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Friday, December 28, 2012

Book Review: "How to Be a Woman" by Caitlin Moran

My first impression of this book was tainted by my husband who encouraged me to place a hold on “How to Be a Woman” at our local library back in the fall. When I placed the hold, I was already 27th in line for a volume by a woman I wasn’t quite familiar with, but my British husband followed on Twitter and shared with me her cutting one-liners. I was delighted that my husband wanted to learn “how to be a woman” (he claimed dibs on reading it first) but his eagerness was a bit too puppy-dogish for my liking. I wouldn’t say I was consumed with jealousy, but a feeling hit me like you get when your man’s gaze lingers a bit too long on the backside of a passing waitress.

I thought, “I will read it but she better serve up some pretty damned yummy stuff!”

When we finally got our copy (it looked like it went through hell and back as it was heavily damaged by water from a previous borrower) I was brought deeply into Caitlin’s life within the first several pages. I came from a working class Catholic family who mostly lived in homes way too small for our loud, creative brood and found a lot in her life that sounded achingly familiar, even if it was a couple decades and an entire ocean away.   

Her coming of age story is told in chapters with exclamatory titles such as “I Become Furry!” and “I Need a Bra!” and “I Am Fat!” After laughing about her adventures in post-pubescence, I’m reminded of the afternoon I spent as a twelve year old with my first razor blade. Off came all my body hair, arms, legs, pubes, pits, you name it. My mother (who like Caitlin’s mother is often too tired to get off the couch and offer helpful advice) smirked at my zealousness. I recalled the horror of getting my first bra before middle school, bitch sessions with my older sisters, being teased over being “fat” and learning how to flirt. Flipping through “Seventeen” magazine, picking up tidbits about sex here and there (although I never did have a pet name for my vagina) yet never really learning how to be a woman.

So I enjoyed the process of riding along with Caitlin as she tries to figure it all out through the pain of dating, childbirth, abortion and sexism (all with RANDOM USE OF ALL CAPS FOR COMIC EFFECT!). What I found inspiring about her story is how early she got started in journalism at the age of 16 after being home-schooled and bad at math (at 16 I was taking drive-through orders at Wendy’s and bad at math). I was also a prolific writer, but the thought of diving into a real job at a magazine at 16 would’ve terrified me.  It surely would’ve made me a better writer and a more confident woman although I'm sure the use of all caps was never fully approved of at The Times, where Caitlin became an award-winning columnist and critic.

In a postscript, Caitlin tells how she wanted to write a feminist manifesto but her book seemed to me to be simply about how real people relate to life and survive. Indeed, she writes:  “As the years went on, I realized that what I really want to be, all told, is human.”

 Being human is the kind of thing you learn little by little every day through the big and sometimes seemingly insignificant occurrences in your life on Earth. If Caitlin’s book has a message, to me it boils down to being real, being nice to each other (Caitlin calls it “being polite”) and to LIGHTEN UP!


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