Thursday, 28 June 2012
Thursday, 14 June 2012
Right, rant over. Envy in check. Composure regained.
This book really took me by surprise. At first it does read like an overly 'worthy' kind of first novel - lots of clever techniques (discombobulated timeline, telling the story from different points of view with different narrators, lots of little mini 'backstories') and it took me a couple of chapters to settle into it. Or maybe it took the book a couple of chapters to settle into itself. Whatever. It grew and evolved as I turned the pages.
What intrigued me most was the blurring of fact, fiction and history that Obreht magages to achieve. Yes, it's set in a fictional town in a fictional country, but there is something so real about the place names, so familiar, that you think 'ooh I've heard that on the news. Wasn't there a civil war there?' and find yourself double-checking on google in case you're being unbelievably ignorant (extremely likely in my case - and I wouldn't be surprised if someone tells me that it's not a fictional country at all, YOU FOOL).
I have a few issues with the heroine Natalia, whose character is not entirely believable. She is everything that I, as a 21st century woman, should be interested in: She has a strong family, is intelligent and highly educated, is a bit of a maverick with a rebellious side, she confronts dangerous situations with confidence, she does charitable work, etc. etc.
But I don't like her. She's just not... likeable. I feel mean even writing this, but she isn't a character I related to or identified with in any way. I can't put my finger on why this is. Maybe it's because her story is so disjointed, interrupted as it is by the various mini-stories that run throughout. Maybe her character just doesn't develop enough for me: she doesn't seem to entertain emotions for more than a couple of paragraphs and there seem to be no consequences for her. She serves as a vehicle for the other stories and this can come across quite clumsily in parts.
Having said that, the overall feel of the novel is beautiful. It has a real dreamlike quality to it. You float in and out of the many backstories as the narrative twines around the landscape and the people, sometimes darting back to the far distant past, taking you down unexpected avenues. The language is at times breathtakingly poetic and some of the characters from these backstories have a mythical presence: The Bear, the Deathless Man. The story of the tiger itself, its journey from the city, was particularly well executed. I identified much more with the tiger than with Natalia!
I was also bizarrely tempted into sympathy with the most horrific wife-beater I've come across in recent readings. His personal history unfolded with extraordinary grace, showing how his personality and character completely changed and he became the stereotypical feared husband. The question of nature/nurture is brought up here which was mildy interesting (if, like many of the 'asides', I found fairly irrelevant). My sympathy was however short-lived I'd like to add.
If only these stories could have been brought together a bit more at the end, or if the suspense of the Grandfather's bag had been borne out, I'd have put this book down with a bit more satisfaction.
A brilliant debut though, and I'll definitely be following Obreht's career...
Tea's official website is here
You can buy The Tiger's Wife at Amazon here
Monday, 11 June 2012
Does it even matter?
Virginia Woolf had one. And she says it did matter. And normally I would agree with most things that this awesome lady says. But in this instance, I'm not so sure I entirely follow her argument (which is my very respectful way of saying that I don't necessarily entirely agree with her. Ouch).
I don't have a room of my own. But neither does Mr. Darcy (but then, that's because our flat's been taken over by mini-Darcys, and the grown-up, self-indulgent bits of our pre-baby lives have been relegated to boxes and cupboards. Sniff).
But what does Woolf's "room of one's own" actually amount to? Taken literally, we can assume she means the physical space often occupied in the early 20th Century by the husband's home office or library. For men, these were their sanctuaries. Children were not allowed, wives rarely permitted. Literature is awash with throw-away references to such rooms having an intimidating air, an oppressive atmosphere, and being the room to which lesser members of the household are 'summoned' by the master. In children's books for example, the father's study is a place to be reprimanded (and sometimes beaten). In The Secret Garden, it is a room strictly out of bounds for the children, a room to which the father/uncle can retire and think his maudlin thoughts undisturbed. In many 19th Century novels (such as, ooh, I don't know, Pride & Prejudice....), it's a room where the father can conduct his 'business', converse with colleagues and otherwise maintain his lofty distance from the rest of the household.
What parallels are there for the women? None it would seem. For women to get some privacy and space, they must 'sneak' off to some hidden corner of the garden, or slip away to the servant's quarters when they should be at church (or invent some other dubious alibi). Women don't have the same ownership of their physical space as do the men. So maybe Woolf is simply referring to this. Financially too, who can realistically afford to dedicate an entire room to themselves? Not many of us can have a study to ourselves at home (that's the dream though. That and an island in the kitchen...).
