To Be a Child by Debra Schoenberger
Publisher’s summary: Give a child a cardboard box and his imagination will turn it into anything but! Today, it is less common to see children playing in the streets, especially in urban areas. The plethora of ready-made toys should make any child happy. What usually happens is that the box the toy came in becomes the toy! This book documents children at play (and at times at work) from 10 different countries. A child’s ingenuity never ceases to amaze me and I hope you will share these images with your children as well._________________________________________
This would be the first time I’ve (attempted to) review a photography book, but it’s certainly not the first time I’ve pored over the pages of one. Between my upbringing in an arty-farty family, my love of art and my photographer husband, I’ve long been interested in photography as an artistic form of expression and a mode of storytelling – though my attempts to learn the art itself have met with extremely mixed results. A book of photography taken around the world, focussed on children in their natural element, sounded promising. However, as beautiful and well-executed as some of the photos are, I feel that the story is missing.
There are indeed some wonderful shots here, ‘caught in the moment’ shots that make you feel instantly connected – like the one of the little Mongolian girl standing in front of the goats, legs splayed wide, face turned away, mischief and joy writ large in her body language. Many photos are understated, such as the one of the two boys playing the street piano, or the young Tibetan boy reading a comic book. But after scrolling through these photos – loosely divided into such categories as ‘play’, ‘work’, ‘discovery’ – I couldn’t help but feel the lack of a narrative.
With any picture, be it a photo or a painting or some other kind of image, it is through a story that we connect and make meaning from it. The context of this collection is perhaps too broad, or there are too many images that are simply nice shots (or, with some, merely okay shots), that are too disconnected to make a coherent story out of. The theme – children at play – is much too general for me to come away feeling like I’ve learned something, or gained some new insight. There was only, actually, one photo that I felt spoke of a story: a black-and-white image of a boy on a swing in front of his house, two women out-of-focus on the steps behind him. He has a slightly sad or dispirited look, his body language a bit slumped, that I instantly started asking questions: who is he? Why does he look sad? Why is he alone? What kind of family life does he have? and so on. It’s interesting to note, but the quieter, possibly sadder photos are the ones that generate interest. (Some of the especially happy shots are too much like regular happy-snaps.)
There was also the problem – a “problem” that shouldn’t really be a problem, but seems to go hand-in-hand with children – that more than a few of the photos were simply cute for cute’s sake. Do I sound unbearably pessimistic, that I’m struggling to find joy in experiencing these photos? I did experience joy with some – I especially loved the Mongolian photos, scattered though they are (that might have been a better way of organising them, perhaps?) and some of the Nepalese, Tibetan and Indian photos. I just needed some other angle, a bit of ‘edge’, some insight into social justice themes or the contrast between first-world and third-world. This collection lacked a sharper purpose, one that I kept looking for. (The idea that children are children – human – no matter where they live or how they live, their skin colour, religion, language, rather than an Other, is a valid and important one, but not one that spoke to me here, despite the breadth of the photos.) As nice as the photos are, overall that’s all they remained for me: nice. I would rather be slugged in the stomach, in good and bad ways, and close the book with the images imprinted on my brain. That didn’t happen.
To Be a Child shows evidence of talent, an ability to make use of natural lighting – accomplished well in places like Mongolia, less well in Canada – and a good eye for capturing understated and sometimes poignant moments. Towards the end there were some contrasting scenes – mother and child on subway or train, in different countries, but I struggled to make any profound meaning from them. The collection is interesting but needs tighter culling, or some kind of over-arching thesis or critique to complement the images. There’s no such thing as an objective photo, so essays of the photographer’s interpretation and experiences in these countries, her insights, anecdotes and context, would have rounded out the book and guided the reader.
My thanks to the author for a copy of this book via iReads Book Tours.
About the Author:
Debra Schoenberger aka #girl with camera
My dad always carried a camera under the seat of his car and was constantly taking pictures. I think that his example, together with pouring over National Geographic magazines as a child fuelled my curiosity for the world around me.
I am a documentary photographer and street photography is my passion. Some of my images have been chosen by National Geographic as editor’s favourites and are on display in the National Geographic museum in Washington, DC. I also have an off-kilter sense of humour so I’m always looking for the unusual. Plus I usually have a lot of scars on my knees.
I live with my creative director, Miss Pickles (my budgie) in Victoria, BC, Canada.
Buy the book: Website Amazon
Connect with the author: Website Twitter Facebook
Connect with the photographer’s website: Website
The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood
Allen & Unwin 2015
Trade Paperback with Flaps
Charlotte Wood’s fifth novel is a disturbing yet beautiful and thought-provoking exploration into the misogyny lurking beneath Australia’s good-natured, laid-back, egalitarian image. It is inspired, in part, by the Hay Institution for Girls, “an offshoot of Parramatta Girls Home that was reserved for the 10 worst offenders in the state in the 1960s and ’70s. They were drugged and put on a train to the decommissioned men’s prison in south-western NSW, where they were forced to march, look at the floor, never talk to each other, and endure rape and other violence.” (Susan Wyndham, SMH) It is also inspired, or influenced, by the reaction to sex scandals over the years – far from being seen as victims, or equally responsible, the women in these scandals are vilified and denigrated – and hated.
