When safety rules don’t add up

imageSafety rules for airline passengers were once a simple matter of confirming that no one had interfered with your luggage and you were not carrying any explosives. Today any flight involves an endless array of questions, an undignified scramble to remove jackets, scarves and belts and a public display of your cosmetics and toiletries. Laptops must be removed from your bag so they can be electronically screened. But what about iPads? Yes in some airports, no in others. Shoes on or off? Depends on how busy the queue is it seems. Those are just some of the hurdles you encounter before you even set foot in the craft itself.

Once on board there follow yet more instructions. Not content with repeated warnings  to switch off mobile devices and electronic gadgets, the steward on my small domestic flight in the USA insisted I could not have my e reader on my lap during take off. It had to be in the seat pocket according to aviation law he said. There is no such law. When was the last time you heard that a flight malfunctioned because a passenger used a mobile phone during take off or landing? I can’t think of a single case even though airline insiders estimate they on a large flight there will be around 20 people who forget to switch off their mobile phone.  If these devices really are dangerous why are they even allowed on board?

Every day, millions of us are subjected to safety rules like these that don’t make sense. We are told they are for our protection but often the risk they are meant to safeguard against is minuscule. Do I really need to be told after a buying a take away coffee that I am carrying a hot drink? Apparently I am too stupid to work this out for myself so the carton carries the warning Caution Hot Liquid. All because a woman in America sued a take away restaurant she believed responsible when she burned her legs while holding the cup between her legs as she drove her car.

Examples like these form the basis of an engrossing examination of global safety and security instructions And regulations by Tracy Brown and newspaper science editor Michael Hanlon. In the Interests of Safety: The Absurd Rules that Blight our Lives and How We Can Change Them, looks at some of the insane rules developed in a risk averse and increasingly litigious world. The authors provide plenty of examples of the kind beloved by tabloids as illustrations of what they like to call “health and safety gone mad.” Bans on parents filming their own children in school plays and sports days, nail clippers removed from airline pilots because they are deemed dangerous (these are people who will shortly be in charge of a machine loaded with gallons of highly flammable fuel),  plastic bottles of soft drinks banned from aircraft while glass bottles of alcohol are permitted. Children not allowed to play conkers in school yards in case they hurt themselves but required to play contact sports like rugby or to throw javelins and shot putts.

We go along with these rules often because we imagine that so where’d there is evidence that they make life safer. The authors show however that often the evidence is contradictory, inconclusive or simply never existed. Some are made up on the spot by an overly officious official and then become urban myths, or are introduced by local authorities to avoid compensation-seekers draining their funds. In general, whenever officials cite terrorism laws to stop you taking photographs in public, a hospital refuses to tell you how your relative is after an operation, or a call-centre worker cites “data protection” as a reason not to tell you something innocuous, the authors recommend you challenge them to cite the rule and explain exactly how it applies. “The core philosophy of the book,” the authors say, “is ask for evidence.”

As amusing as this book is, there is a more serious message amongst the many examples so absurd I winced as well as laughed. The authors research revealed that some rules actually increase risk, creating situations more dangerous than the activity they were put in place to prevent. One Danish architect cited by the book believes that the spatial awareness skills of children are restricted because the equidistant rungs on playing equipment discourage them  thinking where to put their feet.

A book of this nature could easily become a rant about the increasing control being exercised over our lives by government bodies. The authors do temper their criticism however by acknowledging that there are many essential policies and regulations, often introduced as a result of pressure from trade unions, which make our workplaces and streets safer. Their argument isn’t against health and safety regulation as such but what they urge is a more considered approach.

Footnote
In The Interests of Safety is published by Sphere. My copy was provided by the publishers.

The View from Here: Books from Caribbean authors

Welcome to the world of books. For our next port of call in the View from Here series we are travelling to a land of sunshine and sand. Our guide to the literary heart of the Caribbean is Joanne C Hillhouse, a local writer and blogger.  You can find Joanne in several places on the Web including  http://jhohadli.worpdress.com  and http://worldvoices.pen.org/ah-write).

Let’s meet our local expert

Joanne C HillhouseA popular local calypso begins “in Antigua, we wake up to the sun…” and we do. We are a land of sunshine and beaches, in the heart of the Caribbean. But we are also a country – Antigua with sister island Barbuda – of varied people with real stories, real journeys, not just the postcard moments. I am a writer from Ottos, Antigua and my people, my country, who we are, who we want to be, have always fired my imagination as a storyteller; and the belief that stories about the human condition resonate with people anywhere provides the motivation for me to share my stories beyond my shores. I write to understand, to engage with, to reflect my world. My name is Joanne C. Hillhouse, and I am a writer. I blog about my writing life – my books, my experiences as a writer, my services as a writer and editor and more, including the littscapes of Antigua and Barbuda at http://jhohadli.worpdress.com (named for a nick/pen name that’s a blend of my name and the popular version of my country’s Amerindian name, Wadadli); and I blog at http://wadadlipen.wordpress.com – there’s that Wadadli again – about the literary scene in Antigua and Barbuda and the wider Caribbean and primarily about the Wadadli Youth Pen Prize, which is a writing programme I started in 2004 to nurture and showcase the literary arts among young Antiguans and Barbudans. One of the features of the latter site that I am most proud of is the bibliographies of Caribbean and of Antiguan and Barbudan literature, the research component that’s turned the site into a resource for people interested in that sort of thing. I’m an avid reader and consumer of all things artistic, really, so I blog about books, film, music, TV, whatever catches my interest, really.

