20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2022), Author, autofiction, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Italy, literary fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Setting, Sibilla Aleramo

‘A Woman’ by Sibilla Aleramo (translated by Erica Segre and Simon Carnell)

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 240 pages; 2020. Translated from the Italian by Erica Segre and Simon Carnell.

What a “cheery” book this turned out to be. I’m being facetious, of course, because Sibilla Aleramo’s A Woman, first published in 1906, makes for some depressing, albeit important and serious, reading.

Regarded as one of the earliest pieces of Italian feminist literature, it charts the experience of an unnamed Italian woman from girlhood until her mid-twenties at the turn of the 20th century.

During this time she gets married and has a child, but her husband is abusive and the story follows the narrator’s attempts to forge an independent life for herself — but it comes at a high price.

Said to be autofiction and therefore based on the author’s own experiences, it’s a startling and often shocking account of one woman’s determination to reject the life mapped out for her.

A false and petty life

This opening sentence sets the tone and mood for everything that follows:

My childhood was carefree and lively. Trying to resurrect that time now, to rekindle it in my mind, is a hopeless task.

The narrator, looking back on what she describes as a “false and petty” life, reveals how happy she was as a young girl, the oldest child of a middle-class Italian family whose father doted on her.

When the family move from Milan to a rural location so that her father can take up an important job running a factory, she leaves school and begins working for her father as an administrator. She loves the sense of purpose the role gives her, but it’s a false sense of independence because her life as a woman is already mapped out for her: she must marry, have children and be “naturally submissive and servile”.

An unhappy marriage

As a 16-year-old she develops a crush on a factory worker many years her senior. He takes advantage of her youth and brutally rapes her, but she’s naive enough to think he loves her. They marry and have a child. It is not a match made in heaven.

He begins to control every facet of her life and restricts her to one room in the house. Unsurprisingly, she becomes depressed and yearns for something more. The only thing that appears to keep her sane is an undying love for her young son and a passion for writing.

For a while he maintained his prohibitions and I continued not to go out, spending long afternoons shut indoors with a controlled amount of writing paper for correspondence, not allowed to see anyone apart from my relatives, the doctor and the housemaid – all under the pretence of ample freedom, but with such crude surveillance that I would have found it amusing were it not for the fact that at still not twenty-one years old my life had become so irremediably joyless.

It’s not all bad. Eventually, her talent as a writer affords her an opportunity to become a journalist. She makes a name for herself writing about feminist issues and social inequality for a publication based in Rome but she has to tread a fine line between dutiful wife and successful career woman.

Self-indulgent story

The book, which by its very nature is quite self-indulgent, details the narrator’s thoughts and feelings and philosophies on life, her outrage at the divide between the way men and women must live their lives, and the double standards when it comes to love and marriage.

It is confronting in places, especially when she is subject to nightly terrors in the bedroom (it’s not described in detail, but it’s clear her husband rapes her whenever he wants sex) and partly blames her own family for allowing her to be married to a man who treats her so badly.

And how can she become a woman if her relatives hand her over ignorant, weak and immature to a man who does not receive her as an equal; who uses her like an object that he owns, gives her children which he abandons to her sole care while he fulfils his social duties, and while he continues to childishly amuse himself?

When her own mother has a psychological breakdown and is admitted to an asylum, the narrator begins to understand that she may be headed down the same path and that despite her attempts to be her own person she is, effectively, just reenacting her own mother’s life. It’s a depressing realisation.

According to the author blurb, Sibilla Aleramo (1876-1960) was the pseudonym of Marta Felicina Faccio, who was an Italian author and poet best known for producing some of the first feminist writing in Italy and for her autobiographical depictions of life as a woman in late 19th-century Italy. She was a recipient of the prestigious Viareggio Rèpaci award and was active in political and artistic circles throughout her adult life.

This is my 1st book for #20booksofsummer 2022 edition. I bought it on Kindle on 22 June 2020 for the princely sum of 99p. I have no idea what prompted me to buy it because I’ve never read a review of it. Perhaps I just liked the cover?

Author, Book review, dystopian, Fiction, Naomi Alderman, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘The Power’ by Naomi Alderman

The Power

Fiction – hardcover; Penguin (Waterstones Exclusive Gift Edition); 352 pages; 2017.

