Stories You Can Chew Over

Short stories can be clever. They often make comments on society and focus intensely on a moment in time. Because of their brevity they don’t have to tell the reader everything or tie up every loose end. This invites readers to think, to fill in the gaps. Despite these positives I have not always liked short stories. My exposure to them at school and in tertiary education was usually as a random collection, or as a once-off in a magazine. This made for bitty, unsatisfying reading – almost like watching a variety show, or eating fluffy popcorn when I needed a proper meal. So I was very pleased, recently, to have read two books that were written as a series of interconnected short stories. Although true to the short story style, each story in the books was linked by overarching themes and a main narrative arc. The result was an in-depth, wholesome reading meal.

The first, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, is an adult read set in the fictional town of Maine, USA, and usually featuring (whether closely or distantly) the character of Olive Kitteridge. Olive is a cantankerous woman who nevertheless has some wisdom, insight, love and faithfulness. Despite her many failings – nastiness to her husband, control and lack of understanding towards her son, and intolerance of others – the reader just cannot hate her. And by the book’s end she acknowledges her faults, thereby exhibiting growth and change. Each story in Olive Kitteridge describes different characters in an unhurried way, focusing on them as if through a magnifying glass. And together the stories dwell on the themes of ageing versus adult children, the search for meaning, vulnerability, acceptance, and extramarital affairs (or at least attractions that most of us, it seems, fall into). The latter is in no way seedy and is portrayed as simply an aspect of life. Eating/food is a constant, with one character suffering from anorexia, and Olive often being featured eating. Indeed, one of the most memorable and life-altering scenes of the book occurs after one night at a restaurant. Olive and her husband stop at a hospital on the way home to use the toilet and are taken hostage. More than the hostage drama itself, it is the hurtful things Olive and her husband say to each other, that cause the lasting damage. Although difficult subjects are dealt with in Olive Kitteridge, their treatment is not morose. It is beautiful.

The deliciously titled Everyone Dies Famous in a Small Town by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock also handles heavy subject matter in an engrossing and sometimes humorous way. It is a young adult novel on the shortlist for the Yoto Carnegie Medal 2022. Written in accessible language, it features teenage characters who invite reader sympathy as they deal with trauma. The main narrative arc here is one that involves child abduction and murder, while other subjects included are child molestation, gay relationships, and the power of nature in the form of biting cold and raging fires. The stories are set in small towns along the west coast of North America, from Alaska, to British Columbia to Washington. They feature main and secondary characters and, as the stories move along the coast, so each new story starts with a secondary character from the previous story who then becomes the focal point. Like a chain, snaking along the coast adding links as it goes.

Because of constant characters, bigger themes and plot lines I finished both Olive Kitteridge and Everyone Dies Famous in a Small Town full and happy. But because of unexplained elements and clever titles, I was also left pondering, chewing over what this or that meant. The style of these books is a fabulous way to present short stories and I highly recommend them.

Slavery Past & Present: A review of Cane Warriors

In my last post I spoke about shadowing the 2022 Yoto Carnegie Greenaway Award for children’s literature. Cane Warriors by Alex Wheatley is a Young Adult novel on the shortlist for the Carnegie section of this award. I began reading it on a recent road trip to Johannesburg, a part of South Africa in which I grew up. Images of my happy childhood flashed through my mind as we travelled: roads with no shoulder; steel window frames (that would rust in ten minutes in the coastal province of KwaZulu-Natal – KZN – I now call home); cold crisp night times; deciduous trees shedding barrow loads of autumn leaves; and brown grass that indicates a no-winter rainfall area. This latter is especially meaningful when considered against the terrible floods KZN experienced in April 2022. As I am writing this, access to municipal water is still in question in KZN after aqueducts and wastewater treatment plants were ripped apart in a matter of hours, cutting off water supply to thousands. After frightening and destructive political riots in the province nine months earlier, and job-shedding generally because of COVID lockdowns over the last two years, KZN indeed feels like a beleaguered province. Although hardly a paradise, Johannesburg felt like a good escape for me from the burdens of home. And I could be with friends and family for whom KZN’s issues were intangible. Unless you physically and geographically experience something, it can be easy to miss the gravity of it.