Q.  When we think about authors from these islands,  our minds might go to Jamaica Kincaid.  Who else would you recommend – in other words, who are some of the people that we could be missing out on? 

Jamaica Kincaid is a favourite writer of mine. In fact, discovering her book Annie John years ago was one of those steps on my journey to accepting that it wasn’t so crazy to want to be a writer. Because when you come from a small place, it seems the most impractical thing. Outside of the calypsos – because I do count the calypso writers of my childhood among the greats of Antiguan and Barbudan literature – she was perhaps the first local writer I discovered. Others like Althea Prince, D. Gisele Isaac, Marie Elena John, Floree Williams, Dorbrene O’Marde, and others have added to the fiction writing literary canon out of Antigua and Barbuda. There are my books as well – The Boy from Willow Bend, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, Fish Outta Water, Oh Gad! and forthcoming Musical Youth – which was second placed for the 2014 Burt Award for Young Adult Caribbean fiction.  So I’m excited to be a part of that narrative as well. I also hope BookerTalk readers will check out the bibliographies I’ve put together and posted to the site where you’ll see that though most of the publishing has been necessarily independent, there has been quite a lot more of it than one might expect from a place which, when you combine both major islands (we also have a number of uninhabited offshore islands), is 170 square miles.

Click here for a list of local writers  (the list can also be viewed according to genre)

Q. The literature that you focus on in your blog (Antiguan, Barbudan, Caribbean) seems to cover a wide variety of cultures and geographies. How much difference is there between the three island groups in terms of way the writers focus on and show they write? 

Well, there’s a common history among the islands and countries of the Caribbean – Africa to the Caribbean via the transatlantic slave trade, colonialism, migration (in and out, and within) and the huge social impacts of moving people and cultures, independence, re-defining self in the post colonial age. There will be common themes but I think people coming to the Cviewfromherearibbean and to Caribbean literature, who really pay attention, will find a lot of variation within these broad strokes. There are regional differences, even within countries, even within communities – differences in terms of language, food, ideologies, dress, values, expression, variations as relates to ethnicities and histories etc. That is before you even get to personal narratives and the imagination, the compulsion to create not just regurgitate. I think the beauty of what art, not just literature, is doing is re-discovering and sort of re-mapping for ourselves a self that’s too often been defined by the  Other. I think there’s a new wave of literature as well, a literature born of people who do not have direct experience with colonial rule and what all of that means, but have come of age in a Caribbean feeling the growing pains of self-rule, and influences other than the traditional influences, with all of the hopes and limitations that come with that. Because each island is different, each person is different, the result of that exploration – the art that comes out of that – will be different. One of the things I challenge the participants in my annual Wadadli Pen Challenge to do, because we’ve been so much influenced by things outside of our direct lived experience, is to find the stories within our space. Because we have so many stories, and so many varieties of stories to tell, still…not to mention different (sometimes quite inventive) ways of telling them

Q. How much is the literature from this part of the world influenced by its past history of connections with West Africa and with Britain?

Well, it’s like I just said, the influence is there but part of the interesting thing about the Creole experience is that it is this new thing born of all of these influences of which Britain and Africa is only a part, a significant part, but still just a part of the whole. As far as literature goes, we were certainly in the school system in which I came of age, exposed to what’s called the Classics, Shakespeare to Dickens and beyond; and, frankly, didn’t read enough of our own world, though it did exist. And notwithstanding the efforts of slavery and colonialism to totally erase our African identity, it remains in some of the language influences, some of the food, and expressions, music and philosophies handed down orally, whether in local sayings or Anansi stories. In my own book Oh Gad! – Africa is there in the coal pot making tradition that’s a central motif, it’s there in the local sayings, and in the spoken dialect, but there’s no denying the influence of English, and in fact, America as well in ways I’d be at pains to pick apart. But Caribbean is neither of these things explicitly, it is its own thing, and the art and literature reflect that.

Q.  What books are currently getting a lot of buzz right now? What are your friends reading perhaps?

Caribbean books, you mean?… Lord, I don’t wan’ get into trouble…understand that this isn’t definitive okay, not even the tip of the ice berg, just what comes to mind…but if I think of the Caribbean writers that have been personally recommended to me in recent years, Marlon James and Kei Miller come immediately to mind. Ah, other names I think which would be part of discussions on modern Caribbean literature include people like Junot Diaz, Monique Roffey, Roland Watson-Grant, Barbara Jenkins, Oonya Kempadoo,Tiphanie Yanique, Colin Channer, Elizabeth Nunez, and, of course, one I’m always recommending, my literary crush Edwidge Dandicat. There are also Robert Antoni who won the Bocas prize for literature this year, and former winner and a legend of Caribbean literature in his own right Earl Lovelace who is still very current and relevant. Among the poets, Lorna Goodison, while she’s not new relative to some of the other names I’ve called, still gets a lot of love; Derek Walcott, as a Nobel Laureate and someone still producing respected work, is an icon; I have much respect for one of my former mentors now poet laureate of Jamaica (also not new but still relevant) Mervyn Morris, and among the newer poets, again relatively speaking, you’ll likely hear names like Miller, Vladimir Lucein, Christian Campbell, Loretta Collins Klobah, Kendel Hippolyte… But honestly we still don’t read ourselves enough so we, including me, still have a lot to discover among our own writers.

