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Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

I’m all for positive discrimination when it’s merited and, let’s face it, it very often is. Having witnessed the progress of women in Irish politics being systematically thwarted over the decades I fully support the proposed introduction of candidate quotas – many of the most enlightened and progressive democracies in the world have used them very effectively to introduce some much-needed gender balance into their parliaments.

However, I’ve always struggled with the notion of women only prizes in the arts, such as the Orange Prize for Fiction - due to be announced later today – or the MaxMara Art Prize for Women. To me the establishment of such closed competitions is tantamount to admitting “we can’t play with the big boys in the park so we’re taking our ball home to kick it around in the safety of our own back garden”. That sporting analogy prompts me to mention those sporting competitions where women are unable to compete directly against men but where they refuse to let this hold them back. For years women who competed at Wimbledon grudgingly accepted less prize money than their male counterparts despite thrilling fans with edge-of-the-seat showdowns time and time again. Finally in 2007 reasonableness prevailed and Wimbledon joined the United States and Australia in paying equal money across the board, from the champions down to the first-round losers in all events.

We can sing, draw, sculpt and write just as well as the next man.

It’s different in the arts. We can sing, draw, sculpt and write just as well as the next man. Any handicap we have suffered from in the past has been a lack of access to the funding and critical evaluation long taken for granted by men. For that reason I’m all for supporting women in the arts and introducing their work to the widest possible audience. I hate to see fiction trivialised when it happens to be written by a women while at the same time the latest considered and weighty tome gestated by some male, white middle-aged sage is fawned over and lavished with praise by the predominantly male reviewers writing in the quality press.

Loath though I am to give them the oxygen of even more publicity the recent musings of Nobel laureat and highly acclaimed author, VA Naipaul are relevant in this context. The venerable old gent is certain that there is no woman writer he could possibly consider his equal and that we are held back by our “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world”. This, he feels perhaps, cannot be helped. As Naipaul helpfully points out,”inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too.” Do we really want to live in a society that encourages highly respected and accomplished men like Naipaul to believe that remarks like these are acceptable? Although patently and painfully antediluvian it is the existance of such distain that makes me believe that we should focus all of our attention on getting our work out there and beating them at their own game. For men who remain convinced that wimmin’s books are not for them Joylandmagazine.com has helpfully compiled a list of 250 gems that are worthy of their attention (and this is just for starters – there are many, many more).

We can undoubtedly kick ass. Whilst more men have carried off the prestigious Man Booker prize the women that have triumphed to date are undoubted stars – women like Anne Enright, Hilary Mantel, Margaret Attwood, Pat Barker and Iris Murdoch. The shortlisted authors for the 2011 Orange prize includes books that are arguably deserving of a place on any Man Booker shortlist - Room was in fact included – or international equivalent:  Emma Donoghue’s Room, Aminatta Forna’s  The Memory of Love, Emma Henderson’s Grace Williams Says it Loud, Nicole Krauss’s Great House, Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife and Kathleen Winter’s Annabel.

I’m far less ambivalent when it comes to the showcasing of women’s talent. Women have historically been denied the power, influence, resources and encouragement to produce and display our work to the widest audience possible and that imbalance needs to be redressed. Our art galleries are still stuffed to the gills with work produced, promoted and prized by men. Events like the inaugural Women of the World festival at London’s Southbank Centre provided the head-and-gallery space to allow a wide audience to view, critique and comment on the work of many hundreds of talented, imaginative, creative women who were all too often pushed into the shadows in the past.

These event and others like the Birds Eye View Film festival seem like a good idea to me. They are undoubtedly a valuable vehicle facilitating the promotion of oft neglected work. Feminist commentator Bidisha recently wrote in the Guardian, “people who loath women’s events do so because they loath women and cannot stand to be around them”. She adds that these events help to shatter the myth that women are in some way unworthy of hanging their work alongside that produced by man, saying, “women are not too shy, too talentless, too scarce, too petty, too this or that…or not enough of something else”.

This I applaud. My problem is with the prizes; the artificial pat on the back for the woman who sees off fifty percent of her peers without troubling the other lot. By all means push us forward, give us a platform, review our work on an equal basis, give us the gravitas and the column inches but when it comes to the prizes let us compete with the boys and not just amongst ourselves. I’d be genuinely interested to hear the counter argument or any comments as this is something that  has always caused me a degree of discomfort.

