Book review – “Fear of Flying” by Erica Jong

I chose this book for the penultimate month of my 2021 reading challenge, the theme of which was an erotic novel. It is a genre that has a lot of trash, for sure, and most serious readers probably don’t delve into it that much, not for their reading pleasure anyway! But it is a legitimate literary genre and some undoubtedly heavyweight books and authors would be included on any list: Lady Chatterley’s Lover, of course, probably comes to mind first, but then there are also The Lover by Marguerite Duras, Fanny Hill by John Cleland, The Story of O by Pauline Reage, and Delta of Venus by Anais Nin. Some of these I’ve read, others not.

For me ‘erotic fiction’ is more than just ‘a book with lots of sex’; from more recent times I’d say, for example that Fifty Shades of Grey is an erotic novel (probably, since I haven’t read that either!) whereas others have fairly graphic sex in them, but it’s just part of the characters’ lives rather than being the main subject of the novel. Books I’ve reviewed here which I would put in this category include Sally Rooney’s Normal People and Beautiful World Where Are You?, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Call Me By Your Name, and Luster, to name but a few. Some of these are about sexual awakening, and there are others where sex involves a degree of abuse or exploitation. All of the above books appeared in various lists I consulted when I was considering which title to read, but I think there is nuance that is missing: many of these are good books where the sex scenes are well-written and won’t make you cringe, while in others the whole purpose of the story is an exploration of sex and sexuality, meant to in some way stimulate the reader’s own feelings on the subject – the depths and darknesses, fantasy, the timelessness of it, the human condition, the reproductive drive and animal pleasure.

So, that’s my mini-essay on what constitutes an erotic novel! The question is does Fear of Flying fall into that category? For me, no it doesn’t, though many compilers of lists of erotic fiction disagree with me (I wonder how many of them have read the books they are recommending!) What’s the book about? Well, the narrator and main character is Isadora Wing, a Jewish New Yorker, writer and daughter of a bohemian mother who had ambitions to be become an artist but ended up having children instead. This is the central tension in the novel: can a woman be an artist while also being a mother (for me this is the greater question, not the sexual freedom). Remember it was written in the early 1970s when the act of sex was still, in the minds of many, inextricably linked to reproduction rather than pleasure (at least for women), and for many more, confined to marriage. So, it was probably more erotic in its time than it feels today.

The novel opens with Isadora and her psychiatrist husband Bennett on a plane to Vienna (along with many other psychoanalysts of various types) where she will accompany him at a conference (it is no accident that the city is the birthplace of Sigmund Freud). Whilst there she meets English academic Adrian to whom she is deeply sexually attracted. Adrian has a partner and children in London but seems to have a fairly open relationship (though it becomes clear later that he is more committed to the mother of his children than Isadora originally believes). Adrian and Isadora have a passionate affair; the sex scenes are graphic, but perhaps more shocking to a 1970s reader would have been how much Isadora wants and enjoys the sex. And so the expression “the zipless fuck”, for which this book is so well-known, is coined. The problem is that Isadora also loves her husband and he has many qualities Adrian does not: he brings her calm and stability and we learn later on that Bennett came to her rescue when she was in a very difficult place, her first husband, a brilliant musician, having been committed to an asylum. Isadora leaves Bennett for a time and sets out on an adventure touring around Europe with Adrian living out a carefree life of sex and fun.

I have to admit that I found this book quite boring at times! As with many books that have a lot of sex in them, you become a bit immune to it after a while. This book did not fit my definition of exploring sex and sexuality. Rather, it struck me as a fictionalisation of the same sorts of issues raised by Nancy Friday in My Mother My Self. It seems to me to be more about feminism and about breaking free of a patriarchy which says that women are only entitled to a limited experience of sex, a view that no longer holds in developed societies. *(Largely anyway. In secular ones. With some notable exceptions.) It is also a book about the struggle of an artistic personality to reconcile her creativity with her femininity and what this means for her reproductive status. Again, an issue that I think most developed societies have moved on from (the same caveats * as above apply).