Naomi Alderman’s The Power won the 2017 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. I treated myself to the hardcover gift edition (only available to purchase in Waterstones) as an early Christmas present last November and loved the look, feel and weight of it in my hand (there’s something so satisfying about holding a well made physical book, isn’t there, especially if the pages turn and lie open easily and the text doesn’t run into the gutter). The contents, I’m pleased to say, were just as satisfying.

Like most dystopian fiction with a feminist slant, the story owes a lot to Margaret Atwood’s classic of the genre, The Handmaid’s Tale. But in Alderman’s tale, the women have not been subjugated by the men; instead they have achieved an extraordinary level of power, not in the conventional sense, but in a new female-only ability to electrocute people by touch.

[…] a team in Delhi […] are the first to discover the strip of striated muscles across the girls’ collarbones which they name the organ of electricity, or the skein for its twisted strands. At the points of the collar are electro-receptors enabling, they theorise, a form of electric echo-location. The buds of the skeins have been observed using MRI scans in the collarbones of newborn infant girls.

An historical novel with a difference

The story, which unfolds over a 10-year period, is written as though it is historical fiction from the perspective of a matriarchal society. It is bookended by correspondence between two friends, one of whom has written a manuscript called ‘The Power’. (The writer is Neil Adam Armon, which is clearly an anagram of Naomi Alderman; there are a lot of clever jokes in this novel, it has to be said.)

From this, the reader knows that somewhere along the line the patriarchy has been overthrown. The compellingly written narrative works its way, 12-month period by 12-month period, towards that event.

It is told through the eyes of four different characters: Roxy, the daughter of a London gangster, who witnessed the brutal murder of her mother; Margo, an ambitious local politician in the US, who has to hide the fact she has “the power”; Allie, who escapes the sexual abuse committed by her foster father, and reinvents herself as Mother Eve, the spiritual leader of the world’s female population; and Tunde, a Nigerian boy, who becomes a journalist committed to documenting the rise of women across the globe.

Their individual stories are told in alternate chapters, all in the third-person. Alderman writes in the present tense, which can often be wearing, but it works here to inject a real sense of immediacy and authenticity to the narrative, almost as if you are reading factual reportage as events develop. There’s a filmic quality to Alderman’s style, too, and it’s easy to see how the entire novel would translate to the screen.

What happens when women are in charge?

That’s not to suggest this book is simply a light-hearted romp that would make good TV. It’s much more than that. Yes, it’s a compelling, entertaining read, one that I gulped down rather greedily one cold winter’s day, but there’s much more going on here. Reading between the lines there’s a lot of commentary about the current state of the world, the ways in which women often play second fiddle to men, and the political, economic and social structures that are in place to keep it that way.

But this isn’t a feminist rant either. Alderman’s carefully constructed tale shows that power, no matter who holds it, must be handled carefully. It can go to people’s heads, it can be abused, it can be used not to help others but to harm them if it’s not treated as a privilege and an honour to hold. I came away from this book recognising that when the balance of power swings too far in one direction we all lose out.

The Power isn’t a perfect novel. Sometimes it feels too violent (there are rapes and beatings and murders described in vivid detail), but it’s a great conversation starter, one that would make a terrific book club read, for no other reason that it challenges the presumption that if women were in charge of the world it would be a much nicer, safer place. Alderman’s thesis suggests otherwise.

Anchor Books, Author, Book review, dystopian, Fiction, Margaret Atwood, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaids Tale

Fiction – paperback; Anchor Books; 311 pages; 1998.

We are two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices.

First published in 1986, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is going through a revival right now thanks mainly to the Hulu TV production, which screened in the US earlier this year and is currently being shown on Channel 4 here in the UK.

My edition, by Anchor Books, has been sitting on my shelf unread ever since picking it up in a charity shop more than a decade ago. I decided it would be a good idea to read it before I started watching the 10-part TV series, so I packed it in my suitcase on a recent trip to the Greek island of Rhodes and devoured it one (unseasonably) rainy day.

A classic feminist novel

What’s left to say about this classic that hasn’t already been said? Most of you will know it’s a dystopian novel where women are seen solely as reproductive chattels, that they live in a strictly organised patriarchal society, but are governed by other women, known as Aunts, and that they have no rights: they cannot earn money, wear make-up, listen to music or read books.

