Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Saving CeeCee Honeycutt: Review

Saving CeeCee Honeycutt
By Beth Hoffman
Published in 2012
Published by Abacus
ISBN: 978-0-349-00018-3
(Great Britain edition)

Some of us jokingly worry about turning into our parents.  It might sneak up on us one day as we are scolding our kids, or during a conversation with friends all of a sudden something will pop out of our mouths that sounds exactly like them.  The echoes of our parents' influence may be unexpected, but for most of us it wouldn't be unwelcome.  But for CeeCee Honeycutt, recognizing echoes of her mother within herself is her worst nightmare, and something which has haunted her every day since she read in a book that psychosis may be inherited.

CeeCee has grown up as the sole caretaker for her irretrievably mentally ill mother.  Her father, unable to face up to the realities of his marriage, has retreated into his work and is barely ever home, leaving CeeCee to bear the brunt of her mother’s unstable moods and wild antics.  Old before her time and robbed of her childhood and all semblance of normality, CeeCee turns to her beloved books and her elderly neighbor, Mrs Odell, for solace and a place of respite.  But when she is twelve years old, her already chaotic world is thrown into further disarray when her mother makes a dramatic exit from her life at the beginning of the summer holidays.

As a result, CeeCee is uprooted from all she has ever known and whisked away to Savannah, Georgia, by her Great Aunt Tootie.  CeeCee's new world could not be more different from her old life.  She has been transplanted into the warm, pillowy comfortable place dominated by a cast of fabulous female characters.  It is within this world that CeeCee starts her slow journey towards recovery from the damage done by her childhood and learns the simple joys of friendship and stability.  

Although CeeCee's life with her mother reads as a gritty portrayal of what it is like to live with a mentally unbalanced parental figure, her life in Georgia reads more like a fairy tale, a young girl's fantasy escape story writ large.  Life in 1970s Georgia isn't perfect, and the racial issues of the time do make an appearance, but more as side concerns to the main storyline.  While some may find this optimistic turn of events to be problematically unrealistic, I personally found it fitting.  After the brutality of CeeCee's life in Ohio, the magic of Savannah was welcome relief and an utterly charming place within which to spend some time.  This novel achieves a balanced mix of opening pathways into conversations about the serious issue of mental illness while at the same time allowing for a thoroughly enjoyable read. 

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Sunday Salon: Pancakes, coffee and the importance of traditions

Pancakes with lemon and sugar. Bliss.
Credit: Here
When I was a kid, there was one day on the calendar that would excite me nearly as much as Christmas: Pancake Day. Also known as Shrove Tuesday, Pancake Day is the day before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent which is a period of ritual fasting prior to Easter. It was also the magical day when, as kids, we would come home to have stacks of pancakes for dinner, doused in golden syrup or laced with lemon juice and brown sugar. Some of the most vivid memories I have from childhood are of this day and so it has always had a special significance to me.

When we moved to New Zealand, however, Pancake Day ceased to be as important as it had been back in England. The family tradition trailed off and one of my favourite days of the year became a childhood memory. I'm not sure exactly why this was - possibly it was a cultural thing and it just wasn't as big a deal in New Zealand. Possibly it was a matter of timing, as our move to NZ coincided with me starting high school, and the attention this day got was kept to the realms of primary school. Possibly it was just that outside of the structure of our home country, certain traditions just seemed less relevant to my parents and so they just let it die a natural, if regrettable, death.

This year, aged 29, I reinstated Pancake Day. As I draw closer to a time where I might start thinking about having kids, I find myself re-evaulating what's important to me and what the value of traditions are. Traditions are what that give our lives structure and meaning. There's something really comforting, to me at least, in knowing that at certain times of the year the same familiar, fun activities will be repeated and living overseas only makes this feeling of comfort even more important - traditions are like a piece of home being reenacted no matter where you might be. I know that I want any (at this point completely hypothetical) children I might have to experience these traditions and the feelings they elicit. I want them to get the best of both sides of their heritage, both British and Taiwanese, with strong Kiwi influences. And so, even though neither hubby nor I are in any way religious, Pancake Day is back.

Forty days and nights without this. Pain.
But you can't have Pancake Day without having Lent. That would just be cheating. For me, Lent is about giving up something that I will really miss as a test of character, not so much the religious aspect of it although I do understand and of course respect that. As a kid I would usually give up chocolate in anticipation of the screeds of chocolate eggs that would appear with Easter, but since I'm not such a big consumer of chocolate anymore, that wouldn't really cut the mustard. I needed to give up something that I desired on a daily basis. Something that I had never successfully given up before: Coffee.

Let me put this into context for those of you who might not understand the gravity of this, although if I listen carefully I can already hear howls of "Whyyyyyy!" from my fellow caffeine lovers. I love coffee. I can't honestly remember a single day in my life where I haven't had some form it it. My preferred brew is black, straight up, although I'm partial to the occasional latte. My first ever email address was caffeine_freak18@defunct-email-server.com. This has been a lifelong affair: I didn't have parents who didn't let me drink coffee until I was 16 or 18, so I started young. It started with instant Nescafe, developed further with a high school job at a coffee shop and blossomed from there.