In such ways do incredible true stories and a confronting dystopian fiction come together. In Wood’s alternate present day setting, ten girls are drugged and taken to a remote sheep station, long abandoned and falling into ruin, in outback Australia (the state isn’t clear but it would be either Victoria or NSW, most likely). They wake groggy and fearful, without their clothes or possessions, wearing old-fashioned clothes to which a leash can be attached and locked. Their heads are shaved, they’re served small portions of the least nutritious food you can think of – Kraft-style Mac and Cheese, two-minute noodles, no fruit or veg – and bullied and beaten by the two men hired to guard them. Boncer and Teddy – and a young woman of dubious background herself, Nancy, who dresses up as a nurse with paper costume pieces and plastic toy stethoscope – are their guards. Surrounded by a high electrified fence, they are all locked in, trapped, but for the ten young women their lesson is to learn what they are, not who; and for the men, it is to teach them this.
This nightmare situation (as a female reader, I couldn’t help but feel vulnerable, even threatened) is vividly rendered in Wood’s delicate, descriptive prose and made all the more frightening by the idea, lurking beneath the surreal every-day existence depicted, that this plan wasn’t even thought through all that well; or that, if it was carefully planned, it was planned by a truly cruel, evil fuck who has no regard for human life, health or sanity. It is the not-knowing, the ambiguity, the lack of information and facts that add to the tension and terror for the reader. Trying to imagine adults sitting down and planning this, justifying it, and then seeing it through makes my brain want to shut down. And yet, as evidenced by the real-life inspiration from the Hay Institution for Girls, it is entirely possible, today as well. It comes down to attitudes, to ideological mind-sets, to what a collective group of people believe is true and right. That’s how we justify all manner of things, from bombing foreign towns to imprisoning Aboriginal peoples for minor infractions. Wood’s ultimate triumph, in terms of ideas, is to remind us mutable our ideologies really are, and how, for as much as we like to think we are advanced, civilised, better than before, we actually have an awful long way to go. The reason, the ultimate reason why The Natural Way of Things is so disturbing and terrifying, is that there is a part of me that gets it, that understands that there is only a thin membrane of love, compassion and strength keeping women safe in this and many other Western countries.
I hear accounts of people claiming that feminism is no longer needed, isn’t necessary, isn’t important – that plenty of women not only don’t consider themselves feminists, but have come to believe some strange version of reality in which feminism is a negative thing, a repressive or virulent, angry and hateful thing. What could be more successful to the largely-unconscious patriarchal agenda than this re-writing of feminism? Whoever owns the definition of a word, owns the word, and sadly, these days, women no longer own their own word. “Women are their own worst enemy” is a common enough saying – I say it myself – and I believe it is often, sadly, true. We constantly sabotage our own efforts at being – not just taken seriously, but treated equally.
This is captured in rather pessimistic ways by Wood’s characters, from the two main female narrators – Verla, in first-person present-tense, and Yolanda, in third-person past tense – to the other eight girls unjustly imprisoned with them. Verla was involved in an affair with a politician and still, naively, believes that Andrew will come and rescue her, that she’s different from the others, whom she judges almost as harshly as everyone else has done. Yolanda is the most clued-in, but she is also the only one who wasn’t tricked into signing her rights away. She knew something was up, and she fought. They overwhelmed her and drugged her anyway, and she knows no one is coming for them because even her beloved brother was in on it. The other young women, all involved in various different kinds of scandals for which they took all the hate, represent different kinds of women, but none of them are particularly flattering. Barbs, the swimmer, is a big girl who suffers such a violent beating on their first day for speaking out that her jaw is permanently crooked, is obviously the butch one. Three of the girls become obsessed with their body hair, tweezing them out of each other’s bodies, trying to maintain a look that they have long been trained to want. Hetty, “the cardinal’s girl” (and doesn’t that just make you cringe?) is depicted as small-minded and somewhat malicious. The list goes on, none of it flattering.
Yet such is the way Woods has crafted this novel that you come away with a clearer understanding: we’re all flawed, none of us are perfect, we all make mistakes, and while you might not want someone like Hetty as a friend, or even value her as you would Verla, does she deserve this? Hopefully, the answer for all readers is a resounding NO! And as much as I’d like to think, “Oh this could never happen”, a part of me doesn’t really believe that.
I read this – in a day – just as the Briggs scandal broke, and the cricket player Chris Gayle got in trouble for his comments to a female sports reporter. An Age article brought attention to how the woman at the receiving end of Briggs’ unwanted attention was being turned into the scapegoat rather than the victim, while following the Gayle story showed how quickly most of the country went from “His comments to a professional journalist were a swift means of reducing her from a serious journalist to an object for the male gaze” to “this is a complete over-reaction, lighten up, his comments were meant innocently, the political correctness police are going too far”. That reporter understands her male-dominated world and distanced herself from it all, saving her job and her reputation, while the public servant in the Briggs’ case was close to experiencing complete demolition because she made a complaint. It’s telling. There is also the on-going discussions of the high rate of domestic violence in Australia, which is a huge problem and caused by, among other things, this over-arching lack of respect for women.
But none of this would be as memorable and hard-hitting if it weren’t for Wood’s writing. While I thought her control wasn’t consistent and I found the use of present tense annoying and pointless for Verla’s narration, overall it is beautifully and poetically written. Something incredible is done to violence when written in such simple yet beautiful language as this:
One big girl, fair-skinned with fleshy cheeks and wide, swimmer’s shoulders, said irritably, ‘What? We can’t hear you,’ and then closed her eyes against the sun, hands on her hips, murmuring something beneath her breath. So she didn’t see the man’s swift, balletic leap – impossibly pretty and light across the gravel – and a leather-covered baton in his hand coming whack over the side of her jaw. They all cried out with her as she fell, shrieking in pain. Some of their arms came out to try to catch her. They cowered. More than one began crying as they hurried then, into a line. [p.24]
The contrast of Boncer’s ‘swift, balletic leap – impossibly pretty’ with the violent beating of Barb increases the shock value, the sense of wrongness and the realisation of powerlessness. Violence against women (such as domestic violence) has long proved an effective tool in the hands of misogynistic men.
