It's OK for intellectual feminists to like fashion

Blog title from Hadley Freeman's book The Meaning of Sunglasses : "Prada styles itself as the label it's OK for intellectual feminists to like".

The author is a bilingual fashion editor, writer and translator with a serious blog, cinema and magazine habit.

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From news reports to charity appeals, highlighting the plight and hardship of Syrian children has become a way to get the Western public interested in the civil war that’s divided the country for the past three years.

Sumia Sukkar's first novel, The Boy from Aleppo who Painted the War, aligns with this trend though in a much more moving and effective way than any reportage can achieve. “Fiction raises awareness by creating well-rounded characters in a situation, bringing to life the pain and suffering. I aimed to bring to the surface the cry for help from the heart of the Syrian war, hence, raising awareness”, the author explained in an email interview.

We meet Adam, the 14-year-old narrator who lives in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and the object of a bloody military confrontation since 2012, just days before war breaks out. Adam likes painting, Adam likes his older sister Yasmine, and Adam likes watching American movies. Adam doesn’t like noise, Adam doesn’t like when people shout at him and Adam really, really doesn’t like when things get in the way of his established routine. Yet Adam’s life, pre-war, although seemingly comfortable, wasn’t fully sheltered: he lost his mother to an unnamed illness and he suffers from Asperger’s syndrome.

Of Algerian and Syrian descent and raised in London, Sukkar was inspired by her own relatives and their experiences of the war to write The Boy from Aleppo. “Most of [Adam’s] family members are based on my family members and my memories of them from when I visited Syria. From there, the characters wrote themselves, depending on the situation they were in”, she remembers.

By her own estimate, “more than 50% of the book is fiction”. The rest is based on real stories she has heard and been told.

For the character of Adam, Sukkar “did countless months of research and went to Autism foundations and met autistic people”. She uses the three main areas of difficulty for Asperger syndrome sufferers, i.e. social communication, social interaction and social imagination, as well as the characteristic love of routine, special interests and sensory difficulties (as described by the National Autistic Society) to construct an effective story.

Electing to have a young Asperger sufferer for narrator works because it highlights the sheer absurdity of war. First person narrators are by nature unreliable, yet Adam’s very condition, his difficulty in reading social signals, make the tale more poignant and believable. When an adult narrator would rationalise, when an adult narrator would hide part of the truth so he can better deal with it, Adam just describes and never hides his lack of understanding. “I wanted to portray this horrid situation through the eyes of a delicate and innocent young man. I wanted to rid Syria of judgement and show it through a pure mind. Syria deserves this much”, Sukkar says.

Most of the book’s events, from the happiest to the most horrific, ring true. Thanks to Adam’s creativity and imagination, Sukkar tells a story of war through two key senses, smell and vision, making reading her novel a realistic and vivid experience. For example, Adam discovers that the house next door is used to store cadavers through the stench emanating from inside the building, invoking a more horrific reaction in the reader than any straight description would.

Although Adam’s brothers are siding with the Syrian opposition, this isn’t a political tale. Adam repeatedly expresses his surprise that the two fighting sides are so hard to differentiate, when encountering them in the street for instance. By choosing to remain above the political debate, Sukkar develops a novel which talks of the horror of modern warfare and which anybody, no matter their location or their life experience, can empathise with.

I have been reading a few first novels for this blog and so far, The Boy from Aleppo has been the best written. It is also the only one whose author studied creative writing at university, making Sukkar a poster woman for how important it is to train in a discipline that many like to consider intuitive. The course enabled the author to find her voice. “It helped me know my strengths and weaknesses. This influenced the writing of my novel. I learnt many things that I have implemented. Taking a creative writing course helped me transfer my thoughts and ideas into a novel”, Sukkar explains.

Next, she is planning to do a master’s degree in creative writing and publish a sequel to The Boy from Aleppo. But before that, she’s started another, very different novel. I can’t wait to read it.

A complimentary copy of The Boy From Aleppo Who Painted the War was kindly provided to me by Eyewear Fiction for the purpose of this review.

Exclusive email interview with Sumia Sukkar on 21 March 2014.


Posted at 8:05am and tagged with: book review, writing,.

With local and European elections just around the corner, this spring is a good time to revisit how many of us women, but also men, have enjoyed the right to vote for less than 100 years.

Ian Porter’s Suffragette Autumn Women’s Spring is a reminder that until 1918, non-propertied men, like the main character Alexander Nash, weren’t allowed to vote, and that until 1928, neither was any woman.

Porter packs a lot into the 374 pages of his second novel, including a lot I had never thought about: the Titanic as a defining moment of class identity, the difficulties of the shipwreck survivors, particularly the ones from steerage, and the specific struggles of disabled people who lived in the early 20th century, like “the cripple suffragette” Rosa May Billinghurst.

Although I like to think I am a feminist, Suffragette Autumn was a humbling read, highlighting how little I know about the suffrage movement. The gap in public knowledge about right to vote demonstrations is one of the reasons why Porter decided to write this book. “Before starting to research Suffragettes, I was shocked by how little I knew of them. And I was supposed to be a women’s early 20th century historian! If I knew so little, it was reasonable to think that most people were similarly ignorant,” explains Porter.

Looking into the topic, Porter discovered that his usual go-to places, like the local library, didn’t offer a single book about suffragettes. “TV, the great driver of public interest, has avoided the subject for the past 40 years. I suspect it’s because the women come out of the story well, whereas the government come out of it badly, but it could be argued that the women were terrorists. And in the troubled world we live in today, TV doesn’t want to show terrorists in a favourable light”, is how Porter explains the lack of knowledge in the movement.