I would like to also direct you to the bibliography put together by John Robert Lee and shared on my blog and to  various discussions on my blog on Reading the World, the Caribbean leg and Caribbean favourites . My ‘blogger on books’ series which granted is not Caribbean exclusive does include some Caribbean literature as well.Launch Image by Zahra Airall

Q. Which authors would you consider to be in the classical canon  — the kind that you had to read at school?

More trouble…okay… George Lamming, Jean Rhys, Lovelace, Walcott, V. S. Naipaul are without any subjectivity considered among the Caribbean classics… but among my favourites in school would have been Michael Anthony and Sam Selvon, and from Antigua, in addition to Kincaid whose earliest works can be counted among the newer classics, the post-slavery narrative To Shoot Hard Labour. I’m assuming you’re referring here to the published Caribbean literary canon and even more specific to books from that canon that would have been read in school, and up to secondary school specifically, because if you broaden it calypso writers like Antigua’s Shelly Tobitt would be part of the conversation for me and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, just to name a couple.

Re the Caribbean canon, the Lee biography mentioned earlier would also be instructive.

Q. As an author yourself, what experience have you had trying to get your work published for an international audience?

I wrote about the journey a few years ago in a much-travelled piece entitled ‘Writing Off the Map’ which you can find here among other places. Long story short, it’s been a challenge; a slow climb, one step forward, two steps back, paying your dues, and all such clichés. It hasn’t been easy and I remain a writer on the hustle. But it hasn’t been without its high points – for instance, just this year I would have been invited to participate in a Commonwealth panel at the Aye Write! Festival in Glasgow, Bocas as a Burt finalist in Trinidad, the PEN World Voices festival in New York, I would have had a story published to positive reviews in Pepperpot: Best New Stories from the Caribbean, among other journals and anthologies, I would have had the opportunity to edit a special on Antiguan and Barbudan literature for online literary platform Tongue of the Ocean  I just received another invitation for a festival next year that I would not have been invited to a year ago, quite recently my book Oh Gad! – the mass market edition of which came out this summer – has recently been added to a course on Caribbean Women Writers at Hunter College, part of the City University of New York, and was recently discussed on National Public Radio [NPR] in the US . I’m far from being where I want to be, from having the resources I need to have just to make life, but I’m writing, I’m moving, and, thanks to social media, I continue to push my books and tap into opportunities to keep writing, keep moving.

 

 Want to Discover More Countries?

The View from Here series features guest articles on the literature of many countries including India, Sri Lanka, Canada. For the complete list, visit the View from Here page 

Interested in Being Featured?

If you’d like to do a guest post to represent your country, please leave a comment with info on how to contact you.

Sunday Salon: A week of protest

Much of the last week has been spent in fighting proposals to turn our local branch library from a professionally run service to one that is operated or maybe even managed completely by volunteers. We first heard there were changes in the wind in April but at that point our branch was save apart from a few reduced opening hours. Without warning in August that changed and suddenly our local library was slated for downgrading so our local authority can fill a £32M funding gap over the next three years.

We were promised these were just proposals and no decisions had been taken. Further statements were made that “our intention is not to close libraries”. Well, guess what, when the consultation document came out this week the first question was ‘woullibrary heart logod you support community led libraries as an alternative to their closure?’ What a biased question and one that is impossible to answer without giving the council what we now believe the want – a mandate to close libraries yet masquerading this as being what their citizens want.

A local protest group has now been formed and I’ve found my evenings and the weekend rapidly developing campaign posters, putting an action plan together, contacting the media etc.

Problem is that this is happening all over the country as councils see a diminishment of the public library service as a relatively easy way to cut costs; much less emotive than closing a school or a day care centre for the elderly. Anyone who has a household budget understands the challenge of having to make savings. We’re not stupid in thinking that the local authority is any different and can suddenly magic up more money but the approach they are taking is very short sighted. What doesn’t seem to be really under consideration is the long term impact on literacy and on elderly people who live alone and use a trip to the library as a way to keep in touch with people.

If we were asked to volunteer to help the existing librarians, to run reading groups for children or restock the shelves etc, there would be plenty of people coming forward. But few people are willing to do this and see librarians lose their jobs as a result. This is something that warrants a considered debate not simply a checkbox questionnaire.

Don’t bet on me for the Booker

Clearly I am not much use at spotting prize winning books. Last year I was rooting for Jim Crace’s The Harvest to win the 2013 Man Booker Prize. I got it completely wrong since the prize went to the (in my view) much less impressive The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton.

This year I was 100% sure that Ali Smith would grab the prize. I was even flirting with the idea that I might put a flutter on her (except the last time I went into a book maker’s establishment I was seven years old so the routine might have changed a bit). Just as well I didn’t since those devilish judges turned their backs on Ms Smith in favour of Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North which is set during the construction of the Thailand-Burma Death Railway in World War Two. Darn it, I have read three of the six shortlisted novels this year but wouldn’t you know it, I hadn’t got as far as this one.

I’m not familiar with Flanagan’s work but this sounds like a fascinating read even though it’s likely to be harrowing at times given its subject matter.

So Scotland misses out but at least the title goes to an author from the Commonwealth thus confounding everyone who signalled the demise of the prize when they ‘let in the Americans’.