And I think the British slave trade of the 1700s that Wheatle speaks of in the afterword of Cane Warriors is a bit like that: if you weren’t a slave it is easy now to gloss over this dreadful time in history. What Wheatle does in Cane Warriors is to bring to life, for the uninitiated reader, this period in history in the form of a small battle. A battle in which a historical warrior named Tacky instigates a fierce uprising amongst some of the slaves in Jamaica. It’s interesting that instead of Tacky, for his protagonist Wheatle uses a young (presumably fictional) boy named Moa. Moa, at fourteen years of age, joins his special friend Keverton and a group of older men led by Tacky, in the focused killing of slave masters. They do this in an effort to free their fellow slaves and to set up homes and vocations for themselves. I really felt myself rooting for Moa and Keverton’s dreams of future families. But at the same time I dreaded what I knew must be the outcome: failure. And indeed this is what happens. Despite killing several landowners the rebellion is fairly quickly quashed and work on the cane plantations resumes.

What Moa has to do is way beyond what I would ever have been called on to do at fourteen: murder cruel white masters. Although quite gruesome, Wheatle’s narrative is not beyond a YA audience. He has created a young hero with whom the reader can empathise. And he has created for the YA audience an important text. One in which they will begin to appreciate the depths of what it must mean to be owned by another human being and used merely for the enormous financial gain of another. Whilst the narration of Cane Warriors is in plain English the dialogue is in Jamaican English dialect. I found this quite difficult to understand to begin with – as other readers might do – but I soon got into it. There are many instances of humour that the language elicits too, which makes it enjoyable. 

But more than bringing to life something from the hidden past, Wheatle’s Cane Warriors makes the subject of slavery relevant to today. His story, with characters the reader is drawn to, shows the important way fiction can speak to prevailing problems. And in the afterword Wheatle writes of his vociferous support for slave reparations now, and mentions Amnesty International’s current work against modern-day slavery. This further adds to the text’s relevance.

While in Johannesburg I continued to enjoy my reminiscing. But it didn’t take away from the problems that waited for me back home. The floods have changed our province and its people, and repair work must begin.

Shadowing Children’s Book Awards

Have you heard of ‘shadowing’ book awards? The Yoto Carnegie Greenaway Awards is an annual award that honours exceptional writing and illustration in books for children. Book reading groups can sign up on the website to ‘shadow’ the awards process. This involves choosing books from the longlist, and then the shortlist, reading and discussing the books, and then posting reviews on the site. The Carnegie section of the award is for superb writing, and is named after Andrew Carnegie, a nineteenth-century champion of libraries. The Kate Greenaway section awards outstanding illustration, and is named after a nineteenth-century artist known for her children’s illustrations. Whilst the shadowing process is aimed at young people, I belong to a shadowing group of adults who are interested in children’s literature. When Life Gives You Mangoes by Kereen Getten is a Carnegie longlisted book we read recently.

When Life Gives You Mangoes is a beautifully told tale of friendship between children, the heartbreak of losing that friendship, and the difficulty of adjusting to life without them. Protagonist Clara lives in Sycamore in the formerly colonised Caribbean, an area prone to tropical storms, and good for fishing and surfing. Sycamore is a small village peopled with unique characters, like the grumpy Ms Gee, the dishonest and judgmental Pastor Brown, the new girl, Rudy, Clara’s outcast Uncle Eldorath, and snobby Gaynah, Clara’s best friend.