At other times, especially after the power goes out (except for the electric fence) and they run out of food, and begin going crazy in their own separate ways, Wood’s prose captures a primordial truth as well as day-to-day reality:
Yolanda hugged the squishy mint-green and baby-pink packages to her chest, squatting in the grief and shame of how reduced she was by such ordinary things. It was why they were here, she understood now. For the hatred of what came out of you, what you contained. What you were capable of. She understood because she shared it, this dull fear and hatred of her body. It had bloomed inside her all her life, purged but regrowing, unstoppable, every month: this dark weed and the understanding that she was meat, was born to make meat. [p.122]
It is a theme I’ve been interested in for some time now, this idea of shame and women’s bodies, of the successful rewriting and control of women’s bodies by, really, the Catholic Church and then, really, everyone. I’m very much of the mind that women need to reclaim their bodies, their right to their bodies but also how they value them and their needs and desires. I’m resistant to Yolanda’s view, but I can understand it. And in many cultures around the world, past and present, women are controlled through the social traditions dictating behaviour and menstruation. As if, by teaching girls and women to see themselves in this low way, they remove the power that females rightfully possess, out of the age-old fear of woman’s ability to create life. And as is often the way in literature, where this discourse of womanhood and power appear, so too does a representation of the landscape, the natural world:
When she wakes, her face printed with grass blades, she finds her way to a hillside of scrub. She walks in it like a dream, climbing the slope in the noisy silence. Silty leaves cling to the soles of her feet. There is the patter of wet droplets falling from the gently moving leaves far above. High squeaks and tin musical turnings of tiny birds. Sometimes a hard rapid whirr, a sprung diving board, and a large dove explodes from a vine and vanishes. A motorised insect drones by her ear. She looks upwards, upwards, and sees long shreds of bark, or abandoned human skins, hanging in the branches. The bush breathes her in. It inhales her. She is mesmerised by pairs of seed pods nestled at the base of a grass tree: hot orange, bevelled, testicular. [p.135]
A dichotomy of human-made vs. nature is a common-enough theme, but here rendered all the more turbulent and visceral by the circumstances, the very premise of the story. Even the title, The Natural Way of Things, speaks of this idea. It can refer to our determination to claim, possess and control – through language more than anything else – the natural world, which is also representative of womanhood (Mother Earth etc.), and also to a primordial, primitive and thus ‘natural’ way of life, an absence of so-called civilisation – relevant to Yolanda’s increasing strangeness as she becomes one with the land, and Verla’s ultimate decision. It speaks to the sadness I was left with at the end, which presents a kind of either/or scenario: either you live in the ‘civilised’ world and let it dictate who and what you are, or you shun it entirely, abandon it and become ‘primitive’. Again, this is how we often grasp the world, and attempt to tame it: through words, and the positive or negative connotations of words. The ambiguous ending, with its taint of further horror balanced by a thin brush of hope, makes it clear who has really won in this world, which is really our world in disguise.
Make sure, when you start this book, that you have nothing planned for the day, because you’ll want to read it all the way through in one sitting – and should. This is a book I will enjoy re-reading, and pondering anew. It has so far been nominated and longlisted for a couple of awards, and I hope to see it appear on more lists this year. It is a deserving book, working on multiple levels and one of those lovely rare treasures that can be interpreted and experienced in different ways by different readers, making it rich and unique. Comparisons have been made (in the blurb) to The Handmaid’s Tale and Lord of the Flies, but ‘comparison’ is the wrong word for it: it is more that The Natural Way of Things has joined an on-going exploration into human behaviour, the powerful dominance of ideologies and their effect on both individuals and culture, and violence.
“I’d be stunned and disappointed if The Natural Way if Things isn’t shortlisted for both the Miles Franklin Award and The Stella Prize.” Devoted Eclectic
“This book is beautifully written and ridiculously clever. Readers cannot help but be swept along—entranced by Wood’s stunning prose—even when the subject matter may be confronting.” Debbish
“Wood’s portrayal of the stark beauty of rural Australia, which heavily uses imagery (such as the mysterious white horse) and allusion, is powerful and sensual. Even at its most brutal there’s something intensely lyrical about her writing.” Still Not Fussed
“There is a deep undercurrent of rage running throughout this novel, but it never quite comes to the surface. For me this caused the book to suffer, but I think for other readers this will perfectly capture how they feel about issues of gender inequality. There is a real sense of powerlessness pervading every word on every page, which makes it a not altogether pleasant experience to read, but does not diminish the accomplishment with which it is written.” Babbling Books
Missed yours? Leave me a link and I’ll add it.
Who’s Afraid? by Maria Lewis
ARC (print manuscript)
Maria Lewis’s debut novel is a smoothly-paced, exciting and refreshing urban fantasy with more emphasis on a coming-of-age journey than the usual crime-mystery sleuthing prevalent in the genre. The story introduces blue-haired, fun-loving, smart-mouthed Tommi Grayson, born in Scotland after her pregnant mother left her native New Zealand in a hurry. Eight months after her mother’s accidental death, Tommi is finally ready to head off to her mother’s homeland to try and find her father – not to meet him, just to see. After all, her mother had once confessed that her pregnancy was the product of a rape, so she hardly wanted to sit down to a cup of tea with the man.
Armed with a possible name, Tommi’s search leads her to a large house on a quiet street at the end of town, where she learns a lot more about her father and his family than she ever wished for – and about herself.