 

 

How to be both by Ali Smith

Howtobe bothIn How to be both, Ali Smith provides a masterclass in how to play with the form of the novel and stuff it with layers of meaning and yet still make it highly readable.

Most of the advance publicity for this novel focused on the fact that there would be two versions of the book on sale. The reader wouldn’t know until they started reading which version they had purchased since both had identical covers.  Some readers would open it to find the spirit of the Renaissance Italian painter Francesco del Cossa awakening to discover a teenager scrutinising one of his frescos. Others would begin with the story of that teenager, a 21st century Londoner known as George, who is subsumed by grief over her mother’s death.

Two stories, both labelled part one, that can be read in any order. I imagine many people would decide this book was not for them based on that description, maybe thinking Smith had really written just two short stories rather than a full novel. Or worse still,  querying whether this approach was simply a marketing gimmick.  Neither reaction would be doing justice to this book. It isn’t a book of two distinct and separate halves. Still less is this a gimmick. Instead what we have is a finely constructed  dual narrative in which each story dovetails with and reflects the other and where the very duality of structure is fundamental to a key theme in the novel — how the meaning of images and words change when looked at from different perspectives.

Many of the scenes, particularly in the George part of the book, pose questions about ways of seeing. The questions come from George’s mum, a freethinking and subversive woman who challenges her two children to consider art and history in new ways. At one point George recalls a visit with her mother and young brother to the Palazzo die Diamanti in Ferrara, near Bologna.  Although entranced by del Cossa’s frescos, George is less than enamoured with her mother’s detailed explanation of how art restorers sometimes discover under drawings that are significantly different than the finished work.

Which came first? her mother says. … The picture underneath or the picture on the surface?

The picture below came first, George says. Because it was done first.

But the first thing we see, her mother said, and most times the only thing we see, is the one on the surface. So does that mean it comes first after all? And does that mean the other picture, if we don’t know about it, may as well not exist?

Which comes first? her unbearable mother is saying. What we see or how we see?

Francesco del Cossa becomes the thread that connects George to her dead mother, helping her to come out of her cloud of grief, to interpret life in a new way.   Finding del Cossa’s painting Saint Vincent Ferrer in the National Gallery  her first reaction is that’s it’s nothing special,  that it’s looks just like any other religious painting, featuring a severe faced monk who seems to be admonishing anyone who has the audacity to stop and look at the painting.

But then you notice that he’s not looking at you. He’s looking past and above you, or into the far distance, like there’s something happening beyond you and he can see what it is. …

And what is it that has attracted the attention of the monk? Could it be the spectre of the artist himself who watches George (mistaking her for a boy).  The two are inexplicably connected:

…it is as if a rope attached to the boy is attached to me and has circled me and cannot be unknotted and where the boy goes I must go whether I want it or don,t

This is just one of the playful, puzzling aspects of the book. It’s a book that probably should be read one and a half times if you want to truly understand how cleverly it has been constructed I read the medieaval part first and having got to the end of part two, immediately returned to part one looking for the patterns and connections. If I’d read George’s story first, would my experience have been any different? Something I’ll never know  but I have a feeling that whichever way you read it — whichever part you encounter first, you’ll be dazzled.

 

End note

How to be both is published by Hamish Hamilton. It was short listed for the 2014 Man Booker Prize. And if this doesn’t win I will be astounded.

 

 

Bookends #12 – reading recommendations

A weekly round up of miscellaneous bookish news you may have missed (and often I missed them too)

I’m not a great fan of ‘must read’ book lists.  They either make you feel smug that you’ve read most of the titles or inadequate when you discover you’ve not even heard of most of those authors. Those few words “must read” get my back up also for another reason: they make me feel like I’m being given a medication prescription for some nasty cough medicine instead of having a door opened to what could be a wonderful experience.

But there are some lists which make me sit up and pay attention. Often they are lists where the selection is made by authors themselves rather than publishers or critics. Or they are lists that introduce me to writers from parts of the world outside my own. I use these lists to find titles I can consider for my world of literature project.

Two articles published recently have ticked both of these boxes.

Japanese literature

In the first,  David Mitchell (author of Cloud Atlas and more recently Bone Clocks) who is a fan of Japanese literature recommended 5 books by Japanese authors. I was expecting Haruki Murakami to feature in the list but in fact Mitchell has chosen a few lesser known authors. “They are books I would like people in the West to know more, because they are some of the high points of Japanese literature,” he said. “Even the most famous aren’t widely known outside Japan, and … three aren’t even really well known there.”

I’ve not heard of any of these authors but I’ve added two of the recommendations to my wish list (the titles by Tanizaki and Ariyoshi).

The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki, is a domestic family saga with dark undertones. Set in Osaka on the eve of World War 2, it portrays the declining fortunes of a traditional Japanese family.

Silence by Shusaku Endo. Mitchell says this is a big historical novel about an era after Christianity is outlawed, with complex and flawed characters

The Doctor’s Wife by Sawako Ariyoshi. Another historical novel, this time featuring a Japanese doctor who was the pioneer in the use of anaesthetic in the 1810s and the first doctor in the world to perform successfuly surgery for breast cancer. (the English translation of this novel is currently out of stock but being reprinted)

The Woman In The Dunes by Kobo Abe. Mitchell says Abe is ‘a bit bonkers’ which perhaps accounts for the odd nature of this novel. It’s about an entomologist who falls into a sandpit when he is out looking for insects one day. Somehow he becomes the slave of inhabitants of a nearby village who won’t let him out of the sandpit. He has to keep digging away at the wall of the sand dune  in order to keep it from encroaching upon the village.