And you will also know that women must wear a strict uniform influenced by old school Roman Catholic nuns, puritanical Christians and Islamic abayas. And that the handmaids are assigned to Commanders, wealthy men who are married to infertile women, for the sole purpose of bearing them children.

But in case you haven’t read the book, nor seen the TV series, let me elaborate further.

First person narrator

The story is narrated in the first person by Offred (not her real name) in a dry, almost clinical manner:

I am thirty-three years old. I have brown hair. I stand five seven without shoes. I have trouble remembering what I used to look like. I have viable ovaries. I have one more chance.

There’s a bittersweet pathos to her voice because she’s old enough to remember a time before these misogynistic laws came in and how things got so horribly turned on their head in what seems like the blink of an eye.

It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the president and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on Islamic fanatics, at the time.
Keep calm, they said on television. Everything is under control.
I was stunned. Everyone was, I know that. It was hard to believe. The entire government, gone like that. How did they get in, how did it happen?
That’s when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn’t even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn’t even an enemy you could put your finger on.
Look out, said Moira to me, over the phone. Here it comes.
Here what comes? I said.
You wait, she said. They’ve been building up to this. It’s you and me up against the wall, baby. She was quoting an expression of my mother’s, but she wasn’t intending to be funny.

Laws are brought in overnight which forbid women from working, holding a bank account, owning property or being gay. Their lives are now restricted to the merest of functions, but the book posits an interesting theory: that taking away women’s freedom has created a safer, more comfortable, world for them:

We’ve given them [women] more than we’ve taken away, said the Commander. Think of the trouble they had before. Don’t you remember the singles’ bars, the indignity of high school blind dates? The meat market. Don’t you remember the terrible gap between the ones who could get a man easily and the one’s who couldn’t? Some of them were desperate, they starved themselves thin or pumped their breasts full of silicone, had their noses cut off. Think of the human misery.

Uncomfortable reading

I won’t elaborate further on the plot, but let’s just say the book makes for uncomfortable reading (the TV series, or the few episodes that I have viewed so far, are even more uncomfortable), but it’s an impressive, thought-provoking story that poses the question, what if…? What if rules restricting our freedom were brought in overnight? What if everything we take for granted now was taken away from us? What if we — and when I say “we”, I essentially mean white Western women for that is who this book is aimed at — could no longer earn money, be educated, lead independent lives?

There’s no denying that reading this book in the current political climate it’s hard not to see echoes of Trump’s America and the “new normal” in it  — by which I mean it’s a prescient warning about how quickly things can change and new regimes/eras can be ushered in before we’ve had a chance to realise what’s happening.

Interestingly, for a novel that’s written in such a coolly detached voice and with little or no dialogue in it, it is a highly engaging read. I can understand why The Handmaid’s Tale is a modern classic; it’s influenced many books that have followed, not the least Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things, which makes a nice companion piece to this one.

But even so, I felt slightly too old for this story to have too much of an impact on me: if I’d read it, say, in my twenties, I think its power might have resonated with me more. That said, it’s a terrific, albeit horrific, read.

Atlantic Books, Author, Book review, Christine Dwyer Hickey, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Lives of Women’ by Christine Dwyer Hickey


Fiction – paperback; Atlantic Books; 278 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Christine Dwyer Hickey may possibly be Ireland’s most under-rated writer. She’s written seven novels — I’ve read the oh-so brilliant but heart-breaking Tatty and the inventive award-winning The Cold Eye of Heaven — as well as a short story collection and a (newly published) play.

The Lives of Women, her latest novel, is right up there with my favourite reads of the year so far. It’s the kind of book that hooks you right from the start and then keeps you on tenterhooks throughout. I started reading it on a Sunday morning and then had to make a difficult decision about whether to put it aside to finish my chores and planned errands or to stay indoors and finish it. I chose the latter.

A return from exile

When the book opens we meet Elaine Nicols, a woman in her late 40s, who has returned to her childhood home in suburban Ireland after a long exile in New York. Her mother has recently died — she missed the funeral, deliberately as it turns out — and she needs to make sure her invalid and uncommunicative father and his ageing Alsatian are okay before returning to the States.