Clara and Gaynah fall out with each other and Clara teams up instead with Rudy, Ms Gee’s granddaughter who has recently arrived from England. Through childhood games like ‘pick leaf’ and ‘make believe’ it becomes apparent that Clara has suffered a trauma that has to do with the sea and which she can’t remember. A former budding surfer, Clara will now not go anywhere near the sea, much to her parents’ concern. Clara’s parents try to help her by taking her to the Bishop but this initiative fails. When Clara draws closer to her Uncle Eldorath she discovers that the two of them share a history of loss. Through their relationship Eldorath is restored to the community of which he was an outcast, and Clara remembers the event that has so changed her life. She is finally able to put the past to rest and renew her love of surfing and the sea.

Secrets abound in this novel and Kereen Getten constructs these carefully throughout, disclosing them all right near the end. They include broken relationships, death and the heart of community. This keeps the reader glued to the page. Each character is unique and well-drawn, and the friendship highs and lows between Clara, Gaynah and Rudy so age appropriate. Clara’s parents are depicted as ordinary, loving, concerned parents and Clara’s bond with them is touching, particularly with that of her father. The challenges experienced through island living and destructive tropical storms create an authentic setting, especially as they relate to small communities.

When Life Gives you Mangoes is an excellent book for middle grade readers, detailing the small issues of friendships and relationships that mean everything to children at this age. It also gently covers the heartbreaking subject of what it is to lose a best friend to death, and the process required in coming to terms with that. I was pleased to have been part of shadowing this beautiful book. I highly recommend it.

Noddy Comes to (My) Life

One of my earliest memories of books was Noddy Goes to Toyland and Noddy and his Car by Enid Blyton. These were borrowed from the library on several of my family’s fortnightly evening visits there. Too impatient to wait until we got home to read them, I would snatch looks at the pages each time my father’s car drove past a streetlight.

 

Noddy buys a build-it-yourself house with Big Ears’ help

Who wouldn’t want a ‘dear little house’ like this one?

When it came to daytime playtime my enthusiastic reading of Noddy became part of my life. I had been struck, you see, by the ease in Noddy Goes to Toyland with which Noddy moved into Toyland and built a house. I think I also fancied the idea that Noddy had run away from his previous home in search of independence. This independence was especially evident when Noddy hired himself out as a taxi driver in Noddy and his Car. Live by yourself in a dear little house! Earn money by working! Oh yes, this was going to be the life for me. And so I travelled around our suburban streets on my tricycle (which had a passenger seat), pretending I was Noddy in his car. And I moved things around in my bedroom to simulate Noddy’s own house.

 

 

 

But not being able to pipe running water into my own bedroom flummoxed me, and using a basin of water would not have been sustainable. Unlike Noddy, who turned to Big Ears to help him problem-solve issues with his unhappy car passengers, I didn’t ask anyone for help solving my water crisis. Thus ended my pursuit of complete independence. Real life was not so simple after all.

Noddy’s ‘bathroom’

Noddy’s delightful car

Noddy was a wooden toy, though, a toy, who, somewhat reminiscent of Pinnochio, had been carved by a carpenter. Unlike Pinnochio, who wanted to be a real boy, Noddy wanted to remain a toy. Likewise, I like to think that – even as a child of four or five – I knew that none of Noddy and his lifestyle was or could be real. Noddy was a toy after all and his and my forays into games were just that – games. I simply, and willingly, entered into a ‘contract of make believe’ with my books.

 

 

Admiring Boldness

Revolting Rhymes is a splendid rewrite by Roald Dahl of seven well-known fairy tales: Little Red Riding Hood, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, The Three Little Pigs, Snow-White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, and Jack and the Beanstalk.

Dahl not only retells the stories with modern (the book was published in 1982) language and characters. He also infuses the tales with his own moral message. So, Cinderella advocates that marriage be underscored by decency, rather than princedom and money; and Jack and the Beanstalk says that daily bathing has its rewards!

Adults will be highly amused by the twist on Little Red Riding Hood who ‘whipped a pistol from her knickers’ and shot the wolf. The hooded maiden also appears in the Three Little Pigs where she helps the pigs overcome the wolf and, er, overcomes the third little pig too.

