Saturday, 27 March 2010

Small country, big talent

Image credit: Here

The question "Where are you from?" often causes me problems because it's not an easy answer of just one country. My identity is split between the land of my birth, England, and the country I feel is home, New Zealand. To make matters worse, I now live in Taiwan which is rapidly becoming 'home' also. By the by, the answer to the question is that I'm a British Kiwi - which sounds simple enough until people want to know how much British and how much Kiwi. But that's another story.

Image Credit: Here

The Kiwi part of me was stoked to recently read of two literary successes from our small part of the world. The first was that Mr. C.K. Stead has won the inaugural Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award in London. This is a new literary prize worth 25,000 pounds sterling building on previous success of the Times' short fiction pieces that appear weekly in the Sunday Times Magazine. Our Stead was up against some stiff competition - the complete long list includes some of our finest contemporary fiction writers:

  • Richard Beard - James Joyce, EFL Teacher
  • Nicholas Best - The Souvenir 
  • Sylvia Brownrigg - Jocasta 
  • John Burnside - Slut's Hair 
  • Will Cohu - Nothing But Grass 
  • Joe Dunthorne - Critical Responses To My Last Relationship 
  • Petina Gappah - An Elegy for Easterly 
  • Jackie Kay - Reality, Reality 
  • A.L. Kennedy - Saturday Teatime 
  • Adam Marek - Fewer Things 
  • Charles Mosley - Constraint 
  • Chris Paling - The Red Car 
  • Ron Rash - Burning Bright 
  • Simon Robson - Will There Be Lions?
  • Kay Sexton - Anubis and the Volcano 
  • Helen Simpson - Diary of an Interesting Year 
  • C.K. Stead - Last Season's Man 
  • Rose Tremain - The Jester of Astapovo 
  • Gerard Woodward - Legoland 
  • David Vann - It's Not Yours
Mind you, he's been around the block. Born in Auckland, New Zealand (my second hometown) in October 1932, CK Stead (CK stands for Christian Karlson has been writing since his twenties and has a long list of published work covering short stories, poems, fiction and literary fiction. If this local hero wasn't academically intimidating enough, he was a Professor of English Literature at the University of Auckland until he retired to write full-time. 

Image Credit: Here

The second Kiwi who has won international acclaim is kind of the opposite to CK Stead. She's female, young and the work that has gained her all the attention is her debut novel. Eleanor Catton's novel The Rehearsal has been causing a stir in literary circles for a good while now and this won't be the first big prize she has been up for. In fact, this stellar novel has been given the nod for the UK Society of Authors' Betty Trask Award, named best first book of fiction in the Montana New Zealand Book Awards as well as being long-listed for the Guardian First Book Award. Now it has been long listed for the Orange Prize. 2009's Booker winner Hilary Mantel is on the same list. I think "Phwoar" just about covers that! I've been wanting to read this novel for almost 2 years now (it was published in 2007) so I have finally taken action and ordered it from the university library. It will be showing up here as a review in a month or two, no doubt!

My heartiest congratulations to both of these Kiwi writers. You prove once again that although we might be a small country, we've sure got some big talent!

Friday, 26 March 2010

Bookdrum - the Wikipedia of books!

This is just a short post but I wanted to let everyone who hasn't already heard of it know about Bookdrum. Basically, it's a website that is collecting in-depth profiles on all sorts of books with information about the author, the plot summary and facts about stuff in the book. It's an awesome project and would benefit from the input of you bookish types out there! I've already submitted a profile on Ian McEwan's Saturday. What are ya waiting for?!

Saturday, 20 March 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Feminism

When it comes to over-hyped books I am the Ebeneezer Scrooge of readers. Bah humbug, I declare. You won't catch me reading that! I proceed to shun said hyped book until it has been forgotten by the rabid media dogs or it gets proven to be a genuinely good book by those with a half-decent opinion of what a good book looks like. Some might call me a book snob, but I just know what I like to read and don't fancy wasting X amount of hours on a book just because everyone else is reading it unless it's actually worth it. If you could see the size of my "To be read" pile you'd understand.

The Steig Larsson trilogy were firmly in the "Over-hyped" category for me so I decided to wait until the melee calmed down. Once it did and it was voted in as the April Book for our bookclub, I thought what the heck and bought it.

On the surface, I thoroughly enjoyed it. It kept me amused through two long and tedious flights from Hong Kong to Sydney and back again which is a fair achievement as planes are one of the only places on earth I find it nearly impossible to read (or sleep, but that's another story). It absorbed me. It scared me. It grossed me out. It was, all in all, a damn good thriller.

But there was something bugging me about it... Each new section of the book was marked with some proclamation about violence against women, for example Part One states that "eighteen percent of the women in Sweden have at one time been threatened by a man." Which made me think that the late Steig Larsson must have something to say about violence against women, but throughout the book the women were subjected to an near unbelivable amount of horrific violence, both physical and sexual. Something didn't sit quite right for me.

Indeed, I'm certainly not the first to point this out. A quick search of reviews showed that this issue has divided critics between claims that Larsson was a closet mysogynist and those who believed that Lisbeth Salander was a sort of feminist avenging angel that righted the wrongs of those who were abused. This article discussing these claims got me thinking.

