In the Media, April 2017, Part Two

In the media is a fortnightly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous fortnight and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

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Photograph by Pari Dukovic

The Handmaid’s Tale is having a moment due to the television serial airing this coming week and the current political situation in America (and beyond).

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As one series begins, another ended this week:

And in women win prizes, ‘Heather Rose wins the Stella Prize for a novel that wouldn’t ‘let her go’‘ as reported by The Sydney Morning Herald.

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The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

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Personal essays/memoir:

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Feminism:

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Photograph by Adrienne Mathiowetz

Society and Politics:

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Film, Television, Music, Art, Fashion and Sport:

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The interviews/profiles:

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The regular columnists:

My Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017 Wishlist

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It’s almost that time of year again; The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist is announced on International Women’s Day, Wednesday 8th March. Once again, I’ll be charing a shadow panel, the other members of which I’ll introduce on Friday. Before both of those things though, I’m going to have a stab in the dark at what might be on the longlist. My success rate is why I refer to this post as my wishlist as opposed to a prediction.

This year the longlist has been reduced from 20 to 12 titles, making it easier to read along and debate what might make the shortlist. Eligible titles are those published between the 1st April 2016 and the 31st March 2017 and written in English.

I’ve reviewed all of the titles I’ve chosen except Stay With Me by Ayòbámi Adébáyò, which I’ll review this week, and Autumn by Ali Smith (which I’ve read but not yet reviewed); click on the covers of the other books to read my reviews.

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In the Media: December 2016

In the media is a fortnightly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous fortnight and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

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Post-election coverage is still top of the tree this fortnight:

The other big story has been the revelation that Maria Schneider was raped in Last Tango in Paris:

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The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

 

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Personal essays/memoir:

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Feminism:

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Society and Politics:

Film, Television, Music, Art, Fashion and Sport:

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The interviews/profiles:

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The regular columnists:

Zadie Smith at Manchester Literature Festival

If I were to create a list of literary fiction writers I admire Zadie Smith would be up there in the ‘gods’ section. It’s not just her writing – which is wonderful – but her intellect and her dress sense (see Smith’s comments later in this piece) which combine to make her a fascinating figure. I went to see her at Manchester Library as a ‘Bookend’ event hosted by Manchester Literature Festival. The interview was conducted by Katie Popperwell.

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Popperwell begins by asking Smith about living between NYC and London. She says that writers think of themselves as having no roots. There’s a delusion amongst writers that they’d be fine in prison as you think you’d only need books and your work. Having children reminds you you’re not independent, she says.

Smith thinks NYC creates nostalgia for her. She says she’s become one of those sentimental English people like Sting and mentions D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce – the further they travelled the more they wrote about home. Going backwards and forwards is a shock. She remembers the first time being back in London after an extended period in NYC and seeing an Evening Standard headline mentioning The Duke of York. That was a culture shock: is he going up the hill?

The discussion moves to Swing Time. Smith says she regrets writing about dancing because it’s taking something joyful and intellectualising it. It was a part of her life that she’d compartmentalised. Dancing is central to her family. She describes her immediate family and Jamaican relatives getting very low on the dance floor at parties. She talks about going on dates when she was younger and how it can be a terrible shock when a date leads to a dancefloor. ‘Something’s being revealed when people dance and that’s what I like about them.’ She thinks you see something of a person’s spirit in dancing and it’s the same in writing. She separates writing from the writer’s personality though. She says it’s true and not true that they’re the same thing. She uses Colm Toíbín as an example: there’s a stately elegance in his writing but he’s like a stand-up on stage!

‘Loving something that’s awful is complicated,’ she says on her deep passion for musicals. She reveals that she watched them as a child because it gave her a connection to her father’s childhood. She also comments on what it was like to watch television as a black kid in the ’70s and ’80s, trying to be part of the country. She says her family would be watching a comedy and half way through there would be a joke about blackness. They’d separate it from their viewing because ‘you were always looking for a black or brown face’ on television. This is another of the reasons why Smith used to watch old films, ‘There were many more people like me in them. Even if it was problematic.’