But aside from having a physical room in her house, women also traditionally suffer from not having the mental space either. Certainly on an intellectual level, women traditionally weren't encouraged to 'improve their minds' by going to university. In the 19th Century, women's accomplishments amounted to being able to sew, sing, play a musical instrument, be 'refined' and 'fashionable' - none of which require a separate, private room. In fact the opposite is true. All these accomplishments were designed specifically for display and required an audience. And women were supposed to be preoccupied with the running of the household and the bringing up of the children. "How old fashioned!" I hear you say. But is it really? I can vouch for the fact that, as a 21st Century working mother, it is still very much the role of the woman to be concerned with such things moreso than the man. Yes of course there is much more equality, but biology has a large part to play (you name me a man who can take maternity leave to breastfeed his newborn baby!) and society does still, on the whole, expect the mother to be the main caregiver. So mentally, women are far less likely to have a room of their own to which they can retreat, undisturbed.
However, bleating on about why it's not fair does not give Virginia's argument any credit. Nor does her assertion that women shouldn't write with 'rage' (it sounds like women have a lot to be angry about, yes?). Some of the most creative works of literature and art have been produced under great oppression and in extreme poverty. And there is the argument that just such circumstances of repression actually encourage and promote creativity. Just look at the slave songs, the writings of Nelson Mandela on Robin Island, the deeply moving literature of holocaust victims (see a list and examples here), the amazing Xinran's Good Women of China (see Xinran's blog here), etc.
Of course it's easy for me, sitting here at my laptop in the 21st Century, with the mini-Darcys in bed and Mr. Darcy cooking my dinner, to criticise Virginia. I've had it comparatively easy. And sitting in an ivory tower is a very haughty place to be. It can go to your head. I'm not saying that Woolf's argument isn't entirely valid - women have not had it as easy as men and no, it isn't fair. It's just that the prejudices and pressures that surround being female constitute just one of the millions of obstacles that people around the world face, and we should not get this out of proportion. Poverty, for example, infringement of freedom of speech, lack of access to education; all these are obstacles to writers and creators of art. All these people need their own room.
So maybe the concept of a room of one's own does remain true. Just that everyone's 'room' will be different. For Nelson Mandela, it was inside his own mind. For the slaves in America it was in the churches. And for me today, like so many across the globe, it's my computer.
Read Woolf's A Room of One's Own here.
Thursday, 7 June 2012
Katie Bircher's article, on The Horn Book website caught my eye back in February this year. And I shall tell you for why. Other app reviews I've read have been very heavily weighted in favour of traditional books. I can appreciate this. It's difficult to grasp just how quickly technology is moving, and I can hear my mother's voice telling me I'll get 'square eyes' if I watch TV for too long. We're all a bit worried that too much screen time is going to be damaging for our children, so the thought of actively promoting babies and toddlers to use an iPad kind of goes against the grain a bit, doesn't it? But Bircher talks about how the interactivity of these apps not only adds an extra oomph to the experience, but enhances it in a way that paper books simply can't.
Ladybird seem to have got this just right, from the little previews I've had. The books are not simply reproduced with pointless 'touch here to hear a sheep say baa' buttons, but actively engage their young readers with music, games, quizzes, colouring and drawing.
Paper books just can't compete. And that's kind of my point. They shouldn't compete. They are two completely different things.
Book Apps are an interactive experience that young children can play with, have fun with, listen to, and, most importantly of all, control. Traditional paper books offer a different experience. Probably a calmer, snuggle down at bedtime, share with mummy or daddy experience.
This isn't the Wild West and this town IS big enough for the both of us.
Thursday, 22 March 2012
I met someone the other week, someone who works in education, who works specifically in the field of literacy, who cannot bear text speak. This person believes that text speak is responsible for some children's inability to spell. That text speak is responsible for some children's poor grammar, poor punctuation, poor English.
And so does one of my heroes, David Crystal. Here is a picture of him looking pensive:
He is marvellous and I love him. He makes the very salient point that in order to play around with the rules, as text speak does, one first has to understand the rules. You can't deliberately mess something up without an understanding of what it should look like before you start messing about with it. Or words to that effect. He puts it much better than me. Obviously.
