February in Books

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I Know I Am, But What Are You? by Samantha Bee

As it turned out, February was the perfect time to read Samantha Bee’s memoir because after the first episode of her new show aired, I was hungry for any extra morsel of Sam Bee hilarity I could get. This was as whacky and wild as anticipated, and maybe put me off getting a cat forever…

Rather than an autobiography, Bee’s book is more a collection of amusing anecdotes from her upbringing through to the early years of her career – including her days performing as Sailor Moon in a show she describes as “so vague and ridiculous that it could have been written by a basket of acorns that had fallen onto a laptop by accident.” Naturally, it was performing as Sailor Moon that led to meeting her husband, fellow former Daily Show correspondent, Jason Jones. (A story as surreal as it is sweet.) Basically, expect the unexpected. Most of Bee’s tales involve a calamitous sequence of events that were probably borderline traumatic to experience but, in retrospect and when retold by Samantha Bee, are so ridiculously amusing that reading in public is no longer an option. Also, an alarming number of them involve animals: cats, horses and even dolphins.

Writing a Woman’s Life by Carolyn G. Heilbrun

The perfect preparatory read for the Women’s Lives Club project (which I mentioned in more detail in January’s post), Carolyn G. Heilbrun’s Writing a Woman’s Life was fascinating, enlightening and all too short. In it, Heilbrun explores the specific pitfalls of female biography, the gendered documentation of history and, at least anecdotally, the stories of women lost to it. Wonderful, captivating stories. It feels like essential reading going into a yearlong reading project focusing on women’s stories, providing my analysis with a solid, structured foundation.

Heilbrun’s text is full of references to incredible women and my favourite of these were Vera Brittain and her soulmate-best-friend Winifred Holtby, who both seem astonishingly ahead of their time (bearing in mind their time was the 1930s). Heilbrun asserts that, “friendship between women has seldom been recounted” and introduces the pair as a rare, documented example. But I got so excited reading excerpts of their writing, most particularly this one, by Holtby, written in her book Women and a Changing Civilization (1934):

“I think that the real object behind our demand is not to reduce all men and women to the same dull pattern. It is rather to release their richness of variety. We still are greatly ignorant of our own natures. We do not know how much of what we usually describe as ‘feminine characteristics’ are really ‘masculine,’ and how much ‘masculinity’ is common to both sexes. Our hazards are often wildly off the mark. We do not even know – though we theorise and penalise with ferocious confidence – whether the ‘normal’ sexual relationship is homo- or bi- or hetero-sexual. We are content to make vast generalizations which quite often fit the facts enough to be tolerable, but which – also quite often – inflict indescribable because indefinable suffering on those individuals who cannot without pain conform to our rough-and-ready attempt to make all men [and women] good and happy.”

She wrote that in 1934. 1934.

To sum up, this was a dream read filled with similar excerpts, and had me yearning for my old Gender Studies days. I am always attempting to satiate that feeling through the recommendations of other likeminded, feminist readers and Writing a Woman’s Life really delivered, even if the enjoyment was disappointingly brief. If you’re participating in the Women’s Lives Club, even if you missed the first month, I would definitely recommend taking the time to pick up a copy of this.

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So, Biographies Are Wild

Let me start with this: I have never been a particularly avid reader of biographies. Prior to Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, I can’t recall the last one I read. But all of a sudden, my participation in the Women’s Lives Club’s year of women’s biographies means my bookshelf is raining life stories. (I think I’m going to need a bigger bookshelf.) As a newbie to the world of biographies, I thought I would share my somewhat disorganised thoughts on the topic. More specifically, I wanted to reflect on the immediate intrusiveness I’ve felt in this process. For reasons I’ll attempt to make clear, this sudden immersion into the worlds of other people, as told by different other people, has made me far more distrustful of the form than I ever expected.

To put it bluntly, it seems to involve the total invasion of a person’s existence. Imagine having your story appropriated by someone else. I’d never really considered how insidious that could be. To lose control of the narrative of your own life seems a frightening prospect.

As supplementary reading to the book club, our fearless leader Rachel Syme suggested Writing a Woman’s Life by Carolyn G. Heilbrun. In it, Heilbrun references Roland Barthes’ view of biography as offensive because it entails, as Barthes puts it, “a counterfeit integration of the subject.” Heilbrun concurs, suggesting that, “In choosing among biographers and biographies, we choose among counterfeit integrations.”

The biography I’m currently reading for the Women’s Lives Club, The Silent Woman by Janet Malcolm, opens on an essay from Ted Hughes that was written as the foreword to The Journals of Sylvia Plath, and in it he says, “I never saw her show her real self to anybody– except, perhaps, in the last three months of her life”. Less than a page in and I was already thrown off-kilter by those words. “Her real self”. It made me think about my “real self”, the idea that anybody has a “real self”, one true identity from which any deviation is just that: a digression from the authentic person. Why can we not be understood as more than one thing? We are more than one “real self”, aren’t we? But can a biography account for that?

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January in Books

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I always endeavour not to make New Year’s resolutions. Come on. They’re so mainstream and I’m so edgy. Actually, no. I just feel like they’re predestined to fail. It becomes the talk of February to discuss what a terrible job everyone’s done with whatever optimistic resolutions they made.