The Housekeeper And The Professor by Yoko Ogawa.  Mitchell describes Ogawa as an experimental writer whose  experiments don’t always work.  This novel is one that does. It’s about a mathematics professor who wakes one morning to find his memory has been wiped clean.  His housekeeper and her son help him cope with his defect.

Central American literature

I know absolutely nothing about literature from this part of the world but thanks to Words without Borders I’ve been introduced to some upcoming writers from one of those countries. The October issue of Words without Borders e-magazine features short stories by 7 Guatemalan writers. This is an opportunity to read work by authors whose material is not widely available outside their home country or translated into English.

 

 

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Karen Joy Fowler

Cover of the US edition

At first Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves seemed a fairly straight forward story about family love and the emotional consequences of the loss of a sibling. But from page 77 onwards it changed course and became a much more interesting novel that raises searching and uncomfortable questions about consequences of quite a different kind — the quest for scientific advancement. Fowler’s particular focus is behavioural psychology experimentation involving human beings and animals.

It’s incredibly hard to review this book without disclosing too much about the twist delivered on page 77. If you’re an astute reader you might have already worked it out from the various clues Fowler includes. If you happen to have a version of the novel published in North America, the cover actually gives a sizeable clue. But for everyone else, the watershed will be the discovery that Rosemary Cooke, the narrator, was one half of an animal-human behavioural experiment conducted by her psychologist father. The other half was her sister Fern.

For five years Rosemary and Fern were raised as twins, frequently rivals for their parents attention but nevertheless inseparable. Then abruptly and without explanation they were parted. Rosemary, now a student in California, has never seen or heard of Fern since. As a result of an unexpected encounter with Harlow, a wild fellow student, she begins to examine the extraordinary early years of her childhood and its aftermath.

She charts the family’s grief now Fern is no longer with them. Her father took to drinking heavily, her mother suffered a breakdown and her elder brother left home in anger. The family know he is still alive only by virtue of occasional cryptic post cards and the fact the FBI come calling for him.  Rosemary has also undergone a radical change of character. One of the very first things we learn about her is that she was a great talker as a child, relentlessly telling stories and enthusiastically discovering complex words with which to pepper her stories.  In contrast the Rosemary of today is reserved and directionless, unable to focus on her studies or her future. The void that was Fern has never been filled through any of her subsequent relationships.

As she tells her story,  you can’t help but recall Phillip Larkin’s comment in This Be The Verse on the dysfunctional effect parents have on their kids. Rosemary’s parents, despite being highly intelligent, seem not to have thought at all about the repercussions of their experiment on their real children nor the effects of its abrupt end on their offspring.

One day every word I said was data, and carefully recorded for further study and discussion, the next I was just a little girl, strange in her way, but of no further scientific interest to anyone….What seems not to have been anticipated was my own confusion.

“I wanted you to have an extraordinary life” Rosemary’s mother says.  Extraordinary it was but as the book makes clear, happy it was not.   Not for Rosemary and certainly not for Fern whose fate we come to learn of gradually.  The revelations of Fern’s life post Cooke-family are some of the most disturbing and thought provoking sections of the book.

The story is told in non linear flashbacks as Rosemary searches her memories to reach an understanding. She has many questions that have until now been unanswered. Why did the experiment end so suddenly and secretively when she was away at her grandparent’s house? Why will no-one in her family talk about Fern or explain what’s happened to her? Why is her brother on the FBI wanted list?

She delves into fragments of memories to try to find the answer yet at the same time she questions whether what she recalls is actually real. How much faith can she really place on those recollections?

The happening and the telling are very different things. That doesn’t mean the story isn’t true, only that I honestly don’t know anymore if I really remember it or only remember how to tell it.

And later she reflects:

Language does this to our memories — simplifies, solidifies, codifies, mummifies. An oft told story is like a photograph in a family album, eventually it replaces the moment it was meant to capture.

Piece by piece the story comes together in a narrative that mingles moments of reflection and grief with scenes of joyfulness and comedy.  Fowler’s Rosemary is engaging, intelligent and witty, particularly when she talks of her earlier self and her predilection for peppering her conversations with complex words whose sounds she enjoys.

Where the novel was less successful for me (and was in fact a major turnoff) was when it expanded beyond the individual story to describe the psychological theories behind the Cooke family experiment  and show how Rosemary’s experience was not an isolated example. Karen Joy Fowler has said her plot was inspired by several real nature-nurture experiments from the 1930s and enriched by her own experience as the daughter of a professor specialising in animal behaviour.  She enhanced it further with extensive reading and research.  Herein lay the problem — instead of being seamlessly integrated into the narrative, the research gave rise to didactic sections which felt out of synch with the character of the narrator. I understand that in presenting the bigger picture she wanted readers to begin questioning the use of animals for experimentation purposes. I just wish she’d found a less obvious way of doing so.

Even then I would  have questioned what this book is doing on the Man Booker shortlist —it couldn’t have been for its literary merits since in places the text feels rather clunky and the form of narrative not that innovative. Did it make it because of its novelty value? Or because the judges were going for the ‘readability’ factor again?  I sincerely hope neither of those explanations holds true but it’s a puzzle that they chose this in preference to Siri Hustvedt and David Mitchell.