With Abi Morgan’s upcoming film Suffragettes, starring Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst as well as Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter and Ben Whishaw, this might be about to change. At least, Porter hopes so: “I would imagine that with such a big star on board the film will receive a lot of publicity, so hopefully this will lead to plenty of interest from the public. Being a political issue, there is always both a right and left wing version of history, hopefully there will be plenty of debate and argument from women’s groups, historians, politicians, documentary-makers about women’s issues 100 years ago, how they relate to women’s issues of today and what we can learn from history, both regarding women’s issues and fights for a fairer society in general.”

The Pankhurst family, one of the driving forces behind the UK suffragist fight, appears in Suffragette Autumn, even though the storyline doesn’t centre on them. Ruby Martin, who survived the Titanic thanks to Nash, joined Sylvia Pankhurst's East End movement shortly after returning to England. She became an employee and was involved in high-profile publicity stunts such as the 18 April 2013 capture of London’s Monument and Emily Wilding Davison’s protest at the June 1913 Epsom Derby.

Historians still disagree what Davison aimed to do when she threw herself in front of the King’s horse, was injured and subsequently died. Porter was careful not to take side.

A horseracing fan himself, Porter based his writing for the scene on two 1913 films: “The old theory that it was sheer chance that she happened to collide with the king’s horse is less persuasive. One thing is for certain, she did not ‘throw herself under the horse’ or ‘commit suicide’ as some people have believed over the years.” Based on the clearest of the two films, Porter thinks there is a possibility that “Emily did target the king’s horse and tried to place her Votes for Women scarf in its bridle. Her scarf was found on the turf afterwards. And having been to Epsom I can see how the incident was possible.”

Although a book about women’s right to vote, Suffragette Autumn isn’t a gendered story. Each chapter shows how much the suffragist movement was supported by men as much as women. Nash, who joins as Sylvia Pankhurst’s bodyguard, was modelled on “Kosher Bill, a Jewish 6-foot tall, ex-boxer”, explains Porter in his author’s notes. Ruby repeatedly notices that men make up the majority of attendees at suffragist public speeches. “Look at any old photograph of a Suffragette giving a speech, and all you can see is a group of men surrounding the woman. Working class women were too busy working 14 hours a day in a factory or sweatshop, or bringing up large families, to be at political speeches.”, Porter explains.

Obviously, the author himself is a man. “I have always had an affinity with the viewpoint of women and my main interest whilst studying history at university was women’s history, particularly in the 19th and early 20th century. Perhaps it’s because I am particularly interested in inequality and unfairness, and of course much of this has been aimed at women throughout history. I would like to think that I have approached the book as a novelist, a historian and a socialist, rather than as a man. Purely on a practical writing side, my wife was my editor, so if anything didn’t ring true to her, she would put me straight.”

Like Nash, Ruby is inspired by many real-life suffragettes, a storytelling device which allows her to be in multiple interesting places. Porter actually apologises to some of the suffragettes he replaced for the purpose of the plot, particularly to the memory of Mrs Watkins, who met with Prime Minister Asquith in Ruby’s stead to convince him to grant women the right to vote.

Constance Lytton, a real-life member of the Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union never mets Ruby, yet her activism is felt through one of the most harrowing scenes of the book. Jailed for partaking in suffragist demonstrations, Ruby start a hunger and thirst strike and ends up being force-fed. The torture, which was repeatedly used against suffragettes, as well as its effects, were described by Lytton in her memoirs Prison and Prisoners and was the basis for much of what Ruby undergoes in jail.

In memory of every single one of these women, and men, who gave time, money or even their life “to the cause”, go and vote on 22 May.

A complimentary copy of Suffragette Autumn Women’s Spring was kindly provided to me by Troubadour Publishing Ltd for the purpose of this review.

Exclusive email interview with Ian Porter on 1 March and 16 March 2014.

Posted at 5:51pm and tagged with: book review, feminism,.

In 2012, the London Review of Books featured 210 books by men and 66 books by women. To get women’s voices read and recognised, the literary world needs companies like Linen Press, the independent publisher set up by Lynn Michell to champion “great writing, by women. For women”.

Going against the current trend in mainstream publishing, Linen Press never prints the pastel, lipstick-illustrated covers too often associated with and “for women”. Rather, Michell picks manuscripts which are “tough, honest, relevant and brave enough to take a broad look at the world and women’s place in it”.

Enticed by the company tagline, I interviewed Linen Press founder and writer Michell and her team to learn more about the ethos and the concept behind the publishing house.

Michell got the idea for Linen Press after a serious and sudden illness cut her career in academia short. Having always enjoyed writing and editing, in addition to lecturing English and psychology and her anthropology research, she started a creative writing class in Edinburgh, where she realised working with writers was her true calling. Setting up her own publishing house was the natural next step.

Naming the company Linen Press was the first homage to women. “I was thinking of traditional female activities and came up with fabric, texture, washing, ironing, folding, washing on the line drying,” Michell remembers. “In Edinburgh’s Victorian terraces and houses, there are very shallow cupboards called ‘a press’ which are fairly useless except with the doors removed for bookshelves, so I was playing with the words Linen Press - a shelf or cupboard where Linen is folded and stored. The phrase ‘The story unfolds’ came next. And finally my name is Lynn. Blend ‘lynn’ with ‘women’ and you get Linen.”

2013 was a successful year for Linen Press with the publication of two well-reviewed books: Sailing through Byzantium by experimental novelist Maureen Freely and Shooting Stars are the Flying Fish of the Night by Michell and Stefan Gregory.

