Thursday, 14 May 2015

'Girls Will Be Girls' by Emer O'Toole

Emer O’Toole is a Guardian writer, a university professor and a professional hirsute woman. And all of these factors combine in her debut book Girls Will Be Girls, which is a delving look into the world of what it is to dress up and be a woman these days.

Combining personal anecdotes with links to academic texts and external research papers, Emer is adamant that we should ditch the age old concept of what it means to be a woman (a lipstick-wearing, shaven-legged, long-haired thing in a frock) and take on any new identity that we see fit.

That’s pretty much the content of Girls Will Be Girls in a nutshell, except Emer repeats these points in a variety of ways for 263 pages.

There have been a fair few books in recent years cashing in on the new fashion for feminism (Vagenda, The Everyday Sexism Project, How To Be A Woman… to name the first three to spring to mind) and this is no bad thing. But as a writer myself I must admit it frustrates me to see books such as Girls Will Be Girls published with so little substance… given how hard it is to get a publishing deal these days. And how many better books there are in the heads and laptops of writers without a Guardian profile who are unable to secure an agent and therefore a publishing contract.

Emer’s book starts as a bold and confident stride into the world of teenage girls, and how she rejected what it traditionally meant to be a girl as an anorexic teen. What follows is her own journey through the next 15 years or so of her life where she tries to decide how to present herself to the world, culminating in her appearance on ITV1’s This Morning in 2012 where she showed her unshaven armpits to the world. A clip that she refers to on multiple occasions in the book since it catapulted her to attention for a short while afterwards.

While in theory I think Girls Will Be Girls is an interesting concept for a book, sadly the resulting tome is too much of Emer’s personal journey and too little that can be related more widely to the general reader. It feels like we’re reading Emer’s private thoughts as she struggles to decide who she is, but it’s hard to know what relevance this is to the wider world. Sorry.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

'The What The Frock! Book of Funny Women'

I've written a(nother) book! 

The groundbreaking, myth busting paperback The What The Frock! Book of Funny Women (written by me Jane Duffus, with a foreword by Lucy Porter) is putting an end once and for all to the tired idea that women aren’t funny by providing countless examples of side-splittingly hilarious women.

Comedian Jenny Éclair says: “A wise and witty guide to the wisest and wittiest women in comedy. At last someone gets it – women have funny bones! Read all about it.”

The book’s publication coincides with the third birthday of What The Frock! Comedy – the multi-award-winning all-female comedy event that celebrates up and coming talent via stand-up shows, improv, workshops, an all-female comedy award and more. More info on the June 12 event here

The What The Frock! Book of Funny Women is a book of two halves. The first half contains chapters outlining the history and important role of women in comedy on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as addressing the myriad of obstacles that stand in the way of female comedians’ success. The second half of the book collects together more than 70 profiles of some of those women (from Caroline Aherne to Victoria Wood), and includes guest contributions from names such as Ian Martin (writer on The Thick Of ItVeep), Viv Groskop (comedian, broadcaster, journalist), James Mullinger (comedian, GQ comedy editor) and Kate Smurthwaite (comedian, broadcaster).

This book neither asks nor answers the question ‘are women funny?’ because of course women are funny. To suggest otherwise is as absurd as asking whether a man can be a nurse. This book presumes you know women are funny and confirms this by celebrating some of the wonderful women who have made us laugh for the past century or more. 

We shouldn’t have to segregate the genders in the 21st Century. But to me the important point is to provide a platform to nurture new female talent, and to continue to raise the profile of those talented performers in the media. This is what What The Frock! aims to do and this book is an extension of that goal.

'Vain Shadow' by Jane Hervey

There’s something about Jane Hervey’s 1963 novel Vain Shadow (Persephone Books) that reminds me of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. While Waugh elegantly satirised the jobbing journalists chasing a story and caught their eccentricities and quirks down to a sharp point, Hervey does similar… except with the subject of death.

Now I’ll admit that I had a few reservations about how enjoyable a novel following a family in the four days following the patriarch’s death could be. But Vain Shadow quickly proved me wrong.

The Winthorpe family is not particularly likeable. They are a well-to-do upper middle-class British family who all convene in the family’s large house upon the death of the husband, father and grandfather. It’s a claustrophobic novel of intense proportions, made all the more extraordinary because of the fine balance everyone treads between their outward display of mourning and their inward relief that the bullying old sod has finally left them in peace.

The strongest character in Vain Shadow is granddaughter Joanna, who was raised by the Winthorps from a baby after the death of her mother – their daughter. Like her mother, she married in haste at the age of 20 and now bitterly regrets her abusive, manipulative and controlling marriage. Her elder uncles fear she will bring shame on them by being the first in the family to divorce, and so as executors of their father’s will they construct a clause disinheriting her should she leave her husband – whose abuse they choose not to see.

The details in all of the character’s relationships – less so with each other, but more with their romantic partners – is fascinating. For a repressed family so seemingly incapable of expressing emotion of understanding a fellow human’s need, they all appear grotesquely inward looking and deeply selfish.

I realise the above may now have sold Vain Shadow to you. To which I would add that the book is weirdly compelling – I read it in only three or four sittings, and on two evenings stayed up into the wee hours as I kept compulsively rifling through the pages to find out more about this mean bunch. 

In many ways, the scenes in the Winthorps' library after the funeral and when the will is read called to my mind Jonathan Coe's satire What A Carve Up!: where the greedy Winshaws all ultimately combine in the country house desperate to find out what they will inherit and how they can best stitch up their long-lost siblings before meeting a grisly fate.

It’s hard to explain why a novel such as Vain Shadow about the sombre subject of death should be so invigorating, but perhaps it is because the preface by Celia Robertson explains so well how the miseries induced on Mrs Winthorp and Joanna by their cruel husbands echoes so closely the romantic misfortunes of Hervey herself. It makes Vain Shadow a convincing and compelling read.