herald

Thursday 14 December 2017

Contemporary tales of, sex, loss and . . . butlering

Girls Will Be Girls Dressing Up, Playing Parts and Daring to Act Differently By Emer O'Toole Orion (2015) €15.99 HHHHI

O'Toole made a media splash by flashing her hairy armpits and legs on ITV's This Morning in 2012. Having decided to examine what was up with the connection between femininity and lack of body hair, over the course of 18 months, the then-graduate student let her hair grow.

Google it: her pits are seriously impressive, and the whole event highlighted how women think about this aspect of grooming and how they've been socialised to feel the need for the razor or the wax; in a poll conducted by the station, 80pc said she should shave off that unsightly mess.

Anyone with the desire to start thinking outside the gender box will find much to like here.

This is funny and smart, and it handles its warts-and-all reminiscences and intellectual reasoning with aplomb.

Starting from childhood up to young womanhood, cataloguing her growth from the young girl who didn't want to be relegated to lesser roles when playing with mixed groups, to the teenager who spouted the patriarchal party line, to the young woman who began to question everything, O'Toole argues convincingly for a broader way of thinking about what makes a woman a woman, with passion and plenty of academic backup.

Her voice is cheeky at times but intelligent always, and it's exactly the sort of read for anyone who takes all the hard work done by women, for women for granted. Feminism isn't a dirty word: it's complex response to a society in which the roles we are asked to play continue to prove robust, and in countless ways are detrimental to 51pc of the population.

Girls Will be Girls thought-provoking and entertaining - and whilst not offering any cut-and-dried answers (that would be cheeky indeed), there's plenty here to build on, and to find inspiring and hopeful.

Not that Kind of Girl

A Young Woman Tells You What She's "Learned" By Lena Dunham Fourth Estate (2014) €19.40 HHHHI

If you haven't seen Girls, the HBO series of which Dunham is creator and star, you may not 'get' this memoir. If you have seen it and don't rate it, you definitely will not enjoy this as it's more of the same.

If you lived through the sort of late teens/early twenties that Dunham is writing about, however, you'll hear the voice of a soul sister speaking directly into you ear.

While some of the information is inconsistent (she doesn't seem to know what age her parents are) the spirit of the book is impressive: Dunham is telling the truth, as painful, mawkish, triumphant and poignant as it is - as is life.

THE MANSERVANT

By Michael Harwood Kensington (24 February, 2015) €8.63 eBook HHIII

You can almost hear the pitch from the very first page: it's like Downton Abbey, only with Thomas Barrett as the main character, a sexy, contemporary peek at what really goes on in a modern Big House. There's some soft-core homosexual sado-masochism! And lots of cashmere sweaters and general snobbery about products.

Anthony Gowers was working at a high-class hotel before a death cast suspicion upon him; given his walking papers, he is at a loss until one of his socialite pals hooks him up with a gig as personal butler to a lord in a castle in the English countryside.

All is not as it seems, however, and Anthony's ability to find sexual trouble doesn't let him down. It seems he may have landed in clover as his boss turns out to have proclivities that Anthony is only too happy to encourage; we get the idea fairly quickly that it's all too good to be true.

The dialogue is terribly contrived, in all instances: not one conversation sounds natural, and makes for hard going. Harwood has a background in service, at Buckingham Palace, no less, and one imagines that those stories must be quite something. A memoir, while not as smutty, might have made for better reading.

H IS FOR HAWK

By Helen Macdonald Vintage (2015) €13.40 HHHII

I wanted to love this one unconditionally, and I very nearly did. If I could give this 3.75 stars, I would. Macdonald loses her father, and very nearly loses herself.

Having no conventional anchor in her life - no family of her own, no job - she takes up falconry.

As a hobby, as compared to say, crocheting - this is a big task, one that involves another living creature; in training the goshawk, she of course is training herself - not precisely schooling herself out of being a grief-ridden person, but showing herself that there is life after a loved one's death.

Interwoven with her beautiful writing about the bird, about herself, about landscape is biography of TH White, whose own book about training a hawk Macdonald uses as a manual.

Any diversion, no matter how conceptually correct, from Macdonald's personal story feels like a road best not taken. Nevertheless, I really do recommend this, as the writing in general is glorious and rich.

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