’ll find it unsettling, but it’s important to see such a believable, rational evolution of an all-female society. After all, we live in a patriarchy, you’re the ones with the power and you’re the ones that need to be challenged.

For me, this book was a wonderful way of harmlessly working through some of the serious issues I have with men who won’t acknowledge their privilege. It was an incredibly cathartic, amusing and interesting read, even though it really did make me feel sad in parts. I would highly recommend it to any tired feminist, and if you can find a way of making the sexist person in your life read it to the end, it’ll probably give them a lot of food for thought too. Get it from Waterstones – link

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Book review: Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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One of the most engaging, vivid and interesting books I’ve read for a long time, Purple Hibiscus is an incredible ‘coming-of-age’ story about fifteen year old Kambili, daughter of a wealthy Nigerian businessman. I describe her in this decidedly non-feminist way because this is how she appears to see herself for much of the book. Her father is the sun around which her family revolves and having an identity of her own isn’t just something she isn’t allowed, it’s a concept that would never even have occurred to her. Until, that is, life throws Kambili and her brother into the life of their Aunty, the brilliant Ifeoma, and her spirited children.

I think my favourite aspect of the book has got to be the characters and the way they each influence Kambili in a unique way. Her tyrannical father, the quiet developments taking place under the skin of her brother Jaja, the gloriously intelligent teenage anger of her cousin Amaka, the budding philosopher in her cousin Obiora, and the quiet, heartbreaking tragedy of her mother, these are fantastically written, deeply complex people, who all have a part to play in unfolding the story, and enabling Kambili to wake up into her own person.

Another aspect that I absolutely adored were the intellectual conversations taking place around Kambili, about colonialism, nationhood, westernisation, racism and corruption, without her actually joining in or having an opinion about them. I thought this was a neat little trick of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who let’s not forget, is a very important figure in the field of modern feminism. It is a joy to read these parts because they were written by someone who really, really knows what she’s talking about. Like watching an interview with an actor who indulges the audience by slipping into their best known character for a moment, except here, Adichie is sharing her brilliant insights into deeply important topics.

At it’s heart, this is a story about people in pain, and it is a moving, thought-provoking, intelligent and compulsive read. This story tugs at everything in you, and you simply must read it.

Have you already read Purple Hibiscus? What did you think? Put a spoiler warning at the top of your comment and let’s talk about it!! 

 

Happy World Book Day!

To mark the occasion I thought I would share my favourite book. Especially since my new copy literally just came in the post! I’m a firm believer in buying old copies or nice looking editions of books, I have a copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray with peacock feathers all over it, and my copy of The Silmarillion is really really old (perfect condition though as I’m the only one in my family to ever open it!) I just think that its nice to have a book that you like to look at, you know? With electronic copies and so on its getting harder to justify real books, and I think that’s a tragedy as modern society wouldn’t even slightly exist without them. So turn them into a piece of home furnishing and you don’t need to feel bad any more 😉

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So, One Hundred Years of Solitude is my favourite book. I mean obviously that’s a loaded statement, there are so many books that I love, so many that have moved me, changed the way I think and the way I look at the world. But the way he writes resonates with me so perfectly. It’s like his writing style fits my mind like a glove. Anyone who similarly loves this book might notice that it’s where I got the name for this blog. One of the characters, Mauricio Babilonia, is constantly followed around by yellow butterflies. He’s this lustful character who shamelessly seduces one of the other characters. Don’t infer anything about me from that by the way. The reason the butterflies caught my attention is simple, and I think its tied into why I love this book so much: I first read is while I was in the Amazon rainforest.

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That’s a bad mobile phone shot of the view from the living room of the place I stayed. The vivid language, the colours that he creates in your mind, they were just perfectly aligned with what I saw every time I looked up from the book. The place you’re in – whether physically or mentally – can really affect how you experience a book, and for me, this was perfect. It took me a long time to finish as I was volunteering so didn’t have much spare time to read, but that drew it out and left me time to think over and re-enjoy the story as I went.

The reason I liked the bit about the butterflies so much is that there was a research project being conducted on them while I was there , and I learned that butterflies are disgusting. The things they eat are just horrendous – rotting, rancid, dirty things.  So after a long day of baiting butterflies it was funny to come back and read about a swarm of them following this guy around. Plus, we were going up river one day and saw a yellow spotted tortoise absolutely surrounded by yellow butterflies. This book is connected to so many parts of that life changing, incredible trip, quite apart from the fact that it’s also one of the most wonderful books I’ve ever read.

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Another photo of me relaxing in the jungle. This is the only other one – I did work hard, honest! There’s a magic about the jungle that I think goes perfectly with the magical realism in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Different, obviously. But when you’re there you can’t shake this feeling of wonder, at every new sound you hear and thing you see. You accept the reality of things you’d never even think about normally (snakes, birds, insects, jaguars…) things that seem so far removed from your normal everyday existence. And the same is true for the book. The way the magical realism is presented is just like like that, you accept it, enjoy it and engage with it, never thinking about it as if you’re looking from the outside in.

So there it is! Happy World Book Day, I hope you’re treating yourself to a few new ones to celebrate. And if you are, I can’t recommend this one enough. Unless you’re going to find yourself in the Amazon Rainforest soon, in which case there’s a dog-eared, humidity damaged copy waiting there for you already.