To Walk Invisible: The Short Life of Emily Brontë

To Walk Invisible: The Short Life of Emily Brontë

To mark the BBC’s new drama To Walk Invisible on the life of the Brontë sisters, I chatted to RTÉ’s Arena about the life of Emily Brontë (author of Wuthering Heights). Of the three Brontë sisters, Emily is perhaps the one we know the least about and it is hoped this drama will shed more light on her life. She is a fascinating character and speculation around what inspired her ever-popular novel still rages to this day. You can listen back here.

A Frightful Winter’s Evening: Susan Hill’s Travelling Bag & Other Stories

A Frightful Winter’s Evening: Susan Hill’s Travelling Bag & Other Stories

There’s something about cold, dark winter evenings that lend themselves beautifully to ghost stories. Susan Hill is one of the greatest contemporary writers of spooky tales and it was a real treat to review her latest short story collection, The Travelling Bag and Other Stories. While the collection may not reach the spine-tingling heights of her classic The Woman in Black, there are frights aplenty to be had none-the-less. You can listen to my review here.

The Moonstone: The Original ‘Grip Lit’ Thriller

The Moonstone: The Original ‘Grip Lit’ Thriller

Back in 1868, Wilkie Collins gifted the world a book that helped usher in the genre of detective fiction. Since then, crime fiction has flourished. We’re in the grip, so to speak, of the ‘girl’ phenomenon, when psychological thrillers, often written by women and set in the domestic sphere, are lighting up the bestseller lists. So it was fun to return to Collins’ The Moonstone and consider it from a modern perspective. The BBC have produced a new adaptation of the classic tale as part of their #LoveToRead campaign. You can listen back to my take on the book on RTÉ’s Arena here.

Listen: Arena Review of Patti Smith’s ‘M Train’

Listen: Arena Review of Patti Smith’s ‘M Train’

Patti Smith

Poet, musician, author, artist, trailblazer: Patti Smith is all these things but labels alone cannot do justice to the ambition and breath of her creative work. M Train, her latest book, is a memoir but it is a different beast than Smith’s much-loved Just Kids (2010), which focused on her early career and relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. In M Train Smith is struggling to write, wading through the ghosts of times past, telling killer anecdotes and drinking a lot of coffee. For anyone interested in creativity, in writing or in just hanging out with one of the most interesting artists at work today, M Train is a book to savour.

You can listen to my review of it for RTÉ Radio One’s Arena by clicking here.

Listen: The Enduring Appeal of Madame Bovary on RTÉ Radio One’s Arena

Listen: The Enduring Appeal of Madame Bovary on RTÉ Radio One’s Arena

Madame BovaryAlmost 160 years after it was first published, Gustave Flaubert’s groundbreaking French masterpiece Madame Bovary continues to inspire artists, writers, filmmakers and audiences. The last year alone has seen two new screen adaptations: Madame Bovary directed by Sophie Barthes and starring Mia Wasikowska and Gemma Bovery, based on the popular graphic novel by Posy Simmons. I discussed the book’s enduring appeal with Sean Rocks and you can listen back to our chat here.

It Girls, Powerful Women & Media Culture: Why Women Can Never Simply Be

It Girls, Powerful Women & Media Culture: Why Women Can Never Simply Be

marilyn as clara bow

Recently on RTÉ 2FM, I chatted to Ryan Tubridy about about the resurgence of the It Girl, a term and phenomenon that first emerged in the 1920s. The original It Girl, Clara Bow, became a global superstar, embodying a free-spirited, seemingly authentic, sexy-but-not-scarily-so charm which tallied perfectly with the hedonism of the era. The demise of the Roaring Twenties and the arrival of Great Depression led to the implosion of her brief but spectacularly bright career. Clara battled mental health demons for the rest of her days, stemming from horrific childhood abuse at the hands of an unstable mother who tried to murder her in her sleep and an alcoholic father who raped her. She remarked, somewhat prophetically when one considers the It Girls who followed later like Marilyn Monroe and Edie Sedgwick, ‘a sex symbol is a heavy load to carry when one is tired, hurt and bewildered.’

In the decades that followed the term was used intermittently, resurfacing with a vengeance in the late 1990s after a seven-page New Yorker profile anointed the then little-known-outside-of-NYC-fashion-circles Chloe Sevigny the It Girl du jour. At present, the It Girl mantle is slapped on notable females from widely varying fields, many of whom are grown women rather than girls, with well-established, hard won careers which are at odds with the kind of transitory allure implied by the label. For every Paris Hilton there are It Girls winning Oscars, heading up NGOs and reporting from war zones, rather than quaffing champers with Daddy’s credit card and a teacup-sized dog stashed in their oversized, over-priced handbag.