Although Michell is mum on her plans for 2014, she reveals the company is hoping “for a Booker long-listing”.

Linen Press isn’t just a place for great writing: the company takes its championing of women’s rights in every domain very seriously. Last April, it started backing the One Billion Rising campaign, which demands an end to violence against women and girls, by giving £1 from the sale of each Hema Macherla novel to the cause.

The author’s stories are the perfect fit for the campaign. “My Indian author Hema Macherla writes about taboo subjects like abuse in arranged marriages, the plight of child widows and fallen women, and the practice of suttee. Her approach is subtle and she is a born story-teller; her personal campaign is to write novels that tell the truth about women in India while pulling you into a page turner”, Michell tells me.

Raising awareness of women’s condition around the world isn’t limited to donating money. On its social media platforms, particularly Twitter and Facebook, Linen Press shares links and insights directly related to the books and memoirs it publishes. “For those unfamiliar with Linen Press and its ethos, the social media networks are often a good introduction to what we are about”, Michell explains.

Followers can also click on general links about women and the literary world. Recent shares include a first person account by published novelist MM Finck of how she struggled to recognise the writer within herself and a New York Times op-ed by Amy Wallace about life as a female journalist. In other words, if you are a woman writer, or just interested in writing and or women’s rights, the Linen Press social media platforms are a good source of information.

This strategy is all part of Michell’s attempt to change the literary industry from within. “Women writers struggle to find a foothold in the male-dominated world of publishing which gives many more prizes to and reviews to male authors and often doesn’t include women on the shortlists for the glittering prizes. Linen Press regards the publishing industry as a only-just-ajar door to women writers and our mission is to help redress the balance.”

Much of the social media content is run by female interns. How does she reconcile championing women and employing interns, a hot topic in the news for its unfairness and its favouring of the most privileged? For Michell, It’s all about making sure the interns get actual experience under her mentorship and leave Linen Press equipped with all the skills they need to secure that hard-to-get first job in publishing.

Interns also play a key role in responding to the numerous submissions Linen Press receives. Michell trains them personally to make sure they, as well as the manuscript writer, get the best possible skills out of the experience. “When I take on a new intern, I work with her on a batch of submissions, checking her comments and criticisms, and asking her why she would accept or reject a piece. Most can do this pretty well, but they need to witness the very high standard of writing I expect”.

Michell has some advice if you are a female writer after that all-important acceptance letter from a publisher.

First, study the company website and make sure your manuscript is a good fit. Linen Press for instance is “looking for literary and top end contemporary fiction”. If your thing is illustrated stories or science fiction, your submission will be automatically rejected.

Secondly, “write about something that has truly moved you, changed you, or made you stop in your tracks to think and reflect, then make sure you have transposed that experience into fiction or memoir”.

Lastly, polish up your narrative voice. “I want to hear a strong, singing narrative voice that sucks me in and doesn’t let me go. That’s a lot to ask.”

Disclaimer: Linen Press has kindly provided me with copies of Sailing through Byzantium and The Making of Her for review.

Posted at 7:43pm and tagged with: book review, feminism,.

Imagine that your only memories of your mother are through early childhood impressions and, more recently, a photo of her and two unknown men found in your adoptive mother’s papers. Clothes, all of a sudden, take on a new role. They become clues in your search for her personality, hints to follow as you redraw a life you’ve fantasised but never heard about.

Hélène Hivert, a Parisian archivist, never got to know her mother Nathalie: she died in a car crash when Hélène was an infant. Raised by her father and his new wife Sylvia, she spends years in ignorance until she finds a picture of Nathalie photographed against the Alps.

Nathalie is “dressed in white” with a “white hat, worn at an angle, complet[ing] her elegant look, reminiscent of the Seeberger brothers’ early fashion photographs”. This is Hélène’s first clue: her mother played tennis in the summer of 1971 with two unknown men. One of them, Pierre Crüsten, is about to posthumously unlock her past, through his London-based biologist son Stéphane.

Stéphane sees the photo in one of the dailies Hélène published it in, in the hope that someone would recognise the people pictured. He immediately gets in touch. Thus starts The People in the Photo (Eux sur la photo), a French bestselling, prize-winning epistolary novel spanning letters, emails, text messages and real-life meetings interwoven with descriptions of the pictures of Nathalie and Pierre that Hélène and Stéphane find during their inquiry.

As the novel progresses, engaging the reader in the identity search, s/he starts picturing Nathalie through these descriptions. Most of them only start making sense in the latter part of the book, when the mystery of Nathalie and Pierre’s relationship, and the intrigue that surrounds all of the people orbiting around them, is solved. Only then do the photos find their true meaning, dresses suggesting happiness or heartache, haircuts hinting resolution or dilemma.

Throughout the narration, Nathalie is described as elegant and of her time, fashion-wise. My favourite outfit, after reading the book twice, describes her as “wearing a typical 1960s sundress with a wide rectangular neckline, bold geometric cut and diamond pattern. The straps of her bra which compresses her breasts are visible through the fabric”. It’s my favourite description because in that picture, Nathalie is pregnant, a rare photo of Hélène and her mother which starts a particularly emotional letter to Stéphane (“My past, which had always seemed so hazy and shapeless, suddenly had a face, pictured in such sharp focus that my heart skipped a beat”).

Hélène, as an archivist and a postcard specialist, has a critical view of every photo. Describing her mother’s 1963 driving license picture, she explains “her striped blouse brings an element of geometry to the composition and reveals a glimpse of long, white neck featuring a fine chain”.

