Saturday 25 February 2017

Review: How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran

Ebury Press, €12.99

Donal Lynch

It might seem just slightly odd to have a man reviewing a book entitled How to be a Woman, but given that the woman in question is Caitlin Moran, it all makes perfect sense.





The richly deserved winner of Columnist of the Year at the British Press Awards, she is one of the funniest people alive and her not having her own television show is, frankly, a mystery. She has a stripe in her hair, she's friends with Lady Gaga and while stoned she once nodded off in the wasp-infested attic of one of the lads from Radiohead, for goodness sake. What man wouldn't want to be her? (While also being deeply grateful for the big "2 for 1" sticker that covered the word "woman" on the cover of our copy.)

The book is a delectably witty rant on that most unfashionable of subjects -- feminism -- interspersed with bits of autobiography that explain how Caitlin (or Catherine, as she was christened) became the paragon of stripey haired womanhood that she is today. And for the many fans of her columns, this is like The Simpsons Movie: it has a lot to live up to. The first mild shock is that the high-antic wit, which runs the course of those columns, wanes considerably over something this length. It's not that she isn't just as funny on every page, it's rather that a column leaves you wanting more, whereas here you find yourself thinking "but did I really need to read eight pages of jokey arguments about the evils of Brazilian waxes?" (Mostly, by the way, the answer is, yes.)

Which brings us to the slightness of the material. She apologises up front for it, analogising with former mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani's smashed window theory -- the idea that broken windows were the first step in the total breakdown of law and order -- to argue that Brazilian waxes are the thin edge of a pernicious sexism wedge.

I agree with her that women need to laugh at the ridiculousness of the "concern for Kate Middleton's weight" headlines and that pornographers are fairly unimaginative in their scenarios. But you feel like some of the subjects, such as the aforementioned waxing or "too tight pants", were chosen for their potential to surrender 600 jokes rather than because she, or anyone, really and truly cares that much about them.

She quotes a bit from Germaine Greer's The Whole Woman, a book that tackles subjects such as how women are oppressed by supermarkets because they have to unload their own cars, and seemed similarly like gripes rather than grievances. And her idea that feminism boils down to people being polite to each other appears to be an over-simplification.

Weirdly, it's when she's being serious that this book is at its unputdownable best. Her accounts of childbirth and particularly her abortion are incredibly moving and viscerally real. Her descriptions of a lonely adolescence as one of a household of fat siblings in Wolverhampton are brilliant. It almost feels a shame when she has to return to her thesis.

But then her Wodehousian wit washes over you and it's all good. To describe what a traitor Jordan is to womankind, Moran describes her as "Vichy France with tits".

Moran started out as a music writer with Melody Maker and went on to host a late-night music show -- Naked City -- on Channel 4, before going on to her current gig as a columnist with the London Times. She mentions her background in rock criticism quite a bit. An important part of that world is coolness. And humour is always the coolest way to make your point.

But sometimes she does other things to make herself seem cool, such as portraying herself as a loveable lush and it feels a bit like playing for laughs at the expense of the truth: where is the highly successful book-writing columnist in chaotic domesticity she describes? Why does she feel she has to underline that she is rewriting The Female Eunuch "from a bar stool", when we know it was, in all likelihood, written on her laptop in a study of a nice house in sobriety? It's not a gag per se, but it's part of her pose and persona.

Sadly, it's also not all brand new -- she seems to have just chucked in some of her columns from last year wholesale -- and most of the rest was serialised in The Times. Still, it's no chore to re-read her and we'll happily pay the price for the filler and binders.

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