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Grace Dent: How to Leave Twitter

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The two biggest books by British female journalists of 2011 are styled as ‘how to’ guides. While Caitlin Moran packages her witty and passionate, if self-contradictory, memoir-cum-feminist-manifesto-for-the-modern-gal as How to be a Woman, Guardian columnist Grace Dent brands her canter through the ills and marvels of microblogging site Twitter as a roadmap for leaving social media behind.

And the similarities don’t end there. Like Moran, Dent trades off the sharp, gag-packed style of much of her journalism in her book. You can almost hear the keyboard rattling as she sweeps you through the pros and cons of tweeting, following, unfollowing, ffing and much, much more.

Dent does a particularly nice line in witty similes, capturing all shades of virtual social awkwardness from the moment you join Twitter (‘you feel like an enormous, unpopular child lumbering into the sandpit bellowing “HALLO CAN I PLAY WITH YOU?”‘). Anyone who’s dipped a toe in the social media pond will recognise the description of ‘desktop multi-application spiralling circle of hell syndrome’ – it made my head ache in sympathy – and the series of succinct but oh-so-accurate character sketches of the different virtual personalities you might bump into online. At its best, the whole thing reads like an etiquette guide for the digital age – something you can imagine historians picking over in centuries to come to construct a vision of early twenty-first century mores.

There are some meatier points too. The consideration of the impact of Twitter on journalism and newsgathering – touched on here but worthy of several books in its own right – is interesting, as is Dent’s point that Twitter has provided a space for women to engage with each other and be witty in a way that few social structures and entertainment outlets have allowed for before.

Once more in line with Moran, Dent has an axe to grind on the subject of the under-representation of funny women in the media. Although I find it hard to believe that this is any more extreme than, say, the dearth of women in engineering or boardrooms, I was intrigued by Dent’s comments on the experience of being edited ‘to sound more like a woman’, chiming in as it did with some of my limited dealings with publishers.

The similarities end, however, when you step back and look at the bigger picture. Much as I have a problem with the fundamental contradiction of expounding an all-embracing philosophy of everybody living as one of ‘the guys’ while railing continually against the patriarchy, I have no doubt of Moran’s sincerity.

Dent’s work on the other hand feels much more cynical. She lays into boastposting (shamelessly tweeting your achievements), yet riddles her book with flattering anecdotes and tweets about herself; she sets out the need for heavy tweeters to be expert skim readers, yet repeats herself to the point where you can’t help applying the same technique to her book; she tears apart the hyped and misleading headlines splashed across women’s mags, but titles her book in the same way (this is not a book about leaving Twitter, in case you were wondering).

This isn’t necessarily a problem, but it’s something to be aware of when you pick the book. If you’re looking for funny reflections on the socmed generation in bitesize chunks, you’ll find them here. If you’re looking for the answer to life, the universe and everything… you won’t. But maybe that’s the point. Maybe the days of the earnest, self-help, ‘how to’ guides so beloved of the Bridget Jones generation are over. And maybe that’s not a bad thing.

Picture by Travelin’ Librarian

Written by Ann Morgan

December 19, 2011 at 10:43 am

Jilly Cooper: Prudence

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Yeah, yeah. I know what you’re thinking. I was thinking much the same when a friend thrust a copy of Prudence into my hands with instructions to read it for my blog.  Her attempt to reassure me that this was one of the early novels ‘before she got into threesomes’ and that anyway sex was only ever a tiny part of the Cooper experience only made things worse.

Who was she trying to kid? I’d seen the book jackets with the horse whips and basques and suspenders: Jump and Buck and whatever else they were called. Clearly — clearly — Jilly Cooper was all about sex. You didn’t have to have read her to know that. And if this was Jilly Cooper without the sex, it was definitely going to be very weak and very dull.  Like green tea without the… green.

Not a bit of it. From the gutsy opening scene at a raffish London party — complete with a guest who mistakes it for a fancy dress party and arrives togged up as a goat only to have his udders hurled out of the window — you know you are in for a witty, irreverent ride. As Prudence follows the mysterious Pendle to the Mulholland’s Bohemian family seat and tries to unpick the emotional knots that bind the family and herself, it’s impossible not to be drawn in. Forget the tea, this is gin and ginger wine with a whisky chaser to boot.

One of the best things about it is the humour, which comes not only from a number of neatly contrived calamities, but also from Cooper’s sparky prose. There are some excellent gags and oneliners (‘He’s been away all week shooting.’ ‘Grouse?’ ‘No. Butter commercials in Devon’) and some killer descriptions (the mother who’d ‘set like a pink blancmange on the sofa’, the dashingly serious journalist: ‘Each time he opened his mouth, I expected the Panorama signature tune to strike up’), some of which are every bit as good as Gibbons, Coward or Stoppard.

That said, it’s important to take the book on its own terms. High literature, this ain’t — no matter what the Harpers & Queen reviewer quoted as branding Cooper ‘the Jane Austen of our time’ on the jacket may think. Nor does it pretend to be. The plot is unapologetically predictable and the characterisation veers to fit it, much as the characters themselves must when they get behind the wheels of their expensive motors in a gin-sozzled haze.

