Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

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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Women inhabit a 'crazy macaroon world'

Back in 1999 praise for Sofia Coppola’s directorial debut The Virgin Suicides heralded a budding young talent, an indie force to be reckoned with, a woman with an intuitive understanding of the nuance and structure to a scene.   The issue here is not whether Coppola has talent, but what it is she does, or rather, doesn’t do with her films.  Coppola’s reluctance to offer a credible female character onscreen has taxed my goodwill as an audience member.  After enduring Coppola’s first three missed opportunities to expand the repertoire for women in film beyond the hooker/ victim/ doormat mainstays (as Shirley MacLaine famously cited), I’d have to be a masochist to line up at the theatre to watch another meditation on how hard life is for white dudes.  I can’t help but watch her films and think: Why be a director just to play it safe and reiterate the status quo?  Why not instead be bold and inventive in your storytelling when you have the background and support to craft an original voice?

My problem with Sofia Coppola isn’t that she’s used her father’s name or connections, or even that she stays rooted in scripts about affluent folks.  The charge that you have to make films about the poor or suffering folks sounds like a lesson already served up as a master class in Sullivan’s Travels.  Or you could say it’s as warrantless as the suggestion that one should never produce films about the poor because they’re a bummer.  We need a variety of story and perspective in our movie diets.  My beef with Coppola stems from the virulent strain of Stockholm Syndrome she carries, one which infects her work and bears responsibility for producing films that are overall conservative, derivative and entirely lacking in an integrated female perspective.  I doubt there exists a woman in the director’s chair more estranged from the ability to render muliebrity on celluloid than Ms. Coppola.

Let’s be clear, I’m not of the taste for vanity projects such as Agora, those addendums to history which attempt to soothe over the erasure of women’s participation within intellectual inquiry and civic virtue in the first place.  Nor do I seek out those plucky Dagenham-type films, which resemble the narrative structure in place during the 19th century, a facile ending with a so-called victory for women’s civil rights, just as once the story closed Austen-esque at the altar.  Nope, those blips in an otherwise steady trajectory of dude-domination feel cheap and devoid of true consideration for women.  We need a greater context available for women beyond getting men to marry or respect them.  When I go to the cinema, I don’t even expect that a woman’s always a part of the onscreen narrative.  (Take Katherine Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker as an example of a woman’s ability to tell the story at hand, whether or not it includes a female character’s perspective).  But holy crap if my arms won’t cross and my foot tap with impatience when a woman director fails to summon a compelling point of view for a woman to perform.  I get the sense Coppola thinks women are just so alien, silly or not worth representing with veracity onscreen.

Even more of a puzzle is why Sofia Coppola fails to embody the female point of view onscreen when many men have done so, in singular projects which channelled women’s frame of reference, or those men who made an exploration of female point of view the enterprise of their careers.  Directors such as George Cukor, William Wyler, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Billy Wilder, Elia Kazan, Mike Nichols, Robert Altman, Ridley Scott, Pedro Almodovar, Quentin Tarantino and Alfonso Cuaron have established work rooted in interesting women characters and perspectives.  And the best film of 2010, Black Swan, is the insightful vision of how women can be their own worst enemy, directed by Darren Aronofsky.  Heck, champion misogynists such as Roman Polanski and Woody Allen can render convincing women onscreen, which demonstrates that you don’t have to have a vagina or even be a feminist to get inside the female point of view.  You just have to believe in the integrity and interest of the story.  Why all these men can tap into the affective complexities to be found in muliebrity while Coppola can’t, remains a mystery.

Despite the critical laurel leaves, I doubt I was the only one in the audience of The Virgin Suicides who thought Coppola’s premiere effort was too invested in portraying the Lisbon sisters through the male gaze, or that the girls are given little more affect than required of two-dimensional repositories of desire.  More cipher than enigma, their corporeal existence itself rates as less compelling than the untimely demise which froze them in a pliable dimension of fantasy.  I’ve written about this cinematic feature in the past, one that tells audiences how beauty must die, that the lovelier the woman, the more likely she will expire from the pressure generated of boundless male expectation and lust.  All too often the narrative thrust implies that it’s preferable for women to be admired than to live, better to remain a blemish- free young hottie than endure the messy business of real life.  In other words, dead girls are more interesting and romantic as screen fodder.  Look pretty and fade out while you still get a favourable close-up, or else risk the fate of Norma Desmond’s pulled skin delusions.  As a theme, tragic beauty has long preoccupied filmmakers in steady incarnations from Garbo’s Camille to Nicole Kidman’s Satine.  While the convention of doomed allure is a cinematic fixture, one would still hope that a woman behind the camera would have something more to highlight about teenage girls than the fact that boys find them mesmerising or lustful.