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In her late teens, Jillian Lauren was snapping up luxurious evening gowns and lingerie on shopping sprees at Chanel and Louis Vuitton. She was driven to shops by private chauffeurs and escorted inside by hired security guards; the shop girls scrambled to get her whatever she desired. Her evenings involved wildly elaborate parties, complete with bottomless bottles of expensive champagne and endless heaps of caviar.

What sounds like an episode of MTV’s “My Super Sweet 16” was Lauren’s life at age 18, only she wasn’t so much the guest of honour as she was the high-priced entertainment. Back in the early ‘90s, the young New York University drop-out was a harem girl of Prince Jefri Bolkiah, the brother of the Sultan of Brunei. Lauren, now a wife and mother, is the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir, Some Girls: My Life in a Harem, about her experience as a high-class prostitute.

So how did a young girl from Jersey end up half-way around the world in a palace vying for the attention of a playboy Prince with two-dozen other call girls? A series of rebellious choices, most likely fueled in part by a troubled childhood, saw Lauren go from college student to part-time stripper to live-in working girl within a year. At first she thought she was going to Singapore for a two-week stint as company to a wealthy businessman, but when the plane landed in Brunei she was told otherwise. While she admits she was taken by surprise she also says she had the choice to leave. Lauren stayed six months before going back to New York City only to return for another six month period a short time later.

While some may hear her story and think Lauren was misled by those who brought her to Brunei, she takes full responsibility for her decision to stay.

“I was never hoodwinked by anyone and I walked into the situation in Brunei with my eyes wide open. In fact, I think that the people who led me into that line of work were pretty forthright and respectful. Probably more so than most women who enter the sex industry at a young age,” says Lauren. “At the same time, I sometimes look back and bemoan my lack of role models. However, I was so headstrong and independent that even if someone had been around to talk sense to me, I probably would have done exactly the opposite.”

What attracted her to Brunei at first was the promise of something better, a fantasy life beyond her wildest comprehension. The willful teen was all about taking chances and seeing where life would take her. She’d had enough of the mundane, often suffocating suburban life of her childhood and was struggling to find her place at university in New York. The unknown, with all its possibilities, was more appealing at the time.

“I had absolutely no idea where I was heading. I was running entirely on the boldness of youth and my utter ignorance of consequences. If you had told me where my life would lead when I was first traveling to my dorm at New York University at the age of 16, I wouldn’t have believed you in a million years,” says the author.

Where Lauren found herself after arriving in the desert country was a richly appointed palace with a large house staff and a constant party atmosphere. The girls slept in their own private rooms, ordered whatever they desired from the palace kitchen and had full access to a state-of-the-art gym. In the evenings they’d dress up for parties – the guest list was always comprised of the Prince’s well-heeled friends – that started at 11 p.m. and didn’t wind down until dawn. The sex part didn’t even come into play until two weeks into her journey when the Prince, who selected whatever girl he wanted for an hour or for the night, chose her. This open selection process encouraged an often bloodthirsty nature among the girls; there was a sense of power that came with being the Prince’s favorite, though once attained keeping that intangible title was an entirely different effort. Not exactly Pretty Woman, not that prostitution ever is, says Lauren.

“In Some Girls, I’m pretty clear about where I stand on [that movie]. I say that the part about not kissing tricks is true and the rest is an insulting crock.  It’s the absolute worst manifestation of the Cinderella story – presented with no sense of consciousness or irony,” says Lauren. “There is no attempt at all made to deconstruct the myth, to make it relevant in some way to the complexity of modern relationships and power dynamics. What is the message, really? That we’re whores until we’re validated by a rich man, at which point we transform magically into princesses?”

The experience eventually led Lauren to a better understanding of herself, and while she says she would never go back to that life she’s clear that she doesn’t regret what it did for her emotional and spiritual growth. After leaving Brunei she went to college, struggled with drug addiction and worked a series of odd jobs before working her way through the past (a process that started only after she started “loving and trusting” herself) into the life she knows today. Lauren is now a successful author and journalist living in Los Angeles with musician husband Scott Shriner (bassist for Weezer). They are doting parents to son Tariku, who they adopted two-and-a-half years ago in Ethiopia. She credits her experience in part to helping her be a better wife and mother.

“The real lessons for me were learned as I looked back and reflected. I was able to discover a different level of compassion for both myself and for the other people who shared my story. I looked at pictures of myself from that time and I said, What was so wrong with me? Why did I hate myself so much? I was beautiful. I was hopeful. I was brave. I was adorable. I can see it now clear as day, but I couldn’t see it then. The story is about struggling to love yourself and learning to forgive yourself. I can’t think of a lesson that I use more as a mother, wife and friend than forgiveness.”

