“This book has scarred me for life” or On the Negative Impact of Books

When I was younger I believed that books could change your life. To the good or the bad. My belief in the power of the word was almost infinite.

I suppose this belief in the power of books lies behind censorship, banned and burned books and the like. I also suppose that each of the parties banning, burning or forbidding books have different reasons. I personally think very little of banning books. I still belive in their power though.

While reading Nick Hornby’s House Keeping vs The Dirt I was reminded of this when he mentioned he bought Georges Bernanos’ book Journal d’un curé de campagne or The Diary of a Country Priest due to a negative amazon review. He posted the review but the way he wrote about it made me think, he made it up. Being the curious person I am, I checked and to my amazement there it was. On amazon.co.uk

1.0 out of 5 stars Dont read this book, 17 July 2003
By A Customer

This book has had an enormous impact on my life. Having had to read it as part of my French A level course (in French!)it left me psychologically scarred. Grinding through each passage was like torture, making me weep with frustration and leaving me with a long-burning and deep-felt resentment against my French teacher and the A level exam board. This resulted in a low grade for my French lit paper, which offset a decent language paper, resulting in a ‘C’ which wasn’t good enough for my chosen university. So I had to switch from French to business studies, so changing the course of my life. To say I detest this book is an understatement. So he’s dying, but the main protagonist is a drearily introspective little creep. The pace is crawling and the whole vibe simply turgid.

Is he really serious? I don’t know but it made me think of books that had a negative impact in my life and I found three. One was a one of my parents’ books. A short story collection with illustrations by Japanese painter Hokusai. I think it was relatively valuable and I was forbidden to touch it. Like Bluebeard’s wives,  I disregarded the interdiction and opened the book. Finding the book with wide open pages  – I had run off to hide – told my parents later that I had been at it. I don’t think I was punished. It wasn’t necessary as the drawings had terrified me enough. The ghostly figures haunted me in my dreams. Mind you, the drawings, not the text. I was too small for reading.

But what about the written word? What about stories? Have there been books that had a huge impact? Yes, I would say so. I have read two books as a young teenager that had a profound impact. I think they managed to take away my innocence forever. Maybe it was about time. The world isn’t a perfect place and there are a lot of bad things happening, the sooner you face it, the better. While I know why the first one had such a negative impact, I’m not so sure about the second anymore.

Choderlos de Laclos’ famous epistolary novel Les liaisons dangereuses or Dangerous Liaisons (1782)  was the book bomb that blew up in my young girl’s life. Before reading it I had thought that people fell in and out of love, unfortuntely often not at the same time which could cause great heartache but that was about the most negative I was aware of. That someone could pretend to be in love, to manipulate and deceive in order to achieve something was a concept that was utterly new to me. New and deeply shocking. I remember I was really depressed and became quite mistrustful. There is also a make-believe friendship in the book which meant you couldn’t even trust friends. Once your eyes are open you start to see and my teenage self became aware of similar things happening around me. In the end I was glad I had read Les liaisons dangereuses. Better to learn from a book than through pain and heartache. I must add as well that I loved this book. I was shocked and depressed but also fascinated and amazed by the story.

The second book was not a novel but a philosophical text by Julien Offroy de La Mettrie. The idea that we are just machines acting and reacting, not much different from a robot, as he described it in Machine Man – L’homme machine (1747) – depressed me incredibly. After having read it, life felt quite pointless for a while and I had to come to the conclusion that he was maybe just plain wrong, before I could enjoy it again.

I wonder if it’s a pure coincidence that all the examples which had a negative impact on my life are from the 18th century? And three of the four examples are French books.

Luckily some books have had a very positive impact but that will be the topic of another post.

Have you ever read a book which had a major impact? And what do you think about banning books?

Dangerous Liaisons (Penguin Classics)

On Negative “Reviews”, Bookmark Ripping and Nick Hornby

In German a slating review is called a “Verriss” which comes from the word “verreissen” – pull to pieces. When I discovered yesterday what the kitty had done to one of the free bookmarks I got in the bookshop, I thought it was somehow apt to use a picture of it for this post.

I’m not the first nor the last who will mention the debate that was raging on Goodreads, Twitter, a few blogs and even in the newspapers last week. Some of the discussions, although heated, were interesting, while others were alienating or downright offensive. In any case they got me thinking about “reviews” in general and “negative reviews” in particular.

The first incident started on Goodreads where a reader posted a negative review of a YA novel (see here). For reasons I do not understand this triggered a massive response from YA novelists who slagged her off collectively. More and more people entered the debate and in the end it looked like some sort of author versus reader war. I have read her review and while it was easy to see that she didn’t like the book, I didn’t think she was offensive. A lot of these debates were going on on blogs and twitter and were picked up by mainstream media like the guardian here. The guardian article then triggered further responses, one from the YA novelist Maggie Stiefvater (here) which annoyed many bloggers but which I personally find very interesting and balanced.

