I have many talents and abilities. I’m an OK flute player. I can make a frog puppet out of my fingers. I can do push-ups. I’m usually pretty good at my job. I’m good at setting lots of personal goals. One thing I’m NOT so good at is following through on those goals. I’ll walk into a room and grandly announce that I’m going to paint the room purple, but then I’ll use that money to buy jeggings. Or maybe I’ll change my mind and think that gold paint would look better than purple. I’m a combination of easily distracted and self absorbed that has on two separate occasions resulted in 1. my nearly getting hit by a Ghostbusters replica vehicle and 2. me stepping up to my knee in freshly poured cement.
One of my goals this year was to do something called the #UnreadBookshelfChallenge. I was supposed to read all of the books I have piled up on my headboard and de-clutter. But then I realized I had loans on hold on my Overdrive account, and, well, it would be a shame not to read or listen to those first, right? RIGHT?
Bottom line, I have not read one single book on my bookshelf. I have failed in my goal, but whatever. Life is nothing if not a journey of self discovery wrought through an extensive and oft embarrassing trial and error process. This is also how I buy jeans.
I listed to Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl with zero expectations. I later learned that this book is semi-autobiographical and leans heavily on Ms. Moran’s personal story. It’s interesting that I listened to this while failing to reach a personal goal, because this book is all about a very young woman achieving more than she could ever imagine, all while trying to complete just one personal goal – to reinvent her image after embarrassing herself in public.
Johanna, the protagonist, is 15 and desperate to change her identity after doing a Scooby Doo impersonation while appearing as a guest on TV talk show program. She’s a nerdy smart girl living in the English version of the projects, and she decides that only by going total Goth can she escape her prison of geekdom and become either unrecognizable or too cool to mess with. She soon realizes that goth fashion doesn’t mean anything unless she also listens to the appropriate music. It’s during this period of music experimentation that she decides that any idiot can write music reviews.
Because Johanna’s family is poor, she has to rent her music from the library. I also did this growing up, and I know that this dates me. The struggle is real, kids of today. You don’t know hardship until you’ve waited to rent a CD only to discover it’s scratched beyond repair.
Johanna starts to write sample reviews of this music and mails them in to a magazine, hoping to be published. Her flood of reviews wears down the editors and they call her in for an interview. She eventually ends up leaving school to write full time for the magazine, going on music tours and attending industry parties in London. She’s a TEENAGER. This is crazy. When I was a teenager the most exciting part of my week might be an after party for the drama club, or a band party after a football game. Nerd alert!
There’s a lot to digest in this book. Johanna’s family loses a chunk of their benefits about halfway though, and they subsist on fried flour patties and margarine. Her brother grows vegetables so they don’t get scurvy. The TV is taken away. Johanna is so proud to be able to help her family out by giving them money she’s earning while working for the magazine. Of course we learn at the end that the benefits are reduced BECAUSE she’s left school, and her family knew the whole time. They didn’t tell her, because they wanted to see her succeed, to crawl out of her circumstances by doing nothing more than following through on her crazy teenaged whim. Her family is incredible. I loved that Caitlin Moran wrote this after having lived much of it – this wasn’t a book written by someone growing up middle class, imagining the broken homes of the working class and clucking their tongue in pity. Her family is destitute through no fault of their own – her dad is injured, her mom has an accidental pregnancy followed by extreme post partum, and her extended family are all laborers who were laid off during a recession. There’s no moral to be found in their poverty, and the author never tries to justify it or apologize for it.
Johanna’s motives weren’t socioeconomic in this book. She was tired of who she was, and decided to reinvent herself. She saw things and went for them. She decided she wanted to be a writer, so she wrote. She wanted to be known as a great seductress, so she went out and slept with a variety of people. She wanted to look cool, so she change her hair and makeup. There was very little fear or hesitation. She doesn’t hate on herself for being fat, or think of herself as being a slut for wanting to explore sex.
That’s not to say her transformation was easy. At some point she realizes her words have the power to hurt people and she goes through immense guilt. The strain of her hectic new lifestyle combined with the exhaustion of poverty and the realization that she’s forgotten how her actions affect other people do come to a boiling point. But that’s just part of growing up. If you don’t go through some horrible emotional upheaval during your formative years, look out, because it’s going to happen at some point in your life.
I hate to say this is a coming of age novels, because I generally think those are bullshit. But I realized as I’m typing this that it is very much a coming of age novel. Whatever. This one didn’t suck.
I could probably learn a lot from Johanna – instead of lofty, difficult goals, it’s probably easier to focus on one thing at a time and not get distracted. Johanna didn’t become a successful writer in one big leap. She started by dying her hair. I realize this is a simplistic and shallow take on a novel that was both hilarious and profound, but that’s just who I am.
See you next time, when I may have actually read one of the books on my list!