For 2016, though, I really wanted to make a conscious effort to read more books. I’m hoping that I can conclude each month with an informal roundup of my reading material. Thus far I have made my way through the books listed below, I’ve opened my Twitter up to recommendations and, on a 3am whim, I joined an online book club devoted to biographies about women. I’d call that a successful start.

Without further ado, I give you January’s selections…

 Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

Taking on a book that could double as a doorstop is always a little intimidating but my escalating interest in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical persuaded me this was a must-read. After all, Hamilton’s life had to be pretty damn epic to warrant a three-hour Broadway musical. Assumption correct. The man is non-stop.

The biography opens with a prologue entitled ‘The Oldest Revolutionary War Widow’, introducing us to Hamilton’s wife, Elizabeth Schuyler, in the latter years of her life, before we meet the man himself. In a particularly moving quote, Chernow describes that,

 [Eliza] frequently grew melancholy and longed for a reunion with “her Hamilton,” as she invariably referred to him. “One night, I remember, she seemed sad and absent-minded and could not go to the parlor where there were visitors, but sat near the fire and played backgammon for a while,” said one caller. “When the game was done, she leaned back in her chair a long time with closed eyes, as if lost to all around her. There was a long silence, broken by the murmured words, ‘I am so tired. It is so long. I want to see Hamilton.’”

Doesn’t that just break your heart? It left me wondering what kind of a man can have inspired such devotion in Eliza, a devotion, it turned out, that was not exclusive to Eliza but extended to her father, her sisters, and Hamilton’s many friends and mentors. It seems as though everyone who encountered Hamilton either became a faithful admirer or a potent enemy. If there existed an in-between, it didn’t make the biography. There may not be a more polarising political figure from the period. However, Chernow does not choose an enemy to open and close this biographical epic, but the woman who perhaps loved Hamilton most of all. The story of Eliza’s later years swiftly leads the reader into the accounts of Alexander Hamilton’s turbulent childhood, where the genius of the man quickly begins to emerge against a bleak backdrop. It didn’t take long for me to catch onto the hype. If only the unfortunate Aaron Burr had too.

It struck me that Chernow’s narrative structure, or perhaps simply the chronological sequence of events in Hamilton’s life, reflects that of the two-act ‘Into The Woods’ model. We spend the first half in the fairytale of Hamilton – he goes from an impoverished orphan living in obscurity to a self-made hero of the American Revolution, the adoring husband to Eliza and George Washington’s right hand man – until the transition into the second half begins his undoing, where the truth of Hamilton’s vices and a more cynical reality come into play. His life, both public and private, is dismantled until – spoiler alert! – he’s staring death in the face as he stands facing his long-time rival Aaron Burr, duelling pistol in hand, in Weehawken, New Jersey on that fateful morning of July 12th, 1804.

It’s hard to be concise when reviewing the life of a man who was anything but. My overriding feeling when reading Chernow’s biography was one of contentment – that Eliza’s desperate hope to ensure her husband’s legacy has been fulfilled. One of the most poignant moments in the musical comes during ‘The World Was Wide Enough’ as Hamilton, whose preoccupation with his legacy has defined him, raps, “Legacy. What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see. I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me.” It leads neatly into the following song’s ultimate assertion: “You have no control: who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” In Carolyn G. Heilbrun’s book Writing a Woman’s Life, she notes that scholars have “lately written about how much of what passes as history is in fact evidence from the prevailing or established opinion of the age”. For so many years, it was Jefferson and a succession of Democratic-Republican leaders who controlled Hamilton’s narrative, painting him in the worst possible light. Two hundred years later, the Hamiltons are finally gifted a belated happy ending. Ron Chernow, an outstandingly comprehensive and devoted biographer, has recovered details of this impressive founding father’s many achievements that have laid the foundations to enable Alexander Hamilton’s success story to reach the masses.

As well as enriching the central Hamilton narrative with supplementary anecdotes, Ron Chernow’s biography offers fascinating nuggets about other characters such as Peggy Schuyler, Aaron Burr, Angelica Schuyler Church, George Washington, John Adams, Marquis de Lafayette and the Hamilton children. Simply put, it’s a must-read if you love the musical.

 Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher

A friend suggested I read this in the wake of my sudden Star Wars enlightenment. I have to say, for a book that begins with a death, goes on to explore the dark side of celebrity, discusses drug addiction and bipolar, all before eventually concluding with PTSD, it’s a really funny read. That’s Carrie. (What a life!)

Reading Wishful Drinking was like sitting on the beach drinking cocktails, but in book form. It’s a short and sweet collection of memories from Carrie’s unusually eventful life. Now, I accept that “sweet” might seem an odd descriptor given the weight of many of the issues explored, but the openness with which every anecdote is retold makes you feel like you’re having a fun bonding sesh with your old bud Carrie Fisher. I didn’t even know I had an old bud Carrie Fisher! How thrilling. Now she’s chilling with me on this hot, sandy beach and telling me about growing up as the daughter of America’s sweethearts, and we’re laughing because, according to George Lucas, there’s no underwear in space, and she’s opening up to me about past loves and heartbreaks, and before I know it, the sun’s gone down and I’ve been so swept up in her stories that I haven’t even picked up my beach reading – except, oh wait, I’m not actually on a beach and I’ve been reading the whole time.

What I’m saying is, you’ll read this and like Carrie Fisher. If you don’t then, well, you’re weird and you don’t deserve to be Carrie Fisher’s beach bud.

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