Some Girls: My Life in a Harem is available at Amazon UK. Lauren’s second book, Pretty, will be released in August. Learn more at her website: http://www.jillianlauren.com/

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My pride in being Irish has taken a beating over the past few years. Government corruption and clerical child abuse shook me to the core. When the recruitment ban on public sector jobs left me unemployed almost two years ago, I emigrated to the UK like so many of my peers. But while there I missed the good parts of being Irish – the people, the sense of humour, the music and literature. Our unique worldview. It wasn’t long before I returned – wary this time, but with my eyes wide open.

Although I was lucky and managed to find work, again I was tested – again by the government.  The lies in the lead up to the IMF takeover and the spectacularly unfair subsequent budget made me wonder why I’d returned at all.

However, a wonderful Christmas at home with my family and friends made up for a lot. One of the many highlights was receiving the re-issued Soundings anthology. It reminded me of the fun I had while growing up in Ireland. A memory of happier times proved to be a great antidote to negativity. So I decided to compile a list of the quintessentially Irish aspects of my childhood to anchor myself in what being Irish truly means to me.

1.     Ulster bank’s Henry the hippo

I’ll never forget the joy I experienced when I went into the Ulster bank in the Main Street in Castlebar and exchanged five pounds of my Communion money for a hippo-shaped money-box, a notebook, a folder, a pen, a pencil, a key ring, a ruler and stickers. Turns out it was the only good deal I was to receive at the hands of an Irish bank so needless to say it left a lasting impression.

2.     Fancy paper

From a very young age I was keenly aware that I was never going to be the prettiest, brightest or sportiest girl in my class. But I had one thing no one else did: a bumper set of stationary my aunt sent me from Birmingham, just before fancy paper collections became the Next Big Thing. Fancy paper the only form of currency worth anything in the playground so my set of duplicate pages and envelopes enabled me to strike the canniest of deals, and before long I became the Don Corleone of St. Angela’s National School. Good times.

3.     Red lemonade

Last I heard, the powers-that-be were very keen to get the red stuff taken off the market due to its carcinogenic ingredients. Just as well I made the most of its availability when I was a kid by drinking gallons of the stuff then.


4.     The projected stories that taught me Irish

I loved learning Irish at primary school. It started with Mrs Waldron sticking cardboard cut-out words on a velcro background in junior babies and then progressed to the awesome ‘projector’, a word that I thought meant the cartoon-like stories that our new vocabulary was based on, not the apparatus itself. Like I said, I wasn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier.

 5.     Mála 

Sure, plasticine is fun, but even more fun is the fact that we have our own word for it.

6.     Token collecting

My childhood version of being taken to Hamley’s in Dundrum was perusing the catalogue of products you could get if you collected tokens from empty Kellogg’s / Monaghan milk packaging. But the king of them all was the Maxol catalogue. From my first Casio watch to the sewing machine that my mother used to make my clothes, it was the Maxol catalogue that facilitated all the landmarks of my early consumer history. However, my budding materialism soon corrupted me; I became devious, inventing reasons to go on long car journeys so my Dad would buy more petrol and get more stamps. I soon realised that no matter how many I had, they were never enough. Taught me a lot, those Maxol stamps did.

7.     Anne & Barry

My mother was a hippy who never took a parental hard-line until it came to teaching me to read. I was a lazy little fecker so the poor woman had her work cut out. My salvation came in the form of my first English reader school book, Anne and Barry. I delighted in the adventures of those crazy kids and didn’t want the books to end. When I was introduced to their Irish language equivalent Áine agus Barra, my life felt complete. My bibliomania has been steadily hurtling out of control since then.  Thanks, Mum and Anne and Barry! [link: http://en-gb.facebook.com/pages/Anne-and-Barry-books-Remember/%5D

These are the things I shall remember the next time a Government announcement has me reaching for my passport. It may be hard to believe at times, but there are still some things that can’t be taxed or devalued. And never can be.

Regina de Búrca hails from the West of Ireland. She has been a Liverpool FC fan since the age of four. She writes books for teenagers and has a MA in writing for Young People from Bath Spa University. She currently lives in Dublin. Twitter: @Regina_dB

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Sorry I’ve been crap at blogging lately. I’ll try to be better. Here’s a short one to keep things ticking over… recommendations always appreciated.