I don’t pretend to have done an academic study of Roald Dahl’s work. But on first glance at these clever, hilarious tales I do wonder if Revolting Rhymes may be viewed today as ‘politically incorrect’. And in a way I admire them for that. I appreciate them for their difference, their astuteness, and their boldness in today’s politically correct world.

I also respect the latest theatre release, Overcomer, for its boldness. Overcomer follows the story of young teen, Hannah Scott, whose life is changed when she takes up cross country running at her school. Through her running coach, John Harrison, Hannah meets the father (Thomas Hill) she never knew, excels at something for the first time in her life (running), and becomes certain of who she is.

But what I admire most about the movie is its clearly Christian message. The script of Overcomer doesn’t just proffer gentle, politically correct ‘message marketing’. It resolutely champions the Christian belief of repentance, redemption and forgiveness.

There is lots wrong with this film. It’s overly sentimental and dramatic, and confuses success with salvation. Nevertheless, I applaud it for its unequivocal focus on Jesus Christ and Christian new birth. And that in a world that is so politically correct that many messages are diluted so as not to be offensive.

Overcomer opens at cinemas in South Africa today 30 August 2019.

The Stories Behind Writers

Aren’t you curious about writers? The faces behind the words you read, what inspired them as writers, who they are, how they write? I know I am. And judging by two films and one series I watched recently so are others. All three focus on writers, their lives, experiences and influences. They are: Agatha Christie and the Truth of Murder (2018 film), Tolkien (2019 film) and Little Women (BBC television series 2017).

Of the three Agatha and the Truth of Murder was the one I liked least. I’m not a fan of Agatha Christie plots. And this film addresses Christie’s own doubts about the predictability of her stories. In real life Agatha Christie went ‘missing’ for a number of days during her career and Agatha and the Truth of Murder is an imaginative story of how Christie might have spent that mysterious time. The writers place Christie squarely in an actual murder case which she is forced to solve. This experience ultimately helps her own writing – or so the story goes. The point made by the film is that an author’s lived experiences informs their writing.

Tolkien makes this very point clearly. In this film, however, what is portrayed may reflect actual events in the author’s life. The film is an in-depth, sensitive biography of the famous author’s formative years and how the many influences in his life ultimately had great bearing on his famous works. His poverty, orphanhood, intelligence, love of language, and desire for friendship all influenced the man and the writer he became. His romance with fellow orphan Edith Bratt, which ultimately matured into marriage was an integral part of his life. And WWI, which cut through everything – his studies, career, romance and friendship circle – profoundly affected the man and writer he became.

Slightly more subtle on the theme of experiences influencing writing is the BBC television series Little Women based on the book by Louisa May Alcott. Of the four sisters in Little Women, Jo March was the writer. She wrote initially because she loved writing. Then she wrote out of necessity. And finally she wrote out of pain, as a way to process the death of her beloved sister, Beth. Jo’s life circumstances obviously influenced the writer she became.

Practical Criticism or New Criticism is a branch of literary theory that studies the form of texts. The theory disregards author intention and reader response. There is certainly merit to this approach to studying literature, especially with poems or stories for which the reader has no idea of the author’s intent.

However, I just can’t help wondering… What influences of your life can be brought to bear on the writer you are?

 

 

Telling Tales that Make You Sit Up & Listen

In this stirring video Sir David Attenborough tells us humans how we can save our planet from destruction. How we can provide a sustainable future. To do it, says Attenborough in the video, we need to ‘rewild’ our planet. Rewilding will help people move back into a harmonious balance with nature.

Attenborough outlines three other ‘simple’ ways to save our planet: phase out fossil fuels, produce food more efficiently, and correctly manage our oceans.