And to add weight to my argument, I cite this award-winning poem by Hetty Hughes:
txtin iz messin,
mi headn' me englis,
they all come out txtis.
gran not plsed w/letters shes getn,
swears i wrote better
& she's african
What I love about this poem is the fact that the poet is so self-aware. She openly mocks her own culture, the culture of the grammar-purists, the culture of contemporary 'yoot' (er, youth), and all through the traditional medium of poetry. That high art to which, traditionally, all writers would aspire.
If we denounce text speak as being responsible for the perceived low levels of literacy in the UK (I say 'perceived' because I don't believe this is necessarily the case) then we are missing the point.
Creative play on language is an inherently human thing to do. Very young children play with language, creating rhymes and nonsense words to entertain themselves and others. At the other end of the scale, academics use fairly impenetrable Latin abbreviations to communicate in shorthand. Surely this is no different to people (young and old I hasten to add) coming up with creative ways to abbreviate certain words to facilitate the speed of text messaging, or indeed to send messages in secret code (as a parent, I am determined to keep on top of all my daughters' slang so that they cannot hide anything from me. An impossible task I know but I have to convince myself it will be possible!).
We need to accept that the English language is not a fixed entity. It evolves. It has properties that enable us to play with it, extend and create new meanings, introduce new words, new characters even, and it is precisely this that keeps me coming back for more.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story The Yellow Wallpaper has not met with universal acclaim but is, I think, a really strong piece of writing about a woman struggling with various aspects of her life. Maybe it says something about me that I can identify with her - I almost want to crawl into the wallpaper with her...
You can read the full story here but if you don't have time, here is a very brief synopsis:
The first person narration is by a woman who is diagnosed by the men in her life (her husband and her brother, both of whom are physicians) as having a nervous disposition and "a slight hysterical tendency". She is thus prescribed various drugs to keep her "happy". She is removed from her usual surroundings and taken on holiday (hmm...) to a rather old and spooky house where she is given a room upstairs, away from the rest of the household. She assumes this to be an old nursery, later used as a gym, due to the presence of bars on the windows and iron rings in the walls. We can assume this is in fact an old asylum and she is being misled by the men (and women) around her. It's notable that her room is located upstairs - it is attic-like - she in effect becomes the 'madwoman in the attic' like Bertha in Jane Eyre.
Anyway, long story short, the yellow wallpaper in the room becomes a focus for her and she begins to see images of another woman, and herself, inside the paper. Her psychosis deepens to the point where she sees "creeping" women not just in the wallpaper, but outside and eventually her psychosis takes over and she becomes the creeping woman in the wallpaper.
What I find most arresting in this story is not Perkins' description of her heroine's mental illness (yes, I'm going to call her a heroine), although this is done convincingly well, but the little hints throughout the text that point to external reasons for her experiencing this breakdown, as opposed to any internal or inherently female causes (notably that of female hysteria).
Like many women of the time, our heroine is defined by her sex, her role as a wife and as a mother. She is not named at all. Not once (unless I'm mistaken. Which I might be. Stranger things have happened as Mr Darcy will tell you...). Mention is made of her baby son, but we never see her with her baby. She has been deemed too ill to look after him. Neither does she seem to fulfill her role as a wife - she is a poor hostess and barely spends any time with her husband who is away most of the time. When he is with her he treats her like a child, not an equal, and certainly not a sexual, partner. Instead she is in the charge of "Jennie" who acts as housemaid, nurse and eventually, effectively, jailor, whom she distrusts.
Her one passion is writing and this is strictly prohibited for the sake of her health. She writes in secret when her husband and Jennie aren't looking. But this passion begins to dull as her psychosis (and the slow-drip of the drugs) kicks in.
So here is a woman who has had her liberties and rights taken away from her. And all under the guise of treatment for her hysteria.
What Perkins does so well in this short piece of writing is to get inside the mind of a woman struggling with the everyday pressures of 19th century life. We are all products of our environment (discuss!) and our heroine's fateful lapse into mental illness is perhaps inevitable given not only the way she is treated, but the expectations that are made of her - expectations of which she is fully aware and which become therefore self-fulfilling.
In presenting the situation thus, Gilman shows us that society is at fault here. She is very consciously subverting the accepted social norm in an implicit, rather than explicit way. As modern readers of this text, understanding the sociohistorical context, we can appreciate her courage and skill as an author in addressing this horror (for this is what the treatment of the protagonist amounts to).
Read up on Gilman, she's an interesting 19th century author. She was herself subjected to "rest cure", forbidden to work, kept to a domestic/docile* (delete as applicable) routine and wrote The Yellow Wallpaper as a reaction to this.