The next incident happened on the page of the speculative fiction magazine Strange Horizons where a reviewer posted a very negative review (you can find it here) of a Fantasy novel that many like. This has created a response and an intensity of response I found amazing in itself. I was so captivated I could hardly stop reading. At some point a lot was censored.

Sure, the question comes up whether such heated debates only happen when it comes to genre but I do not think so. When you write literary books you even may end up being torn apart by professional critics which may prove to be more fatal. In the cases mentioned above, there were at least people supporting the author.

Much of the debate was circling around the notion of “proper review” and taking into account what a “proper review” is or should be. It was said that a review can be negative or positive but it shouldn’t manipulate the reader or be guided by intense emotions. With this interpretation of review in mind, it was stated that one shouldn’t write an emotionally charged negative review. If you do so, it’s rather an attack than a review.

I for one do not enjoy writing too negative or snarky book reviews. I have seen too many positive reviews of books I didn’t like on other blogs to find it appropriate to be snarky. Why would I want to ridicule a book? That’s like ridiculing someone’s taste in books. Very often I find that negative reviews are not balanced and are used to make the reviewer look good. They often work along the same lines and are aggressive and offensive. They also often rely on saying negative things about the author and ultimately about his readers.

Still this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t say what we like or don’t like but there is always so much that works in a book anyway or that we know will work for others that we should try to emphasize it. I have found wonderful books through someone else’s careful and thoughtful negative review.

Last week, instead of reading The Savage Detectives, I spent a lot of time with Nick Hornby’s wonderful essay collection Housekeeping vs The Dirt which he wrote for the magazine Believer. One of their mottos, as he writes is Thou Shalt Not Slag Anyone Of. As he explains further

As I understand it, the founders of the magazine wanted one place, one tiny corner of the world, in which writers could be sure that they weren’t going to get a kicking; predictably and depressingly, this ambition was mocked mercilessly, mostly by those critics whose children would go hungry if their parent’s weren’t able to abuse authors whose books they didn’t like much.

When I visit a new blog I read a few posts here and there and I’m very glad if I see the writer has written about books he/she likes and about some he/she doesn’t like and I will pay extra attention when reading negative reviews. Not too long ago I was on a blog who reviewed a book that another blogger had recommended as being particularly great. Said blogger not only hated the book but found it to be insulting his/her intelligence. The blogger went on and on how weird it was that another person did recommend this. He/she took it apart in minute detail, making herself/himself look good and witty in the process and of course that person got a lot of applause. People loved the snark, couldn’t get enough of it. I wonder if anyone else felt as bad as I did. What about the person who did recommend the book (mercifully the name wasn’t given)? Funnily it is a book that I have read and think in its genre it is a very good book. If said blogger only reads romance or even only literary fiction he/she wouldn’t get it and shouldn’t even bother reading it. Reading it and then emphasizing that this isn’t what we would normally read because it is beyond us, is a bit shameful. Maybe the person did sound intelligent, she certainly didn’t sound kind.

There is an instance in which I find a negative review acceptable and that is when the book is morally unacceptable. When it glorifies oppression, racism, sexism, or is a vehicle of harmful propaganda. In that case the negative review could serve as a warning for the reader and is even necessary.

Another instance in which I find it acceptable is when a literary writer who is extremely smug in his utterances about others and dismissive of other’s craft writes something that is bad. In that case you can say, he or she had it coming.

How about you? Do you like to read snarky reviews? Do you write them?

To end on a positive note, here is a picture of  the bookmark ripper and, no, that’s not my bed, excuse me, that’s one of his own. Fluffy and comfy, original Icelandic eider-down.

On Cinderella Ate my Daughter – A French Mother’s Perspective

Last month I read Peggy Orenstein’s book Cinderalla Ate my Daughter (here is the review) and I liked it a lot. It left me with many questions as I have no children and most of my friends either have none or they are too small or simply not girls. The only mother of a girl the age of Orenstein’s daughter I could think of was Emma (Book Around the Corner). We decided to do a double post. While she will post her review of the book on her blog, I post her answers to my questions on mine.

My hunch was that although a very accurate portrayal of some topics, Orenstein also depicted many purely American things. I also wanted to know from a mother how she dealt with all the traps and pitfalls that you encounter when raising kids in our society. I enjoyed reading her answers a lot and hope you will be interested as well.

Foreword about Emma

I was born in the 1970s and raised by a feminist mother who loves clothes and by a progressive father who always shared domestic tasks with his wife. So some things seem obvious to me. I have a daughter and a son who will be ten and seven-and-a-half year old in September. I have many friends and colleagues with children around that age. When I say “I” in the answers, I could have said “We” as my husband and I have very few disagreements on education. I also want to add that I haven’t read any parenting book since the ones for babies focusing on pampering, healing red bottoms, handling tooth aches and high fevers. Our only guide-book is our shared values, our common sense and what we think is important for the development of our children. For the rest, we do our best and we know we’ll make mistakes.