All descriptions are made in a factual, objective manner, from the point of view of an almost omniscient narrator. As the other two narrators are the emotional, involved and unreliable children of the people we are learning about, the reader needs an anchor, something suggesting that there are clues s/he can rely on as s/he journeys alongside Hélène and Pierre.

Descriptions aren’t limited to grown-up pictures. Early on, Hélène discovers one from a parish choir which shows that her adoptive mother and Nathalie knew each other. One “has on a plain, pastel dress with a slightly low-cut neckline, the hem just above the knee; ankle boots, a neck scarf and a small bag demurely hanging from her arm”. The other “stands tall, thin and rather gawky in an oversized man’s raincoat and strap shoes”. The mystery thickens and the reader’s imagination starts running wild. Was there an affair? Were both women after the same man they eventually both married? How evil could the woman in the pastel dress be to deserve being whipped from her daughter’s memory?

Fashion clues aren’t limited to pictorial descriptions. As Hélène starts to explore her Russian roots, she explains that some Slavic words hold a particular connotation to her. “The adjective goluboy always reminds me of a certain fabric, with beads and gold thread. The first time I heard the word kotyonok, a jumble of images came back to me: a bedcover, a fur throw”. She compares these Russian words to Proust’s madeleine.

The People in the Photo is also a reminder of the subjectivity of photography. We use it to commit happy moments to memory: one’s involvement in a choir, a pregnancy, an engagement, or more in official moments such as a driving license. But it can’t depict what emotions the subjects were going through at the time, it can’t paint unravelling marriages or the love of a mother for her child. That’s partly why the novel finds such an easy echo in its readers: we’ve all gone through family members’ and friends’ photo albums, trying to imagine what was going on, relying on our own albums to complete a faltering memory.

A few photo descriptions however depart from the rule of only picturing happy moments. One has Nathalie in “a round, black felt hat, slightly too big for her”, “wearing a white blouse and a thick, shapeless woollen waistcoat”. The oversized detail, like her “voluminous woollen skirt from which a thread hangs” suggest a woman who has given up on the pretense of clothes, wearing her unhappiness for her daughter to see. “But how sad she looks. She could be a different person from the bubbly girl in the choir photo”, Hélène writes to Stéphane.

The family secret genre, whether in literature or movies (Un secret/A Secret, Pour une Femme/For a Woman, Elle s’appelait Sarah/Sarah’s Key) is well-established in France. Most of the time, the secret has to do with the Second World War, often with Jewish families. The People in the Photo is unexpected: the secret has nothing to do with the war. It is a lot more mundane, a lot more expectable and because it happens in normal circumstances, rather than in the midst of the heightened difficulties of the War, easier to emphasise with rather than be horrified by. The characters might come from the 1970s but you get the feeling this is something that could happen with our generation, or any of the ones to come.

The People in the Photo by Hélène Gestern (translation Emily Boyce and Ros Schwartz) will be published in the UK in February 2014 and in the US in June 2014. A review copy was kindly sent to me by Gallic Books.

Posted at 6:00pm and tagged with: book review,.

The Queen’s headscarves, models’ too skinny backs, and how men are like Homer Simpson were just a few of the topics Justine Picardie, editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar, fiction writer and biographer of Coco Chanel, discussed with Colin McDowell, Times and Business of Fashion contributor at the Victoria & Albert Museum to promote his latest book: The Anatomy of Fashion: Why we dress the way we do

As two representatives of a fashion world that’s often presented as cutthroat, it was refreshing to see two speakers who were both gifted and friendly. As Picardie introduced him, McDowell helped himself to some water and filled her glass. After the event, as he was signing books, she stayed in the room and talked to the line of people which had formed, answering questions about how to become a fashion journalist, a question she must have answered a hundred times before.

After hearing Lionel Shriver at the Soho Literary Festival, I was a bit weary at the idea of hearing two of my favourite fashion writers in real life. Picardie introduced McDowell as an “entertaining observer of fashion” in the midst of “a lot of bad fashion writing” with “a true understanding of the history of fashion”. This understanding was on full display throughout the talk as they went through dozens of images of people, commenting here on the significance of a hat, there the role of an epaulette. “Fashion alights on various erogenous zones of the body, including shoulders”, McDowell reminded the audience.

All the pictures were taken from The Anatomy of Fashion, a coffee-table book about the interaction between fashion and the body. McDowell explained that the idea came from the body, an under-explored yet constant presence in fashion. Acknowledging the fashion world’s fascination with young bodies, he explained he had become more and more interested in the topic as his own had become more and more decrepit getting him the first, and far from last, laughs of the evening.

Picardie and McDowell kicked of by talking about the head, lamenting the disappearance of the hat after World War II. Picardie, who has just updated her book Coco Chanel: the Legend and the Life, recalled that the French designer had started as a milliner and that, towards the end of her life, she was never seen without a hat, possibly because of the scars caused by a Swiss facelift that went awry.

Chanel was a recurrent theme throughout the talk. When McDowell claimed that no biographer had ever revealed all about her life, Picardie took mock offence, reminding him she had. Later on, when the discussion moved on to dresses, Picardie explained how subservient Chanel’s use of black had been. It wasn’t just the colour of mourning, seen across Europe on WWI widows, it was also what judges and hangmen wore, the colour of gravitas and uniforms. By mixing black dresses with white collars, an association Chanel picked up in the convent where she was raised, the designer made her wealthy customers resemble their maids. 

Chanel wasn’t the only public figure associated with black and hats, Jackie Kennedy – from JFK’s funeral to her love of pillbox hats – was also mentioned. For McDowell, the fact that Kennedy made the pillbox hat so iconic turned it into her own crown, meaning no one else at the time could wear it. To this day, a pillbox hat is shorthand for the First Lady’s style. 