The strength of this story is without a doubt Tommi herself, who narrates with humour, intelligence, compassion and strength. Due to her werewolf heritage, she has a temper and so was directed into martial arts, and her post-New Zealand training builds on that. But the other key character whom you can’t help but love is Lorcan, the ex-Praetorian Guard turned Custodian for the Trieze, the ‘rulers’, if you will, of this new paranormal world Tommi finds herself well and truly caught up in. Lorcan reminded me of Joscelin from the Phèdre series by Jacqueline Carey – a bit of a romantic dream, to be honest, but such a good one! If you’re not familiar with the series, think beautiful, noble (and rather sweet) man who is also a fierce and highly skilled warrior and, to top it off, devoted and protective but not domineering (that’s it, right there, the romantic dream!). Lorcan is in that vein, and Tommi’s relationship with him builds slowly and believably, adding that extra layer of tension that keeps you invested.
That isn’t to say, though, that this is a romance, only that it is romantic with guts – the ideal kind for an Urban Fantasy. Speaking of, I was so relieved that Who’s Afraid? didn’t follow the usual pattern of Urban Fantasy novels: that of the mystery, detective kind. While dead bodies do turn up, it’s always clear who is behind it, and Tommi is on no quest beyond mastering her werewolf self and training before the next full moon. Tension and suspense is maintained because you know something’s going to happen, and it’s also maintained by showing Tommi’s normal days – normalcy always raises the stakes.
While the plot has its formulaic moments, especially in regards to the showdown climax with her insane young relative, Steven, it also surprises. Lewis takes the time to develop Tommi’s character, to let you experience what ‘normal’ looked like for her, to meet her friends and come to love them too, so that your emotional investment is well and truly secured. And with Tommi narrating, I flew through my reading of this, easily glued to the page, and made a nice pile of soggy tissues at the end (really, Lewis holds no punches). Things have been set up for a clean sequel with a fresh new story, and Tommi is the kind of character you want to accompany for the long haul.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book.
Other Stops on the Tour:
12 Jan – Reading Lark
13 Jan – Words Read and Written
14 Jan – Confessions From Romaholics
15 Jan – Tiffany Books
16 Jan – Jessica’s Bookworld
17 Jan – Duffy the Writer
18 Jan – Book Nerdigans
19 Jan – Giraffe Days
20 Jan – Jess Resides Here
21 Jan – Aussie Bookworm
22 Jan – Reading, Writing and Riesling
23 Jan – Read at Midnight
(Some of the stops have giveaways, so if you’d like a chance to win a copy of this book, click on the links above.)
The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty
Penguin Books UK 2013
In Sydney’s North Shore, Cecilia Fitzpatrick is well pleased with her life. Her husband, John-Paul, is still a catch and a lovely father to their three young daughters: Isobel, Esther and Polly. She’s president of the parent committee for St Angelus primary school, which her kids attend just like she and her husband did decades ago; her house is beautifully and obsessively organised; she is one of the most successful Tupperware ladies in Australia – making more money than her husband realises – and she’s involved in pretty much everything.
But Cecilia’s cosy little world comes to a crashing halt when she learns her husband’s secret. Finding an old letter in the attic, addressed to her in the event of John-Paul’s death, it isn’t until she realises just how desperate John-Paul is to get it back and destroy it that she opens it. What she learns can’t be unlearned: it’s big, it’s horrible, it changes everything. What is she to do with this new knowledge? Already it’s eating her up inside, but letting the truth out will have equally tragic consequences for her three small girls.
In Melbourne, Tess also is content with her life: she has a wonderful husband, Will, and an even more wonderful six year old, Liam. She runs a successful advertising business with Will, a marketer, and her cousin Felicity, a graphic designer, out of their house. Everything comes to an end when she learns her husband’s seedy little secret: he and Felicity have fallen in love. They tell Tess about it early one evening, after she’s talked to her mother in Sydney who’s just broken her ankle, and in her fury and sense of betrayal she immediately gets on a plane with Liam to stay with her mum, Lucy O’Leary. Lucy, who separated from Tess’s father when Tess was ten, is supportive and understanding, and encourages Tess to enrol Liam in the local Catholic school, St Angelus, so he doesn’t miss out. At St Angelus, Tess is re-introduced to Connor Whitby, an ex-boyfriend from university who now works as the PE teacher. Also at the school is Rachel Crowley, the secretary and all-round office lady.
Rachel Crowley, now in her sixties, has spent decades mourning the death of her eldest child, Janie, in 1984, while almost entirely ignoring her younger child, Rob. Now a real estate agent, Rob announces that he is moving to New York City because his wife, Lauren, who works in banking, has a new job there for the next two years. It’s not the loss of Rob that upsets Rachel, though, but the loss of Jacob, their toddler and her only grandchild, whom she cares for two days a week and who makes her feel alive as she hasn’t felt since the day Janie died. What makes Janie’s death so hard to live with even after all these years is the fact that she was murdered, and the case hasn’t been closed: they never found who did it. Rachel has always been sure that Connor, the last person to see Janie alive, is guilty, and an old VCR tape she suddenly discovers makes her think she’s finally found proof. Eagerly, she passes it over to the police and waits for the news, for a resolution, for penance to be rightfully paid.
All three women’s lives converge in the small neighbourhood around St Angelus, where secrets are let out of the jar, marriages are tested and, ultimately, children pay the price.
