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Archive for July, 2010

Later today (update: scroll down for longlist) the longlist for the 2010 Man Booker Prize will be announced. The initial longlist of 13 books should result in a slight bump in sales, but then apparently TV Book clubs sell more books than a Man Booker nomination. In the run up the longlist announcement, speculation has been frantic and broad-ranging, but what was most interesting about this year, was a discussion that book place on Twitter last week. Guardian Books Editor Claire Armitstead (@carmitstead) asked her followers to take a punt on who they expected to see nominated. A large chunk of the replies suggested were books by male authors, which prompted this tweet from book blogger Rachael Beale (aka @FlossieTeacake): “Oh God, please not an all-male longlist… I might cry.” With novels like The Long Song by Andrea Levy, Miss Thing by Nora Chassler, The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell, The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon, Burley Cross by Nicola Barker, The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna, Room by Emma Donoghue, Ruby’s Spoon by Anna Lawrence Pietroni and The News Where You Are by Catherine O’Flynn eligible, does that discussion imply that the standard of books by women written in the last year wasn’t very hight? It’s certainly true of some very big name writers (and past winners, who happen to be men), like Ian McEwan, Martin Amis and Yann Martel who have all published below-par novels this year.

There’s a randomness to predicting most arts prizes, but I think we might see Jon McGregor, Tom McCarthy, Paul Murray, Andrea Levy, Joe O’Connor, Christos Tsiolkas and David Mitchell on there. Possible Irish contenders include O’Connor, Hugo Hamilton, Emma Donoghue and Paul Murray.

Where having is concerned, my outright bet would be on David Mitchell’s Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. But there’s always the cautionary tale of Joseph O’Neill. Two years ago, William Hill stopped taking bets at the longlist stage on Netherland being the overall winner and the book failed to make the shortlist. Ah yes, Julian Barnes you wily old fox, it IS “posh bingo”.

What have you read and what are you think should be on the longlist? What would you love/hate to see on there?

Update: Here’s the 2010 longlist. Congrats to all the nominees

Peter Carey Parrot and Olivier in America (Faber and Faber)

Emma Donoghue Room (Pan MacMillan – Picador)

Helen Dunmore The Betrayal (Penguin – Fig Tree)

Damon Galgut In a Strange Room (Grove Atlantic – Atlantic Books)

Howard Jacobson The Finkler Question (Bloomsbury)

Andrea Levy The Long Song
(Headline Publishing Group – Headline Review)

Tom McCarthy C (Random House – Jonathan Cape)

David Mitchell The Thousand Autumns of Zacob de Zoet (Hodder & Stoughton – Sceptre)

Lisa Moore February (Random House – Chatto & Windus)

Paul Murray Skippy Dies (Penguin – Hamish Hamilton)

Rose Tremain Trespass (Random House – Chatto & Windus)

Christos Tsiolkas The Slap (Grove Atlantic – Tuskar Rock)

Alan Warner The Stars in the Bright Sky
(Random House – Jonathan Cape)

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Last night saw the debut of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s new BBC drama Sherlock, in which the excellent (and excellently named) Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman play Sherlock Holmes and Doctor John Watson.

The casting could not be more perfect. Seriously.

This time, however, the great detective and his faithful army doctor pal are solving crime in the 21st century. It’s not the first time TV and film makers have brought classic characters and plots into the present day, and in this case it works extremely well, largely due to the writers’ evident affection for the original stories and to the pitch-perfect casting of and performances by Cumberbatch and Freeman as Holmes and Watson. Holmes is, as he always was, slightly sociopathic but capable of feeling genuine affection for Watson. Watson himself is more like the quiet man of action in the original stories and less like the boring buffoon of popular imagination. And, like the original, he makes his first appearance having just returned from Afghanistan – a perfect touch. Holmes’s extraordinary brother Mycroft also makes a delicious appearance (and no, I didn’t see that coming).