Popperwell asks about recent world events, focusing on Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. ‘It’s an amazing time to be publicising a book about tap dancing,’ Smith deadpans. Her U.S. book tour began the day after the election and she describes herself as being more like a therapist during it. She says, however, that Swing Time is a book about tribes and it was clear ‘the world was getting more tribalistic’ as she was writing it. She says there’s a sense of inevitability in Britain and France in terms of the rise of the far right. Possibly also soon to happen in France, Austria and Germany ‘if we’re really unlucky’.

With regards to the role of the writer during times like these, Smith says ‘pompous, pious things’ have been said about that role. However, she sees it as a ‘comic opportunity to wind a single man up so easily. Bait him all the way to impeachment’. She finds this ‘quite an optimistic thing’, commenting on his lack of control and the way he’s already in a fury.

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Smith’s interested in the idea that people have capacities within them which create abilities that they can’t fully express. She says she’s only interested in economics in terms of the great swathes of people who find their abilities ‘cast aside and forgotten’. She works backwards to find the political and social structures preventing her characters from fully expressing themselves. In this she includes domestic talents such as cooking, baking and making things. People are separated from these capacities of making dinner and making clothes, she says. They’ve been removed in the name of capitalism. Many people don’t want to know who made their clothes. We now have ‘nations employed under other nations’. She says doing these things ourselves might bring us pleasure and self-esteem but they’ve been replaced by free-moving global capital which doesn’t seem to make people happy.

The discussion moves on to people who have mastery over many areas of their lives. ‘What do they deserve because of that? Do they get to have everything?’ Smith talks about the character Aimee in Swing Time saying she doesn’t think she’s ‘a bad character. She makes errors’ but she puts money and time into her project. Her problem is that she has to have some idea of what a better life would be. She’s trying to export her idea without changing it to suit the culture she’s taking it to. ‘The good life’ looks different in different places. Smith says ‘Is your life meaningful?’ might be a more important question than are you happy. She says gratitude, a certain amount of pain and melancholy are all valuable feelings. She says melancholy’s become depression which has to be treated immediately. She describes ‘endless happiness’ as ‘a lot of effort’.

Popperwell asks about writing in first person and the unnamed narrator of Swing Time. Smith says she doesn’t feel ‘the force of I’. She wanted to think about how people affect us. ‘You’re not anybody apart from the actions you have done’, that’s what defines you in people’s minds. ‘Anything else is a decorative attempt by you.’ She says she ‘resists the ides that [the political identity] is the whole truth of human identity’. She’s interested in what used to be called the soul ‘but not has no language which cannot be ridiculed’ now.

Race is the next topic, which is described as a biological idea which doesn’t exist. However, that doesn’t mean ‘it can’t be a joy and a place of interest’ says Smith. She cites the playfulness of her mother going to Ascot in a hat and long dress with her hair styled in dreds. She says there’s ambiguity in the way people look within her own family and she’s ‘aware of us not being in control’ of other people’s interpretations of their identity. She describes it as both an annoyance but also a joy and a source of humour. She’s been mistaken many times for different roles.

The difference between race in England and race in America is that in England you’re told ‘don’t go on about it’ while in America there’s a freedom to go on about it. ‘Blackness in America is culturally constructed.’ The ‘one drop rule’ which underpinned slavery ‘has become naturalised as a state’ so there’s a huge group who identify as ‘non-white’, including women who were part of the Black Panther movement who Smith describes as paler than her but who are very certain of their identity. She says there’s a certain relief in being able to openly discuss race.

Popperwell mentions the amount of discussion around clothes in the novel. ‘I like clothes,’ says Smith. No matter how poor an area you’re in, the ability of women to construct themselves from clothes is never taken from them. Women perform in the way they dress even in the most straitened circumstances. She talks about the idea that ‘silly women get dressed’, describing her own outfit as her ‘serious’ reading outfit, then goes on to talk about the female academics she sees at work [Smith teaches at New York University] who dress seriously for important lectures. The men know they’ll be taken seriously regardless, she says. She likes the idea that women can tell a story about themselves when they leave the house and we need to make a point not to denigrate it to our daughters.

