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A series of letters to a fictional niece, who is struggling to read Jane Austen, is the hook on which Fay Weldon hangs this collection of fifteen essays (for want of a better word) about Jane Austen, her life, her novels, and the era in which she lived. This subject is the basis for thoughts about writing, what it means to be an author, and how people approach the art of writing a book; and how readers consider and enjoy books. The author also offers snippets of advice about life and love to her 18 year old niece.

I enjoyed this book a lot. It’s very eloquently written, and easy to take in. I learned about aspects of Jane Austen’s life, and discovered new perspectives from which to read her books. It is certainly not necessary to like – or even to have read – Jane Austen to enjoy this book (indeed, the fictional character it is aimed at is not enjoying reading Austen), but I would imagine that if you have never picked up an Austen novel, this would make you want to.

As you might expect, Weldon is forthright, honest and intelligent. She is also often amusing, and made me think – and also made me want to reread Emma very soon!

I would certainly recommend this enjoyable collection of letters, whether or not you are a fan of Jane Austen.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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In an attempt to tap into the male psyche, and discover how groups of men act together, Norah Vincent disguised herself as a male, who she named Ned, and went into various situations – a male bowling league, a monastery, a men’s self-help group, to name a few – to find out how men interact with each other, and how the world treats men.  She makes it clear that she has no desire to actually BE a man – Vincent is not a transsexual – and the effort that she went to in order to make herself convincing as a male, was extraordinary.

In many ways, this book was interesting, and certainly the writing flowed well and didn’t seem stilted.  However, I have a number of problems with this book.  The first is a question of ethics – surely it isn’t okay to pretend to be a man in order to infiltrate a monastery, just for an experiment?  In doing this, Vincent actually unwittingly makes the point that sometimes the balance is skewed in favour of women.  The monks were surprisingly forgiving when Norah eventually told them that she was a woman, after having deceived them for quite some time (okay, their religion teaches forgiveness, but still – I would have expected more anger) – but can you imagine the uproar if a man had disguised himself as a woman, in order to infiltrate a nunnery?  Also, Norah, as Ned, attended a men’s therapy group – a place where men were supposed to be able to be completely honest and open about their problems and feelings, in a way that they could not be in their real lives – yet as one of the group, she was blatantly lying to them.  (I should point out that the author does express guilt at her deceptions, and remorse about the people she lied to.)  She also dates women, as Ned.  Admittedly, she told all of the women – eventually – that she was also a woman, but this still sat uneasily with me.  We warn youngsters constantly that people who you meet online (where Norah/Ned) met most of these women, may not be who they say they are.  While Norah/Ned did not place any of the women in any danger whatsoever, I still felt uncomfortable with her deception.

The other problem I had with the book was that none of the conclusions which Vincent drew were actually anything other than what I would have expected.  For instance, she went to a strip club (which was a depressing chapter to read) and concluded that women are objectified in such places.  What else would you expect?

However, there were brief moments of illumination – in one chapter, Ned joins a male bowling league.  When he eventually reveals that Ned is in fact Norah, the other members of the team took the news extremely well.  

It might have been interesting if Norah/Ned had conducted the experiment in places that didn’t encourage such extremes of behaviour (for example, perhaps an evening class, or a book group); although this might defeat the object of the exercise in the first place.

Overall, this book might have some value if it just encourages people to think about gender, the expectations of people based on gender, and issues of identity – but I would question the methods used.

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