Book Review: Maggie O’Farrell’s ‘Instructions for a Heatwave’

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Apparently the summer is fast approaching although you wouldn’t know it on the Western seaboard of the Emerald  Isle – plus ca change and all that. As I type the sky is a moody grey, threatening rain or worse. I know there are downsides to a heatwave but right now a dash of one would be most welcome, which brings us to Ms. O’Farrell’s rather wonderful book.

Firstly, I must confess that Instructions for a Heatwave is – to my shame – the first Maggie O’Farrell book I have ever read. I say ‘shame’ because O’Farrell is one helluva novelist. If you love Anne Tyler – and really, how could you not? – you must check out O’Farrell’s work post haste. Her writing is spare but perfectly stitched together, the portraits she paints of individuals, families and places are flawless. They live and breath on the page. Did I mention how gifted she is?

We meet in the Riordan family in July 1976, as a tremendous heatwave grips London. Recent retiree Robert leaves the family home to ‘get the paper’ but when he doesn’t return matriarch Gretta rallies her children, drawing her fractured family together:  Monica the eldest, an unhappy divorcee, Michael Francis the middle child, a frustrated history teacher, and Aoife, the youngest and the wild child. What follows is a masterful exploration of family dynamics and the consequences of secrets that are on the verge of boiling point.

If commercial fiction leaves you underwhelmed Instructions for a  Heatwave  matches fine writing with an equally finely woven story, making perfect beach reading material. Now, all we need is some sun. Any ideas? For your listening pleasure, here I am reviewing Instructions for a Heatwave with Sean Rocks on RTÉ Radio One’s Arena:

Tweet Nice: Why Showdowns on Social Media are no Fun for Anyone

screaming-woman

 

This morning I read a really wise piece from mashable.com entitled Social Media-Based Public Shaming Has Gotten Out of Control

The writer (Todd Wasserman) does a good job of getting to the crux of why social media shaming makes so many of us feel uncomfortable, namely because it often sidesteps properly addressing an issue in the real world and instead opts for an online tête-à-tête, the fall out from which can be really unpleasant for all concerned.

When I first joined Twitter, I remember being transfixed by the tweet-fights that would pop up in my timeline occasionally. I couldn’t believe that some people would argue so publicly and viciously with strangers or even their peers. It made entertaining reading for a little while but the novelty soon wore off. I wondered, ‘how can you adequately debate anything in 140 characters? And why debate in the first place when  your positions are so polarized there isn’t a hope on this green Earth you’ll find common ground?’

It was also plain to see that while these arguments were happening in the digital world, they were upsetting people in the real world without achieving very much except, in some cases, providing fodder for the grind of the 24/7 news media we’re surrounded by.

When it comes to social media Twitter is my drug of choice and while I enjoy it, I’m very aware of its weaknesses, which I’m reminded of almost daily. Sometimes, though it pains me to say this because I know it plays into the mindset of social media ‘haterz’,  social media sadly becomes little more that an echo chamber of negativity and cynicism. Other times, it tips over into an ‘angry mob’ mentality that leaves me scrambling to log out, even when the subject of the rage is entirely deserving. It can feel like a group feeding frenzy – everyone trying to out do each other with their outrage – and that makes me uncomfortable and also a little confused as to how all this digital rage makes a real difference to the actual issue.

For me all these issues with social media come back to one basic rule of thumb: if you wouldn’t write it, say it or do it in the real world or to someone’s face, then don’t do it online. Consider it the Golden Rule of the Internet, along with this one aka Wheaton’s Law from Will Wheaton of Star Trek: Next Generation fame, who simply says, ‘don’t be a dick’. And what could be easier than that?

Image via curlysar on Flickr.

Gone Girl Book Review for Arena on RTÉ Radio One

Image via Crown Publishing

Image via Crown Publishing

We have to wait until June 5th to find out if Gillian Flynn’s wildly enjoyable Gone Girl pips the all-conquering  Bringing Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel to the literary post in this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize).