Ideas around truth, love, betrayal, marriage, family and religion bind this story together as well as the characters and Moriarty’s insightful, drily funny and sharp prose. Questions are raised around all these themes, and all are delightfully complicated, human and real. I have previously read The Hypnotist’s Love Story, by the same author, and absolutely loved it. This is a different story and somehow has a lightier, less dark tone to it, even though some pretty dark things are at its core. This effect could be due to the more flippant black humour and frank personal observations that fill its pages. It deals so honestly with married life, with raising a family, with our ideas of love and loyalty and trust, that while reading it you feel like you’re gaining an honest look inside the hearts and minds of women.
For this is, indeed, a woman’s story – a story of women, though not necessarily a story that’s only for women. The women who silently keep the world ticking over, generally unacknowledged though not unloved. When Tess is discussing the breakdown of her marriage with her mother, Lucy tells her that it’s important to put your ego aside. It’s a lesson at the heart of all the characters: can they put aside their own, sometimes childish emotions, their wants and hurts and upsets, and think of someone else?
While women are at front and centre of The Husband’s Secret, they are not the only ones hurt by these secrets. Children, always present but never centre-stage, are often the ones who pay the price. At a simple level, in one way, Janie paid with her life because of her parents’ strict Catholic refusal to allow her to have a boyfriend, resulting in her secret relationship and inability to be open with her mother (I wouldn’t want to say that this is actually why she died – nothing is that simple and I would never want to imply that a woman is to blame for what happens to her at the hand’s of a man’s temper, only that it was a contributing factor in Janie’s silence). What the women go through in this novel will break your heart, but what the children endure will devastate it.
Moriarty shows off her deft skill at creating believable, diverse characters, each with their own distinct voice and perspective, and weaving the threads of the narrative in such a way that it flows with impeccable timing yet never feels predictable. (I thought I knew where it was going and I thought there would be a big moral message, which I dreaded, but I need to have more faith in Moriarty: the ending is both perfect and realistically messy, full of possibilities and hope and anger.) All three main female characters felt like people I know; I even felt like there was a bit of myself in all of them. Provided with a distinct third-person point-of-view for Cecilia, Tess and Rachel, you not only get to see inside their heads and hearts, but the additional empathy means that the ethical and moral mess they’re all in has no clear solution. I honestly had no idea how Moriarty would bring it all together and close the story, and that only added to the tension.
While The Husband’s Secret delves into one particular hypothetical, it provides exquisite insight into the human response to tragedy, to betrayal and to the even bigger test: what would you do if you learned a secret that threatened your family’s happiness, yet the disclosure of it could bring peace and justice to another? What are we capable of enduring, of living with? What are we prepared to do to reassert a sense of justice and order in our world? And, how well does love endure? With nods to the legend of Pandora, Liane Moriarty skilfully constructs a compelling story that posits possible answers but leaves things just as ambiguous and complicated as life really is; it’s within these possibilities that our minds are free to roam and expand and, in turn, question ourselves.
“With consummate skill, Moriarty winds her way through a minefield of moral ambiguity as her story explores the very personal implications of choosing between right and wrong. […] The Husband’s Secret is a compelling, thought provoking novel, inspired by an article about real life deathbed confessions and their surprising consequences. An intriguing examination of conscience, love, betrayal and forgiveness this novel will stay with you well after the last page has been turned.” Book’d Out
“There are so many layers to appreciate in this novel. It is a story of motherhood, love, relationships, secrets, friendship, grief and forgiveness. It is a story of possibilities, both known and unknown, and a reminder that small acts (and more significant ones) can have consequences that we might never know or anticipate.” Reading Upside Down
Missed yours? Leave me a link and I’ll add it.
White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi
Picador 2010 (2009)
Gothic Fiction; Speculative Fiction; Magical Realism; Horror
Twins Miranda and Eliot Silver move into their grandmother Anna Good’s large, strange old house in Dover, England, with their parents, Luc Dufresne and Lily Silver, after GrandAnna dies. Luc, a Frenchman, opens a bed and breakfast in the big, unruly house, while Lily, a photojournalist, goes off on assignments. It is when Lily is in Haiti after the earthquakes that she is shot in the street, leaving Miranda and Eliot motherless. Miranda has an even deeper problem, though: she has pica, just like the other Silver women who lived (and died, or vanished) in this house. She eats chalk, and plastic spatulas, and as she becomes dangerously thin she begins to vanish. Moving away to attend Cambridge University, where she meets her new friend, Ore, does not help, and by Christmas she is told to defer until she gets her health back.
It is when she returns from Cambridge, and Eliot returns from (supposedly) South Africa, and Ore visits, that the house makes a more determined claim on the latest Silver woman. Ore, ethnically Nigerian but adopted from her depressed single mother by very white, working-middle class parents, sees things are not right with the house, and when Miranda disappears, she knows that the house has her.
Finally I have read one of Nigerian-born Helen Oyeyemi’s books – I have four; she’s one of those authors I collect because her stories sound so fascinating, and then struggle to find the time to read, so I’m well pleased to have experienced her storytelling style and know that I don’t regret my impulsive book-buying habit. There’s just a touch of horror to this deliciously Gothic novel, but to call it a horror story could be misleading (I’m partly thinking of a definition of horror that I read recently in Alain de Botton’s The News, as “a meaningless narration of revolting events” (p.193), which I quite liked). White is for Witching is spooky and, at times, downright menacing; this atmosphere pervades the novel, which ends as it begins: with Miranda’s disappearance.
(Surprisingly this didn’t occur to me at the time but does now: Miranda seems to be a ill-omened name for young women who disappear mysteriously a la Picnic at Hanging Rock.)