The comfortable, upper-upper-middle-class horsiness will be too much for some readers to take. But those that can are in for a whole scullery-load of fun. This is a romp; a jolly; a lark. It is the definition of all those feel-good adjectives that have been worn thin on the jackets of a billion airport novels up and down the land. It is exactly the book to curl up with on a winter evening, to take to the beach or to stretch out with on the croquet lawn (whether you have one or not).

Thanks Anna — doubtless I’ll be back for more.

Picture by Walt Stoneburner

Written by Ann Morgan

October 17, 2011 at 4:53 pm

EM Delafield: The Diary of a Provincial Lady

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If proof were ever needed that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, then EM Delafield’s The Diary of a Provincial Lady provides plenty. Looking particularly chintzy in the rose-covered jacket of its excellent new four-volume edition from Virago, this prim-sounding  tome from the 1930s seems to promise a gentle stroll through everything that is genteel, correct and charming…

In other words, dull. In fact, had it not been recommended by a friend who’d already put several other great reads my way, I’d probably have slotted it straight back on to the shelf and moved on. So it was a delight, on settling down on the daybed one Sunday after giving the servants the afternoon off,  to find wit and sharp perceptions where I’d expected find fluffy generalisations and tweeness.

Told through the diary entries of an anonymous Provincial Lady, the novel unfolds the triumphs and frustrations of domestic life in the early twentieth century. It documents the trials of its narrator as she struggles to keep up appearances in the face of mounting debts, squabbles among children and staff and the unreasonable demands of contemporaries.

‘Why are non-professional women, if married and with children, so frequently referred to as “leisured”?’ she muses at the end of one entry. ‘Answer came there none.’

Yet this is no catalogue of woes. Bursting from the same stable as Stella Gibbons, Delafield uses comedy to fence from behind the accepted forms and social mores of upper-middle-class society, spearing the hypocrisy, inconsistencies and oddness of the world around her. Each character is revealed in all his or her contrariness, from Our Vicar’s Wife, who is always saying how busy she is and yet always outstays her welcome, to the stormy Mademoiselle, who has a mauvais mot for every occasion. Not to mention the Provincial Lady herself,  with her talent for selective blindness when it comes to domestic economy versus shopping sprees.

Revelling in the ludicrous, Delafield, who originally wrote the book in instalments for Time and Tide — itself a recurring theme in the book — exploits the diary form for comic effect, puncturing expectations with the bathetic reality that follows. So ‘dear old school friend’  Cissy Crabbe turns out to be on a punishingly strict diet that throws the household into chaos, and the bulbs that are puffed so persuasively in their marketing pamphlets moulder in their pots.

The comedy lives in the space between the way things are supposed to be and the awkward reality, much like the novel itself. And this is what makes it such fun to read. Far from being the narrow story of a cossetted woman in a very particular time and place, this is a work that resonates far beyond the boundaries of its setting and subject matter. It is anything but provincial in scope. Cosmopolitan men, women and children everywhere will find it a joy.

Which books have surprised you ? Leave a comment and let me know.

Picture by Ms Bailey

Written by Ann Morgan

August 8, 2011 at 8:27 am

Caitlin Moran: How to be a Woman

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Much like Room, this was a book that stalked me. I didn’t want to read it. I wanted to avoid it. I was sure it would be nothing more than a cynical moneyspinner, trading on jokes about periods and dildos with very little of substance to say. Caitlin Moran’s face stared out at me from the posters with a sort of sturdy insolence, and I would duck my gaze and stare resolutely into my Obreht, feeling literary and virtuous.

But being the suggestible soul that I am, it was only a matter of time before curiosity and the marketing campaign wore me down. A moment of weakness on the morning commute and, before you could say ‘Germaine Greer’, I had downloaded the text and was plunging in.

And I’m happy to report that I was wrong. For all the slickness of its publicity machine, How to be a Woman is certainly no mere moneyspinner: UK journalist Caitlin Moran holds many passionate views about the female condition and expresses them with fervour and humour — whether they’re justified or not.

As you might expect from a seasoned columnist for The Times, Moran has the knack of encapsulating tricky concepts in accessible images. Her use of the Broken Windows Theory (that if you don’t fix smashed windows on empty buildings they attract more vandalism) to explain the slow creep of anti-women ideas into society is a great metaphor for the dangers of complacency. Similarly, the observation that teenage bulimics, anorexics and self-harmers are essentially ‘waging war on their pituitaries’ is a powerful, personal insight.

Much of this is helped by humour and, when she does it well, Moran can have you glancing guiltily around the tube carriage in case her outrageous references to ‘My Dickens of fucking’ and microscopic knickers are causing offence… before you remember that you’re only reading a book. But it isn’t always done well: at times the perpetually hyperbolic registers grate and the whole thing feels like waking up the morning after a house party to find the overexcited friend of a friend who no-one invited still mixing vodka cocktails in your living room and insisting on accompanying you on your journey to work.

