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If we are to properly understand women’s oppression in the West today, objectification and sexual performance must be understood as work. The sexual sell is real labour, propping up a socially mandated measure of erotic capital. From the working hours devoted to the purchase and strategic application of clothes and hair and beauty products, to the actual labour of dieting and exercise, to the creation and maintenance of sexual persona, self-objectification is work, first and foremost. Female sexuality, which every day becomes increasingly synonymous with objectification, is work.

Yesterday afternoon I was in my favourite sandwich shop in Bondi Junction, enjoying my avocado and salami while reading my book when I overheard an interesting radio advert. Two women are casually talking to each other and one says “You’re looking tired.” I must have zoned out at that point, because when the ad suddenly jumped to the name of a plastic surgeon, I realized that looking ‘tired’, apparently requires going under the knife now. What a wonderful world we live in!

Meat Market is Laurie Penny‘s first published work of critical commentary – of many I hope. It joins an impressive amount of journalistic writing, which can be found on her blog Penny Red, as well as The Guardian and New Statesman. Penny presents an overarching assessment of how many conflicting issues facing women today, from the continuing commodification of the bodies of women to the fragmenting within feminist ideology itself.

As such Meat Market is not a feminist work that continues to spell out basic tenets of the movement, already fought over for decades, instead challenging the complacency surrounding such notions as patriarchal society, or the modern liberated woman. “Why are we so afraid of women’s bodies“, she asks, that peculiar loathing for the female form in culture which demands it be plucked free of hairs, nipped, tucked and starved. I am reminded of Julia Kristeva’s theory of the abject. However, this trend is highly visible in contemporary society and not an idea limited to academic journals about the unconscious.

Penny identifies the constant focus on feminine appearance as a form of labour, one which necessitates a state of constant anxiety. Far from being liberated, women today face an increasing set of prohibitions on their behaviour. Feminism itself is blamed for any societal trend that is considered bad, such as the breakdown of the family, or even teenage drunkenness. So how could it be said that female liberation has occurred?

It is this notion of everyday ‘labour’, that the author uses to investigate the hypocrisy of attitudes towards sex workers. Pornography has replaced natural sexuality in the minds of many, burlesque commodified from an ironic vision of the aristocracy to a commercial entertainment, the fetishised female form a marketing device for every product under the sun – and yet women who sell their own bodies are viewed with contempt, denied basic protections under the law. The prostitute is denied any agency in the media, described variously as drug addicted, or innately criminal.

Feminism has failed to address the rights of the sex worker, even as luminaries such as Germaine Greer and Julie Bindel have failed to acknowledge the status of transsexuals. Instead mainstream transphobia is indulged, gender reassignment surgery seen as a lifestyle choice that undermines the aims of feminist ideology. Penny points out that such a stance fails to consider women who are intersex and that by refusing to defend the rights of transsexuals, those who seek relief from their feelings of body dysmorphia are left at the mercy of the medical establishment.

Penny also discusses the treatment of anorexia in the media, which only reinforces the myth that women (as well as a growing percentage of men) begin to starve themselves out of a desire to appear more sexually attractive. To counter this claim she includes testimony from several anorexics describing how they in fact desired to eliminate any trace of femininity from their bodies, while newspapers feature the images of ‘size zero models‘.

The author insists that feminism must rediscover its political impetus and give recognition to the women whose lives are spent working on multiple fronts, as well as engage men who have become disempowered themselves.

This book presents a compelling argument for the reassessment of feminist values, as well as the need to challenge the false consciousness of modern men and women. Personally charged invective that demands to be heard. I read over underlined passages repeatedly after finishing the book.

With thanks to Zer0 Books for my review copy.

But Serezha could not sleep: he was only pretending to be asleep. Outside, the whole house was moving through the twilight into the evening. To the material slave-song of the floors and buckets, Serezha was thinking how unrecognizable everything would become in the light when all this movement was over. He would feel as if he had arrived a second time and, what was more important, well rested into the bargain.

Ah the Russians! What a people. The hallmark of a would-be teenage intellectual is a dog-eared copy of Dostoyevsky – though of course the French also have Sartre and Camus on offer, but really to my mind Notes from the Underground is required reading for the budding existentialist. The Russians nailed this philosophy of distancing oneself from life itself as an unromantic process before Frenchmen had even begun to enrage clerics with their secular pontifications (while donning the necessary turtle neck, puffing on a Gauloises and simpering in impressionable girls’ ears as well!).

As Lydia Slater points out in the introduction to this novel, Russians have the same word for pity as they do for love – zhalet, which may provide a clue as to why Russian literature enjoys such a reputation for philosophical depth. While I was reading the introduction I was alarmed at the degree of emotion expressed regarding the international reception of Pasternak‘s work following the phenomenal success of Doctor Zhivago. It was only later that I realized the introduction was written by the author’s sister.

Where family is concerned, perhaps it is difficult even for Russians to maintain that literary hauteur.

The story of The Last Summer concerns Serezha’s reflections on the events of the previous year in Moscow. The war is still ongoing. His mother has passed away and numbed with shock, he has only just managed to complete his university exams. He travels to visit his sister Natasha and her family. Exhausted from his journey an too tired to indulge his sister’s curiousity about events in the war, he falls into bed and thinks back on the summer just gone.