This book was more interesting and meaningful to me as a student of feminist writing than as a reader of erotic fiction although it probably does deserve its place in the erotic pantheon too. I have just started reading Pleasure Activism by adrienne maree brown, following a recommendation. This book explores sexual pleasure from a much broader perspective (brown identifies as a pan-sexual woman of colour) and although it is a work of non-fiction it will be interesting to explore how or if the debate has shifted. A topic I will return to!

So, as for Fear of Flying, would I recommend? Well, yes, if you’re interested in the topic, but not necessarily for “pleasure”!

If you have read this book, I would be interested in your views.

My 2022 reading challenge

I’ve been setting myself a reading challenge for a few years now. I love following the challenges that other bloggers have set for themselves. Sometimes this is about quantity, no bad thing, especially if you want to get back into a reading groove if perhaps life has taken over a bit and reading has dropped off the list of priorities. I can certainly empathise with this at the moment! Earlier this month I did my monthly ‘in pictures’ post. I hardly took any photos in December so the few that I did have (mostly photos of a research trip to Essex) all looked very pleasant and serene. In reality, things felt much more chaotic! Not just the usual pre-Christmas stuff, but also putting my house back together after the huge disruption of a kitchen refurbishment. Don’t get me wrong, it’s wonderful now and I’m very happy, but it took several weeks to be fully finished, thanks to Covid and supply chain issues (Brexit: the gift that keeps on giving).

So, I feel like I also need to get back into my reading groove and my annual reading challenge might be just the thing. I’m going to do it slightly differently this year. Normally I pick a theme or a genre for each month, but this year, I’m going full non-fiction! Looking back on my 2021 list of books read, only two were non-fiction titles – Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the pacific Crest Trail (which made me want to go and do a long distance walk immediately!) and Haemin Sunim’s The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down, which it might have been better to read as an aid to calm when I was in the middle of kitchen chaos! I got so much out of those two books as I almost always do from non-fiction, so I really want to make the effort to read more this year.

So, it’s a non-fiction book per month for me. I don’t think I’m going to set myself any themes, rather I’m going to try and go where the mood takes me. This month’s book seems like an apt one: Tiny Habits: Why starting small makes lasting change easy by B J Fogg. I haven’t exactly made new year’s resolutions for 2022, but I am trying to make sure I do certain things on a daily basis, such as piano practice and writing! I am hoping that this book will help me with a few tips and secrets on how to stick to my plans.

When I first started doing my reading challenges I set up a Facebook group which worked well at first. But I have become increasingly disillusioned with social media, and with that platform in particular, so I’m not going to do that this year. I’d be interested to know what platforms other bloggers find helpful in sharing their work, apart from through WordPress of course.

So, I’ll be looking out for others’ reading challenges with interest. I always get good ideas from other people’s reviews. Until next time, happy reading!

Reading challenge book review – “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens

An aunt of mine, who moved with her husband to Australia in the 1970s, said that one of the things she missed from home was the British seasons. Australia moved from scorching summer to a milder greyer period between April and August (not very different to the typical British summertime!), seldom very cold or wet. I have always been fascinated by the changes in the light, the temperature, and nature more generally as the year progresses, so I cannot imagine what it must be like when the months pass with so little to distinguish them.

The snow that fell here in the north during the very cold snap at the end of November gave rise to some beautiful scenes with the most incredible light

Like many, I find the winter months challenging – it can be hard to maintain energy levels and motivation, particularly post-Christmas when one is facing into a long stretch of cold, wet and dark. But I appreciate and am grateful for this time of the year, for this marking of time. It is period which provides a uniquely reflective opportunity as our bodies want us to be less active, cultivate rest and, of course, read more! A Christmas Carol, the Dickens novella that I chose for the final month of my 2021 reading challenge, was the perfect book to sink into winter with.