This house isn’t haunted: it’s alive and pulses with possessive energy. Other reviewers have called it a vampire house, but I’m not sure that really captures it. It chases out the migrant housekeepers and feeds cursed red apples in the dead cold of winter to those who see more than they should. Even Luc, through his dreams, feels the house wants to get rid of him. It is a house for witches, these Silver women plagued with pica, as the house itself tells us:
Anna Good you are long gone now, except when I resurrect you to play in my puppet show, but you forgive since when I make you appear it is not really you, and besides you know that my reasons are sound. Anna Good it was not your pica that made you into a witch. I will tell you the truth because you are no trouble to me at all. Indeed you are a mother of mine, you gave me a kind of life, mine, the kind of alive that I am.
Anna Good there was another woman, long before you, but related. This woman was thought an animal. Her way was to slash at her flesh with the blind, frenzies concentration that a starved person might use to get at food that is buried. Her way was to drink off her blood, then bite and suck at the bobbled stubs of her meat. Her appetite was only for herself. This woman was deemed mad and then turned out and after that she was not spoken of. I do not know the year, or even how I know this. (p.24)
The house is just one of several narrators: Eliot, Miranda, Ore. The relationship between Eliot and Miranda is close and sometimes symbiotic, but as young adults there is something else there. Miranda applies to Cambridge because Eliot has, but she gets in and he doesn’t. Instead, he leaves for a year in South Africa to work on a newspaper. There is the suspicion, at the end, that he never actually went, that he stalked Miranda instead and not for innocent reasons. (Incest or something like it is implied.) Yet this account is just as unreliable as most of the narrators – only Ore seems relatively normal, warm-blooded, human and thus reliable in that way we have of moving closer to warm-blooded mammals instead of cold-blooded reptiles. Speaking of warm, temperature is another atmospheric element used by Oyeyemi to create a feast for the senses.
While the narrative is mostly clear and comprehensible, from the beginning it seems freed from the usual constraints and embodies an ambiguous supernatural, non-linear spiral, echoing the intangible magic of the house and the curse that seems to be upon the Silver women. Yet it is not really a curse, more of an obsessive motherly love that the house has for them, wanting to take them back into its womb – such as the space under the floor where GrandAnna liked to sleep (a hidey-hole left over from the war) or under/within its skin, as it absorbed Lily’s young mother who wanted to leave for good. (So, not so much a vampire as a cannibal.) Yet for all its unstructured, seemingly scattered narrative, the story is easy to follow and easy to get lost in, in the best possible way. The imagery conjured by Oyeyemi is vivid, and as more details are revealed the tension only winds tighter.
Ultimately you’re left with a sense of pity for the Silver women, devoured by their house and trapped within it: these lonely, lost women with their unnatural appetites. The weird and disturbing house and Miranda’s story are situated against a backdrop of British immigration and detention issues, family dynamics, eating disorders and love. It begs the question: why try to keep these others out (of the country), when there’s so much wrong already within it? Other interesting ideas and analogies come to mind, but enough: I want to leave you with plenty to discover for yourself. A hauntingly beautiful story about those things outside our control that can so easily devour us, and a family legacy that literally does.
“What struck me most of all was how well it was written – Oyeyemei is an ambitious novelist in terms of the story she wants to tell, and how she wants to tell it. Yet, she manages to pull this off with and create a twisted, delving narrative which manages to cross the boundaries of the realist coming-of-age novel to include mythology, the gothic and the fantastic to explore the complexities of family history, inheritance and the realms of the possible.” Enchanting Reviews
“Oyeyemi’s prose, as usual, is a delight to read. It has it’s own distinct style to it, no matter who is narrating or what the topic is. Beyond the strangeness of the text itself, one of my favorite parts about White is for Witching was how the author’s words and descriptions took the reader by hand, leading them deeper into the strange world Miranda inhabits.” Respiring Thoughts
“I think this book works so perfectly because Oyeyemi creates these very real, vivid characters, with day-to-day habits and tastes, the kind of people who remind you of your friends, or children, or whatever, and then mixes them in with the evil supernatural element.” A Striped Armchair
Missed yours? Leave me a link and I’ll add it.
The News: A User’s Manual by Alain de Botton
Penguin Books 2014
Non-fiction: Philosophy, Psychology, Art, Culture (Self-help?)
Moving from a time and a society in which the news was hoarded by a select few at the top of the social ladder, to the seemingly-sudden abundance of mass-produced newspapers in the mid-19th century, to today’s situation in which we are saturated with readily-accessible, constantly updated news 24/7, cannot fail to have its repercussions. And not only because of the constant access, but because of what constitutes ‘the news’.
Alain de Botton, populist modern philosopher, here scrutinises six different sections of the news – Politics, World News, Economics, Celebrity, Disaster and Consumption – delving into its impact on our lives and also offering up a utopian ideal of what the news could look like, if it was developed into a healthier version of itself. He asks the question, why does the news matter, and how can it be made to matter more, in a better way?
Journalism has been too modest and too mean in defining its purpose merely as the monitoring of certain kinds of power; a definition that has harmfully restricted its conception of itself and its role in society. It is not just a de facto branch of the police or the tax office; it is, or should be, a government in exile that works through all issues of national life with a view to suggesting ways to build a better country. (p.65)
This is an interesting idea, and, it seems to me, one that completely changes how we think of the news today. One thing that de Botton doesn’t touch upon, but which my cynical mind can’t help but throw up, is trust: while the news and journalists occupy a position of authority and reliability because of what it and they are meant to stand for, the reality is that we just don’t trust them, not anymore. Granted, we believe what we read and hear in the news – we’re not just well-trained, we’re also well-positioned by the techniques journalists and editors use – but they have a long road to walk if they ever wanted to achieve the kind of position in society that de Botton hopes for, without them being accused of propaganda etc. – this because, as de Botton points out, the news and journalists believe in objectivity, which isn’t really possible.