As crowns go, you can’t find a better association nowadays than HRH Elizabeth II. Yet McDowell had selected a picture of the Queen wearing a Hermes headscarf. The monarch rides every morning with headscarves rather than a riding hat, apparently to the horror of her courtiers.  Both speakers took her action as a sign of freedom and subversion, the Queen’s very own brand of rebellion. 

Kennedy took quite a bit of advice from Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar editor Diana Vreeland, a fashion legend McDowell knew and qualified as “scary”. Speaking about Vreeland, he demonstrated his skills as a storyteller, talking for instance of the time she had told him any woman going shopping with her best friend was stupid. 

He also talked about a fashion editorial he had done in India about 20 years ago with Naomi Campbell. The editorial featured models in distressed jeans and worn-out tops, as was the fashion of the time. His disgust at the fact that “we all want to look like we’re pooh in the West” was palpable when he reminisced about the faces of the locals who had expected Campbell to turn up decked out as a princess.  

Vreeland wasn’t the only legendary editor McDowell got to know during his career. He also spoke warmly of Isabella Blow who, despite her lack of education, could capture the essence of a period. One of his main regrets about Blow seemed to be that she never got round to writing about fashion.

Agreeing with Picardie that a lot of fashion legend is based on lies, an issue both, as journalists, must be confronted with regularly, McDowell explained he never really believes designers who talk about how they remember their mother dressing to go to the ball as their first fashion emotion. But then building a world and selling is what fashion brands is all about. No reader, no customer wants the truth, just excitement. 

Although most of the talk focused on women’s fashion, McDowell has also included photographs of men and men’s style in his book. During his writing career, whilst exploring trends and fashion history, he has discovered that men don’t wear overt fashion and always put comfort first. “Men want to look like they just stepped out of The Simpsons” is how he summarised it. 

Posted at 6:30am and tagged with: victoria and albert museum, book review,.

How do you translate a book which counts ‘Frenchness’ as one of its key charms? Louise Rogers LalaurieJane Aitken and Emily Boyce had the difficult task of co-translating Antoine Laurain’s 2012 best-seller Le Chapeau de Mitterrand (The President’s Hat), about five lives forever changed by François Mitterrand’s hat.

Gallic books, the Aitken-founded publisher that specialises in bringing French literature to English-speaking markets, picked three professionals because the tale relies on its switch from one character to the next to deploy its magic. Aitken, who did the overall editing, explains that the decision came after she noticed, “how even the best translators have difficulty make the speech of different characters sound distinctive”. 

The text was split based on each translator’s personal character affinities and previous work. Boyce and Aitken for instance respectively wrote Fanny and Pierre, who they were closest to in age. Lalaurie was tasked with translating Daniel, a continuation of the work she started for Fiction France, a magazine aimed at publishing professionals abroad interested in French literature.

To guarantee consistency, the co-translators were in regular contact to ensure they always chose the right word. According to Aitken, “there were a handful of areas where we had treated the same thing differently, but surprisingly few”. For instance, Lalaurie remembers discussing the best way to translate “what an oyster does when it’s squirted with lemon juice? Squirm, wince, retract? I chose ‘retract’ to start with but ultimately, we chose ‘squirm’: much more direct!” Daniel is the novel’s hook, the first character you meet, the one who steals the hat from Mitterrand at a brasserie dinner. Getting him right was therefore key to engrossing the reader in the story. 

Aside from their work with the particular characters they translated, each woman developed affinities with other figures from the book. For Lalaurie, it was Bernard because of a common interest in art. For Boyce, it was Pierre (a perfumer and the third owner of the hat) thanks to an interest for the profession developed while touring the Fragonard factory as a child. She had even gone as far as considering the career path but was put off by hearing that noses don’t drink alcohol - imagine her surprise when she read Pierre enjoyed bubbly! 

Knowing that Le Chapeau had recently been published in English, I kept wondering, while reading it, how it could work for a British or American audience (Laurain has just completed a tour of the US). My worries were twofold: how can the new audience relate to the feeling of nostalgia threaded through the book when they have never lived in France and how can they understand the French-focused references? 

Lalaurie acknowledged that “some British readers may be surprised by a feel-good book about personal empowerment in the Eighties” but all believe that the charm will equally operate. None of the translators lived in France until the latter part of Mitterrand’s 14-year-long presidency so in a way, they were faced with a challenge almost equal to their readers. 

As for the possible cultural barriers, Aitken explains that they got around the issue, “on a few occasions slipping in an explanatory word or two yet generally we steering clear of explanations that would have interrupted the flow of the writing”. For instance, to translate ”l’heure du journal télévisé d’Yves Mourousi”, which as a French person I know to mean 1pm, Aitken specified that it was the lunchtime TV news. 

I also asked Lalaurie, Aitken and Boyce what they thought a British version of The President’s Hat would be? The Prime Minister’s handbag? As Lalaurie pointed out, “Mrs. T. was unlikely to have left her handbag behind in a restaurant”. Boyce suggested a more current alternative with Boris Johnson:  ”perhaps someone might steal a Boris bike and end up with mad hair, but whether it would change their lives”. My favourite option though is her alternative proposal, Winston Churchill’s cigar – it probably encapsulates a nostalgia that’s akin to Mitterrand’s hat. How exactly a cigar would move from person to person is up to the author’s imagination (I’m thinking about a cigar box with each character smoking one before losing or forgetting the box).

Posted at 7:47am and tagged with: book, book review, translation,.