Despite more than a few holes in the mystery plot line, the whole thing is ridiculously entertaining and a reminder of how enjoyable and effective a good update of a classic can be. I love inter-textual references – Alan Moore’s graphic novel sequence The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which brings together characters from a huge variety of popular literature from the 19th and early 20th centuries, is one of my favourite things ever. So when they’re done well,  I can’t resist modern stories packed full of references to older texts. And when they’re done well, you don’t have to be familiar with the originals to enjoy the new story. Amy Heckerling’s Clueless is an excellent teen comedy, but it’s also an updated version of Jane Austen’s Emma – getting the references to the original novel is amusing, but the film works perfectly well on its own. Ten Things I Hate About You is a charming and funny  – and feminist – update of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, which also stands alone.

So how do you feel about updated classics? Is it blasphemy to show a Holmes who sends texts and uses GPS systems, or is keeping the spirit of the original characters and stories the most important thing? Or is updating simply the work of lazy storytellers who can’t be arsed coming up with original characters? All I know is that I’ll be glued to the telly on Sunday nights for the next three weeks.

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We've come a long way

I was reminiscing the other day about an unusual and in a sense landmark decision I was once involved in when I worked in the marketing department of a multinational pharmaceutical and personal products manufacturer. A couple of the women I was chatting with encouraged me to recount the episode here.

During the early 1990s I was brand manager for Ireland’s leading sanitary towel brand, a product that commanded an overwhelming share of the Irish market and was manufactured in Dublin, thus providing significant employment locally. This brand was the default choice for Irish woman for decades, the package that hundreds of thousands of mothers discreetly handed to their daughters in a rite of passage akin to Dad buying junior his first pint.

Tradition, word of mouth and lack of an alternative had ensured that this brand held a seemingly unassailable position and it was at the time of my becoming involved with it one of Ireland’s top twenty brands across every category. Yet in many ways it was the brand that dare not speak its name. However, trouble was brewing. We were no longer living in two channel land and alien brands of towel and tampon were being advertised on foreign channels making lofty claims of unencumbered roller skating and dance filled days.

Here in Ireland there was a ban on the television advertising of these “personal hygiene” products as to do so was deemed inappropriate. Fearful that a generation of young woman would learn of alternatives and abandon their mother’s and grandmother’s favourite we attempted to break this taboo.

I remember attending RTE copy clearance meetings, awkward, uncomfortable sessions facing a panel of squirming men of a certain age and disposition who regretted turning up for work that particular day. We scrutinised the proposed script line by line, crossing out our tentative boundary-crossing suggestions as we went. No red liquid – blue if you have to show liquid at all, no overt showing of the offending item, sensitive treatment of this shameful reality and a strict ten o’clock watershed. The resulting ad was so innocuous as to be almost invisible but it was approved. After all the committee had to demonstrate pragmatism; we had money to spend and times were tough in TV land.

The day after the first broadcast the letters began to arrive and worse still the phone calls. Every single one was from a shocked and offended woman and all were directed my way. I recall spending almost an hour talking down one hysterical woman who explained that her husband could no longer go to the pub to watch the football in case one of these hateful ads would be broadcast; that they could no longer watch television as a family as they had a teenage boy. She made it quite clear that this was ALL MY FAULT. The letters were rambling and irate. One enterprising bunch had photocopied a crude drawing of a television set and scrawled their message within – I received dozens of them. It seems comical now but it was rather unnerving at the time.

We have come a long way since and advertising for sanitary towels and tampons is commonplace. However, some rules still apply.  I am conscious that some people may feel that this is reasonable; that these intimate products should not form part of the mainstream. Yet would we apply the same rules to toilet paper? Should there be a watershed before which this distasteful product cannot be discussed? Should we employ coy euphemisms, extolling the benefits to users who yearn to skydive and skate with confidence, knowing that their bottoms are pristine?

A year or so after this bizarre chapter in my working life I had moved on – a circumstance unrelated to the opprobrium showered upon me by a faction of “Mná na h-Éireann“.  On one particular occasion I was passing through a small town on my way to Wexford when I got caught short and my period was upon me. I popped into the local grocers, handed a pack of sanitary towels to the taciturn man at the register and watched in amazement as he wrapped the package in layers of thick brown paper, secured with metres of sellotape. The whole shameful exchange was completed in silence and I’m sure I caught him suppressing a shudder. Perhaps certain parts of Ireland weren’t ready for innocuous blue liquid and skateboarding woman after all.

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Amish: The World's Squarest Teenagers?