A similar problem haunts Coppola’s sophomore effort.  In what seems more like a mid-life crisis picture for Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson has little more to do in Lost in Translation than look bored and seek the attention of said middle aged dude.  Plenty of women in the audience must find the proposal a bit distressing, one that argues the character needs a man around in order to feel happy, instead of pursuing independent work, study, art, anything.  We’re actually not all looking for daddy’s approval.  There has to be a better fiction at hand for Charlotte’s character than hanging out with a middle aged sad sack.

Marie Antoinette, Coppola’s first attempt to cut out the mediation through the male point of view ranks as a colossal disaster, with the titular character more flip-book assemblage of mood swings and unaccountable actions, so much so that she may be the least integrated, empathetic or interesting female character ever to appear onscreen.  In the only scene when Dunst in the starring role seems three-dimensional, where she breaks down privately over the sexless marriage to Louis and courtly sneers over her childless state, Coppola takes a violent cut away to a scene scored to the petulant tune I Want Candy.  The camera launches a greedy shoe-gasm that would make the folks behind Sex and the City roll eyes.  Could we pause in a moment that might actually lend the character depth?  Coppola’s film presents the character and female experience as shallow, empty and as saccharine as the sweets choking every set.  In an interview, Coppola referred to the production as ‘girly,’ ‘frilly,’ and a ‘crazy macaroon world,’ revealing perhaps more than she cared to about her alignment of femininity with a lack of gravitas or serious consideration.  It’s also far from sexist to point out how bad the film is (although don’t you love it when a guy tries to school you about what you should find sexist and offensive?)

Coppola’s problem with women seems calculated.  It says the director thinks so little of muliebrity, that she thinks the only stories that are worthwhile, serious or contemplative reside in the male point of view.  Rather than dismissing Coppola as a Lap Cat of Patriarchy (as I might be tempted from the dearth of complex women she can imagine) I’d say it’s more a case that she’s committed to being the Good Daughter, in the sense of family ties and public persona.   She resigns muliebrity to the inscrutable or submerged under the desire for male approval or shallow fripperies. I’ll take a pass on her latest project, which by all accounts features a scene with twins designed to show us how ‘gross’ women are who are sexually available.

The trade-off for Coppola being ‘one of the guys’ is the subsequent alienation of women from the audience.

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The author Emma Donoghue

Emma Donoghue is the author of 10 novels, including the bestselling Slammerkin (2000). Her latest novel, Room, has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. She was born in Dublin in 1969, and has been writing books since the age of 23. She lives in Canada with her partner and their two children.

Room was inspired by the Fritzl story and tells the story of Jack and Ma, who are trapped in the room of the title. You can read Emma’s Anti-Room questionnaire here.

Rosita Boland

I did not want to read Room. The subject matter is so disturbing. Even as I write now, I’m utterly certain there are as-yet-undiscovered children and women locked up in the way Ma is in Room. Knowing that makes me feel helpless, despairing and ferocious. It did not make me want to read about that world, especially a fictionalised one.

Yet, there it was on my desk, sent in the post. A fortnight later, I eventually opened it. Read a few pages. Gripped. Took it home and read the rest of the book that night.

For me, Room works because it draws you so fluently and convincingly into Jack’s world-within-a-world. It’s his perspective that makes telling this story possible. Lots of showing, not telling. What should be ghastly is funny. The focus of the novel lets in the air that Ma and Jack could never get: the reader can breathe. It’s as much about a beautiful portrait of the relationship of a child with its mother as it is about the circumstances of them being there.


The one part that did not convince me was the ease of Jack’s escape. I don’t believe it. How bizarre – that it’s easier for me as a reader to believe completely in their dreadful hermetic world than the fact that they escape from it in the way they do.