One day, while airing the attic, she notices that the house backing on to her father’s has been sold. As its contents begin to pile up in the garden, she keeps “thinking about something that happened more than 30 years ago” which continues to haunt her.

The novel then swings backwards and forwards in time, building up a portrait of a dysfunctional family living in a hotbed of other dysfunctional families on a small suburban housing estate where everyone knows everyone else’s business.

There are constant hints that something tragic happened, which resulted in 16-year-old Elaine being “disowned” by her parents and sent away to live on the other side of the Atlantic with next to no family contact. But what we don’t know is what caused such an extreme parental reaction, and it is this extraordinary build up of suspense that makes The Lives of Women such a page-turner.

Mothers and daughters

While it’s essentially a suspense novel, the tension is not created at the expense of detail or humanity. The author peoples it with believable,  intriguing — if somewhat flawed and troubled  — characters.

She is particularly good at depicting the contradictory relationships between teenage girls — the peer pressure, the gossiping, the bitchiness and the overwhelming desire to fit in and be liked. But it is the fraught relationship between Helen and her over-protective mother that she really excels:

She thinks to herself — tomorrow. I will make an effort tomorrow. I will try to be nice to her. The effort I make will be strong enough to break the grip in my stomach and then I’ll be able to breathe again.
In the early hours of the morning she is filled with hope for tomorrow’s effort. And then the next day, the second — the very second — she sets eyes on her mother queasily coming out of the bathroom and padding down the stairs in her big frilly dressing gown, the laundry basket held high in her arms, empty bottles whispering inside it — she hates, hates, hates her, all over again.

There’s no doubt that Dwyer Hickey is a brilliant stylist, effortlessly switching between third person past and first person present, and there’s something extraordinarily pitch-perfect about the mood she evokes — you feel Elaine’s loneliness, her confusion, her terrible need for redemption — and yet it’s not an overwhelmingly dark book: it’s punctuated by moments of joy and humour and there’s a lyricism in the writing that carries the novel into the light.

But don’t take my word for it: Susan Osborne, who blogs at a Life in Books, also loved it — you can read her review here. And you can read more about the author by visiting her official website. Personally, I’d love to see this one on the Man Booker Prize long list, which is announced tomorrow… but I won’t hold my breath.

UPDATE: Well, surprise, surprise, this book didn’t get long listed for the Booker — but here’s hoping it does get listed for Irish Book of the Year later this year. In the meantime, the complete 2015 Man Booker long list is here.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Manybooks.net, Miles Franklin, pre-20th Century classic, Publisher, Setting

‘My Brilliant Career’ by Miles Franklin


Fiction – Kindle edition; Manybooks.net; 252 pages; 2004.

Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin (1879-1954) was an Australian feminist and writer. If her name sounds familiar it’s because she bequeathed her estate to set up the prestigious Miles Franklin Literary Award, which is given to a novel of  “the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases” every year.

Her novel, My Brilliant Career, first published in 1901, is widely regarded as a fully fledged Australian classic.

Headstrong teenager

The book tells the story of a headstrong teenage girl, Sybylla Melvyn, growing up in rural Australia in the 1890s. She shuns the conventions of her time and strives to become a woman of independent means. Her greatest dream is to become a writer, but not everything goes her way.

The eldest child of a large family struggling to make ends meet, she is sent away to live with her aunt and maternal grandmother. It is here that she first meets Harold Beecham, a wealthy young pastoralist, who proposes to her. But Sybilla, who believes she is ugly and undeserving of a man’s attentions, is reluctant to accept his hand in marriage.

Then life takes a turn for the worst, when she is sent away to work as a governess in order to pay off one of her father’s gambling debts. She finds this life exceedingly dull and monotonous, and falls into a serious depression. When Harold reappears on the scene, Sybilla is confronted with a dilemma: marry him and live a life of comfort, or fulfil her “fixed determination to write a book — nothing less than a book”.

Hiding her brains

Reading My Brilliant Career, I was struck by how angry I became on Sybilla’s behalf, forced to live her life as second fiddle to a man simply because of her gender. She is clearly intelligent and full of potential, but feels she has to hide her brains for fear of being misunderstood and shunned by society. Even her mother denies her the chance to pursue a career of her own, telling her she’s “a very useless girl for your age”.

