Austentatious: Holly Luetkenhaus and Zoe Weinstein

★★★

The Evolving World of Jane Austen Fans

Some of you may remember that I reviewed a book on Sherlock fandom a while ago, which was published by the University of Iowa Press in their Fandom and Culture series. I’ve now been lucky enough to get another review copy from the same series, looking at the face of modern Jane Austen fandom. How has this very limited selection of original material been reworked, adapted and interrogated in the modern world? How can fans possibly find new things to say about novels that are 200 years old? You’d be amazed. This entertaining romp through ‘Janeite’ fan culture takes us from Colin Firth’s wet shirt to Clueless and The Lizzie Bennet Diaries; from BBC adaptations to erotic fanfiction. Like Sherlock’s World, Austentatious is occasionally repetitive and could have done with a fiercer editor, but it’s nevertheless a fascinating celebration of the passion with which Austen’s works continue to be read, loved and reinterpreted.

Continue reading

A Notable Woman: Jean Lucey Pratt

★★★★

The Romantic Journals of Jean Lucey Pratt

I have decided to write a journal. I mean to go on writing this for years and years, and it’ll be awfully amusing to read over later.’ It was Saturday 18 April 1925 and fifteen-year-old Jean Lucey Pratt was making a start on her first diary. Unlike most teenage girls, she actually kept it up: sixty years later, she’d produced over a million words, encompassing national, local and family politics, her ambitions, the frustrations of being a clever woman in a man’s world, her friendships and, most movingly, her constant desire for love. Simon Garfield, the editor of her journals, came across her work as a participant in the Mass Observation project, which gathered the experiences of ordinary people across the country during and after the Second World War. But Jean’s personal diaries go beyond the social history contained in her consciously ‘public’ journals. Here is an intelligent, smart, hopeful woman, longing to live to her full potential – but also a fallible, flawed human being who makes poor decisions, lacks courage, and manages to have whole love affairs in her imagination with someone she’s never actually spoken to. She is inspiring, exasperating and pitiful by turn: a fully-realised, articulate and hauntingly familiar personality.  There is, I think, a little bit of Jean Lucey Pratt in all of us.

Continue reading

Wrong About Japan: Peter Carey

★★½

This book caught my eye a while ago, not long after my return from Japan, because I hoped it would tell me a bit more about the country’s lively manga and anime culture. Only now have I got round to reading it (as lighter fare alongside the first five books of Livy’s History of Rome) and I’ve been left feeling rather perplexed. What is it actually meant to be? Part memoir, part travelogue, part pop-culture history, part social analysis, it skips between different guises without ever really settling on one, or fulfilling any. Strangely unsatisfying, it’s perhaps best described as a father-son road movie, in which Carey and his manga-obsessed twelve-year-old son Charley fly to Japan in search of the truth behind this international art phenomenon.

Continue reading

Sherlock’s World: Ann K. McClellan

★★★

Fan Fiction and the Reimagining of BBC’s Sherlock

In December 2013 at the BFI, Caitlin Moran persuaded the unwilling Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch to read from an explicit homoerotic fanfic based on their characters in the BBC’s Sherlock series. The internet condemnation was swift. Fans felt that Moran had betrayed the unspoken rules: that fanfiction is written by fans for fans and that it’s shared in a safe space. The author of the fic in question, who hadn’t been consulted, was humiliated and mortified that two of her idols had been made to read her story out as a joke, and that her work had been singled out by Moran as an example of the embarrassing extremes of Sherlock fandom. Obviously it was an ill-judged move on Moran’s part and I feel deeply for the poor fan whose heartfelt writing was held up for a cheap laugh. But this episode only came about because Sherlock has created such a broad, lively and vocal fandom – especially extraordinary given there are only twelve episodes in the four seasons to date (plus a special). This scholarly study, to be published in October, delves into Sherlock fandom and forms an introduction to fan culture more generally.

Continue reading

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed: Jon Ronson

★★★★

We can all agree that there are some pretty terrible people in the world; but they’re rarely the people you see being publicly eviscerated on Twitter. Those who face the onslaught of social media are rarely murderers, child abusers, dictators or other bona fide nasty types. They’re far more likely to be celebrities, or even ordinary people, who’ve made a stupid comment or worn a misguided piece of clothing and have consequently become Public Enemy No. 1 for the next day and a half. We’ve all seen these furies explode on Twitter and then die off within a week, when the next big thing turns up. But the impact of this public annihilation doesn’t disappear so easily. Jon Ronson sets out in search of those who’ve been publicly shamed, seeking to understand why it happened, what it felt like, and how – and if – one can recover from it.

Continue reading

The Underground Girls of Kabul: Jenny Nordberg

★★★★½

The Hidden Lives of Afghan Girls Disguised as Boys

Necessity is the mother of invention. That’s the message of this astonishing work by the Swedish journalist Jenny Nordberg, who worked with women in and around Kabul in Afghanistan between 2009 and 2011. When she was told, discreetly, that a contact’s six-year-old son was actually a cross-dressed girl, Nordberg discovered that this was merely the tip of an iceberg. Her enquiries led her to unearth an open secret in Afghan society: an entire social practice, hitherto  unreported in the wider world, of bacha posh, literally meaning ‘dressed as a boy’. Mixing biography, psychology and anthropology, this is a deeply illuminating journey into the social constructs of an unfamiliar world.

Continue reading