CURRENTLY LISTENING TO:

Yuck – ‘Yuck’

Very taken by Yuck’s album… like The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, it’s totally derivative but the songs are GREAT. Bits of the Pixies, Pavement, Sonic Youth… and a great name for a band, too.

CURRENTLY READING:


Jonathan Safran Foer – ‘Eating Animals’

Only about halfway through, but it’s very good so far. This guy wrote one of my favourite books in recent memory, but this is a non-fiction account of how and why he decided to become vegetarian when his son was born. It’s not preachy in the slightest, but let’s just say that some of the cold hard facts about the ins and outs of the meat industry makes me extra-glad I’m a veggie.

CURRENTLY LOOKING FORWARD TO:

Primavera Sound 2011 – can’t bloody wait. Belle & Sebastian, PJ Harvey, Interpol, Sufjan Stevens, Fleet Foxes,

Also:

Going to see Spamalot for the first time. Should be good!

Also:

The new series of The Apprentice started last week on BBC. Goodbye, life.

CURRENTLY WANTING:

Morrissey – ‘Very Best of’ on vinyl

€29.99 on vinyl in Tower Records! €29.99!! *weeps* Come to me, payday.

CURRENTLY WATCHING:

Game of Thrones [HBO series]

My boyfriend is in the midst of the series of books that this new HBO series is based upon, and says despite the premise (it’s set on the fictional continent of Westeros in medieval times, with a lot of gory head-choppings, mythical demons, fancy suits of armour, incest, bonking and inter-dynasty politics), it’s not something that a World of Warcraft obsessive would watch. With the added fact of Aidan Gillen starring, that’s good enough for me. Just three episodes in and it’s simmering quite nicely. Christ, even Sean Bean is good.

What’s on your radar? What’s currently floating your TV/musical/comedy/film boat?

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A few weeks ago I met a delegation of Swedish journalists on a visit to Dublin. Fresh from a visit to the Irish Times offices, they remarked on the fact that there seemed to be very few women in the newsroom. They pointed out that in Sweden, men and women are so evenly distributed across the workplace that equality is something that’s hardly even discussed any more. It’s taken for granted. Inequality is a historical curiosity, or something to be noticed in other countries.

I’d been thinking about this, off and on, when I first heard that Easter Sunday would see the publication of a biography of Rachel Beer. Beer (born in 1858) was the first woman editor of a national newspaper in Britain; actually, she edited two papers at the same time – both The Sunday Times and The Observer.

As a young woman, Beer deliberately delayed marrying, because she didn’t want to land up with someone who was interested only in her fortune (her family, the Sassoons, had amassed quite a pile through the opium and cotton trades) or in squashing her independence. She ended up marrying (for love) financier Frederick Beer, who inherited the Observer from his father. (Why has no-one ever written a will leaving me even, say, a local freesheet?) He’d converted from Judaism to Christianity, which caused Rachel’s mother, and other members of her staunchly Jewish family, to refuse to see her.

At any rate, Frederick installed his wife as editor of the Observer in 1891. It wasn’t just a rich woman’s hobby – there was no fooling about on the fringes of her husband’s work for Rachel Beer – but a real job. She wrote news copy and editorials, and sniffed out stories even though as a woman she was unable to gain access to the spaces where news stories developed: the House of Commons and the exclusive city clubs where gossipy politicians, tycoons and male editors sculled madeira and snorted snuff. One of her great scoops was persuading Count Esterhazy to admit to the forgery of the letters which had led to Captain Dreyfus’s conviction and life imprisonment for treason – ultimately Dreyfus was released and Esterhazy was court martialled.

In 1894 she bought the Sunday Times and edited it simultaneously with the Observer, but by 1896, Frederick had become seriously ill with tuberculosis, and by 1903 he was dead. His death devastated Rachel, and her family reported her behaviour as being increasingly erratic. They had her sectioned (always so convenient), the newspapers were sold, and she lived in care for the rest of her life.

No woman was to edit a Fleet Street newspaper for eighty years after Rachel Beer. It’s about time we took our hats off to her. This biography, First Lady of Fleet Street The Life, Fortune and Tragedy of Rachel Beer by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev, was published on 24th April.