Catherine Brodigan

Jack, the five-year-old narrator of Room, is, like most five-year-olds, bright, chatty, imaginative and eagle-eyed. It’s this innocent and unflinching eye for detail that makes his account of life within the eleven-foot by eleven-foot room in which he and his Ma are held captive all the more gut-wrenching. For Jack, sleeping in Wardrobe is nothing out of the ordinary, and playing Scream under Room’s skylight is simply part of the weekday rota of games Ma tirelessly invents to keep him occupied. So when Ma reveals that the world outside is not just “in TV”, and asks for Jack’s help in plotting their escape from Room, Jack’s life is changed utterly, and yet he will do whatever she asks of him.

Emma Donoghue has written a brave book full of fierce and unwavering love, a book which manages to both unsettle and inspire, even weeks after reading. It’s thoroughly deserving of a place on the Booker shortlist.

Anna Carey

There was a point, half way through Room, when I would have actually fought anyone who tried to take the book out of my grip. I was walking around with the hardback in my hand, and didn’t stop reading while I made my dinner. Emma Donoghue has already proven herself to be a skilled storyteller, but Room is her boldest book yet. Telling the story in the voice of a child, especially one who has spent his entire life captive in a tiny shed (even if he doesn’t realise he’s a captive) is a huge risk, and against all the odds, Donoghue pulls it off. Jack is that rare thing, a convincing young child narrator, and the gulf between his general happiness and the reader’s awareness of his and his Ma’s horrific situation adds to the novel’s power. I was slightly surprised by the incredibly gushing blurb quotations from writers such as John Boyne and Michael Cunningham  – Room is a gripping, powerful novel, but I didn’t think it was a life changer. Maybe they live in a sole diet of very serious literary fiction and don’t realise that compulsive readability is quite common in other genres.  But it’s an unputdownable thriller and a deeply moving story of family love told in a unique and convincing voice, and that’s more than enough.

Megan McGurk

After I saw the bulletin announcing Emma Donoghue’s  plan to write Room last autumn, it was clear that I’d read the novel, which would not have been the case if it had been  authored by almost anyone else.  Donoghue’s gift for weaving stories from news snippets was established with The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits.  There was no concern over encounters of ghastly descriptions about sexual assault as with the Stieg Larsson trilogy, or other popular books that deal with victimised women and children.  Room bypasses the horror for an emphasis on the love Ma has for her son Jack and their heroic efforts to cope and survive Old Nick’s brutality.  Some days, Ma keeps to the bed in a crippling fit of despair and depression.  Jack refers to those days as ‘one of the days when Ma is Gone.’  The five year-old takes the opportunity to watch an unlimited amount of television while his mother remains overwhelmed.  This is one of many examples Donoghue crafts in order to underscore the difference in perspective between mother and son.  The real wonder is how Ma finds the courage to rise from the bed and keep them both alive.

Donoghue’s novel is a flawless achievement.  Readers can only pause over how many more women and children are being held in captivity.

Room is out now, published by Picador

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Review: ‘Beautiful Kate’

The familiar plot motif regarding an adult child returning to the family home after a long absence found its commercial and critical success with “On Golden Pond,” a film which garnered three Academy Awards and was second at the box office in 1981.  The bloodless Henry Fonda and braying Katherine Hepburn were of a piece in a saccharine production with Jane Fonda in the difficult daughter role.  One key problem with this and other films in the same narrative territory seems to fall in the grasp of an idyllic and idealised setting.  The first thing an adult long absent from their childhood home would note is how small, shabby, constrictive or estranged the place is compared to memory.  The places you knew and inhabited as a child gleam and stretch to such a degree in your subconscious that the promise of alienation upon return remains certain.  Hollywood too often opts for the cheat, the story book version, such as what’s on offer in “The Royal Tenenbaums” or even “Grosse Point Blanke.”  John Cusack’s character Martin Blank was a heavily armed killing machine in an otherwise traditionally sentimental film.

In Rachel Ward’s directorial debut “Beautiful Kate” (now playing at the Irish Film Institute) the disconnect and discord between the treasure trove of memory and the failure to find form or match present circumstances lifts the film from the lazy brand of family melodrama.  Ned Kendall (Ben Mendelsohn) returns to his childhood home in the Australian Outback to meet his sister and dying father after a twenty year absence.  In flashbacks the audience sees the incongruity between past and present.  The once brightly burnished home setting contrasts with the now decayed and sunken abode, with bulges in the plaster, faded paint, and tatty upholstery.  Even the landscape seemed that much more lush and vital in his boyhood memory to jar with what he meets in middle age.   The film’s attention to such subtle detail is a mark of integrity.