Part of the problem is that Moran has decided that humour is one of the badges of the liberated woman that she must defend. She takes up her cudgels on the mistaken premise that, apart from Dorothy Parker in the 1920s, ‘no other women are funny until French & Saunders and Victoria Wood’. In light of Aphra Behn, Stella Gibbons, Richmal Crompton, Barbara Pym and the army of bawdy performers who delighted music hall goers throughout the 19th century — to name but a few laugh-out-loud-funny women — it seems odd that Moran should seize on this. Her lengthy and repeated assertions that women are chronically under-represented in all fields of achievement throughout history because of the mental barriers that hem them in would suggest that successful comediennes are no thinner on the ground than, say, female nuclear physicists, female conductors, or female tycoons.

This isn’t the only inconsistency. Throughout the book, Moran’s railing against the Patriarchy (she even jokes that she has taught her daughters to say ‘Damn the Patriarchy’ when they fall over)  jostles uncomfortably with her ‘the Guys’ philosophy — that we human beings should forget gender distinctions and think of ourselves as being all in this together.

Leaving aside the linguistic problem of a gender-neutral group of ‘Guys’, there’s an awkward ‘them and us’ mentality attached to the constant harping on the Patriarchy, which makes gender-blind equality seem impossible. You can’t help feeling that there are more fundamental changes needed than Moran has conceived of, and that, if she had taken a little longer than the ‘five-month blur’ she says she spent writing the book in the acknowledgements, she might have hit on something a bit more substantial.

Nonetheless, the book is a good read, full of amusing anecdotes and brave confessions. Its accessibility may prompt some  of those who haven’t grappled much with the ‘f’ word before to give it more thought. And that’s got to be worth something.

Picture by Maga Soto

Written by Ann Morgan

July 22, 2011 at 12:58 pm

Stella Gibbons: Cold Comfort Farm

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A bull much like the one Flora lets out on Cold Comfort Farm

The foreword looms large in Stella Gibbons’ classic, Cold Comfort Farm. Addressed to the forbidding imaginary figure of Mr Anthony Pookworthy esq ABS, LLR, it sets the tone for the hatchet job that Gibbons is about to do on the pastoral literary tradition. From the off, it’s clear that the over-egging of the rural pudding, found in the works of minor writers such as Mary Webb but also giants such as DH Lawrence and – sorry Tom – Thomas Hardy, is not going to get away lightly.

‘As you know, I have spent some ten years of my creative life in the meaningless and vulgar bustle of newspaper offices,’ she tells My Pookworthy. ‘The life of the journalist is poor, nasty, brutish and short. So is his style. You, who are adept at the lovely polishing of every grave and lucent phrase, will realise the magnitude of the task which confronted me when I found, after ten years as a journalist, learning to say exactly what I meant in short sentences, that I must learn, if I was to achieve literature and favourable reviews, to write as though I were not quite sure about what I meant but was jolly well going to say something all the same in sentences as long as possible.’

She then goes on to apologise for presenting him with a book that is ‘meant to be… funny’ and to explain that she has nevertheless tried to write some literary passages on Nature (with a capital ‘nuh’). To mark these out, she has created a star system for the sake of ‘all those thousands of persons not unlike myself, who work in the vulgar and meaningless bustle of offices, shops and homes, and who are not always sure whether a sentence is Literature or whether it is just sheer flapdoodle’.

As a jobbing journalist-cum-would-be-novelist, I found this an absolute joy to read. Not least because it gave me that slap round the face that the best books manage from time to time when they remind you that people decades and decades ago had the same wit, insight and concerns as we do, and that we are by no means as original, sophisticated or radical as we might like to think.

It also surprised me. Having no prior knowledge of Cold Comfort Farm beyond a BBC adaptation I saw as a child and the enthusiasm of a former flatmate who once claimed that Flora Poste was the literary character he was most like on a job application form, I was not expecting a lot (no offence to the former flatmate, who is in fact wildly successful at everything he does).

The book would be a sort of cosy, Sunday-night-television experience, I thought. The Lovejoy of the literary world – a bit of a breather after the rigours of Murdoch and the intricacies of Mantel. I wasn’t expecting feistiness, sharp perceptions and shooting from the hip.

But the genius of the novel (and that’s not a word I throw about lightly) is that, for all its sending up of bad writing and satirical attacks on the literati, it maintains a sunniness and downright funniness that makes it a pleasure to read. The story of Flora Poste gradually turning around the fortunes and outlook of her curmudgeonly cousins and discovering her own path in the process is so delightful and so engaging that you can’t help getting swept up in it.

But perhaps the supreme triumph of the work, the only one of Gibbons’ 24 novels still in print, is that it creates its own language and system for representing the natural world. While most satires do marvellously well at ripping down the things they attack without proposing an alternative, Gibbons’ text lovingly establishes its own pastoral aesthetic in place of the hackneyed exposition it replaces. The scene at the end where Charles comes at last to sweep Flora away from the farm she has transformed is spine-tinglingly lovely. It left me stunned, enchanted, jealous, and sure that I’ll be reading the book many times again.

Picture by Oli R