Smith reveals she doesn’t have a smartphone. ‘I guess I’m living in that sublime [kidlike world] all the time. The difference is now I’m alone.’ She sometimes finds a connection with very old people who are also walking around looking at their surroundings. She jokes that she could rob everyone in an airport departure lounge as none of them are paying attention to what’s going on around them. She imagines that at some point young people will say ‘fuck this’, although she describes how soothing television is for children. ‘Something about a screen is different. Something narcotic. It’s about people deciding which pill they wanted to take.’

They discuss the recently televised version of Smith’s fourth novel NW. Smith says she cried watching Felix. The actor was different to her vision of him, so he felt like a real person. She was shocked by the brutality of it. ‘I ended up writing all kinds of things I never would have imagined’ she says.

She thinks musicals are creeping back in because the economy’s in the dumps. She talks about the Dennis Potter series being significant when she was a child and that she’s considering Swing Time as a musical having seen people tolerating the show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

Questions are opened to the audience. Two strike me as particularly interesting. The first questioner cites the article Smith recently wrote about dancing for The Guardian and asks if she could learn a single dance by either Beyoncé, Janet Jackson or Madonna, which would it be. Smith plumps for Single Ladies in which ‘everything seems to be moving backwards. Beyoncé ‘has an odd way about her’, she says. As a child she loved Vogue but thinks that would be a much easier routine to master.

The other is about state of the nation novels. Smith says ‘even our big novels like Middlemarch are obsessively local and weird’ and that she thinks the interesting things being written in America aren’t the big American novels but work by Ottessa Moshfegh, Alexandra Kleeman and Rivka Galchen.

Swing Time – Zadie Smith

If all the Saturdays of 1982 can be thought of as one day, I met Tracey at ten a.m. on that Saturday, walking through the sandy gravel of a churchyard, each holding our mother’s hand. There were many other girls present but for obvious reasons we noticed each other, the similarities and the differences, as girls will. Our shade of brown was exactly the same – as if one piece of tan material had been cut to make us both – and our freckles gathered in the same areas, we were of the same height.

We, the reader, meet the unnamed narrator of Zadie Smith’s fifth novel, Swing Time, at the end of her story. She’s been sacked from her job and is holed up in a flat in St John’s Wood. When she’s given the all clear by the doorman, she goes for a walk, finding herself at an event at the Royal Festival Hall where a clip from the Fred Astaire film Swing Time is played.

I saw all my years at once, but they were not piled up on each other, experience after experience, building into something of substance – the opposite. A truth was being revealed to me: that I always had tried to attach myself to the light of other people, that I had never had any light of my own. I experienced myself as a kind of shadow.

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The narrator returns to her early days, to meeting Tracey at the dance class in the church hall. The narrator and Tracey’s mothers couldn’t be more different: the narrator’s mother is a femininst, a student, wears ‘her hair in a half-inch Afro’ and dresses ‘for a future not yet with us but which she expected to arrive’; Tracey’s mother is ‘white, obese, afflicted with acne’, wears her hair in a ‘Kilburn facelift’ and is covered in diamantes. Perhaps the difference between the two is most perfectly summarised:

We were both from the estates, neither of us received benefits. (A matter of pride for my mother, an outrage to Tracey’s: she had tried many times – and failed – to ‘get on the disability’.)

In terms of class, they might be part of the same economic group but their styles mark them as different types of people.

Two stories are told simultaneous in the novel: the first is that of the narrator’s friendship with Tracey, through dance, through school, through hanging out at each other’s houses watching musicals and Michael Jackson videos. The second is the that of the narrator’s early-adult life, of her role as a PA to a world-famous pop star.

The narrator meets Aimee when she comes to the YTV studios where the narrator works. Although she thinks she’s made a bad impression, the narrator is invited to an interview with Aimee soon after. The bulk of the Aimee section of the novel covers the school project which she undertakes in a village in West Africa.