Are the Disney Princesses really as important in France as they seem to be in the US?

Yes and no.

Yes they are as important as far as marketing is concerned. You have glasses, notebooks, T-Shirts, towels, etc, all kind of objects with the Disney Princesses printed on them. But for me they are among other “brands” like Nemo, Lightening Queen, Winx Club and Totally Spies.

No they aren’t, as I never witnessed that girls identified with those princesses the way Orenstein describes. There’s one reason for that I think. When I read Orenstein’s book, I noticed that at several occasions she casually mentions that little girls go to school, to a show or to the mall in Disney Princess dresses. I was really shocked. In France, everybody will look at you if your daughter wears such a dress outside when it’s not Carnival. You can’t bring your child to school dressed as a princess or a pirate. Those dresses aren’t regular outfits. They are costumes. I’m not a psychologist but it seems to me it makes the difference between thinking you’re a princess and playing at being a princess. You don’t wear those dresses in your “real” life. The children understand the nuance very well.

Did your daughter go through a phase like this? How did you handle it?

Yes my daughter had a princess phase and she absolutely loved her high heels plastic shoes. I suspect that was because they made noise when she walked just like my high heel shoes do. For me it was more doing like Mom does than imitating a Disney Princess. And I thought it was natural for a girl to identify with her mother. After all, my son sometimes looks at his legs trying to detect if hair is growing so that he can have hairy legs like Dad.

She also had several princess dresses (according to her size) but she never thought she was a princess. It was clearly a game. So we let her play.

Later, a feminist friend of mine got her a pirate costume. She chose to wear it for Carnival at school and she didn’t mention any disagreeable comment from other kids. This year she had a witch costume. I’m not sure but I think I remember a note from school saying something like “Carnival will be on (date). The children can be dressed in costume. Please, no princess dresses”.

Did you think it was harmful as it was focusing too much on beauty and appearance?

I don’t think it was harmful for her. I think it focuses too much on beauty and appearance but let’s be realistic, that’s how our world works. Plus, children’s stories have always focused on beauty for girls. When I was little, I didn’t have Disney Princess dresses but I saw Disney films and heard fairy tales. It’s always about a beautiful princess and the prince never falls for her because she’s smart or funny. It’s always because she’s gorgeous. What I mean is that we don’t need Disney to have that model imposed on us.

How about the Bratz Doll? I’ve never seen one but I’m not regularly in toy shops. Would you let your daughter have one if she really wanted it?

My daughter doesn’t have one and never asked for one. I’ve never seen any in other people’s houses. I’m not sure I’d buy one. If I had to decide, I’d balance between the risk of her being apart and the risk of her being exposed to a very sexist toy.

Where do you draw the line and find a balance between – as Orenstein called it – going Amish on her or being too permissive?

I have my idea of what a little girl should not be doing and wearing:

  • No nail-polish in school but OK during the holidays as long as it is pale.

  • No make-up except for dressing-up and not to go to parties or outside.

  • She has curly hair: there is no way I’m going to buy an straigthening iron and do her hair. She’s too young.

  • No dyed hair

  • No tattoo even if it’s a children friendly one. (anyway they’re forbidden in school)

  • I compromised on earrings: OK for long ones if they aren’t too big or too dangerous. She can’t wear them on PE days in school.

  • No slutty clothes.

The list isn’t exhaustive. So far, it seems that other parents around us have more or less the same rules. So she never had big pressure and never threw a big tantrum. And we’ve never faced major questions. If she asks for a gloss, I say no and that she’s too young. If she wants a T-Shirt I think is vulgar, I say no and explain why. Of course she cries sometimes but that’s life, you can’t have whatever you want.

In the long term, I think that as long as nail polish (for example) is forbidden, it will be transgressive to have some. It will be a victory for her when I eventually say yes, a harmless victory but an important one for her. The more barriers we put now, the more “harmless” barriers she’ll break when she’s a teenager. That’s our bet.

The line is our values. It’s our role to explain our decisions properly so that they don’t appear too unjust. I have to admit we’re lucky we haven’t had problems so far. She seems to choose friends who live by the same kind of rules.

Would you allow sexualized toys and clothes?

Yes for toys because she has two or three Barbies. (She’s not a huge fan) and no for clothes. (no thongs, net stockings, T-shirts showing belly buttons…) Anyway these clothes aren’t allowed in school.

Did you also notice that your son was more reluctant to play with your daughter’s toys than the other way around?