In an early scene, on the drive to the familial manse, Ned hits a kangaroo that results in a heavy smear across his windshield.  His fiancée Toni (Maeve Dermody) screams and jumps out of the car.  They investigate and find the marsupial has a baby in her pouch.  Ned dispatches them both.  Normally I cringe at these moments of the ‘anthropomorphic fallacy’ because they often appear manipulative and trite.  The anthropomorphic fallacy serves as a symbolic pratfall about human characters through animals meeting their end.  Too often , you know the family pet, whether dog, bunny or cat is introduced to be a goner. (Although John McGahern brilliantly employs this device during the scene in “Amongst Women” with the hay cutting, when the hen on her eggs has her legs dismembered by the thresher’s blades.  That scene could be argued as a metaphor not the whole novel).  You won’t know why the scene with the ‘roo is important until the climax, but even at the early stage, the dead ‘roo establishes Ned’s character and the film’s refusal of sentimentality.

Worth the ticket price alone is Bryan Brown’s turn as Bruce.  We are given a serious attention to detail by the wardrobe for a former hulking figure of a man who’s now shriveled and broken with heart failure, lost in empty folds of fabric.  As a dying man, Brown holds an imperious gaze that flares up from the wasted flesh.  Rachel Griffiths also centres the film with a commanding, earthy performance.  When Ned shows up with the cocktail waitress, she asks him if he couldn’t manage to give his dying father his full attention.  Many actors would have overplayed the line into shrewsville, while instead, Griffiths delivers it with such a mild tone, the rebuke burns deeper.

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Best Coast is Bethany Cosentino’s celebration of all things Californian. This LA girl writes “songs about summer and the sun and the ocean and being a lazy creep.” Her debut album Crazy For You is out now and reviewed below. You can hear some of the tracks here:

Best Coast's Bethany Cosentino and Bobb Bruno


We’ve all been there – infatuated with the person of our dreams, who is most likely totally unsuitable, wouldn’t notice us if we were the only gal in the room holding a sign saying ‘I LOVE YOU DAMMIT’, and, anyway, probably has a girlfriend of their own already. Unrequited love for boys or girls to whom we are invisible is all part of the crushing inevitability of life, but never more so than when you’re a gawky teenager. Bethany Cosentino of Best Coast understands all of this – she’s a woman who’s been there, smoked that, and bought the band t-shirt, and she’s not afraid to sing about it. Crazy for You is like a trip down memory lane, a gauzy, dreamy quantum leap back to the days of awkward fumblings and bad kisses; hanging out on ‘the green’ at dusk, wrapped in a borrowed hoodie; sneaking drags off forbidden cigarettes (or not) and desperately wishing you were somewhere better, cooler.

The members of Best Coast may have grown up LA, and the shimmering surf and seaside groove of the coast may inform their sun-soaked melliflous vibe, but their songs will be understood by anyone who’s become darkly obsessive about their partner (‘Honey’), fallen in one-way love (‘Boyfriend’) or discovered they can’t live with or without their lover (‘Crazy For You’). Delicious harmonies stolen from one of Spector’s girl groups, guitar lines inspired by Nirvana, the swagger of the Dum Dum Girls and a hint of Liz Phair’s snarl all add up toCrazy For You being one of this year’s best debuts. Like a teenage crush, it’s sweet, simple and utterly delicious. Verdict: 4/5


Best Coast’s debut album Crazy For You is a mix of heart-swelling vocals, 60s girl-band sentiment (‘I wish he was my boyfriend’) and tremolo’d surf guitar layered up until it sounds MBV-esque. In other words, it ticks all the right boxes for me. Underneath the swooning 60s sound and the Beach Boys harmonies, is a homage to Liz Phair and what she might have sounded like if she had stopped at first base. At times the constant yearning can be a bit much, the unrequited desire a bit abject, but it’s the nostalgia of adolescent lust that is appealing in these songs and Beth Cosentino knows it herself as she sings ‘I want to go back to the first time, the first place.’ But just as you’re starting to think a song is one-dimensional – cute but not earth-shattering – Cosentino shifts it up a gear and finishes with a pretty little shimmer, a retake on the song’s melody (as witnessed at the end of songs like When I’m With You and Boyfriend). This is the perfect album to hold hands to, to first kiss to and stare at posters on your bedroom wall to. Verdict: 4/5


So 2009 was the supposed ‘Year of the Female’? Big deal. Forget Florence, Gaga, La Roux and blinkered pigeonholing based solely on someone’s sex; it’s 2010, and all Bethany Cosentino and her bandmates care about is making woozy garage-pop that swings sweeter than the sixties and rocks harder than diamonds.