Attenborough’s video has helped raise the profile of a crisis that most of us simply ignore.the wolf wilder

In light of this heightened awareness I found it interesting that – shortly before I saw this video – I read a children’s book called The Wolf Wilder. Author, Katherine Rundell, bases this exotic adventure on the real concept of ‘rewilding’ wild animals who have formerly been tamed. In the story the wolf wilder is actually a feisty young girl called Feodora who lives in freezing Russia with her wolf-wilding mother and a pack of wolves. When Feo’s mother is kidnapped Feo chases after her with the wolves, making friends as she goes and starting a revolution. It’s an entrancing, almost bizarre story in which children – and wild wolves – are firmly the heroes. I highly recommend it.

Reading fiction – especially in the Wolf Wilder’s case – is an entertaining way of confronting very serious issues. Likewise, non-fiction told in narrative form can be an effective way of holding and at the same teaching an audience. The Radium Girls by Kate Moore is a case in point.

the radium girlsAs recently as 2011 a bronze statue was unveiled in Ottawa, Illinois to commemorate a group of women ‘dial painters’ known as the ‘radium girls’. Kate Moore tells in her book The Dial Painters the horrific story of young women who were employed in America during World War I to paint dials on watches and clocks used in the war effort. The paint these women used contained radium. The poisonous effects of the radium on the women were astounding. Bones became brittle, teeth loosened, jawbones cracked and fell out of the gums, cancers grew to huge proportions and blood markers changed. Many died excruciatingly painful deaths. And even in death the women’s skeletons glowed with radium.

What was even more astounding was their employers’ cover-up, denial and outright lies regarding the dangers of radium. It was the bravery of a handful of these women that finally resulted in proper workplace safety standards and government legislation regarding radium. The contribution to science – thanks to the girls’ suffering – has been invaluable.

All of this was told in an easy-reading style – as a story – as opposed to history. The characters were written by Moore as real, individual – and therefore relatable – people. I also highly recommend this book.

Middlesex and the Subject of Intersex

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides is now one of my most memorable reads. I read this 2002 novel for the first time in 2015 and listened recently to the audio version. The latter was brilliantly narrated by Kristoffer Tabori. Tabori appears to know the text intimately and gives just the right inflection. Because of Tabori’s reading I realised just how funny Middlesex really is. One of the most amusing scenes comes right near the end when the main character’s father, Milton Stephanides, dies in a car crash while chasing another vehicle. Milton’s life stretches out before him in his last moments and, in some way, his thoughts act as a summary of the different strands the text of Middlesex explores.

These strands include the troubling subject of intersex conditions, cultural prejudices in Detroit USA, and the replacement of an older generation (and its viewpoint) by a younger one. The scene is also a fine example of the intriguing narrative technique used by Eugenides. Eugenides uses a combination of first person and third-person omniscient narrative viewpoint. This has the effect of casting Cal Stephanides, the ‘I’ in the book, as an omniscient narrator of his own life, from before conception to present day. So, in the scene when Cal’s father, Milton, meets his end, it appears as if Cal has entered his own father’s head. I loved this masterful narrative technique.

Of course, the opening scene of the book is one readers of Middlesex are also likely never to forget: ‘I was born twice: first, as a baby girl…. and then again, as a teenage boy…’ Readers immediately have an idea of the subject that is to follow. Eugenides employs this foreshadowing method throughout. It functions to draw the reader in, and in no way spoils the experience of this complex, highly thought-provoking novel.

It is thought-provoking in large part because of its treatment of the sensitive subject of intersex conditions. Middlesex attributes the abnormal development of intersex to incest. But then goes on to portray the main character (Cal Stephanides) as choosing to embrace the facets of his condition, rather than trying to change it.

One viewpoint that endorses embracing intersex conditions rather than trying to change them is the Christian ‘The Reformation Project’. The speakers in this Youtube video say that God created all variations of gender and should therefore be accepted as they are.

For a slightly different perspective a very thoughtful Christian talk from the Gospel Coalition on the subject can be listened to here. Andrew Wilson, the speaker, emphasises what a loving Christian response should be to intersex conditions and how to live with them.