Endnotes

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler won the 2014 Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction and was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize.  Published in the UK by Serpent’s Tail.

The View from Here: Books from Australia

Welcome to the world of books. For our next port of call in the View from Here series we are travelling south to Australia. Our guide is Whispering Gums. And if you want to know what’s so significant about that name, you’ll just have to read on. Oh and don’t forget to look up the website via the link above. 

Let’s meet our local expert

I’m a retired librarian/archivist, who still does some ad hoc contract work. After all, I do need some book-buying pocket money! Like most litbloggerswildselfsue1 I’ve loved reading all my life. In my youth, I’d assess the success of my birthdays and Christmases by how many books I received. Using this criterion, I now deem these celebrations as very unsuccessful. I receive few books because people aren’t sure what I might have read. Wah!

I started my blog just over five years ago and called it Whispering Gums. This name has nothing to do with being in my dotage (though some might argue differently!). It refers to my love of our Australian gum trees. “Whispering Gums” comes from a line in my old school song, as I described in my first post. (http://whisperinggums.com/2009/05/02/my-name/).

I mainly read literary fiction (with some forays into non-fiction and poetry). My focus is Australian literature, particularly Australian women writers, but I also love Jane Austen, English and American classics, and I like to explore literature from diverse cultures. I’d love to find more time to read translated literature.

Q. What kinds of books are the most popular right now in Australia?

This is a difficult question for a literary fiction reader to answer. Crime is popular here, with Aussie readers joining the rest of the world in being fascinated by Scandinavian crime, but there are many Aussie crime writers too, such as Peter Temple, Shane Maloney, Peter Corris, Wendy James, Dorothy Johnston to name just a few. Other popular genres include fantasy/speculative fiction, and rural or outback family sagas. Historical fiction is popular too, with both general and literary fiction writers. Many of our recent literary awards seem to have been won by books set in the past.

I believe that Australia’s women writers, literary and genre, are experiencing some resurgence. Books by women writers like Gillian Mears, Anna Funder and Michelle de Kretser, have been shortlisted for and/or won major literary awards in greater numbers than a decade ago. And new women writers are appearing, such as Hannah Kent who created a sensation with her Iceland-set novel, Burial rites.

Q. What books do you remember having to study in school that could be considered classics of Australian literature?

Due to a somewhat peripatetic childhood, I probably read more Australian books at school than many Australians of my generation. The absolute standout for me was Patrick White’s Voss, which I studied in my last year of school. It turned me onto White, and I’ve never lost my interest. This novel had it all for a teenage girl – outback drama, romance (of a cerebral and spiritual nature), and angst about life and society. I also read novels by Frank Dalby Davison and Vance Palmer, who are not much read now, and some CJ Dennis and Henry Lawson.

Noticeable by their absence in my school reading lists of the 1960s were Australia’s pioneering women writers, such as Henry Handel Richardson, Miles Franklin, and Christina Stead. Unfortunately, I don’t think this situation has improved a lot.

Q. Who are some of the major writers from Australia that you think deserve more attention? Why don’t we hear more of these writers? 

Where do I start? If we are talking attention overseas, I’d say few if any of our writers receive the attention they deserve overseas. Every now and then there’s a flurry when one is nominated for a major international award, like the Booker or the Orange (now Baileys) Women’s Prize. Otherwise, recognition is pretty rare. Why they are not better known overseas is, I assume, due to the challenge of finding publishers overseas. E-publishing may see this improve, but it will also need major overseas reviewers to read and write about the books. I like to think Australian blogs are starting to help a little in this regard.

Tim Winton: Australia's  top must read author?

Tim Winton: Australia’s top must read author?

My favourite under-appreciated writer here and overseas has to be Thea Astley who died in 2004. She had a long and prolific career and was the first writer to win our most important literary award, the Miles Franklin, four times. Only one other writer, Tim Winton, has equaled that to date. She was a fearless writer in terms of subject matter and style, and was deeply concerned about inhumanity and intolerance in twentieth century Australian society.

Australia’s indigenous writers are starting to attract notice – and a few, like Kim Scott and Alexis Wright – have won major literary awards here. But, there is still some general resistance from the wider reading public to engaging with indigenous literature, and I don’t think these writers are well known overseas.

I could name many others, particularly if we are talking recognition overseas, but would probably end up listing most of our writers! I wonder what Australian writers your readers know and like. Would I be surprised?

Q. Tell us about some of the themes and traditions of literature in your country

The promotion for retired gallery director Edmund Capon’s series the Art of Australia describes his view of Australian art as being part of our “quest to make sense of the vast continent and people’s place in it, from its haunting landscapes and ever-present dangers to iviewfromherets great beauty and extraordinarily diverse culture”. This could also be said of much of our literature.

Our earliest settler literature was particularly concerned with how we relate to and make sense of this vast, dry and yes, ultimately dangerous, land. The underlying themes generated from this can be contradictory, such as stoicism, rejection of authority, spiritual desperation, resourcefulness. Sometimes these have been expressed with a self-deprecating humour, sometimes romantically, and other times grimly. Writers like Henry Lawson and poet Banjo Paterson still form part of our literary psyche, but both tended to romanticise bush people. Modern writers also write about the land, and still explore the hardships involved. Gillian Mears’ Foal’s Bread, Courtney Collins’ The Burial, Roger McDonald’s The Ballad of Desmond Kale are very different examples of modern writing about the bush. McDonald said of his book that “A story about rural life in Australia can never be a success story because it’s all based on failure. But I love the way in a novel you can combine opposites so that while there might be a slippery ride to failure there is also something triumphant in the whole enterprise.” That probably encapsulates much of our “bush” writing I think!