So it really is a pretty big ask to give up this beautiful black nectar for forty entire days and nights. Such a big ask, in fact, that I didn't really tell anyone until now. I had to try it on for a couple of days to make sure I wasn't going to be driven to desperate measures. Happily, on Day Four of the Kathmiesta Decaffeinated project, sanity prevails.... for now. Stay tuned.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Blogging Anniversary Number Five!

Image Source: Here
Five years ago, I timidly tapped out my first ever blog post. I had no clear idea what I wanted this blog to be about beyond the vague but earnest idea that I needed to spend more time honing my writing skills. I wanted to be a writer and as I had been advised in a creative writing course I had just completed at undergraduate level - if I wanted to be a writer then I just had to get on and do it. Talkers talk, they said. Writers write. Which one are you going to be? Looking back at those first few posts makes me feel something half way between a cringe and proud. Re-reading what I wrote I can feel how much younger I was then and how in need of some honing my writing really was. It's kind of like looking at a "Before" photo after you've lost a lot of weight or gotten yourself fit - you can't believe you used to be in that place but you feel good that you've come so far.

This blog started to look less like an online thought bucket and more like a book blog in early 2009. Standing here at the beginning of 2012, it's still a blog about books but the expatriate/cross-cultural side of it is starting to show itself a lot more. At first I worried about that and thought of starting a new blog to house the "Living Overseas" stuff but then I thought - why? There's no rules against me doing both, especially now that I'm less worried (read: not worried at all) about attracting publishers to give me books to review. There have been several really good posts about the state of book blogging floating around lately that have really crystallised what I've been thinking and feeling about this lately, including this one at Estella's Revenge. It's a great read and hits the nail smack bang on the head and if the flood of "Preach it, sister!!" comments are any indication I would say that right now we're in the midst of a bloggy revolution. 

But enough of that for now. This is a birthday party! More balloons, cake and streamers! More happy speeches!

I had no idea, five years ago, that blogging would have taken me to the places it has. I have met a bunch of wonderful, intelligent, insightful, glorious people with whom I feel a real connection. I couldn't believe it when I got one follower who wasn't just a supportive friend. At this stage I have 119 lovely followers which to me is amazing. It's not much compared to some folks but I love it. Every single time I get a new follower, I do a little happy jig. Every time I get a comment notification in my inbox I grin like a maniac. Because it all comes down to the very basic desire I had when I first started this blog: I want people to read what I write. I want to entertain people. If someone comments or follows me, it feels like confirmation that I'm doing something right. And don't even get me started about how I feel if I am reading someone's blog and I notice I am in their blog roll. Then we're talking a victory lap of the entire apartment.

I would like to sincerely thank each and every one of you who takes the time to read this blog. It's YOU who have made the last 5 years such fun and have spurred me to continue on even when I really didn't feel like it anymore. Here's to many more years of writing and entertaining people for all of us!

Monday, 6 February 2012

Taipei International Book Exhibition 2012

If there are two words that excite my soul it is "Book" and "Exhibition" being uttered in the same sentence. Last year I wasn't paying close enough attention and I missed it, so this year I was determined to go. I set up my Google Alert in March last year. It worked.

Not knowing quite what to expect I bowled up with fellow book enthusiast, Catherine. She had horror stories from the previous year of having to beat a path through rabid credit card reps so we had decided to combine forces. Luckily for us, this year there were no such reps so we were free to browse in relative peace - you know, as much peace as an exhibition hall can really offer.

As awesome and fantastic as a whole hall filled with books sounds, in reality I find it a little disorienting. There's something about the bright lights and people thrusting pamphlets into your hand that can really put a bookworm off her stride. After two and a half years of living in Asia, you'd think I would be better at the whole "crowd" thing but the truth is I'm not nearly as good as I should be. Especially where buying books is concerned. It's a sensory overload - there are just so many books and not nearly enough time.

Which is not meant to sound like a complaint - it's really not. The opportunity to look at so many English language books all at the same time was really magnificent and there were some really fabulous displays of stationery and arts and crafts related stuff. I ended up purchasing Solar by Ian McEwan and The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley, two books which have been on my "Strongly Desired" mental list for quite some time. I think next time I will set aside more time for this whole experience. I think it's something I'll do in stages next year and now I know what to expect, I can go in with a clearer idea of what I want to achieve.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Sunday Salon: Personal revelations on the page

Have you ever had that moment when you're reading a book and you think to yourself: "This is my life"? Right there, in black and white, printed quietly on the pages resting in your hands are words that cut so close it seems like the author has been reading your diary. Of course we all know that our life experiences are shared by others, but that's not it. It's the experience of reading our closely held emotions, a silently repeated mantra or a never-spoken thought that catches us off guard. It's as if the author has reached through the pages and caught a hold of our hearts. It's both terrifying and utterly liberating. It's not just me - someone else has felt this way too.