One wonders how many talks Lionel Shriver has spoken at and how many articles have been written about her under the (somewhat unimaginative) title “we need to talk about Lionel”?

From its topic and its Hollywood adaptationWe need to talk about Kevin has become a bibliography-defining book. Judging by a question one Soho Literature Festival attendee asked, some people don’t even know that Shriver published three books between Kevin and Big Brother, the novel inspired by her sibling’s obesity and death, and the one the author was at the Festival to talk about. 

I haven’t read Big Brother yet, but that wasn’t a problem when attending the talk because most of the questions from Rosie Boycott, founder of Spare Rib and Chair of London Food board, were about Shriver’s views on obesity, rather than her creative process. 

Although the idea for Big Brother came from her own brother’s death through obesity, Shriver was adamant the rest of the book was made up, because it was the only way for her to make the story new to her. For this reason, she hates it when critics claim her work to be autobiographical. In Big Brother, she went as far as writing a fictional family and a fictional town, with the fictional behaviours this implies. 

To demonstrate that she didn’t feel responsibility for her brother’s condition, Shriver talked about the essay she wrote for the Financial Times that explained the autobiographical sections of her book. She then agreed, for reasons unclear, to have it republished in the Daily Mail. The newspaper re-titled it “My brother ate himself to death - and I will never get over the guilt”, a guilt that, she joked, was news to her – because she doesn’t believe there was much she could have done. For this reason, she qualifies the intervention staged by little sister Pandora Halfdanarson in Big Brother as implausible because what people eat is private so not easy to control. The person, not the family needs to decide how to solve it. 

Shriver presents obesity as near-taboo, one of the elephants in the room everyone can see but nobody dares to talk about. She remarked that, when you meet up with people not seen in a while, you never tell them if they have put on weight, only if they have lost it, because one is synonymous with loosing grip whereas the other means being in control, a societal opinion we have internalised. 

However, Shriver argues that it isn’t always as simple as being in control or not but that it is in thin people’s interest to assume it is because it means it can’t affect them. “We assume we have free will, just in case we do”, a theme recurrent in Shriver’s work. 

Despite the health risks behind obesity, Shriver believes the larger problem is the feelings wasted and assumed, most notably unhappiness: the unhappiness obese people suffer from as well as the unhappiness in one’s life which leads them to eat themselves to obesity. “We turn to food when something else is eating at us that isn’t hunger”, she says. Shriver takes the example of so-called “comfort food” which has nothing comforting, especially once you have eaten it and feel you shouldn’t have. 

Because food is a human dependency, Shriver believes calling it an addiction is problematic because it’s an addiction we all haveBig Brother goes as far as suggesting that, if Edison Appaloosa had a coke addition, invisible and unknown to most people, it would be much cooler and easier to accept than suffering from obesity because coke dependency is an invisible flaw which needs to be discovered. Obesity, on the other hand, is a very visible symptom of what could happen to anybody if they lost control over food. 

Shriver’s solution isn’t to blame the food industry, because she doesn’t think outlawing companies like McDonalds to be possible and because she believes people should create their own food policies and stick with them. Her example is that it is easier not to buy Doritos in the first place than to not eat the whole packet once you get home from the supermarket. With Big Brother, Shriver aimed to comment on how society and families deal with obesity rather than on what politicians ought to do to stop it. 

Posted at 7:03am and tagged with: book review,.

I am a morning person. Most days, I am up just before 5 am without setting any alarm. On weekends, I never get up after 7 am. As a child, I used to be up between 4:30 am and 5 am so I could do my homework. I liked it because nobody else, not even our cat, was up at that time and I felt like I could do whatever I wanted. By the time my parents and sister were rushing to the bathroom, I could read my book. Mornings were also a great time to bond with my grandfather, a lifelong early-riser. In the summer, we would jump on our bicycles to buy fresh bread at 6:30 am, when the bakery was opening.

So I rolled my eyes when Sarah Bailey, editor-in-chief of Red magazine, started the networking breakfast Laura Vanderkam, author of What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast How To Achieve More at Work and At Home, was speaking at by joking she wasn’t a morning person. Not because it was an expected opening but because I don’t believe there are morning and evening people, just people who go to bed early and people who don’t. 

When I say I get up by 5 am, most people assume I sleep less than them. I don’t. I am in bed by 9 pm most nights, and a few nights a month before 8 pm. This requires some evening tricks, like a rather hefty cab bill, watching my favourite TV series first thing in the morning on iPlayer rather than live, or going to theatre matinées rather than evening shows. 

Vanderkam explains it is easier to be productive in the morning because before breakfast, your willpower is intact. Whereas at night it is tempting to just check one more website or watch one more episode from a box set, in the morning, the leaving-the-house deadline limits the amount of time you can waste. 

Her theory is that the early hours are perfect for three self-focused activities enabling you to develop your personal life and your career: plan, practice and pay in.

Studying CEO time logs, Vanderkam realised the hours that mattered most in terms of return on investment were spent planning. Take advantage of mornings to plan your day, your weekend, your life or your career. At the networking breakfast, Vanderkam asked the room to start a list of 100 Dreams we wanted to achieve and then see which ones could be planned or worked on in the morning. Develop this blog was one of my big ones so here I am, blogging at 5:35 am. 

Practice can stem from these 100 Dreams. For instance, if you want to win a marathon, use the morning hours to go for a run. Vanderkam defines practicing as “actively trying to get better at skills”, including skills identified as necessary to move forward in your career, such as writing or negotiating. This is Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 Hours Theory applied to the hours before dawn. Vanderkam also highlights how important it is to get immediate feedback on the practice, so you can continuously improve the skill. 