And her grandmother, who is more kindly and more forgiving of Sybilla’s tom-boyish ways, believes her only goal is to get married:

My grandmother is one of the good old school, who believed that a girl’s only proper sphere in life was marriage; so, knowing her sentiments, her purpose to get me married neither surprised nor annoyed me. But I was plain. Ah, bosh! Oh! Ah! I cannot express what kind of a feeling that fact gave me. It sank into my heart and cut like a cruel jagged knife–not because it would be a drawback to me in the marriage line, for I had an antipathy to the very thought of marriage. Marriage to me appeared the most horribly tied-down and unfair-to-women existence going. It would be from fair to middling if there was love; but I laughed at the idea of love, and determined never, never, never to marry.

While Sybilla clearly understand’s society’s double standards (she makes reference to men being allowed to sow their wild oats while women must remain chaste and “proper”), there’s not much she can do about it except be true to her own self: determined to find happiness in work and a career rather than in someone of the opposite sex.

A romantic tale

Despite this emphasis on feminist values, the book does read very much like a classic romance — will she or won’t she agree to marry Beecham, will he or won’t he find her too difficult and pursue someone else? (Think an Australian version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.)

And it’s written in an over-wrought style, mirroring the scattered, often unformed, thoughts of a rebellious teenager, who is quick to anger and make judgements on her seniors. Sometimes it feels a bit repetitive and “flabby”, and Sybilla isn’t always easy to like, but it provides an important insight into the boom-and-bust lifestyle of life on the land and the ways in which women were expected to fall into line.

Fans of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre will find a lot to like here. Like that classic English novel, My Brilliant Career celebrates the idea that everyone should be valued for simply who they are, not what they are or how much money they have in the bank. It’s highly emotive, frank and forthright. Sometimes it’s melodramatic, but as a glimpse of life in the bush — where danger and beauty often go hand-in-hand — it’s a hugely evocative read.

Author, Caitlin Moran, Ebury Press, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘How To Be a Woman’ by Caitlin Moran


Non-fiction – paperback; Ebury Press; 320 pages; 2011.

Caitlin Moran is one of those journalists incapable of writing a dull sentence. I used to read her columns in The Times before they went behind a pay-wall and always found them hugely entertaining and very witty. How To Be A Woman, which has won numerous accolades including Book of the Year at the Galaxy Book Awards, is exactly what I expected: a wise and humorous read told in Moran’s not-so-underrated style.

Part memoir, part rant

The title might suggest that How To Be A Woman is a self-help guide to feminism but that’s not really what this book is about. Instead — as the blurb helpfully points out — it is part memoir, part rant. It is essentially a comic look at what it is like to be female in the 21st century. But underpinning the humour is a quite serious agenda which suggests many women are still not free to be themselves — mainly because they are too busy keeping up appearances.

But this is no dry text book. Moran might structure her feminist topics into thematic chapters — fashion, sex, work, marriage, motherhood, abortion and so on — but she uses her own life as the narrative thread which weaves them together.

She is incredibly frank, forthright and self-deprecating throughout as she details her childhood growing up on a council estate in Wolverhampton, the eldest of eight children, in which she was fat, frumpy and friendless. She then charts her premature adulthood, when as a precocious 16-year-old she moved to London to take up a job on weekly music magazine Melody Maker, before love, marriage, children and journalistic stardom followed.

Views on motherhood

I was particularly delighted to read her chapter on women who do not have children, either by choice or circumstance, because this is a subject that is rarely discussed. And when it is, the women  who can’t have children are painted as pathetic victims and those who choose not to have them are branded as selfish cows.

Men and women alike have convinced themselves of a dragging belief: that somehow women are incomplete without children. Not the simple biological ‘fact’ that all living things are supposed to reproduce, and that your legacy on earth is the continuation of your DNA — but something more personal, insidious and demeaning. As if a woman somehow remains a child herself until she has her own children — that she can only achieve ‘elder’ status by dint of having produced someone younger. That there are lessons that motherhood can teach you that simply can’t be replicated elsewhere — and every other attempt at this wisdom and self-realisation is a poor and shoddy second. Like mothers can get a first in PPE at Oxford, whilst the best the childless can manage is a 2:1 from Leicester de Montford University.