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Most tips about dating targeted at single women amount to a Sisyphean course of self-improvement, whether the focus is on their appearance as complicit with the beauty mandate or with interpersonal skills such as listening and hobby development, all are designed to make women a better match and ring ready, which culture has emphasised since they were knee-highs.   Instead of regarding every date as a potential Prince Charming, it might be more useful to utilise the Rochester Rule as a primary criterion for finding a good man.  Put simply, Charlotte Brontë’s novel unintentionally illustrates how much one can learn about a man from the way he treated women in past relationships, only her titular Jane Eyre was too much of an inexperienced sap to give the evidence full consideration.  When you have a man’s track record to consult, do so with the knowledge that he’s not going to be an entirely different man with you.  You can anticipate who he was with other women will remain consistent in the current relationship.  In the case of Brontë’s Edward Rochester, a man who locked his wife up in the attic for a decade, just to keep control of her dowry, Jane would have to wonder what he’d do once she became inconvenient, put on some weight or asked too much of him.  Marry him?  Reader, she should have busted ass for the nearest exit.

Edward Rochester stands as a familiar romantic figure in popular culture.  He’s usually attractive but in an unconventional fashion.   A Rochester presents himself as a ‘deep’ or ‘tortured’ soul, a misunderstood genius, a man prone to emotional outbursts, passionate exclamations and who makes wild demands on a lady.  After the 19th century original, there were several other men who fit the Rochester template, a leading man who should give women pause, including Charles Boyer in the classic Gaslight, Orson Welles, Ted Hughes, probably Richard Burton, Ike Turner, Charles Bukowski and Jack Nicholson.  The Rochester type gets off on treating women like crap, by building himself up through reminding women how little they matter in the end.  With outsized ego and a dissembling manner, Mr. Rochester manipulates women while remaining oblivious to the distress he causes.

Scarlett Johansson should take note of the Rochester Rule now that she’s moved in with Sean Penn.  Any dude who imagines a divine intervention in terms of licence to blow rails and buy women, where god commands:  ‘you’ve tortured yourself enough.  Two hookers and the eight ball are inside’ (starts 9:16 mark) probably isn’t going to cozy up to monogamy, especially when he likens it to self-imposed water boarding.  Penn rates close to Charlie Sheen’s level of wacked out entitlement, public rages, a total disregard for a woman’s well-being, with only a slight differential of talent in his favour.  Ms. Johansson, go ahead and have your fling, but do it without the mistaken belief that you can heal or redeem him.  Robin Wright tried that route and looks positively shell-shocked as a result.  Vagina ain’t the Red Cross, ladies.  Let the Rochester type save his own damn self.

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My desk last summer, it has gotten so much worse!

I was fascinated by this collection of photos. Writers at their work stations; creating, pondering, posing and working.

The creative process in others has always held my interest, no matter the art. I am a terrible cook, but love to sit, glass of wine in hand, and watch my husband create magic in the kitchen from raw materials. I am in awe of people who can knit and/or design clothing. I can carry a tune but would flounder immediately if you asked me to create music. I cannot paint, but love to look at art.

But write? Write I can do, and have long loved this personal slice of creation pie. I am happiest at my desk, coffee to my right, a cat sprawled to my left. I realised recently that I spend more time here per day than I do sleeping.

Looking over the photos in the collection above the image that connected fully with me was that of Tennessee Williams. His scattergun desk closely resembles mine; cluttered, covered in books, a mess of creation. How on earth everyone else works from serene tidiness is beyond my ken. Where is their…stuff?

Let me give you a run down of my desk right this second.

Aside from my computer there are many books, some open, some stacked precariously, there’s the wine glass from last night as I worked over edits and beside that a cup stuffed with pens and pencils; most of the pens don’t work (why the heck don’t I throw them out?), a pack of tissues, junk jewelry, a paperweight, a tin of paint ( cookie dough) a manuscript belonging to Declan Burke (new book, dark and entertaining), a silver carriage clock, a lamp festooned with earrings, notebooks – most open onto pages covered in my indecipherable scrawling handwriting, dog nail clippers, two speakers, a cardboard tube containing the blown up cover of Missing Presumed Dead, a small feather duster I use to play chase with Bill the Cat, a stack of plastic files, a kit-kat wrapper, a page of reader’s notes, sunglasses and finally, a letter my daughter wrote to ‘sunta’ aged six where she asks for ‘a rising track and woky tacky’ and informs him she had been ‘very good’ as she ‘fond 20 pond’s’ and gave it ‘to the man in the shop.’

So what about it? Are you a Williams or a Christie? Neat or threatened by teetering piles? Can you work from your lap like one person I know (impossible, I don’t know how he does it!)? Or do you need space and order to write and think?

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