The self-help element aside (which doesn’t sit well with me; I can’t help but cringe at anything that slips into that category, as this book did), de Botton raises some pertinent and important points, and makes some interesting connections – and explains a few things. His note, in the preface, that analysing the news should be a core part of children’s education stood out to me, a teacher, precisely because – in my state at least – we do teach this, albeit not as a compulsory subject. His observation of why the news is so boring was especially interesting to me:
What we colloquially call ‘feeling bored’ is just the mind, acting out of a self-preserving reflex, ejecting information it has despaired of knowing where to place. We might, for example, struggle to know what to do with information that a group of Chinese officials was paying a visit to Afghanistan to discuss boarder security in the province of Badakhshan or that a left-wing think tank was agitating to reduce levels of tax in the pharmaceutical industry. […] It is for news organisations to take on some of this librarian’s work. It is for them to give us a sense of the larger headings under which minor incidents belong. An item on a case of petty vandalism one Saturday night in a provincial town (‘Bus Shelter Graffitied by Young Vandals in Bedford’) might come to life if it was viewed as a minuscule moment within a lengthier drama titled ‘The Difficulties Faced by Liberal Secular Societies Trying to Instil Moral Behaviour without the Help of Religion’. (p.27)
This leads de Botton into an interesting discussion on bias and how important it is, especially acknowledged bias. It reminded me of an article I read last year about bias in news media and how important it is, and how The Australian refuses to acknowledge its own bias (it’s clearly right-leaning and conservative, but they deny having any bias at all). At times de Botton engages in proper analysis, but this was scarcer than I would have liked: it’s analysis that my brain thrives on, not the waffle about being a better society ‘if only’ the news could do this or that. We won’t make better journalists or news stations until we better understand what we’re doing now, and that’s where analysis comes in.
I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from The News: A User’s Manual, because this is my first de Botton book and I didn’t know what a philosopher’s take on the news media might look like. In some ways, it was engrossing, informative, interesting, enlightening. In other ways, it was maddeningly frustrating because it kept veering off into what the news could be, when I really wanted to focus on what it is now. (That said, without this futuristic, utopian ideal, it could have been too shallow and pointless a book.) It was at its best when it delved into the role of tragedy and why we are riveted by news stories of horrible things (just the other day I sat down and read a heap of articles about the 33 year old father in South Australia who drove his car off a wharf with his two young sons, ages 4 and 10 months, in a murder-suicide. I sat there and cried and cried and cried. But I keep coming back to those articles each day. What’s the deal? De Botton explains, and it makes sense); or explaining the behind-the-scenes action (or lack thereof) of a news outlet; or why we don’t care about what happens in foreign lands; or the effect consumer goods ‘news’ has on our psychology. There was much more here to love and appreciate than to whinge about, but the some sections were definitely more powerful than others. In particular, I found the chapter on Economics disappointing – I got much more out of a lead essay in The Monthly last year (“Of Clowns and Treasurers” by Richard Denniss, July 2015).
He has some interesting things to say about celebrity news, and why individuals are driven to want to be famous. Contrary to what I would have expected, de Botton doesn’t denounce celebrity news, which he views as “a pity”, partly because he would prefer “serious people” to anoint celebrities rather than organisations “entirely untroubled by the prospect of appealing to the lowest appetites.” (p.159) My instant thought, though, was: but they already do – there are a lot of mass-market-produced ‘stars’ out there. De Botton’s call for intelligent, interesting people who can contribute to our lives in helpful, meaningful and insightful ways is one of the rare times when he sounds naive as well as dismissive, because there are already a wide range of “worthy” individuals. This is one of the times, also, where he slips into self-help mode: “What underlies both the Christian and the Athenian approaches to celebrity is a commitment to the idea of self-improvement, as well as the belief that it is via immersion in the lives of great exemplars that we stand the richest chance of learning how to become better versions of ourselves.” (p.163) It’s certainly true – it’d be a rare individual who was made ‘better’ by someone like Kim Kardashian, say – and I love learning about facets to ancient cultures and diverse religions. But he goes on:
We should cease to treat the better celebrities like magical apparitions fit only for passive wonder or sneaky curiosity. They are ordinary humans who have achieved extraordinary feats through hard work and strategic thinking. We should treat them as case studies to be pored over and rigorously dissected with a basic question in mind: ‘What can I absorb from this person?’ The interest that currently latches on to details of celebrities’ clothes or diet should be channelled towards a project of growth. In the ideal news service of the future, every celebrity story would at heart be a piece of education: an invitation to learn from an admirable person about how to become a slightly better version of oneself. (p.165)
I don’t disagree, yet I cringe at the idea of ‘dissecting’ someone in order to become a better person – maybe it’s his language, but I can’t help but picture scavengers picking all the meat off the bones of a once-elegant, ‘worthy’ beast. But then, I’ve never been interested in celebrity ‘news’ (comparisons to vultures have already been made) and it’s one element of the human psyche I struggle to understand, that obsessive adoration of another. (There’s definitely a similarity there between celebrities and religion, which de Botton skirts around with his own comparison.) But I definitely love to learn from others, and there are plenty of ‘worthies’ in the arts. I don’t disagree with de Botton’s encouragement to ask, in our own heads, ‘what can I learn from this person?’ It certainly leads to greater self-reflection and self-awareness, which wouldn’t be a bad thing in general. I suppose I am well-taught in the school of scepticism, unfortunately, that I don’t see his ideas taking root in modern, mainstream society. It was exactly this ‘self-help’ element that had me baulking at times, and makes it hard for me to write a coherent review.