Within minutes of picking up Saving CeeCee Honeycutt by Beth Hoffman, I had read an aspect of my childhood that has affected me so deeply that I can still hear its dark echoes from time to time. There it was on page six:
"She became so unpredictable that I never knew what would be waiting for me when I got home from school - a plate of gooey half baked cookies or muffled sobs leaking from beneath her closed bedroom door."
Even though a good friend who knew I was reading this book had cautioned me that this might happen, it still hit me like a freight train. Even though it's not exactly a closely guarded secret, the emotional facts of the damage that was wreaked on my childhood by mental illness is not something I like to chat openly about. Even as I am typing this I wonder if I will even post this for anyone else to read. The habit of trying to hold it all inside and act as if I've had the most normal life ever is hard to let go but at the same time I know it's kind of stupid. Life is rough sometimes, after all, and most folks have experienced some of that to some extent.

Reading someone else's story that in many ways parallels your own is a release. It opens up doorways to different perspectives on things that you have yourself experienced. Possibly more importantly that any of this, it lifts a veil of shame that shrouds this kind of topic and starts conversations.

This has been a pretty tough post to write. I've nearly deleted it a number of times but my desire to leave the door open for starting these conversations has eclipsed my wariness of being exposed, even though quite frankly I don't think I have really exposed all that much of anything. Reading this book wasn't like reading a carbon copy of my life - the details are vastly diferent but underneath it all, the emotional truths that shyly showed themselves to me as the story progressed have given me pause to think about what has happened in my life, how far I have come and where I have yet to go.

Have you ever had something you struggled with revealed to you through fiction? Or have you ever read a book and recognised something intensely personal explained on the page?

Or, in case any of these questions are a bit too much for a Sunday afternoon, have you read anything good lately?

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Favourite Sentences VIII

Butterflies sailed across the open field, and the air was tinged with the sweet smell of peaches and warm earth. I closed my eyes and breathed in deeply, letting the scents travel through my body. I was in the middle of an accidental kind of happiness that made me grateful for having a nose. 
From Saving CeeCee Honeycutt
Beth Hoffman
Page 234

It's summertime and joy on the page. I absolutely love the way that reading this made me feel.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

The Buddha in the Attic: Review

The Buddha in the Attic
By Julie Otsuka
Published in 2011
Published by Alfred A. Knopf
ISBN: 978-0-307-70046-9

I purchased this book myself for the purposes of book club. 

What possesses someone to pack up everything they own and move to a country they have never been to before, especially when they don't speak very much of the language nor understand very much of the culture of their destination country? Necessity? A dream of a better life? Wanderlust? Love? For the group of young Japanese women in this novel it was a bit of everything. They were to be married to men who they had only heard about through written letters and a single photograph. Leaving their lives, their families, their culture and their comfort zone, they set out across the ocean for America. When they arrived the reality that faced them was devastatingly different to their hopes and expectations.

Through first person plural narration, Otsuka presents the collective experiences of these women, divided thematically by significant events – from their first night as wives to childbirth to their removal from the towns and cities along the Pacific coast during World War Two. As a result of this narrative style and thematic organization there isn't a traditional plot with a beginning middle and an end. Rather the experience of reading the stories of many comes to be almost like a meditation on lives past. The choice to present this material in this way is a wise one, I think, as to do anything other than present the simple facts could create a potential emotional overload for the reader. This is not only because of the number of different perspectives and stories but also because of the confronting nature of the content within.

I remember very clearly the first time I discovered that Japanese Americans and Canadians had been removed from their homes and livelihoods during the Second World War when I read Obasan by Joy Kogawa for a postgraduate trauma literature paper. I'd had no idea that this kind of thing had happened and to be honest, I was shocked by what I learned. It hadn't mattered if these people had lived there half of their lives, or if they had been born there and were therefore citizens – in the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor President Roosevelt authorized the exclusion of all people of Japanese ancestry from the Pacific coastline and housed them in war interment camps inland. Like I said – it's confronting stuff. But let's forget for a moment all of the why's and the wherefores of this decision. Let's hold off on the pointing of fingers and the placement of blame and guilt and focus on what it is that Otsuka is telling us to do – to listen to the voices that couldn't be heard back then.

These voices are not only of the Japanese who were interred but also of their neighbors who were very much affected by their removal. The last chapter is written from the perspective of these neighbors which shows that at first they were worried, upset and guilty about the way the Japanese had been treated. But as time passes and new stores open in place of Mr. Harada's grocery or the Imanashi Transfer, and the Instructions to All Persons of Japanese Ancestry notices fade and blow away with a stronger breeze than usual, so too do the feelings and the memories. People move on. It seems cold but it is after all, human nature to let go of things that do not continue to affect you on a daily basis. Especially when your country is about to become involved in the worst war this world has ever seen.

Otsuka's novella is an attempt to reestablish these lost stories and assure their place within the narrative of America's history. As the title suggests, it is time for it to be taken down out of the attic, dusted off and examined, honestly and with an open heart and mind. As with many novels that deal with subjects of uncomfortable moments in history this is not an uplifting read. It presents us, the present day reader, with a slice of a time gone by told through the imagined voices of those who experienced it. It's a tale of belonging, of inner strength, of cultural struggles and of real life. It's a timely reminder of how far we have come in this world, but also, perhaps, how much further we have yet to go.