I started it on Boxing Day, after the hurly-burly of Christmas preparation was finally over, after the meal was long-cooked and someone was taking over the reins in the kitchen. As a child, I always found Boxing Day such an anti-climax, of course, but now as a mother, I love it – the chance to put my feet up at last! When I sat down to read the book I felt deeply immersed in the season – the darkness, the warmth and protection of the interior domestic scenes, (the Cratchits and Scrooge’s nephew, that is, not the cold, lonely home of Scrooge). I read in the late afternoons as I sat down with a glass of something, or a hot cup of tea, as the dusk was falling and my neighbours’ lights were coming on, and I felt in the middle of a northern winter! I cannot imagine reading this book at Christmas time in Australia!

The visitations of the spirits of course, turn Scrooge from a miserable, lonely miser to a benevolent embracer of life and all the good things it has to offer. But in reading it for the first time in what must be many years I felt a deep and powerful sense of the importance not so much of the Christian religious themes but of more universal ideas around family, the importance of community, or caring for the less fortunate, and of rituals around food – the scene in the Cratchit’s household, particularly with the Christmas pudding is marvellous! This has a particular resonance for me as each year I gift a few of my neighbours a home-made Christmas pudding, so at the end of November, my kitchen resembles a Turkish bath thanks to all the steaming!

A Christmas Carol is a brilliant book – simple themes conveyed with imagination and economy. Like so many people, December was a very busy month of preparation and my reading suffered. This was the perfect reintroduction and I thoroughly enjoyed opening a Dickens again. It has made me want to go back and re-read all his other novels that I love so much. The size of my TBR pile is so great that that might be too much – next year’s reading challenge perhaps!

What is your ‘go to’ book at Christmas?

Happy new year!

Happy new year fellow bloggers and readers! Let us all hope that 2022 sees the world turning the corner on the pandemic although even as I write numbers of infections in the UK, and particularly here in northwest England where I live, are frighteningly high so it is an anxious time for the clinically vulnerable once again, and for parents hoping that children can remain at school for a whole term and for anyone waiting for hospital treatment.

My Christmas was quiet – no visiting relatives for us this year. I was lucky enough to have my three children at home, though, my son returning from university, so we simply hunkered down and spent some wonderful family time together. University and school have now returned, twelfth night has passed, the decorations have been packed away for another year and it is time to get back to some semblance of normal life.

I haven’t posted on here for a few weeks. I took some time out from all my various activities over the holiday period to give myself some time to think about how I wanted to take things forward over the coming year. The autumn was quite a stressful period with one thing and another (some planned, some not) and I am hoping that the next few months will be somewhat quieter, though both my daughters are facing into big exams this year, so there is a persistent background worry about whether or not they will go ahead, about fairness and equity and about staying healthy in the run-up to them.

I have decided that this must be the year that I take my writing to the next level, so I am going to try and do a bit less of my day job to give myself the space to do that. I had a good momentum up until the start of the pandemic and then, as so many people have found, my writing routines, my motivation, my capacity all seemed to vanish and I have found myself in a rut with it ever since.

Blogging is an integral part of my writing. At the very least it exercises all the right muscles, and reading, the main focus of this blog, is the very thing that inspires me to write, so no issues there then. I would like to tell you a bit more about my writing in the coming months, if only as a way of keeping myself accountable and on track. I am going to continue to set myself an annual reading challenge. This year, I have decided that I want to focus on non-fiction. I did not read as much non-fiction last year as I have done in previous years, so I am planning to pick a different theme each month. I haven’t yet decided what January’s theme will be, so look out for that in the next week or so.

I am a ‘completer-finisher’ so I need to tell you about the November AND December books for my 2021 reading challenge; November’s theme was erotic fiction and I chose Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, and December’s challenge was to read A Christmas Carol, the Charles Dickens classic. I’ll be posting about those in the coming days too.

Another important goal for me this year is to pay attention. In this last year or two I have spent more time walking around my local area than ever before, noticing things that I hadn’t previously. It has been a joy and has taught me that sometimes the biggest learnings and the most important discoveries can be pretty close to home. This is a lesson I hope to take into 2022 as well.

What are your hopes and ambitions for the year ahead?

Whatever they are, I would like to wish you every success in realising them.

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