A mixed bag of a book, but definitely worth reading.
Bye-bye 2015! It was a good solid year for the Around the World Challenge, with a delightfully diverse range of countries and continents visited. The list of all reviews submitted to the challenge is below.
I won’t be hosting the challenge for 2016 – I just don’t have the time to do a proper job of it. (If anyone wants to take up the mantel, please get in touch.) Hopefully one day I’ll be able to host this or a different reading challenge, but for now, thank you for joining in and making reading world fiction feel like a community event!
The full list of books reviewed for this challenge, across all years, is here, and I know I’ll be using it when I’m looking for something new and different to read, and I hope others find it useful too.
Happy New Year!
Redeployment by Phil Klay (reviewed by Deb @ The Book Stop)
Biografi by Lloyd Jones (reviewed by Shonna @ Canadian Bookworm)
Turtle Reef by Jennifer Scoullar (reviewed by Shelleyrae @ Book’d Out)
Carpentaria by Alexis Wright (reviewed by Shonna @ Canadian Bookworm)
Expo 58: A Novel by Jonathan Coe (reviewed by Maphead’s Book Blog)
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (reviewed by Shannon @ Giraffe Days)
A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews (reviewed by Aloi @ Guiltless Reading)
The Road is How by Trevor Herriot (reviewed by Shonna @ Canadian Bookworm)
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (reviewed by Deb @ The Book Stop)
The Incarnations by Susan Barker (reviewed by Aloi @ Guiltless Reading)
The Robber of Memories by Michael Jacobs (reviewed by Shonna @ Canadian Bookworm)
Girl at War by Sara Novic (reviewed by Deb @ The Book Stop)
The Ghost Runner by Parker Bilal (reviewed by Shonna @ Canadian Bookworm)
The Ship by Antonia Honeywell (reviewed by The Booktrail)
Death and the Oxford Box by Veronica Stallwood (reviewed by Sharon @ Faith Hope & Cherrytea)
The Letter by Kathryn Hughes (reviewed by The Booktrail)
Little Black Lies by Sharon Bolton (reviewed by Shelleyrae @ Book’d Out)
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (reviewed by Deb @ The Book Stop)
The Bones of Paris by Laurie R. King (reviewed by Aloi @ Guiltless Reading)
The Festival of Insignificance by Milan Kundera (reviewed by Aloi @ Guiltless Reading)
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (reviewed by Aloi @ Guiltless Reading)
The Mask Carver’s Son by Alyson Richman (reviewed by Aloi @ Guiltless Reading)
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (reviewed by Deb @ The Book Stop)
The Small Fortune of Dorothea Q by Sharon Maas (reviewed by Veronica @ LibriAmoriMiei)
Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat (reviewed by Deb @ The Book Stop)
Reykjavik Nights by Arnaldur Indriðason (reviewed by Shelleyrae @ Book’d Out)
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (reviewed by Shannon @ Giraffe Days)
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (reviewed by Deb @ The Book Stop)
Redeployment by Phil Klay (reviewed by Deb @ The Book Stop)
The Night Stages by Jane Urquhart (reviewed by Shonna @ Canadian Bookworm)
The Letter by Kathryn Hughes (reviewed by The Booktrail)
The Waiting Room by Leah Kaminsky (reviewed by Shelleyrae @ Book’d Out)
The Umbrian Supper Club by Marlena de Blasi (reviewed by Shelleyrae @ Book’d Out)
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo (reviewed by Aloi @ Guiltless Reading)
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (reviewed by Deb @ The Book Stop)
Sitt Marie Rose by Etel Adnan (reviewed by Shonna @ Canadian Bookworm)
The Wolf’s Torment by Stephanie Burkhart (reviewed by Veronica @ LibriAmoriMiei)
The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker (reviewed by Shonna @ Canadian Bookworm)
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (reviewed by Deb @ The Book Stop)
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (reviewed by Aloi @ Guiltless Reading)
This House is Not for Sale by E.C. Osondu (reviewed by Shelleyrae @ Book’d Out)
The Sunlit Night by Rebecca Dinerstein (reviewed by Shelleyrae @ Book’d Out and Bree @ 1girl2manybooks)
The Blue Between Sky and Water by Susan Abulhawa (reviewed by Bree @ 1girl2manybooks)
Cave and Shadows by Nick Joaquin (reviewed by Aloi @ Guiltless Reading)
The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (reviewed by Tab @ The Geek Couple)
Götz and Meyer by David Albahari (reviewed by Shonna @ Canadian Bookworm)
Harry Mac by Russell Eldridge (reviewed by Bree @ 1girl2manybooks)
The Tea Planter’s Wife by Dinah Jefferies (reviewed by The Booktrail)
TRINIDAD & TOBAGO
Nothing Like Love by Sabrina Ramnanan (reviewed by Shonna @ Canadian Bookworm)
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
A House on the Heights by Truman Capote (reviewed by Shonna @ Canadian Bookworm)
Christmas Every Morning by Lisa Tawn Bergren (reviewed by Sharon @ Faith Hope & Cherrytea)
Miss Dreamsville and The Lost Heiress of Collier County by Amy Hill Hearth (reviewed by Shelleyrae @ Book’d Out)
The Letter by Kathryn Hughes (reviewed by The Booktrail)
Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes (reviewed by Shonna @ Canadian Bookworm)