And I really loved her one-liners — although, if truth be told, every sentence is a one-liner. For example, how I chuckled when I read her views on women getting older, particularly this sentence, which refers to the BBC’s female newsreaders being sacked:

Sorry to mention this again — we strident feminists do go on about this — but Moira Stewart and Anna Ford got fired when they hit 55, whilst 75-year-old Jonathan Dimbleby slowly turns into a fucking wizard behind his desk.

Like an intimate chat

Much of what Moran outlines in How To Be A Woman is not new to me, but I found it incredibly refreshing — and somewhat surprising — to find someone whose views on so many different topics chimes exactly with mine. In many ways reading this book was like having an intimate chat in a pub over a pint or two — minus the hangover and the cost! I reckon Caitlin Moran and I could be great buddies, although her constant need to make every single thing she says funny might wear thin after awhile.

But I expect there will be many people far younger than me who will read it and learn something about themselves and perhaps question why they’re expected to behave in a certain manner. And for that reason I’d urge everyone — men and women alike — under the age of 40 to read this book. Yes, it’s occasionally crude; yes, there is swearing in it and yes, sometimes she is agonisingly, wincingly honest. But even if you don’t agree with all Moran’s views, I doubt you’ll read a funnier non-fiction book this year.

As an aside, the editing of this book was patchy in places — rogue commas, missing commas and a real clunker of a spelling mistake on page 306 of my edition in which the word “root” was used instead of “route”. I hope subsequent smaller-format paperback editions might have put this right.

Author, Book review, Duckworth, M.G. Durham, Non-fiction, Publisher

‘The Lolita Effect’ by MG Durham


Non-fiction – paperback; Duckworth; 282 pages; 2009. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Full points to the clever people at Duckworth who sent me this book on the basis they’d seen my review of Natasha Walter’s Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism and thought this one would also interest me, because it treads similar territory. 

The Lolita Effect is an eye-opening account of how the mass media and the multinationals have created a huge juggernaut which targets young girls. This juggernaut convinces them they need to portray a certain image — usually blonde and blue-eyed, slim and hyper-sexual — and then sells them the products to achieve that look. This “brainwashing” begins from a very early age (as soon as they can play with dolls that conform to these stereotypical looks or use toys, such as pole-dancing kits, that show them how to behave sexually without realising or understanding the consequences) and continues right into middle-age.

The author argues that this “conspiracy” serves to create consumers for life — women who will buy anti-ageing creams, high-fashion, diet products and so on, all in the pursuit of becoming “beautiful” and “desirable”.

Anyone with any modicum of media savvyness will already know this, or at least be mindful of it. Yet I suspect there may be millions of people out there who haven’t clocked the way the media works to sell products and unattainable images of female beauty.

I work in magazine publishing, albeit far from the glossy end of the market, and I still remember how shocked I was the first time I visited a repro house and was taken on a tour of the “retouching room” where cover images of celebrities and Hollywood A-listers were photoshopped to death. In one example, Jennifer Aniston’s head was put on another person’s body, her breasts were hugely enhanced by the wave of a Photoshop brush, her hair was made blonder, her eyes bluer, her skin smoothed to the point of being impossibly perfect.

The feminist in me was outraged, because although I knew that images got reworked (this was in the late 1990s), I hadn’t realised just how much they were reworked. I suddenly wanted to make it compulsory for every school girl under the age of 12 to visit one of these places to see the truth behind the lies they were being sold.

MG Durham is herself a media practitioner: as well as being a journalist she is a professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Iowa, and she’s made a career out of researching the relationship between adolescent girls and the mass media. This book, written in a hugely accessible style, is designed to show parents, teachers and even young girls themselves how the media is sexualising girls at a younger and younger age, the unhealthy effects this creates, and what can be done to address it.

Durham’s theory is that there are five myths the media perpetuates. She argues that once you know these myths and how they are designed to impact on females, then you are in a better position to ignore and/or debunk those myths. Durham is very careful not to call for media censorship, nor does she take the moral highground about girls’ sexuality. This is a sensible, even-handed and hugely realistic approach. Durham never preaches, but she does provide very good, practical advice.