Related to this is the idea of “strangers in a strange land”. Australia is a land of migrants, with around one in four having been born overseas. Their experience is expressed through both fiction and memoirs. Christos Tsiolkas writes novels about European immigrant communities, Alice Pung has written two memoirs about being the daughter of Asian refugees, and Shaun Tan’s graphic and illustrated novels explore the idea of being a “stranger” from various perspectives, including immigrant, and dystopian.

Australia, though, despite its expanse, is highly urbanised, and many of our novelists have and do explore this. A classic is Ruth Park’s Harp in the South trilogy set in the slums of Sydney post-World War 2. Helen Garner, Stephen Carroll, Andrea Goldsmith and Amy Witting write about urban concerns – the young seeking life in the city, others seeking meaning in the suburbs. Our only Nobel novelist, Patrick White set several of his novels in urban areas, though his concerns tend to be pretty existential.

We are now seeing indigenous writing gaining greater recognition. They focus on the impact of dispossession, from both individual and community perspectives. I’ve mentioned Kim Scott and Alexis Wright already, but there are many others such as Melissa Lucashenko, Marie Munkara, Jeanine Leane.

Q. Is there a noticeable difference between literature from Australia and that from your near neighbour New Zealand?

Good question. I haven’t read as much literature from New Zealand as I’d like, but I have read Jane Frame, Keri Hulme, Lloyd Jones, Eleanor Catton, and Fiona Kidman. We are both settler nations, which also have significant indigenous populations. However, our trajectories are somewhat different: the British signed a treaty with the local population in New Zealand, but not in Australia. It hasn’t been smooth sailing in New Zealand but this has provided a basis for further negotiation. Consequently, indigenous literature here has a strong focus on dispossession and the ramifications of two hundred plus years of “invasion”.

And then, our settlements were very different. Australia was established as a penal colony, while New Zealand was established as a religious/independent colony. The harsh lives and treatments of the convicts informed much of our early literature – exemplified by Marcus Clarke’s For the term of his natural life – in terms of the development of cultural mores here, like the mateship and “fair go” traditions, the rejection of authority, as well as our sense of being isolated by a forbidding landscape. These ideas underpin much of our literature, which either depicts them or questions their validity.

Our landscapes are very different. New Zealand has a cooler, more mountainous (particularly in the south), is generally more fertile, and comprises more islands. Australia’s vast, dry, forbidding interior has taken our literature into quite different realms.

But we have similarities too. Our remoteness from Europe (and to a degree North America), and our proximity to Asia, have impacted our respective worldviews, as has the fact that we are both still strongly immigrant nations with 20-25% or our populations born overseas.

Q. There was a poll on the booktopia blog some years ago which put Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet top of the ‘must read novels’ by an Australian author. If the poll were run today who do you think would come up in the top three spots?

I wouldn’t be surprised if Cloudstreet retained its position at the top, or in the top three. After that I really don’t know, but I think My Brilliant Career and Seven Little Australians would remain in the top ten. A cop out I know. I do know what I’d like to see there: books by writers like Patrick White, Kim Scott, Thea Astley, David Malouf – and any of those I’ve mentioned here.

 

 Want to Discover More Countries?

The View from Here series features guest articles on the literature of many countries including India, Sri Lanka, Canada. For the complete list, visit the View from Here page 

Interested in Being Featured?

If you’d like to do a guest post to represent your country, please leave a comment with info on how to contact you.

Temptations of October’s new novels

Super Thursday is coming up next week on October 9. This is the day when the publishing industry launches hundreds of books on the same day (1,500 last year actually), in the build up to Christmas which is their busiest time of the year.

With that number of new titles coming out shortly, it’s going to be a severe test of my resilience to adding yet more titles to the bookshelf. A few  upcoming releases have already caught my eye. I’m hoping I can get some of them ordered at the library rather than bust my book purchasing ban still further.

Lamentations

Lamentations by C. J Sansom is the sixth in the series set in sixteenth century England. Once again the hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake becomes embroiled in the politics of the Tudor court. In Lamentations, Henry VIII is near to death, providing an opportunity for the disaffected Catholics to try and return the country to their faith. Their attention turns to Henry’s wife Catherine who enlists Shardlake’s help to protect her life. I’ve read two of the Shardlake series so far, Dissolution and Dark Fire ( click on the links to see my reviews ) both of which I loved for the way they plunge you into the smells and sounds of sixteenth century England as well as the intrigue of the court. Lamentations is published in the UK October 23.

Love SongWith her latest novel, Rachel Joyce will be hoping to emulate the success of her debut novel  The Pilgrimage of Harold Fry which was long listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2012. The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy revisits the Harold Fry story but this time from the point of view of the person that he walks the length of England to save — his former work colleague Queenie Hennessy.  Queenie is shocked to  discover that Harold Fry is walking. She’s not sure she’ll still be alive by the time he reaches her. and she has something important to tell him. A volunteer at the hospice suggests she writes to Harold and to confess what she has hidden for twenty years.  I enjoyed the Pilgrimage book overall but am not sure there’s enough mileage left to sustain a whole new novel.  I could be wrong however. We will find out when its ‘s published on October 21 by Bond Street Books.