Paying in is the third P, meant to help you remain employable. Vanderkam suggests that before getting to work, you already start paying in your career capital account. She uses the suggestion of a female race car driver she interviewed who said it was all about “increasing exposure and broadening scope”. Among possible activities amounting to paying in, Vanderkam suggests sending thank you emails or organising meetings to build loyalty. To keep you motivated, since paying in can be a long-term and sometimes invisible investment, her idea is to keep an actual deposit list. 

For all Vanderkam’s good suggestions, the world isn’t that well set-up for morning people. Most early yoga classes I have found so far in London start around 7:30 am, too late to make it to work on time. People would rather have dinner than breakfast. In the workplace, late meetings happen more often than early ones. The first person to take down their trench coat in the evening is often considered to be less committed than the last one to, even if they arrive at 7:30 am every day

Although I love Vanderkam’s theory that mornings are the perfect time to make things happen, her book isn’t without limits. She never explains what would happen if everybody started to use their mornings. Mornings are effective because few people are up and running at this time. I can send emails without getting immediate answers and launching into a time-consuming back and forth, clearly this advantage would disappear if everyone were up.

Like Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, Vanderkam’s book is heavily skewed towards married mothers. She does give some suggestions for people who might be single, or single parents, but mostly it’s about professionals fitting in a very normative view of family life, with a skew towards religious people. She is however pretty balanced between employed and self-employed people and how each category can best use its time.

Indeed, don’t be tricked by the title: this isn’t a book about mornings. Instead, it is about how you have more time than you think. Mornings are only one aspect of this. Vanderkam added up all the waking hours between when you leave work on Friday night and when you return on Monday morning: in total, that’s 36 hours that are entirely yours. Longer than the legal French working week. 

This blog post has of course been written over the course of several mornings. Aside from heightened productivity, there is a less acknowledgeable reason why I love mornings: it makes me feel smug. I like the fact that by the time most of my colleagues arrive at work, I will have written on my blog, posted a few links on my other Tumblrs, gotten dressed, taken a 20 minutes walk around London and studied some international law on Coursera. 

The morning and evening people divide isn’t a popular management theory, at least not in the way managers build teams across right brain/left brain, Briggs Myers results or introversion/extroversion, yet I think these are also a complementary skills and personality types. 

Just after publishing this blog post, I have two days when I am scheduled to start work between 5 and 6 am ahead of a fashion show. The information that I need to deliver by 8 am will actually be available halfway through the night; staying up until the early hours to do a dozen Vlook-ups across languages I don’t understand seems to me the height of misery. But in the morning? Bring it on. 

Posted at 9:08am and tagged with: book review, time management,.

Book review: The President’s Hat (Le Chapeau de Mitterrand), Antoine Laurain

Does a black hat have the power to make a man stand up to his stupid boss and get a promotion, to convince a young woman to leave her married lover, to inspire a desperate nose to create perfume again, to turn a die-hard right-wing man to socialism? Five lives intertwined by one improbable hat is the premise for Antoine Laurain's brilliant short novel, Le Chapeau de Mitterrand (The President’s Hat). 

One night in 1986, Daniel Mercier, a Parisian accountant like so many, decides to treat himself to dinner in a high-end brasserie. A few minutes later, François Mitterrand, Roland Dumas and an unnamed fat man with a love of cigars and wine sit at the table next to him. On his way out, the President forgets his hat. Mercier decides to steal it.

Laurain describes his book as a fairy tale rather than a novel. He got the plot idea after losing his own hat in a café. When he went back to retrieve it the next day, the garçon told him they hadn’t found a hat, starting a series of hypothesis as to who might be wearing the hat and what they might be doing. 

Francofille warned me that it was a book she was militant about everybody reading after she lent it to me. And it is that good. It’s magical and sweet, powerful and funny. I had to stop reading it a couple of times on the Tube because I was laughing so hard people were looking at me weirdly. 

Laurain perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the late 1980s France. 1986 is a special year for me; it is the year I was born, so a number of events recalled I wasn’t around for. But the French society he describes rings perfectly true, if a little different from the current one. The fourth owner of the hat, Bernard Lavallière, moves in right wing circle where Mitterrand is so despised his name isn’t worth pronouncing properly, where men regret the time he could duel out disagreements, where names are synonymous with former glory and current poverty…

My only frustration was that once the hat changes head, you stop knowing about the previous owner and have no idea whether his/her life kept on its new trajectory. This issue however, is solved in the last chapter, alongside a very neat and unexpected ending.

Fanny Marquant, the second owner of the hat, compares the confidence it instils in her with the one she gains from her most expensive clothes, a pair of Sonia Rykiel pumps and a Saint Laurent skirt. “All she had to do was put on the YSL skirt and she felt immediately more attractive. The same went for the shoes, which had cost her almost a quarter of month’s salary: as soon as she slipped them on and did up the little straps, she felt taller, straighter and more significant. She walked completely differently, strutting along with confidence, and only she knew it was down to the hidden power of the Rykiel shoes”*.

Mitterrand’s hat had this power. Maybe not to change lives, but if you are to believe the Parti Socialiste, which has adopted the black hat-red scarf-black coat iconography as another symbol of its glory days, this hat is as much a source of success as Laurain suggests. 

The hat is the perfect gimmick. It stands for the womaniser Mitterrand was (take your hat off in front of women), for the man anchored in his land and for his dodgy World War II past when Résistants and Gestapo alike donned black hats.

From Kennedy disregarding the top hat during his inauguration address, as proof of what a modern man he was, to De Gaulle wearing his military uniform kepi as a proof of his authority, hats play a key role in the iconography of power. 