Like Dum Dum Girls without the curled lips and menacing stares, Best Coast marry dreamy vocals with charmingly scuffed production values, languid west coast harmonies and lyrics that sum up tales of love that’s unrequited (stellar opener ‘Boyfriend’), darkly obsessive (the brilliantly oppressive ‘Honey’) and sweetly enriching (‘Happy’) without being embarrassingly saccharine or insultingly obvious.

True, the trio may be the sort of band that cause red alerts on hipster radars everywhere – approved by Pitchfork, played in Urban Outfitters, endorsed by those who find irony in badly photoshopped artwork (with optional feline – that’s Snacks, by the way). Sure, their influences may be a little too transparent, the album’s tone a little too static at times. ‘Crazy for You’ is not a perfect album: it’s rough-round-the-edges, fundamentally simplistic and faintly derivative. But if it’s not one of the most instantly charming debuts you hear in 2010, I’ll eat my cat. Verdict: 4/5


Ever see those movies where normal-looking girls sit on a Pacific beach at night in a cut-off sweater, smoking skinny but potent joints and somehow managing not to fall into the campfire as she sings and her friends nod along with sleepy, smiling eyes? Best Coast’s album is a bit like that, reminding you of scenes you’ve seen before and always longed to be part of. In a way, we kind of are…if Bethany Cosetino were to cast her voice in the opposite direction, her honeyed tones would not be out of place amongst our own feel-good summer soundsurfers Popical Island.

Crazy For You is girly (‘Boyfriend’), summery (‘Our Deal’), sweet (‘Happy’) and one of the rare gems that allows for flares of sadness (‘I Want To’)  without any sense of despondent wallowing. Bethany C’s vocals are remarkably clear and feature very prominently but at less than 30 minutes, it won’t take long to learn the words. Admittedly, it’s all so fast-paced that it could pass as a bit samey if you’re not paying attention but then, who else but the lovers pay attention to the fleeting beauty of a summer romance? Verdict: 4/5

Overall verdict? 16/20

Crazy For You is out now on Wichita

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I’ve just finished reading Patti Smith’s memoir of her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, Just Kids, and I miss the two of them. It’s a great read: all the energy of late 1960’s and early 1970’s New York; two youngsters finding each other by accident and uniting in art and hope. Both of them had an androgynous beauty; they came together and used that beauty, and their love of poetry and art, to forge a new, exciting life together. Away from her teenage pregnancy and giving up her baby for adoption; away from his strict Catholic upbringing.

The book fairly gallops through their search for fame, stopping as they go at the Chelsea Hotel and Max’s Kansas City, often desperately poor, always surrounded by the mavericks and stars of the time: Andy Warhol, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Gregory Corso, William Burroughs, Susan Sontag et al.

They sought patrons and through often accidental connections they became a rock-poet (Patti) and an avant-garde photographer (Robert). Throughout it all they maintained their friendship, which was based on a mutual quest for recognition as artists, their personal style, and a funny sort of love. Patti was the more sensible of the two, steering clear of drugs mostly and holding down book shop jobs, but Robert, once he acknowledged he was gay, was an avid drug-taker and, often, prostitute.

In a way, Patti glossed over the worst bits of Robert’s personality and choices – she adored him blindly – but throughout the book they certainly had an amazing bond and they supported each other hugely, through all sorts of odd relationships and hard times. They were each other’s muse, lover and friend over years and years, a thing that surely doesn’t happen much.

The memoir is thoughtfully written, beautiful in parts, but occasionally the poeticism gets out of hand and her endless references to Bob Dylan and Rimbaud got up my nose at times. Having said that, it’s a headlong, sparky and intimate read; a real snapshot of a turning point in American history. Highly recommended to anyone who loves poetry, rock and roll and/or bohemia.

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