Photo Credit: Here
Having studied feminism and long been a feminist I wanted to throw my hat into the ring. I don't want to accuse Steig Larsson of being a closet misogynist exactly but I think the problem is that this book doesn't entirely understand the truth about violence against women. Although there are undeniably psychopaths out there who do unspeakable things, the majority of violence against women is not perpetrated by these sorts of people. Those who beat, rape and intimidate women are, on the whole, not crazy - they're your average Joe Bloggs who come across as being very nice and normal sorts of people. Absolutely, they're the scum of the earth but they're not lunatics. On the whole women are not tortured in custom-built basements but in the spaces where you and I live out our daily lives.

By choosing to portray men who are violent towards women as psychopaths is essentially unhelpful. It hides the truth of the situation all over the world and does nothing to make us question why it happens and why nothing more is done to stop it. Lisbeth Salander is without question an ass-kicking woman who takes matters into her own hands but her actions are unrealistic. It's a cathartic read but she is the stuff of fantasy.

I wonder whether choosing the way this story played out was politically based or driven by what would make a 'better story'. Domestic abuse is not sexy in the same way as a serial psychopath with incestuous tendencies is - it's a depressing reality. Although the women who have survived the abuse and violence in this book do seem to get their revenge, I don't think that this book can be seen as feminist. It is too far outside the realm of reality and plays into the hands of necessary genre cliches. Women who have suffered the day to day actuality of abuse are offered nothing of use other than a few hours of escapism into a world where the normal rules don't apply and 'avenging angels' can inflict justice on the monsters of this world. The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo is a ripping read but nothing more.

**If you or someone you know is being subjected to any kind of abuse, please call your local Women's Shelter, Rape Crisis Line or relevant agencies.**

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

A Gate at the Stairs: Review

A Gate at the Stairs
By Lorrie Moore
Published by Alfred A. Knopf
Published in 2009
ISBN: 978-0-375-40928-8

It's a feeling familiar to many of us, I'm sure, that desire for escape from the seemingly narrow-minded and suffocating hometown to the bright lights and stimulation of university in the city. It's an intoxicating mix of new people, new ideas and, most of all, freedom. At eighteen we think ourselves old enough to handle it all, but in reality most of us are only just finding our feet and so the results can range from the cringe-worthy to the downright disastrous. Enter Tassie Keltjin, daughter of an under-emotional mother and a father who has made his name growing gourmet potatoes, who has grown up in a nondescript small rural town who has been seduced by Chaucer, Sylvia Plath and Simone de Beauvoir and is doing all  she can to shed her old skin and become someone new.

She takes on a part-time job as a childcare provider for two professionals who are in the process of adopting a child, falls in love with a exotic boy from her Sufism class and along the way learns some very hard lessons. Tassie is a loveable character, endearingly neurotic and naiive, quick to fall in love and eager to try new things, be it learning Portugese or eating Chinese food. To be honest, she really reminded me of myself when I was 18 or 19 years old.

The writing in this book is excellent. Reading it is like savouring a really good cheese with a glass of wine outside on a warm summer's evening - it's blissful and almost a little indulgent but in the best way possible. Moore usually writes short stories, something which is evident in the way she puts her prose together. It comes off as thoughtful but at the same time effortlessly elegant making this book truly a pleasure to read.

The reason I read this book was for my thesis on post-9/11 literature. This book is the most recently published example of this genre that I've read and found it to be the most subtle in its dealings with the events of the day. This story moves beyond the horror, the smoke and the images and skates into less explored territory of estrangement and disconnection between people. It makes for a delicate and in-depth look into the psyche of America, one that has moved beyond the knee-jerk reactions, through the dead-eyed traumatic reactions and out the other side into the reflective. It's interesting to see the evolution of responses develop.

A Gate at the Stairs is a novel that will hold up under any level of scrutiny, from those wanting a piece of well-written escapism through to those who want to dig around in the bowels of the thing for further meaning. It doesn't matter who you are - I really recommend this book. There is only one thing I would say: before you read it, don't read the dust jacket blurb. It's a little misleading and can colour your expectations of the text in a way that will leave you dissatisfied. It's better to know less and enjoy the story as it unfolds rather than expect it to go one way and be disappointed when it doesn't!

Monday, 8 March 2010

Where I've been

Mucho apologies for being AWOL for so long! I've just spent three glorious weeks in New Zealand after having been away for eight months. I'm now back in Taiwan and trying to get my head around being here again which is proving to be a little more challenging than I first anticipated. I was worried that a trip home would throw me out of whack and send me tail-spinning back into culture shock when I touched down here again but it's actually done something worse: it's landed me in Limbo Land.

Limbo Land is the place I'm sure all expats end up at one stage or another, that weird space of not quite belonging in one place or the other, not knowing where exactly it is that you feel most at home and feeling utterly torn between the two places. I am there. New Zealand has old friends, familiarity, a language I speak, a culture I understand, beaches, fish n' chips and greenery. Taiwan has new friends, opportunities, a chance to become a more interesting person, convenience, excitement and the most kick-ass food you will find anywhere. It's an emotional tug of war between home and adventure.

I know it will settle down as soon as I'm back into normal routines and life but until then I'm just going to have to put up with floating around here in the undefined. Never mind - here are a few shots of the beautiful New Zealand for you to enjoy. If you've never been, seriously consider adding it to you places to see before you die. It's something else.

Browns Bay, Auckland New Zealand

Bethell's Beach, West Auckland

Balmain Reserve, Devonport, Auckland