Thus far, Gone Girl has been snubbed by major awards in the US, supposedly because the book is strictly speaking a thriller and therefore less than literary, a stance I wholly disagree with. A win for Glynn in June would be entirely deserved. She has managed to create a book that combines and transcends traditional genres and is packed with the type of blistering prose any author would be proud of, literary or otherwise.

Luckily for me, I was asked to review Gone Girl for Arena, RTÉ Radio One’s nightly arts and culture show presented by Sean Rocks, the fruits of which you can enjoy below or above by clicking on the speaker icon.

Gone Girl Review for RTÉ Radio 1 Arena

And if you if fancy a written review of the book, here’s one I did for the fabulous Fanny.ie.

Why Cameron Diaz Is Wrong: Being Objectified Is Never A Compliment

I’d like to begin this piece with something of a caveat: I have always liked Cameron Diaz. From her interviews and performances, she comes across as warm, smart and aware of her own worth, while also having the ability to laugh at herself, which is a perilous tightrope to walk in any profession but especially so in the egomaniac world of cinema.

So, you can imagine my disappointment when I read the comments from her recent interview with the Sunday Times, in which she says, “I think every woman does want to be objectified. There’s a little part of you at all times that hopes to be somewhat objectified, and I think it’s healthy… ”

Oh, Cameron. To begin with, the minute you try to speak for ‘every’ of anything, you’re trodding on dangerous ground. Throw the objectification of women into the mix, a process that reduces half the human race from the status of a person to that of dead-eyed objects, then you’re royally in the soup.

The simple truth is this: objectification hurts women. It silences our voices, paints over our thoughts, stamps out our souls, leaving a mute, blank canvas onto which our culture can project some of its darkest stereotypes and myths. When we raise women to see themselves only as things to be desired by men and to judge themselves accordingly, as if nothing else about them truly matters, we are committing a terrible wrong.

In the interview, Cameron claims she feels “empowered” by photoshoots and isn’t bothered about stripping off. She says, “I’m not some young girl with the photographer going, ‘Will you take your clothes off?’ I’m like [mimes stripping], ‘How does this look?’ They’re like, ‘Today we’re not going to put anything other than bras and heels on you,’ and I’m like, ‘These heels are not high enough.'”

What of that hypothetical young girl Cameron mentions and the countless young girls who read or will read these quotes? Being objectified is not a compliment. No one ever changed the world because they learned to walk in heels that require a pilot’s licence. Jumping up and down to participate in your own objectivation is generally not a good look.

As a woman who has achieved so much and generated enormous revenues for her chosen industry, Cameron Diaz should have nothing to prove. At 40, she is among the last remaining box office super stars and is one of the best comedic actresses of her generation, which makes her remarks all the more depressing. Despite all our advances, for women in the public eye and beyond, it still comes back to our bodies and what men think of them, a fact that is as tragic as it tedious.

This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post

Baby Wars: Should You Apologise for Not Wanting Children?

During a recent panel discussion on an Irish television show, I spoke about not wanting children. The views of my fellow talking heads were mixed – one had just revealed she was expecting her first child – but almost all of them shared similar views and those who didn’t were still supportive of mine. The open mindedness didn’t last however. An irate caller lambasted me for getting married recently, demanding to know what on earth the point was when my partner and I weren’t planning on becoming parents.

I responded by saying that I fell in love with my best friend and I wanted to make a solemn commitment to him in front of our friends and family. A wedding was a great way of doing that. I also said that in the 21st Century, marriage is not the only environment in which to raise a family nor is it always the perfect one. What the caller thought of my reply I have no idea but her views are not unique. Not by a long shot.

Electing not to be a mother is often seen as an affront to the natural order, as if, simply having ovaries, you must use them. While I completely understand the urge to become a mum, it is not something I have ever experienced. I know things change and people change but so far my feelings on the matter have remained the same as has my refusal to apologise for them.

