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July 15, 2013 | by  | in Arts Books |
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Reads of Requirement

Last week, I walked into vicbooks to buy my overpriced textbooks and felt a looming sense of despair. This wasn’t just my EFTPOS card talking—it was everything. The stacks of course notes, the over-referenced books, the checking when my classes are and realising how early I’m going to have to get up on Fridays; all contributed to an I-like-uni-but-dude-holidays-are-more-fun-because-12-hour-sleep-cycles kind of despair. Which sucks. But if you’re feeling the same way, never fear! There is help in the form of some Required Reading, a.k.a., two very smart, witty books which will help ease you into the semester:

Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, David Sedaris

If you haven’t encountered David Sedaris before: (a) where have you been? and (b) he’s great. Regular contributor to The New Yorker, NPR and This American Life, Sedaris writes mid-length (ten pages is around the norm) essays about his life; his family, his childhood, his partner Hugh, and litter. They’re hilarious. Just trust me on this.

If you have encountered David Sedaris before: Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls is much of the same. That is to say, no better and no worse than his other collections. It could be taken off the end of When You Are Engulfed in Flames and given a new cover, then released five years later. The ‘newness’ of this collection comes not through much variation in style but a newness in the content, with essays on the French attitude to the American election (“Obama!!!!!”) and marriage-equality debates. As with his other collections, there is a strong focus on stories from his childhood in North Carolina, and a foreigner’s perspective on London, West Sussex, Paris, Normandy, Japan, China… the guy travels a lot.

This consistency in quality is weird, and kind of cool. It’s like he’s managed to 3D-print the Sedaris style and perfectly replicate it from collection to collection, essay to essay, creating a Sedaris product, whose quality is always guaranteed. This isn’t to say that these essays are boring or formulaic, just that they adhere to his voice so perfectly: all witty, self-aware, self-deprecating stories which can be surprisingly moving. ‘Understanding Understanding Owls’ and ‘A Man Walks Into a Bar Car’ were my favourites for this, but really, everything in this collection is just wonderful.

Be Awesome, Hadley Freeman

I’m not a fan of the title. It’s a great message, but it makes Freeman (Guardian and Vogue writer—a woman who is both a fashion writer and political commentator, which is definitely living the feminist dream) sound like she’s written a self-help book. Which I guess, in a way, this is. A properly feminist guide to “modern life for modern ladies”, Freeman, in between rants on misogyny, anti-Semitism, or sex, provides a litany of awesome women, books, movies, and devotes an entire chapter to “A day in your life in Daily Mail headlines.” She’s snappy—good with the one-liners and the anti-Julie-Burchill footnotes—but not flippant, taking her time to really work through some truly great arguments. Also, her epigraphs are quotes from Nora Ephron (“Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim”), Amy Poehler, and an ‘80s movie. I was sold before I even got to the contents page.

Any smart, funny book on feminism written by a British(-based) newspaper columnist will inevitably lend itself to comparison with Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman, but this is a different kettle of fish (albeit one resting on the same stove, or plugged into the same multibox, or
using fish fished from the same river, or whatever strange metaphor you need to use to make that phrase work). While Moran’s strengths lie in her use of anecdotes, Freeman deliberately avoids turning Be Awesome into a memoir. This book deals extensively with societal expectations of beauty (“what these folk don’t like is, not extra bulges, extra hairs, extra lines: they don’t like women.”) but she only mentions her experience
with anorexia in passing as “I hope I have something more to offer than my history.”

And she does. Be Awesome is, to use to the obvious adjective, awesome. Freeman has a great logic; throughout the book she calmly and carefully dismantles anti-feminist arguments, helping to define and illuminate instances of sexism and misogyny in a light, funny way. It’s similar to what Moran—or the myriad of other witty, intelligent female writers—is doing, and by virtue of writing these books, closely examining feminism and everyday sexism, they are demonstrating the need for them.

Number of times I pointed at a sentence and shouted “BAM!” at an empty room: 15.

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