Sometimes I suspect commissioning heads at certain TV stations sit around thinking up clever titles for programmes and then send some poor researcher out to find material to fill in the gaps.

“Hey! I’ve got it. When Fast Animals Attack Slow Children! Have we got any footage of nanny goats turning vicious at a petting zoo?”

If they’re lucky, they might be presented with a subject that is both interesting AND ripe for a smartass title. Channel 4 are divils for it.

Take their offering this coming Sunday night. It certainly caught the eye. Amish: The World’s Squarest Teenagers. Actually, I’m rather interested in seeing this. The Amish community is fascinating for so many reasons – its imperviousness to modernity in the supposedly most developed country in the world, North America, for one.

She's not square. She rides a scooter, for chrissake.

The tradition of allowing its older teenagers to spend some time in the ‘real’ world before returning to settle back into their community and advance into adult life has always struck me as rather brave and progressive. Especially as what we know of their way of life seems to imply that it is rigidly conservative and patriarchal.

But that frigging title. Every time the promo for the documentary came on C4 this week, I gave a little scream inside. Isn’t it incredibly patronising? And what’s wrong with being square anyway? And why is everyone always hatin’ on teens?

It seems to me that teenagers get a really rough ride from adults. Now, I’ll be honest – I don’t like being around teenagers much. I didn’t like being around them much when I was one myself. (Yes, I was as popular as that makes me sound). But I absolutely respect their right to be what they are; hormonal, excitable, passionate, idealistic, unreasonable, semi-child/semi-adult, miserable, hopeful, vulnerable.

So I feel protective towards them. If they’re not being criticised for being alcoholics/promiscuous/drug-crazed/anti-social, they’re being labelled – a la the Amish – square/freaks/geeks/misfits.

Am I being too sensitive here? Or do you think teenagers should be fitted with an electric shock bracelet until they learn, Pavlovian-style, to conform to the social niceties of adulthood?

* Amish: The World’s Squarest Teenagers, Channel 4, 8pm, Sunday, July 25.

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When you need a little buzz, what’s your favourite way to raise your blood pressure? You know what I mean – the site you visit, the TV show you watch or the magazine you read that infuriates you so much that you can feel your blood pressure rising in your veins.

There’s nothing that gets the blood pumping in my body faster than watching TV chat shows. This morning, while sitting in my dressing gown, bleary-eyed and sending work emails, I turned on the hugely popular TV3 show Ireland AM for a little background noise. On the opposite couch sat my boyfriend, sipping tea before work. As I tapped away, Irish singer Mary Coughlan was introduced onto the show to talk about the legalisation of contraception in Ireland and its importance to Irish women. I glanced up at Cormac. He raised an eyebrow at me. We both knew where this would end.

With me, red-faced, wild-eyed…and shouting at the television.

I know they can’t hear me; I know it makes no difference. But I love nothing more than shouting at the presenters or guests on TV shows when they say something that gets on my goat. But I don’t just shout – I gesticulate like a woman possessed. This morning, that involved an eye-rolling-and-throwing-my-hands-into-the-air gesture when the presenter Mark Cagney, the lovable rogue that he is, said something akin to “I don’t know why I’m even talking about contraception, as I’m a man”.

In my own simple way, I feel as though the louder I am in getting across my annoyance/disgust/frustration at what is being said, the higher my blood pressure is raised and the more energised I get. It’s like a little electrical jolt to my system.

I get the same jolt when I read the Daily Mail online, or watch Jeremy Kyle (during this show, I’m often to be found deadpanning ‘I’m Jeremy Kyle’ at intervals – it’s not funny, but necessary to complete the experience).  The buzz continues when I read Grazia or Now! – especially the articles about new mums ‘getting their bodies back’ or a £450 little black dress being advertised as a ‘wardrobe must-have’.

When some people see me getting frustrated over these publications and shows, they question what I am doing – why be such a masochist? Because, dear friends, I like nothing better than that blood pressure-raising moment when I get to exclaim “What THE £*&%$ are you TALKING about!?!” while shaking my fist at a TV screen. If it wasn’t for these special moments, my days would be lacking something that makes me feel that little bit more alive.