For years I presumed that my take on parenthood would see me end up alone. Despite the emphasis on women as the gender who long for children, in my experience many, if not just as many, men experience a similar longing. When my relationship with my now husband got to the point where ‘the future’ came into the picture, I was sure the subject of children would be our undoing. There are certain things you can compromise on but having a family is not one of them. If one partner wants kids and the other doesn’t, you’ll soon discover that even love has its limitations.

Thankfully, my husband and I realised that not wanting kids was yet another thing we have in common, not because we dislike children in any way, we can definitely see the attraction, but because they are not for everyone. I can’t imagine bringing a child into the world simply because that is what you’re ‘supposed’ to do. Parenthood is the greatest and most daunting of jobs. It shouldn’t be something you go into blindly. What it produces is far too precious for that.

Statistics show us that more and more women are choosing not to have children, for reasons that are as varied as the seasons. With that, one would hope the negative attitude towards those who opt out of parenthood, the idea that they are unnatural and selfish, will dissipate. Not wanting kids doesn’t make you any less of a woman or a bad person. Talking about not wanting kids doesn’t make you offensive, just honest. Not wanting kids doesn’t automatically mean you dislike them. Having kids reluctantly, as a kind of ‘just in case’ policy is probably not the best idea.

Wanting a family or not should never be something we judge others on or take offense to. Everyone is entitled to make their own way in this world, to dream their own dreams. All that any of us can hope for is that we have the strength of character to stay true to who we are. In doing so, we pave the way for others to do the same, making our world a more compassionate and open place. Surely that’s much better for all of us, children included?

This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post.

On Blogging

 

What a difference a year makes. It’s almost 12 months since I sat down to compose my first blog post. Back then, I wasn’t entirely convinced by the project but despite my misgivings (most of which sprang from my time working in traditional media, funnily enough) I stuck with it and I’m so glad I did. Over the past while, I’ve crossed the Rubicon from writing in the dark, thankless gutters of the Internet to getting paid for my online scribblings and as any writer will tell you, that is not easy.  Unfortunately, a terrible snobbery still persists when it comes to blogging and as my first anniversary on WordPress fast approaches, I’d like to dispel a few persistant anti-blogging assumptions, starting with this one:

  • Why bother to blog when you don’t get paid for it…: oh yes, that old snipe. Well, let’s apply the same logic to the great many wonderful things in life that pay nothing and yet we do them because we love to.  Simply put, if you only ever undertook something because it paid, you’d miss out on so much. Your soul would shrivel up like an old prune so ignore the naysayers. Just blog and be happy.
  • Blogs are generally of a very low standard: perhaps, but there are plenty of great ones too, some of which I have been fortunate enough to stumble across and return to frequently. Every genre of every type  has its duds. With so many people blogging, it’s not surprising that there are many less-than-stellar examples to point to but don’t let that put you off. Take bad blogs as a lesson in what not to do and just keep on writing.
  • People who blog are misguided – why should anyone care what some random person they never met thinks about anything, anyway? Whenever I hear this one, it makes me laugh because it spectacularly underestimates some of the fundamental aspects of being human, namely that we love to communicate and we are fascinated by each other. You mightn’t care what everyone thinks but within the blogging community you are sure to find a post or a writer or an entire site with something of interest to you, no matter how niche or off the wall your tastes are. I don’t care what anyone says, that is a very sweet deal.
  • You’re wasting your time! Ever since people could draw images on the walls of caves, we have been trying to record our lives. Not everyone sees the purpose in this but a great many people do. Wanting to make your mark, to say ‘I was here’, to fashion something unique out of the things that matter to you in the one short life we get: how can that ever be a waste? Blogs are a kaleidoscope of passions, memories, ideas, photographs, stories, dreams and information. All of human life is here, so don’t be so quick to put your judgement pants on.
  • Well, I still don’t see what the big deal is. Smart people use their blogs to showcase what they are good at or what they feel passionately about whether it is writing, cooking or Victorian fashion trends. A blog can complement your day job, showcase your unique skills, help you connect with like-minded people or just feed your soul and sometimes, if you draw particularly good pictures on the walls of your cave, it can lead you somewhere really special. So if you still can’t see the big deal after all of that, then you’re probably the modern day equivalent of the tut-tut folk who thought books signaled the end of the world or vinyl was an affront to decency and we all know how much fun those types of people are: not much fun, not at all.