 

 

What do We Communicate to our Children?

I read two books this month aimed at vastly different audiences. One was The Secret Garden, a children’s book by Frances Hodgson Burnett published in 1911. The other was Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, a book for adults written by Gail Honeyman and published in 2017.

Despite being written in different centuries and for different audiences there was one particular theme that ran through both of them. This was: neglectful parents and the effect that neglect can have on what children believe about themselves.

The main characters in The Secret Garden, Mary Lennox and Colin Craven, both have distant parents. Mary’s mother is a socialite who is too busy to bother with her daughter. When Mary’s parents both die, their absence makes little sentimental difference to the already lonely, emotionally stunted girl. Her cousin, Colin, is actually physically stunted because of his father’s neglect. After Colin’s mother dies Mr Craven withdraws from his son. Craven firmly believes that Colin will become a hunchback like himself and die young. Despite having nothing biologically wrong with him Colin appropriates his father’s beliefs and subsequently lives the miserable life of an invalid.

In Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, main character Eleanor is likewise disregarded by a delinquent, powerful mother. Eleanor’s mother is in fact cruel and abusive, the full extent of which is gradually revealed as the book progresses. And into adulthood it is ‘Mummy’s’ voice in her own head that Eleanor simply can’t shake. A voice that constantly tells Eleanor she’s a bad, insipid, useless individual who will never amount to anything. Like Mary and Colin, Eleanor takes on board her parent’s beliefs about herself. And she becomes a friendless, tactless, emotionally immature person.

Happily, there is a positive resolution for all three characters. In each case it is the ministrations of friendship that launches a change. Much else could be said of both books and their tropes and themes. But having read them alongside each other this theme of parental influence on self-belief (or unbelief) is what stood out for me. The books are a sobering example of how parental treatment of, and communication with, our children can have such a powerful and material influence on who they become.

By Brenda Daniels

Book Club Benefits

My book and movie entertainment this week was local, down to the town in which I live. More than the pleasurable local aspect, my enjoyment of the book in question was greatly increased by the book club discussion around it; I should think of joining a movie club to, similarly, enhance my appreciation of the films I watch.

The film I saw, 3 Days to Go, by producer Bianca Isaac, showed familiar backdrops of the Durban beachfront and shoreline. Summer sunshine filtering through in the indoor shots was, likewise, wonderfully recognizable. As with the setting, I thought the filming itself was well done and made for good viewing.

The story of 3 Days to Go revolves around the death of the patriarch of a South African Indian family. Upon his death, for the first time in many years, the man’s four adult children return to the family home and to their widowed mother. Tensions ensue as each comes with a load of baggage. Abusive or wayward husbands, difficult teenage children, gambling brothers, schemes, betrayal, extended family issues and more are what emerge during the three short days before the man’s final ocean memorial.

I’m not a fan of all romantic comedy, and some of the acting in 3 Days to Go is a bit stilted. But the actors themselves are beautiful to behold, and the film will find a following amongst audiences.

Family concerns and more also feature in the book The Blessed Girl by South African author, Angela Makholwa. More seriously, The Blessed Girl raises the thorny (horny?) subject of blessers – people ‘(usually male and married) – who sponsor younger women with luxury gifts or a luxurious lifestyle in exchange for short- to medium-term sexual relationships’ (The Blessed Girl).  During a lively discussion of the book at the book club I attend we discussed the author’s treatment of the role of social media, the mockery of government corruption, male irresponsibility, shocking family handling of young girls, drugs, and of course the prevalence of blessers and blessees. The Blessed Girl is written in a flow-of-consciousness, conversational style, and is laced with humour and colloquialisms that I especially enjoyed.

Disagreements as to the merits of The Blessed Girl, and grappling with the issues raised in this book made for fruitful discussion.

Here’s to South African flavour and to discussion forums!

The Blessed Girl is available on Kindle. 3 Days to Go opens at South African cinemas on 25 January 2019.