Following the completion of his studies, Serezha was hired as a private tutor to the son of a family named Fresteln. He is given a room at their mansion, is well-paid and finds the work not to taxing. In the evenings he joins the family for dinner and afterward wanders the city streets till well into the morning. Serezha is a curiously intense and romantic sort. He spends most of his evenings with prostitutes, even developing an obsession with them, convinced that it falls to him to ‘save’, them by dispersing large sums of money to each of the Muscovite street-walkers.

Of course, work itself is not the solution. Work enslaves and provides small financial reward. He hits instead upon the scheme of writing a play for an acquaintance, Kovalenko and with the proceeds liberating these women with whom he feels a kindred spirit.

However, the main focus of Serezha’s romantic interest is a fellow employee of the Fresteln household, a Danish maidservant named Anna Arild Tornskjold. Though she is referred to as the ‘companion’, of Mrs Freteln, when Anna speaks to Serezha she complains that she was recruited under false pretences. Her husband had only just died during a stay in Berlin when she accepted the notice and travelled all this way to discover the role was more menial than described. The two converse in a mixture of German and English, with the intimacy of their talks encouraging Serezha’s interest in the widow.

I have squeezed what little plot there could be said to be found in these pages, but do not take from that that this is a slight novel. Pasternak’s prose is a revelation of descriptive power and private musings. A morning start is described as ‘tangled threads of sultry heat, as nightmarish as crumbs in the beard of a corpse’. This is more poetry than prose, with heavy hints of semi-autobiographical reflection.

Pasternak appears to be describing the death-throes of romance itself in the wake of The Great War. His desire to save not just the prostitutes, but Anna herself, indeed all women, speaks to a peculiar messianism. Serezha’s concerns are far too bound up with his own thoughts. There is a beautiful moment when, having propositioned Anna, she finds him at the appointed meeting time furiously writing a draft of his proposed play. Quietly she retreats, leaving him to his private enthusiasms.

A master of language, beautifully written.

You see, most people, once they’ve passed, they’re not really interested in talking to this side. The effort’s too much for them. Even if they wanted to do it, they haven’t got the concentration span. You say they give trivial messages, but that’s because they’re trivial people. You don’t get a personality transplant when you’re dead. You don’t suddenly get a degree in philosophy.

When Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall won the 2009 Booker Prize it raised quite a few eye-brows. Not least because apparently there was a suspicious flurry of betting on the title before the announcement was made. As I had never read anything by Mantel before, I thought I would check out what all the fuss was about. Following this novel about death, palmistry and the tricks of memory, I am fairly confident Wolf Hall is not another bodice-ripper. I look forward to reading more of her work.

Alison Hart is a palm reader and fortune teller who appears to have a genuine ability to speak to the dead. Overweight and matronly in appearance, with bangles and jewellery for effect, pretending to an Irish ancestry for performance purposes, she expertly juggles the sympathy of her audience, with her gift for insight into their lives. Initially suspicious, Colette becomes convinced of Ali’s gift for speaking with individuals who have passed over ‘spiritside’.

When we first meet Colette she has become an assistant and recorder of Ali’s experiences as a medium. Having escaped a cold marriage to the shallow Gavin, and a career dependent on upskilling her knowledge of office software packages, she embarks on unravelling the mysterious past of her ‘partner’. She discovers that Ali is accompanied by not only an initially mischievous spirit guide named Morris, but the souls of several other increasingly threatening men. All of them figured prominently in her childhood, trapped in a house sitting on a barren English wasteland, where her mother entertained groups of men at a time. Ali never came to know her father and her mother’s grip on sanity began to wither while she was still quite young. When she began to see and hear the dead, she suspected she too was losing her mind.

As Colette spends more time with the bewildering older woman, she begins to wonder if perhaps she has. We follow the developing relationship between the two women during major events such as the death of Princess Diana and the September 11 tragedy. Ali and her community of fellow psychics respond in a very peculiar way to these occurrences, with Di in particular mocked mercilessly by the aging coven of women. Just as Ali’s mother sold her body to an endless number of servicemen, she finds herself selling her body and sanity for the use of irascible spirits haunting their descendents.

At times this book reminded me of Will Self’s How The Dead Live (itself a parody of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake). It lacks the scatological humour of these two books, instead mining a quiet form of personal tragedy. Colette is at a remove from her guru into the ways of the dead courtesy of more than her psychic abilities. She understands divination and palmistry only as a money-making opportunity (which earns the respect of her feckless husband Gavin). To her Ali’s distressing past is only content for a future book on the subject of a genuine psychic, who happens to also be quite the entertainer. Occasionally we are privy to the discussions between Morris and fellow souls spiritside, who linger on the border of this world, waiting for the likes of Ali to give them access to the physical world. They cannot acknowledge that time has marched on and their memories of their lives bear no relationship to the spectacle of psychics on cable television and phone sex lines.

Mantel plays with how we divorce ourselves from being with others by relating only to voices, either the table-tapping of the paranormal set, or a breathy voice echoing out of a phone handset. This is a quiet and unsettling novel about modern lives stranded by a fear of the future and a refusal to acknowledge the past.

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