No I didn’t notice that. Our daughter has never been interested in dolls. She loves Littlest Pet Shops and her brother plays with her. She has a very vivid imagination, she invents stories and games and he really likes it. She plays with cars too with him. They like Legos and Playmobils. They build houses or cars, it depends of the day.

Did your daughter ever report that others attacked her because she wasn’t following the trend or speaking up for herself?

No I’ve never heard of that but there’s always a risk that she didn’t report it. She complains sometimes that we don’t let her watch TV at nights or that she hasn’t seen Twilight or other films we consider are too “adult” for her.

How did you handle the pink phase? Is it even possible to find toys and clothes in other colours?

We waited for the pink phase to end. It’s over now. I wear a lot of pink myself and my husband has pink shirts. I think we’re safe about this.

It’s not that hard to find non-pink toys for girls. When she was little, she had Little People and big Legos. Now she has Littlest Pet Shops or Playmobils. But sure, a Barbie’s car will be pink.

It can be difficult to find cheap non-pink clothes. But it’s easier as she grows up. However, pink isn’t the worst. The worst are the ones with slutty designs or cuts. It was a big thing a few years ago. It seems to improve now.

Are there beauty pageants for little girls in France like in the US?

Yes, there are some but I don’t think they broadcast them on TV or maybe on some obscure cable TV. That’s the big difference.

Did you find good children’s books with role models that are inspiring?

I never looked for them. They have subscriptions to children’s magazines (Astrapi, Histoires Vraies, I Love English for our daughter and Pirouette for our son). Bayard Presse is very good for children and it’s for boys and girls. We have chosen them because they’re interesting and clever. They’re also neutral. There are really stupid magazines for little girls out there. (with girlie stuff, teaching to girls a model of the woman as a shopping addict, a lover of long chats with friends and also promoting an untimely interest for boys).

Our son has also a subscription to children’s books through school (L’Ecole des Loisirs). They’re of good quality. Otherwise I choose neutral gender books. I refuse to buy Totally Spies or Winx Club or Barbie or Pet Shop Books. These are not books. These are marketing.

About role models. Our daughter is a huge Harry Potter fan. And Hermione Granger is a fantastic model. She’s smart. She befriends with Harry and is not in love with Harry, so friendship with a boy is possible. She’s brave. She doesn’t wonder if what she intends to do will mess up with her hair or not.

Btw, I don’t agree with Orenstein’s analysis of Bella Swan (Twilight)

Do you even buy gender specific toys and how much non-gender toys are available?

My policy has always been: no toy ironing board or vacuum cleaner for her and no guns or cars for him. There’s no way I’m going to buy those stupid girl board games about boyfriends, secrets and supposedly girlie stuff. As far as I know her friends don’t have them either.

An anecdote. My daughter had received a pink car with a small doll in it. She never played with that toy. According to the above mentioned policy, we didn’t rush to buy cars to our son. When he wasn’t even walking, he started to play with the pink car all the time. Then we bought him cars, firemen trucks and “boys” stuff. Not because he was a boy but because he liked to play with them. If he had asked for a doll, he would have had one.

Are there non-gender toys out there? No except for Playmobils, Legos, Kaplas, board games and outside games (balls, bowling) Of course you will find those in gender-marketed colours (pink balls, pink bikes…) but you can find them in neutral colours too.

Did you also notice the Facebook craze and calling 622 girls girlfriends in France?

There’s also a Facebook craze but my daughter is too young. She doesn’t have an account. She never asked for one, her friends don’t have one either. I’m worried about social networks, but I’m not there yet.

A colleague with older children told me he received a guidebook from the collège to explain to parents how to handle Facebook and let the children use it in security. His son can’t accept a new “friend” without his approval. (he has a password). That’s fair.

Someone reported me the kind of bullying Orenstein describes. Mostly gossip that takes huge proportions because it spreads farther and faster. I think it’s really harmful as humiliations during adolescence can leave deep scars.

Anyway, another colleague has a very smart and safe policy: no electronic device in rooms after bed time. Laptops, cell phones, DS and so on sleep in the living-room. Sleep is important for kids and teenagers. I think she’s right. (And of course, children don’t have TVs in their rooms)

Is Hannah Montana loved in France as well?

She is known here too but her series is on Disney Channel. It’s a paid TV and not all families have it. We don’t. My daughter said she saw the series once when we had the channel for free. She said it’s stupid as it only talks about boys and singers. (C’est nul! Was the exact phrase. How lovely to my ears!!)

About Hannah Montana and the like singers: don’t forget that children here don’t understand the lyrics and most of the parents aren’t able to translate them. The impact is different.


I’d like to thank Emma for answering my questions. It gives another dimension to my reading of the book and, I think a better understanding of the differences between the US and Europe.

Don’t forget to visit her page and read her thoughts on the books. She also included interesting photos.

Here is the link to her review.