Governments are useless, they can’t be trusted, Aimee explained to me, and charities have their own agendas, churches care more for souls than for bodies. And so if we want to see real change in the world…then we ourselves have to be the ones to do it, yes, we have to be the change we want to see. By ‘we’ she meant people like herself, of financial means and global reach, who happen to love freedom and equality, want justice, feel an obligation to do something good with their own good fortune. It was a moral category but also an economic one. And if you followed its logic all the way to the end of the revolving belt, then after a few miles you arrived at a new idea, that wealth and morality are in essence the same thing, for the more money a person had, then the more goodness – or potential for goodness – a person possessed.

However, Aimee wants to impose her version of change, what she thinks is necessary, onto a culture which doesn’t necessarily agree. Her work in West Africa causes problems not only for the community but also for some individuals who become heavily involved in the project. It’s not difficult to substitute a number of big-name stars for Aimee nor the white Western world collectively.

Through the story of two mixed-race girls from the same North London estate, Smith considers talent and the barriers to success; the role of culture in society; race, particularly the West’s role in/on the African continent; politics; friendship, and the mother/daughter relationship. It feels like a lot for a novel to hold but it’s skilfully done; there isn’t a single moment when the book feels like a polemic rather than a novel.

The structure of the book moves between the two stories. Smith runs them practically side-by-side, moving towards the point when the narrator loses her job. By doing so, she asks questions about the impact of the past on our present/future and whether we truly leave our experiences and upbringing behind.

Swing Time is an entertaining, thoughtful novel which engages both on a storytelling level and on one of broader questions about society and its role in individual’s lives.

 

Thanks to Hamish Hamilton for the review copy

In the Media, November 2016, Part Two

In the media is a fortnightly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous fortnight and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

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This fortnight’s been dominated by post-election coverage:

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And the woman with the most publicity this fortnight is Zadie Smith. She’s interviewed on Literary Hub, Nylon, Waterstones, Lenny, The New York Times, The Atlantic, Slate and profiled by Sarah Hughes in The Observer.

Rupi Kaur, author of Milk and Honey

The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

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Photograph by Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Personal essays/memoir:

Feminism:

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Photograph by Kevin Day

Society and Politics:

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The interviews/profiles:

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The regular columnists:

In the Media: November 2016, Part One

In the media is a fortnightly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous fortnight and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

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What else can begin this fortnight’s coverage?

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Photograph by Nye’Lyn Tho

The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

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Personal essays/memoir:

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Feminism:

Society and Politics:

Film, Television, Music, Art, Fashion and Sport:

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The interviews/profiles:

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The regular columnists:

In the Media: October 2016, Part Two

In the media is a fortnightly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous fortnight and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

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A woman didn’t win The Man Booker Prize this year but there was still some interesting coverage of the prize and the shortlisted writers:

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The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

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Personal essays/memoir:

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Feminism:

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Society and Politics:

Film, Television, Music, Art, Fashion and Sport:

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The interviews/profiles:

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The regular columnists:

In the Media, May 2016, Part Two

In the media is a fortnightly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous fortnight and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

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It seems there’s been a return to traditional topics this fortnight. Having children (or not) and body image are back at the top of the agenda. On the former, Daisy Buchanan wrote, ‘I’m economically infertile, and I’ve made peace with that‘ on The Pool; Stephanie Merritt, ‘Sheryl Sandberg admits she did not get how hard it is to be a single mother‘ on The Pool; Ashley Patronyak, ‘A Slight Risk‘ in Guernica; Jordan Rosenfeld, ‘On Discovering Real Mothers on the Page‘ on Literary Hub; Diana Abu-Jaber, ‘Motherhood vs. Art: There Is No Wrong Choice‘ on Literary Hub; Rivka Galchin, ‘Why Does Literature Hate Babies‘ on Literary Hub; Willa Paskin, ‘Speak, Motherhood‘ on Slate; Jennifer Gilmore,’I’m Glad My Mother Worked‘ on The Cut, and Louise O’Neill, ‘I think I would be a good mother; I just don’t want to be one‘ in The Irish Examiner.