The President’s Hat was first published in France during the 2012 presidential campaign, won by Francois Hollande. He spent a good part of his canvassing trying to convince people that, not only was he normal, he was Mitterrand’s rightful heir. In 2008, when Mitterrand’s wardrobe was auctioned, Hollande asked the Socialist party he was then leading to spend over £5,000 to purchase one of the hats on sale. 

Donning a black hat and red scarf is something of an obligatory step on your way to left-wing political greatness, a symbol of leftist legitimacy ideas bordering on fetishism. There are pictures of Ségolène Royal and Laurent Fabius, two former ministers and presidential hopefuls, in the get-up. Even Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who left the Parti Socialiste to create his own dissident left-wing party, has often been seen wearing both accessories. They’ve all tried, rather unsuccessfully, to adopt Laurain’s theory: “The hat alone was responsible for the events modifying their lives”**.

* Translation Emily Boyce, Louise Rogers Lalaurie and Jane Aitken

**Translations my own from Antoine Laurain, Le Chapeau de Miterrand (2012)

Posted at 7:55am and tagged with: book review, france, politics, Accessories,.

Warning: This book review contains spoilers on the book’s hardly existing plot. 

At some point between page 250 and page 300 of Lauren Weisberger’s Revenge Wears Prada: The Devil Returns, the follow-up to her best-selling roman à clef The Devil Wears Prada, I had to violently close the book and walk away. 

Christian Collinsworth, Andrea “Andy” Sachs’ former fuck buddy had just turned up at a party celebrating the third anniversary of The Plunge, the high-end wedding magazine founded by Andy and Emily Charlton. His arrival was the latest in a series of unbelievable and ridiculous events punctuating the book and quickly unravelled any appreciation I had held for Andy’s earlier adventures. 

After an entire year of hating and despising each other at Runway, former assistants Andy and Emily eventually bonded over a mutual hatred of Miranda Priestly, the fashion editrix Weisberger allegedly modelled on her old boss, Anna Wintour. Miranda’s career, since we left her in 2003, has moved in parallel to Wintour’s: she now oversees all Elias-Clark titles the way Wintour has been named artistic director of Condé Nast and she’s had a whole documentary dedicated to her, The High Priestess of Fashion: the Life and Time of Miranda Priestly, à la September Issue.

However, these tenuous mirrors of real life, carried through with the wedding of a Beyoncé -Jay-Z-inspired couple for instance, aren’t enough to keep the novel interesting. Revenge proves Janet Maslin, the New York Times literary critique, right; she predicted that Weisberger didn’t have what it took to “interestingly sustain a gossip-free narrative”.

Although the author tries to reproduce her earlier success by using the same characters and narrative devices, the tales of Miranda’s meanness feel forced, Emily’s eventual betrayal of Andy expected. Despite getting married, Andy’s longing over ex-boyfriend Alex Fineman is so signposted, the only surprise is that it takes him over 300 pages to appear.

To contrast with all these expected events, Weisberger litters her narration with long-winded passages that lead nowhere. There’s no Chekhov’s gun here: Weisberger might hint of the possibility that Emily’s husband is cheating in the early chapters, but you’ll never know whether it’s true or not. 

Weisberger’s fifth book is as unbelievable as her first rang true. Can you believe that Andy, a graduate with one years experience at Runway as an assistant, and two years blogging for a wedding blog would create and edit a high-end magazine, and make a good salary out of it within months? Or, that a publishing company and bankers would invest in an unclear concept, on the mere strength of Emily’s network and Andy’s beautiful eyes? Revenge is more a love story than a coming of age or roman à clef, but by disregarding the genre of her first novel and focusing on feelings over the behind-the-scenes of publishing, Weisberger has written a book which requires a suspension of disbelief, common sense and the reader’s intelligence. 

As does the character evolution decided by Weisberger. She makes a point to name-drop brands in most of Emily’s dialogue, particularly in the first half of the book, to show that even though Andy now holds a position akin to Miranda’s, she’s still got her heart and values in the right place. Except I can’t believe Devil Andy would put her own wedding on her magazine cover, or that she would use The Plunge to get the best fashion photographer to cover it. Devil Andy made painfully sure that the fashion world she so despised and misunderstood would be nothing more than a means to the end of her high-journalism career. 

There are also points in the books where it feels that the Devil Wears Prada movie has rubbed off on Weisberger as much as it has on her readership. Revenge Emily, for instance, feels closer to Emily Blunt’s characterisation than to her original personality. When she reproaches Andy for neither saying goodbye nor apologising after leaving unceremoniously, it feels like something out of the film, where everybody got some kind of redemption in the end, a pitfall Weisberger managed to avoid in her first novel. 

But that’s nothing in comparison with how weird the lack of actual revenge in this book is. I spent the entire story wondering whether Andy would get even with Miranda for mistreating her or if Miranda would get revenge on Andy for leaving in Paris with a flurry of expletives. The end however is win-win for both: Miranda gets The Plunge and Andy starts writing for New York Magazine which, although no The New Yorker, is closer to her initial journalistic aspirations than a wedding glossy.  

Since Devil, Weisberger’s books have received unfavourable critical reviews, echoed by poor sale numbers. She confused readers’ fascination with Anna Wintour for interest in her writing and story lines. Revenge is a clear attempt at getting some of her first hit success back. She might get it, money-wise, but she’s definitely convinced me never to buy another novel of hers, no matter how curious of Andy’s future I might be. I’d rather make up my own story.

Posted at 6:35pm and tagged with: book review, book, Anna Wintour,.