The It Girl persists in a modern context for a number of reasons, key among these I would argue is the simple fact that she sells. In an age of dropping advertising revenue and a 24 hour news media increasingly taking its cues from online, the need for cheap, readily available content is unending. Slapping the It Girl label on a youthful, successful and attractive girl/woman is handy way of generating buzz, ensuring links gets clicked or a glossy mag gets purchased. It Girls work fantastically well on social media, particularly the likes of Instagram and Tumblr, which capture the kind of lifestyle envy these girls/women inspire in ordinary folk. It Girl social media accounts are also easy to plunder for the aforementioned cheap, shiny content. Just like in the 1920s, everyone wants It, even if they’re not entirely sure what It is.

It Girl, as you may have gleaned, is far from a straightforwardly positive label. As Helen Anne Peterson notes in an excellent Buzzfeed article on the term’s re-emergence, christening someone an It Girl is perhaps ‘the ultimate backhanded compliment’.  In doing so, editors and journalists acknowledge the subject’s accomplishments but package them in a palatable, cosy way for consumption, keeping things quirky, flirty and fun, while neutering anything truly transgressive or – God forbid – political. In christening a girl/woman It, editors and journalists trap high profile girls/women within the term’s limitations. No one by reason of their humanity can remain an It Girl forever and ‘girl’ is still, to our shame, used pejoratively, as something weak-limbed, passive and non-threatening. It is interesting too to note the proliferation of the term at a time when women are asserting themselves through feminism once again, demanding to be heard and seen, making their presence felt in male-dominated realms as never before. In this context, the It Girl label is a handy, inoffensive little box to usher uppity women into, so their aspirations and rights-demands don’t overwhelm their ability to look sweet in a pretty dress, which is of course paramount at all times.

As an aside, it’s been interesting to research the It Girl phenomenon during the week unphotoshopped images of Beyoncé and Cindy Crawford were leaked, when Kate Middleton’s grey hair became a talking point and actresses took to the red carpet during awards season, pleading to be asked about something other than what dress they were wearing. Almost a century after Clara Bow turned the world on in the film It, we are no closer to simply letting women be. Western culture and media is still preoccupied with finding ways to put women in their place, to diminish their power, to punish them when they overstep boundaries that are written in shifting sands. The treatment of high profile women is a warning shot to all women. To dismiss such events as media storms is to underestimate the power culture and the institutions which create it exercise over our lives and sense of self. Culture is the soup we swim in and its toxic elements demand our critical engagement. It is only by challenging and interrogating what we are exposed to that we can begin to change it. And change it we must.

Photo: Marilyn Monroe as Clara Bow, Life Magazine, 1957, Richard Avedon

Listen / Read: The Antidote to January

Listen / Read: The Antidote to January

Prague Charles Bridge

The dream of living in one of Europe’s old cities is one I have harbored for a very long time. I’m not picky. I’ll take Paris (of course) but Amsterdam and Berlin have their charms too. My longing becomes particularly pronounced at this time of year, when festive celebrations have given way to the bloated gloom and deflation of January. This year, fortuitous timing had me reviewing the latest travel memoir by Dublin-based Australian author Rachael Weiss, entitled The Thing About Prague, for radio and print. Weiss, a brave romantic soul, casts off her old life in Sydney with the aim of creating a new one in the picturesque Czech capital, a place she vividly depicts with large servings of warmth and humour.

Life being what it is, things don’t go according to plan but nevertheless, one has to admire Weiss’ chutzpah in a world were so many drift through life without ever truly seizing it. After finishing The Thing About Prague I haven’t quite backed my bags and renounced my present life just yet but who knows what lies ahead, dear reader. Who knows.

You can listen back to my review on RTÉ Radio One’s Arena here or read my piece in the Irish Independent here.

Image: Prague: Charles Bridge in the Mist by Roman Boed on Flickr. Creative Commons License. 

Listen: Francis MacManus Award 2014

vintage-books4

My short-listed short story The Last Time I Saw Valerie was broadcast on RTÉ Radio 1 on July 31st as part of their Francis MacManus season. If you like fiction and tales of toxic female friendships born out of necessity rather than choice, you can listen back here. Big ‘thank you’ to actress Aileen Mythen for bringing the story to life so beautifully.

Listen: The Late, Great Molly Keane

molly keane

July 20th marked the 110th anniversary of the birth of Molly Keane, one of the sharpest, funniest novelists Ireland ever produced. Born into an Anglo-Irish family, Keane became a chronicler of the declining fortunes of her class, first under the pseudonym ‘M.J. Farrell’ , then in later life under her own name, with the publication of the wildly successful Good Behaviour. A critical and commercial smash, Good Behaviour  lost out on the 1981 Booker Prize, which went to Salman Rushdie for Midnight’s Children. Keane was undoubtedly a ‘big house’ writer, using the metaphor of crumbling mansions as a symbol of her class’s demise, but she also waded into the complexities of the relationships – sexual and otherwise – of the families who lived in these lavish homes. Her humour is acerbic and savagely funny. She wields it as a device of entertainment and social commentary to exceptional effect. It was a pleasure to chat about Molly’s life and times on Arena to celebrate her birthday. You can listen back here and learn more about Molly’s life and writing here.