As well as examining each of the myths in turn, Durham also offers hands-on exercises that teachers, social workers and parents can use to discuss these issues with children and teenagers.

My only real problem with The Lolita Effect is that much of the evidence presented is largely anecdotal (and with an American bias), and the research conducted, say for instance on how teenage magazines buy into these so-called myths, is purely based on content analysis. How much more illuminating it would have been for Durham to interview the editors of these publications to ask them to justify their policies and outline their decision-making processes about what to run and what not to run.

Admittedly The Lolita Effect is not a cheery read; it made me downright angry in places, and had me nodding my head in agreement at others. If you have children, whether they be boys or girls, I would strongly urge you to read it. It’s alarming, but it’s also educational, and you might just discover a few tips on preventing your daughters/nieces/female friends from turning into unhappy, unfulfilled, two-dimensional, hypersexualised women.

Author, Book review, Natasha Walter, Non-fiction, Publisher, Virago

‘Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism’ by Natasha Walter


Non-fiction – paperback; Virago; 273 pages; 2010.

Every time I logged onto the office intranet this week I was greeted by the sight of Lucy Pinder’s breasts popping out of a very tiny bikini top. Lucy, an English “glamour model”, recently graced the cover of one of the lads magazines published by the company for which I work. This particular cover won an in-house prize (“cover of the month”), which meant Lucy’s “assets” got further publicity via our intranet homepage.

Now, I think I’m fairly unshockable and remarkably tolerant, but I was upset at seeing this woman’s hugely over-sized bust on my computer screen every day. It wasn’t the nudity that made me uncomfortable, it was the objectification of a young woman that offended me. That this happened in my work place, where I’m surrounded largely by men, made me angry, not least because I have a relatively senior position in the company and the last thing I expect to see as I go about my professional business is a scantily clad woman in a provocative pose.

And yet, if I was to complain about this, I’m pretty sure it would not be taken seriously. After all Lucy Pinder’s entitled to get her tits out, isn’t she? And surely it’s empowering, and liberating, for her, as a woman, to have the freedom to do so? She gets paid big bucks after all.

This is just one example of why I think Natasha Walter’s Living Dolls is a hugely important and timely book. I read it a few months ago now, but I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

Walter’s argument is that we’ve all been conned into thinking that today’s woman has achieved economic and sexual equality. She claims that in 21st Century Britain we are experiencing a new wave of sexism, where a woman’s passport to success is not her brains, but her looks and, more importantly, her sexual allure.

She divides her book into two parts. The first looks at this “new sexism” in which girls are becoming sexualised at a younger and younger age (Walter dubs this “hypersexualisation”). She visits a nightclub where she witnesses a “Babes on the bed competition”; talks to pole dancers and prostitutes; and interviews teenage girls about their sex lives. From this she is able to argue that the growing commercialisation of sex has provided women with new opportunities to make money, but by the same token those that go down that route often do it, not because it empowers them or liberates them, but because they have no other alternative.

The second part of her book examines the reasons why this new sexism has occurred. Walter shows that we are increasingly being encouraged to believe that the inequality between men and women is not social but biological, that girls will always prefer pink to blue, and that they like playing with dolls rather than toy cars. She provides a critique of scientific studies that perpetuate the myth that there are innate biological differences between the sexes. These studies are disseminated by a relatively uncritical and lazy media that accepts the results at face value. (This study from last month is but one example.)

What I found particularly alarming was how quickly these studies begin to be accepted as part and parcel of every day life, so that if a woman, or indeed a young girl, bucks the trend she is made to feel as if there is something wrong with her. Walter’s argument is that biological determinism not only stifles and limits women’s choices, it also impacts on men’s choices too.

Living Dolls is a powerful book, one that is thought-provoking and incredibly easy to read. If there is any flaw it is that Walter’s hypothesis in the first part is based on a mere handful of interviews with young women, so her sample is not statistically significant. Nevertheless she raises important issues, the most troubling of which are her observations about the ways in which young girls are being raised in modern day Britain. When women are expected to look a certain way, think a certain way and conform to outmoded stereotypes is it any wonder Walter believes we’re raising a generation of living dolls “aiming for airbrushed perfection”?