So happy blogging birthday to me and to all of you I say the following with spirit and resolve: blog on my dear friends, blog on.

Picture Credit: cambodia4kidsorg on Flickr

Alexa Chung and Body Snarking: Why Our Addiction to Critiquing Women’s Bodies Must Stop

It is hard to believe that a single photograph can cause such a commotion but when ‘It Girl’ Alexa Chung posted an innocent looking Instagram picture of herself and her mum, internet warriors suddenly rose up, foaming at the mouth with indignation, decrying what they saw as Chung’s excessive thinness and questioning her suitability as a role model.

Ms. Chung doing her thang at the recent Met Ball.

Chung subsequently made her account private but this did little to quell the rising storm that quickly spilled over into traditional media. What has been almost completely overlooked amidst the furore are two key issues: is it ever right to publicly speculate about an individual’s health? And just how complicit are we, the public, when it comes to the despicable art of body snarking whereby we brutally critique the female form?

Firstly: health. Online commentators slammed Chung, threw around accusations of eating disorders and suggested she was using the photo to promote extreme skinniness or thinspiration, an assertion that made her understandably upset. Thinspiration is a disturbing trend where young women spur each other on to achieve extreme thinness. Anyone in their right mind would be horrified to be connected to such carry on, especially someone like Chung, whose popularity is dependent on young women who are fascinated by her style.

The fact of the matter is this: there is one place and one place only to discuss someone’s health and that is in private, within the sanctuary offered by family, friends and medical professionals, not on a social media site or on the front of a magazine. Despite what the cult of celebrity may tell us or the manner in which women’s bodies are offered up as fresh meat by the media, there are things that should be beyond the realm of public discussion and health is one of them.

Unless an individual chooses to make such information known or the information has a significant direct effect on the public – which is unlikely, unless the person in question is a high ranking politician – then we must remember that health is not a matter for the public sphere and speculating about it is not only misguided but cruel.

While some of the comments in relation to Chung’s photograph were reasonable, the vast majority were spiteful, accusatory and invasive, as if someone being in the public eye gives the public carte blanche to make all kinds of obnoxious remarks directly to them. Just how many of those commenting were trained medical professionals with the ability to diagnose someone from behind a screen has yet to be established.

Very thin models are nothing new. Girls who look this way are often richly rewarded and become darlings of the fashion industry that spawned them. There are regular laments about the size of these models and the impact they have on women in general and yet, the skinny staple never seems to change. Why is that?

Fashion is first and foremost a business. If hyper-thin models put consumers off, if we refused to pay for what their bodies help flog, then the industry would be looking for elsewhere for faces quicker than you can say, “pass me that cheeseburger.” Despite the public horror at the likes of heroin chic, we still buy into those images by the billion and take our wrath out on the women whose visibility makes them vulnerable: the models and not the people in the boardrooms, pulling the strings.

High profile women and their bodies are fair game for public debate. They are subjected to a level of scrutiny that would render even the most solid individual paranoid. This scrutiny is a magnified version of the type all women face. Our bodies are not truly ours, they things to be observed, picked over and dissected. Can you remember the last time a marauding internet mob demanded a male star with a steroid-induced six pack, “sort himself out”?

We assume it is our right to cast judgement, to make vicious remarks and have an opinion on matters relating to individual women who we know nothing about and yet, are encouraged to tear apart. In the process we hurt other women and we hurt ourselves but here’s the thing: it never hurts to be kind and it never hurts to keep your cash for products and companies that celebrate women. As a wise person said many moons ago, “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

Good advice, that.

 

This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

Emergency! Do You Suffer From Celebrity Fatigue Syndrome (C.F.S.)?