What’s your favourite way to raise your blood pressure? Via television, book, magazine or radio show?

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In his review of the upcoming Fox film, Ramona and Beezus, based on a children’s novel by Beverly Cleary, Roger Ebert laments the fact that Cleary’s Ramona books never inspired a television series. I found this surprising because, between 1988 and 1990, Ramona, the Canadian series starring Sarah Polley, was my favourite television programme.

I was the same age as the eight-year-old Ramona Quimby when I first discovered the series and loved spending weekend mornings watching a bright, inquisitive Canadian girl explore a world that was not unlike my own. Like me, Ramona sometimes had to cope with embarrassing haircuts, inedible dinners (“Liver!? Eww!!”) and arguments with classmates. She, too, worried about her parents separating and felt uncomfortable about being introduced to the new boyfriend of a much-beloved aunt. I was jealous of the fact that she had an older sister, Beatrice or “Beezus”, (even if Beezus did sometimes call Ramona “a pest”) and could empathise when she had mixed feelings about the impending arrival of a new baby in her family.

Ramona Quimby was as significant a figure in my childhood as My So-Called Life’s Angela Chase became during my adolescence. Both girls were complex characters, with well-developed personalities comprising elements of light and shade, and both demonstrated that even the most seemingly-mundane, middle-class life is likely to be more confusing than carefree. In a recent interview, Sarah Polley described Ramona as “a little bit of an oddball” and said that she felt that the character “spoke to [her] and made [her] feel less isolated”. I think it’s important for young girls, many of whom often feel like misunderstood oddballs themselves, to be able to watch and read about characters like Ramona, whose adventures and woes are centred around school, family and friendships; and not just boys, clothes and popularity.

Do small-screen heroines like Ramona (and Angela) exist anymore?

Aoife Kelleher

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Arlene Hunt. There you go, that’s it. That’s the name I’ve had for nearly 38 years. It’s on my passport, my driving license, my books, my mortgage paper work, oh, and my birth cert. Suffice to say it is as much a part of my identity as my grey eyes and my height.

So much a part of my identity is it that when I got married I kept my name. It wasn’t a big decision, there was no major discussion, I never thought to take Andrew’s name, he never expected me to do so. I’m me, he is he, together we are we, but individual wees * .

It comes then as something of a surprise to me that in 2010 the keeping of one’s own name might cause an eyebrow raise. I have caused some confusion. Why did I not take his name when we became man and wife? Was he ‘okay’ with this? ( no, really) What if we have children? What will they be called** And my personal favourite, ‘why get married at all if you’re going to keep your own name?’ ***

I might point out that my husband’s family never subjected me to this kind of questioning, nor my own family for that matter, rather it seems the unease exists in people who are in no way connected to me on a personal level, and thus it makes me ponder all the more why my surname should trouble them so unduly.

I like my surname. It is the same surname my daughter has, I use it professionally. But all of those reasons pale in comparison to the real reason I am still Arlene Hunt, and that is because I find the notion of trading in my name for another to be old-fashioned and frankly not something I would care to do.

I get that for some people marriage is the start of a new life and new family, but Andrew and I lived together for many years before marriage, keeping happily our names while sharing a life. Once the rings were exchanged neither of us gave any real thought to the politics of a name change. He was still him, I was still me, our we had a more legal basis, but still much the same.

A friend recently told me that her husband would have been grievously hurt had she not changed her name after marriage. It might even have been a deal breaker.  I said ‘I see.’ And I did see, but part of me also thought, well why did it have to be you who capitulated. Why not him? What if you had been hurt about the loss of your name?  Oh that’s right, it was expected that she would change, after all there is the small matter of that great sleeping dog, tradition. Let it lay slumbering.

Anyway, far be it for me to disparage any woman’s decision. If she was happy to change her name for the sake of peace and quiet so be it. Also many women actively want to change their names to create a new family/identity. I did not. There ought to be room for all of us, without the raised eyebrows and the quick reach for the fainting couch upon learning that the sleeping dog just had its tail trod on.

If I may  borrow Shakespeare for a neat little ending,

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”

* yes I know how that sounds.

** Dear lord if I discovered I was pregnant names would be the very least of my concerns.

***er tax? Love? Tax?

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