NoraWebster

Much to my embarrassment I have yet to read anything by Colm Tóibín despite all the critical acclaim for his work. His newest novel could change that. Nora Webster  sounds superb. Its set in Wexford, Ireland where a widow is mourning the loss of her husband who was the love of her life. Lost in her own grief she doesn’t see the suffering endured by her young sons at the loss of their father. This is a story about a strong willed woman trying to protect her privacy in a small community with an insatiable curiosity and desire to know everyone else’s business. Nora Webster is published by Scribner.

 

If these are not temptation enough for you then maybe you’d like a bag especially created to mark the upcoming launches. Turner prize winning artist Tracy Emin is the designer for this year’s Books are my Bag bag. You can start buying it from bookshops and independent stores on October 9. See the info on the Booksellers Association website.

 

 

 

The View from Here: Books from Belgium

AnaWelcome to the world of books from Belgium which is the next country in the View from Here series in which we look at literature from around the globe. We’re going to be in the expert hands of An,  who turns to Twitter when she’s hungry for some bookish chat.

Let’s meet An

I’m born and raised in Belgium, to be particular near Antwerp which is in the Flemish part of the country. I love living in Belgium for many reasons, not in the least for the multitude of languages and cultures to which we are exposed daily. I have always enjoyed studying languages — I was obsessed with learning French in my teenage years — and I still enjoy reading books in various languages. I don’t blog about books but I am a big Twitter fan. It’s great to be able to engage with bookish people from all over the world. It’s a wonderful addition to my reading life. You can find me at https://twitter.com/An1081

Q.  Those of us who are natives of Belgium might find it difficult to think of authors from Belgium. We might go  inst viewfromhereantly to Herge or Georges Simenon but would struggle otherwise. Who are some authors we could be missing out on? 

You could be missing out on a lot, because many Belgian authors are not translated in English. Luckily a few of the best ones are.One of my favourites is Dimitri Verhulst, a young Flemish writer whose stories make me both wince in embarrassed recognition and laugh out loud. From the French speaking side of the country we have Amélie Nothomb, who has huge success in France and whose books are widely translated. I particularly like her autobiographical books set in Japan (where she lived in her childhood) and her earlier work. And then of course there is Hugo Claus – probably the closest Belgium ever came to the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Q.  As you say, Belgium has a rich multilingual tradition and very different cultures between the Flemish part and the French part. How much does that influence the kinds of novels written? Are they distinctive in how authors write and what they write about? 

Very different cultures indeed. The French speaking part, Wallonia, is entirely axed towards France; French tv shows, French musicians, French authors… This is in no way the case in Flanders, we are much more focused on the English speaking world. Dutch authors are also quite popular here. Herman Koch, Peter Buwalda, all the Dutch thriller writers such as Suzanne Vermeer, Simone van der Vlugt,… So culturally, I don’t feel Flanders and Wallonia have much in common.

That being said, I do think the themes authors write about are quite universal and I don’t see that much difference between Flanders and Wallonia there.

Q. What books are currently getting a lot of buzz right now? What are your friends reading?

Whenever Herman Brusselmans has a new book out, there’s a lot of media attention. So that’s the case right now. Another book that I’ve seen everywhere is Dutch author Herman Koch’s newest novel.  A lot of the books on the market are translations. Right now I see a lot of John Green, John Williams, Santa Montefiore, Siri Hustvedt,… Scandinavian crime writers are also hugely popular. Jo Nesbø, Camilla Läckberg, Håkan Nesser, Liza Marklund…

I’ve recently started reading the shortlist for the “Bronze Owl”, a prize for budding authors. I was very impressed with Carmien Michels for example. I like this kind of prize, which puts the spotlight on new talent. They deserve a bit of buzz.

Most of the action happens when the big literary awards are announced. There are quite a few of them and usually it’s a joint list for Dutch and Flemish writers. Tommy Wieringa, Joost De Vries, Stefan Hertmans, Jamal Ouariachi are names that keep popping up. Those lists always lack women! Annoying. Let me just mention Saskia De Coster here, a Flemish writer whose book Wij en ik (Us and I) got a lot of attention when it came out. Oh, and then there was the rage about Kristien Hemmerechts’s new book that touched upon the Dutroux case, a child abuse case of the 1990’s that still stirs emotions.

In non-fiction it’s all about cooking and knitting.

My friends are not very bookish – all the more reason why I love Twitter so much, it allows me to talk about books! Harry Potter is still popular. Dan Brown also pops up in conversations about reading. Sophie Kinsella. Patricia Cornwell,… My best friend is a big fan of Janet Evanovich.

Q. Which authors would you consider to be in the classical canon — the kind that you had to read at school?

Hugo Claus for sure. Louis Paul Boon. Willem Elschot. Guido Gezelle. Paul Van Ostaijen. Stijn Streuvels. And my favourite Belgian poet, Alice Nahon. I can’t say I have read a lot of Belgian classics though. Maybe I should consider that as a reading project. I’m sure there are a lot of gems out there I haven’t discovered yet.

 Want to Discover More Countries?

The View from Here series features guest articles on the literature of many countries including India, Sri Lanka, Canada. For the complete list, visit the View from Here page 

Interested in Being Featured?

If you’d like to do a guest post to represent your country, please leave a comment with info on how to contact you.