Blame Celebrity Big Brother. Blame super babies with odd names and celebrity chefs getting caught in compromising positions. Blame the post-Christmas fug as more and more innocent people of normal intelligence fall victim to a very mysterious ailment. Some claim it is a direct result of the star saturated world we are all marinating in. Sounds like a joke, you cry. Read on, dear sceptic, read on!

Experts (none of whom were available for a direct quote, sadly) are calling it ‘…an epidemic of global proportions’, one that crosses borders and oceans with shocking ease. While doctors struggle to develop treatment (apparently they have better things to be doing, which is a tad uncaring) millions are infected by this potentially irritating, mind-altering disease that has invaded all corners of human life.

No matter where Mary Anne went, the sludgy hand of celebrity was sure to follow...

The name: Celebrity Fatigue Syndrome or C.F.S. whereby the patient develops an acute, sometimes violent aversion to all things ‘celebrity’ with troubling implications for them, those close to them and indeed the world.

Wondering how to spot a C.F.S sufferer? Thankfully it isn’t hard to do. While most people are sanguine and accepting of the ever more prevalent celebrity forces in our societies, C.F.S. patients grow moody and increasing irritated. They claim celebrity culture is indicative of a society that is vomiting up its own excesses and then parading them around as ‘entertainment’.

Patients become emotional, even angry, demanding to know how in the name of Napoleon’s left bollock certain celebrities became famous in the first place, without having any discernable talent, except for a bodged boob job, poorly produced sex tape or reality TV show ‘career’. No answers offered by friends or family are ever enough to allay their concerns. They also foam from the mouth whenever anyone produces a copy of Heat magazine.

It is natural to assume you are or could be a potential sufferer of C.F.S. The good news is self-diagnosis is relatively simple. If you’ve experienced any of the following, chances are – deep breath – you have succumbed to the scourge:

Do you find yourself shouting at the television, threatening to stab your eyes out with the remote because you are sick to the very pit of your being of the same sorry faces fronting and starring in mind-numbing repetitive cookery, reality or ‘fun’ game shows? “Make it stop,” you cry, “‘it’s like Ground Hog day in hell” while your family – gathered around you in a zombified state – keep stuffing their faces, wondering what all the fuss is about. Why can’t you just shut up and watch X Factor In A Jungle On Ice With Some Dancing, just like everybody else?

Do you find yourself rolling your eyes in open disgust at the news that people have christened their offspring Britney, Rihanna, Beyonce or Paris? Do you shrivel up in self-loathing when you realise that despite never watching single episode of Jersey ShoreKeeping Up With the Kardashians etc, you have a more than vague knowledge of their ‘stars’ and ‘plotlines’? The resulting shame makes your blood thicken.

A trip to the supermarket is pure torture, as you lurch from aisle to aisle seeking out products that are not endorsed by a celebrity, whose shit-eating smiles beam at you from the labels of everything from baked beans to tampons. Do you mutter to yourself, “can I not just buy a few groceries in peace anymore?” even though the answer is quiet obviously a blimp-sized “no”?

Finally, and most crucially, does just glancing at the Daily Mail homepage bring you out in scores of oozing sores, leaving you jabbering like a lobotomised ferret, trying to banish the images of ill-fitting bikinis, staged love affairs and weight loss speculation from your mind? Alas, once such mind rot is seen, it can never be unseen as sufferers of C.F.S. know only too well.

Treatment for C.F.S. is relatively straightforward: throw out your TV, bin all newspapers and magazines, unplug the Internet, smash up your phone, sell the house and move to a small Scandinavian village with a population of 52 and no mobile connection. Failing all that, moving into a nuclear bunker might be an idea.

A bit excessive? Definitely. Probably futile? Yes; after all, it is only a matter of time before celebrities start projecting images of their plastic surgery adventures onto the surface of the moon – the ultimate billboard campaign, if you will. In the meantime, stay strong C.F.S. suffers. I know it isn’t easy – having healthy levels of common sense rarely is in this daft world of ours – but keep muddling along together until such a time as you can’t sit on the loo of your local pub without a picture of a celeb staring back at… oh, wait, nevermind.

This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post.