Discussions about body image seems to be around the publication of two new books: Shrill by Lindy West and Dietland by Sarai Walker. West wrote, ‘The ‘perfect body’ is a lie. I believed it for a long time and let it shrink my life‘ in The Guardian. Walker was interviewed in The Bookseller and The Pool. And Mallory Ortberg wrote, ‘“We would have paid her the same if she weighed 500 pounds”: Publishing, Weight, and Writers Who Are “Hard To Look At”‘ in The Toast

And then there was this: the men-only bookclub who only read books about men. LV Anderson at Slate decided to tell us all off for being outraged about it, ‘Feminists Shouldn’t Roll Our Eyes at Men-Only Books Clubs. We Should Applaud Them‘.

This fortnight saw the deaths of Sally Brampton and Geek Love author, Katherine Dunn. Kathryn Flett wrote, ‘Sally Brampton – the woman who made ‘Elle girls’ the new normal‘ in The Guardian and Daisy Buchanan wrote, ‘Depression is not a battle that can be won or lost‘ on The Pool.

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The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

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Personal essays/memoir:

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Feminism:

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Society and Politics:

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Film, Television, Music, Art, Fashion and Sport:

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The interviews/profiles:

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The regular columnists:

In the Media, March 2016, part one

In the media is a fortnightly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous fortnight and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

Jackie Kay

It’s Mothers’ Day in the UK today, so inevitably there’s been lots of writing about mothers – being one, having one, not having one – this week. Contributors including Jackie Kay, Jeanette Winterson and Helen Simpson wrote about ‘… my mother before I knew her‘ inspired by Carol Ann Duffy’s poem ‘Before You Were Mine’ in The Guardian; Liz Dashwood asks, ‘What do I *really* want for Mother’s Day?‘ on The Pool; Rivka Galchen talked about ‘The Only Thing I Envy Men‘ in The New Yorker; Robyn Wilder wrote, ‘Maternity leave: the reality versus the expectations‘, Emily Eades wrote, ‘Becoming a mother without your own mother to rely on‘ and Sinéad Gleeson wrote, ‘Mothers, and the pram-in-the-hall problem‘ all on The Pool (Do follow the link to the Anne Enright clip on that last piece. Spot on and very funny); Susan Briante wrote, ‘Mother Is Marxist‘ on Guernica; Kate Townshend asked, ‘Is it possible for a mother and daughter to be *too* close?‘, Samira Shackle said, ‘Returning to my mother’s homeland helped me to make sense of my place in the world‘, Cathy Rentzenbrink said, ‘There is no such thing as a smug mother, we’re all terrified and struggling‘ and Rosalind Powell wrote, ‘I didn’t give birth, but I became a mother‘ all on The Pool; Sarah Turner wrote, ‘Mother’s Day Without Mum‘ on The Unmumsy Mum

Louise Rennison

Sadly, Louise Rennison died this week. Philip Ardagh wrote, ‘My Hero: Louise Rennison‘ in The Guardian. Shannon Maughan wrote her obituary for Publishers Weekly.

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The woman with the most coverage this fortnight is Sanjida Kay with ‘Where’s the Diversity in Grip-Lit?‘ on The Asian Writer; ‘on Switching Genres‘ on The Literary Sofa, and ‘Fairytales‘ on Women Writers, Women’s Books

Exciting news as forthcoming novels from Jilly Cooper, Zadie Smith and Ali Smith were announced this fortnight.

And I’ve added Kaushana Cauley’s new Intersections column for Catapult to the regulars list at the bottom of the links. It’s well worth a read.

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The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

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Personal essays/memoir:

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Feminism:

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Society and Politics:

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Film, Television, Music, Art, Fashion and Sport:

Author Petina Gappah 'brilliantly exposes the gap between rich and poor.'

The interviews:

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The regular columnists: