Monday, 30 April 2012

Wrestling with Middle-Eastern History

As a historian by training - specifically art history - I should read more history than I do. One of the many 'shoulds' that have the potential to plague me if I let myself start paying too much attention to them... One of the books I bought recently is Scars of War, Wounds of Peace. The Israeli-Arab Tragedy by Shlomo Ben-Ami. Ben-Ami is a historian, was educated at Tel Aviv University and Oxford, was professor of modern history at Tel Aviv University, after which he was appointed Israel's ambassador to Spain in 1987. He became involved in the Arab-Israeli peace process in 1991, entered politics in 1996 and was part of the Camp David summit as part of Ehud Barak's government, and is now vice president of the Toledo Peace Centre in Spain.

In the book's prelude, Ben-Ami writes:
Though written by a historian who is aware and respectful of the requirements of the discipline, it [the book] should not be read as exhaustive or academic research or as a meticulous narrative history, for it is neither. Rather, it is a general interpretative overview where my understanding of, and my insights about, the story of the pendulous move of Jews and Arabs between war and peace are intertwined in the very broad lines of the unfolding story.
I am not very far into the body of the book yet, as my reading time has again been limited by my need to get through a stack of work, and this is not the pick up and put down reading that is possible with children's literature. Ben-Ami starts with the clash of Jewish and Palestinian nationalism between 1936-1939, with references to the beginning of modern aliyot by European Jews, inspired by Theodor Herzl's Zionist movement, created in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair in France. In the first chapter, he focuses on the varying political ideologies within the Zionist movement and the persistence of Jewish settlers in bringing to life a dream of a homeland in the face of legal restrictions under the British mandate, and growing conflict with the local Arab population. He looks also at the challenges facing the Arabs; their lack of cohesive leadership, varying ideas of identity and, ultimately - at that time - a lack of 'nationhood' that characterised the local Arab communities in the early days of the Zionist settlement. He cites 'tribal and local loyalties more than a defined national identity' as being typical at the time, and that the people themselves largely regarded themselves as being part of Southern Syria and as part of the 'Arab nation', rather than as 'Palestinians'.

So far, Ben-Ami appears to be striving to look objectively at the events of history. That the early settlers bought land from the original Arab owners, who were all too willing to exchange what they saw as unproductive territory for cash. He speaks also of the factions within the Arab communities at the time, and conflicting instructions given by the heads of different groups, resulting in the sale of land in some areas, and holding on to it in others, but ultimately, continuing chaos.

It is thought provoking and useful to have a source of information that is, based on what I've read so far, an open attempt to lay out the events as they happened that looks at both sides. Discussions about the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian struggle polarise people, but it can be very difficult to wade through the media coverage and gain a sense of what really goes on - on both sides. There are extremists on both sides, there are decisions being made by both sides that are costing lives, and there is - to point out the obvious - no simple solution.

Watch this space. As I work through the book, I will write more of what Ben-Ami says, and how it looks to me with my own experience of Israel, and as a Jew working for a Christian organisation where I quite often face strong anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian sentiments. I want to see a peaceful solution, I don't know many people who don't want that. What it will take to achieve is more than I can even hazard a guess at. Laying down the weapons - on both sides - would be a huge start. At the same time, that requires trust on both sides that is short supply, for which there are also good reasons...

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Bookworms will rule the world...

A friend of mine posted a mad picture on Facebook the other day that just cracked me up, and as I said in a comment at the time, "I must have this for my blog", because it is, possibly, one of the undeniable facts/characteristics about the dedicated book junkie. (That last bit...dedicated book junkie...bit of a tautology, perhaps?) Anyway, for those of you who qualify, here it is, and for those of you who are following this blog who haven't yet reached full book junkie status, mind with the potential smart comments...!

Picture: Belcastro Agency

And why this topic this morning? Well, the weekly assignment is hanging over my head - I freelance for a ghost writing company, and we have a large regular order of blog posts to fill each week, with each of us having anywhere between ten and forty to write... Sometimes I get on a roll and they just write themselves. This is not one of those weeks, and I'm doing them in small bites. Avoidance appears to be the more powerful motivation than getting the words down - and writing my own blog posts, which don't have clunky, unwieldy key word phrases, are about something I enjoy, and via which I gain interesting conversations with my increasing group of visitors that are most satisfying feels like a much more attractive option! Sadly, the other ones are the ones that pay, so there is an imperative to get them done - quite apart from the enormous sense of freedom I experience once they're uploaded onto the work portal, knowing I can go do something more fun - like read - without feeling that nagging sense of unfinished work.

I finished Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. For those of you who have only seen the film, go find the book - seriously. It is a lovely read, and a very, very different experience to the film - which is, as the note in the credits said, 'based on the novel by Paul Torday' - my emphasis. When film makers use an existing book as a premise for a film, they have a number of options, some of which may or may not be dictated by the involvement of the author. I referred to the Harry Potter franchise in my previous post, and that is a case in point, as JK Rowling was a constant presence in the transition from book to big screen, and it shows in the finished films. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen takes the main concept - that of the salmon fishing mad Yemeni sheik building a river in Yemen specifically for fly fishing - and some of the central characters, and then weaves a story loosely based on the original text. And it works - it's a lovely film.

The book takes the narrative to a totally different conclusion, with all the complexities of international, party, personal and environmental politics driving the story to its, possibly, inevitable ending - which is an ending with some degree of things unfinished. Not useful for a film maker, but workable in a novel, where we get to carry on the possibilities in our own heads, if we are so minded. I'm not going to go into the details, because I'd really like to encourage you all to go find the book, but there are all sorts of personal untidinesses in Torday's book that get only lightly touched on in the film - they'd get in the way of the conclusion of the film, which is much more 'happily ever after' than the original. Many things get resolved in the film that, in the book, can't be - and, therefore, have to be lived with by the characters. Ultimately, I think I found the novel the more satisfying of the two - although, the visuals in the film are glorious. I'm not sure where they shot the film - whether they actually were in the Yemen - but the stark beauty of those locations was absolutely breathtaking. I remember similarly brutally rugged deserts when I traveled south in Israel in January 2008. Having grown up in a desert region of my country, there is something very powerful about the majesty of these bare landscapes with which I identify. For that alone - almost - I'd see the film again!

I then read Living Memory by Andor Schwartz, the story of a Hungarian Jew's survival during the Holocaust. It was, as the rabbi who write the foreword said, absolutely gripping - despite (and this is not what the rabbi said, it's my experience) the somewhat rambling, stream of consciousness style of the narrative. Schwartz wanders back and forth in memory as he tells his story, very much as if each chapter is the writing down of an actual conversation. Having heard so many Survivor stories, and worked with Survivors, it was very much as if I were in the room with him. However, I can imagine that there might be some readers for whom it could be frustrating and irritating - in much the same way as it is possible to get frustrated and irritated having conversations with elderly people whose memory wanders off track. 

Having said that, I have two very important memories from my time as a Holocaust educator at the Sydney Jewish Museum. One is something one of the Survivors used to say to the kids at the end of his testimony, "Go home and tell your families that today you met a man called Eddie, and this is his story". He was the sole survivor in his family, and part of the reason he tells his story is so that those who hear it will continue to pass it on so that his beloved family members are not forgotten. The second was while I was studying in Jerusalem at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum. One of our presenters stood in from of us and told us, most emphatically, "Don't try and teach six million". No one can absorb six million - it's just too many people. She taught us to seek out stories of individuals and teach those. As individuals, we can hear another person's story. We can find elements with which to identify, and so we remember. We have just gone past Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. It has been with me, and I always try to find and read a new story of survival around this time for this very reason.

And so, on that somewhat introspective note, I will end this post and battle my way back into my work so that I have a good chunk of it finished by the end of the day. It is due for upload on Tuesday. In order to not fall into the trap of the picture (!), I started re-reading Mary Norton's The Borrowers, a much loved children's classic, which I know so well it is perfectly possible to put it down mid-chapter and get on with what I should be doing!

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Confessions of a book junkie's recent retail sins...

It happened again.

I went to the bookshop near my office the other day. I went for a specific reason - to get the second in the Hunger Games trilogy, because they had them in their window a few weeks ago. However, the first thing I saw when I walked through the door was the sequence of large tables covered in books...SALE.


I mean, really... I am not proof against three tables full of discounted books. Three tables full, I might add, of hardcovers with dust jackets, priced at either $10 or $15... I appeal to my fellow book junkies, some of whom I know follow this blog, for support. What would you have done???

I succumbed. I am not regretful. Because - and as all good book junkies know, the ability to justify the purchase of a book with a creative premise is mandatory - Dearly Beloved and I went to see Salmon Fishing in the Yemen on the weekend. It was a miserable, rainy afternoon, neither of us felt like working, so we headed for chock-tops and a feel-good movie. Which it is - for any of you who haven't yet seen it, GO. Anyways, just as we were getting out of our seats, I caught the magic words 'adapted from the novel by...' - didn't catch the name... The first book I saw on the first table in the shop was a tiny, fat, blue dust jacketed hardcover of the novel from the film - which is by Paul Torday.

Now, I have some issues about films made from books, which I'm sure many of you share. There is nothing worse than going to see a film made from a book you've loved, and imagined and seen in your imagination for years - and to see a travesty of the story and characters on the big screen. (Small screen adaptations - unless made by the BBC - can be even worse...Little House on the Prairie comes to mind...) It's nearly always better to discover a book via a film than to do the reverse. I certainly found that with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy. Thoroughly enjoyed the films, and love the details and subtleties in the books which I discovered reading them much later.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is one of those delightfully quirky British films that can't really fail to charm. The trailers suggested something above the average chick flick, I liked the cast, and it delivered so much more. The book is a different beastie altogether. It is epistolary in structure, which is one of the more challenging ways to craft a narrative, especially in this case where there are so many voices. There are diary entries, email exchanges, transcripts of interviews and interrogations, just to name a few. Where the film has a straightforward linear narrative, the book runs overlapping narratives as it moves between voices. The interrogation transcripts suggest (I'm about halfway through reading) a future investigation, that isn't part of the film, that the author breaks up and situates, segment by segment, in the 'real' time of the narrative. It's fascinating, and adds a richly textured colour that isn't a part of the film.

It brought me back to The Hunger Games - that book may never leave me.... - and another blog post I found with an excellent discussion about both book and film which you can find here. If you read it, have a look also at the comments, because it generated a great discussion. The writer, another Karen, also saw the film - which I have yet to do. She made a particularly interesting comment about the 'voice' of the story. In the book, we experience the story through Katniss, the lead character. We get everything from her, warts and all. Think about it... When we speak to people, we edit. What goes on in our heads, in immediate response to what we hear, see and experience isn't edited. And sometimes, the first thing we think isn't nice... In the book, we get all of that from Katniss. We feel her anguish when Rue dies, followed by her fierce and angry sense of rebellion when she covers Rue's body with flowers - an act edited out in the final televised version - her confusion about Peeta and whether or not his professed love for her is real or manufactured for the game, and everything in between. In her discussion on the blog, Karen - and others in the conversation via the comments - make the point that with the single viewpoint of watcher, we don't have access to the intensity of that unedited experience which is possible in a book.

I didn't buy the second book in the series. By the time I got to the end of the tables, I had Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, a Holocaust memoir, a story from a member of the French Resistance in WWII, a biography of Louisa May Alcott, a dissertation by an Israeli historian on the Arab/Israeli conflict from 1936 to now, a cool book on maths for Twenty - who was here for a holiday - and a book on Roman emperors for Dearly Beloved. I figured that was enough to go on with and continuing with The Hunger Games could probably wait!

I think I need another bookcase.

Oh, and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel also started life as a novel...

Thursday, 12 April 2012

The Hunger Games - reflections

Well, where to start...

Clearly from all your comments, here on the blog and on Facebook, this book generates strong feelings across the generations. While it may have been written initially for the young adult market, it is being read by people from at least twelve upwards, and there are varying editions now available to cater for that mix - Sixteen says my paperback edition, bought from the adult shelves in Oscar's is way cooler than the one he read, with the original teen-oriented cover design.

This cross generational phenomenon isn't new. The Harry Potter books and movies generated the same broad spectrum of patronage. I eventually succumbed to Harry Potter because Twenty was having it read in class by his teacher when he was six, so I thought I'd better read it. I took him to the first movie six months later. I bring it up because in our discussions about The Hunger Games, this came up, including his memories of being absolutely terrified by the scenes with the chess match. He also made the valid point that there are children as young as he was then being taken to the final installments of the Harry Potter movies, which are far from being gentle entertainment for small children.

This raises one of the issues that emerged over various discussions I've had during the last twenty-four hours with an increasingly large group of people, which is the age appropriateness of some of this genre - or not so much that, because I think that Collins was definitely targeting kids of the lead character's, Katniss, age (16) - rather the availability to younger kids in terms of both accessibility and changing trends in what they should and shouldn't be allowed to access. Much younger kids than that are reading it - check out Mel's comments on the previous post. She teaches twelve and thirteen year olds...and they're reading it and going to the movie. Again, this is not unusual these days. However, as Mel says in her comments, these kids are just out of primary school - they're not the target audience.

On this theme, referring to another earlier experience of Twenty's... When he was nine, in year five at school, his teacher proposed that for the next class reading project, they'd tackle John Marsden's Tomorrow When the War Began. I'd read this book, because Twenty-six did had done it at school not long before and struggled with it - at fifteen...the age for which the book and its sequels were intended. It deals with a small group of country kids who spend a weekend in the bush camping and come back home to find that, in their absence, the country has been invaded and their parents have been taken prisoner along with the entire local population. They choose to fight and the series follows them through learning to be guerrilla soldiers, dealing with developing sexuality and relationship issues, death, authority issues - all in the context of a war. I was gobsmacked when Twenty said that's what their next book was going to be and headed into the school to question the teacher. On questioning, it turned out he hadn't actually read it - but he'd followed the hype, read about Marsden and his writing for young people, and thought they'd be great. I spelled out to him exactly why they were totally inappropriate for nine year olds, and told him I'd be making an enormous fuss if he went ahead. He read the book and pulled it. Twenty, at the time, was half admiring and half peeved and pestered me to read them, as we had them all at home. I refused, on exactly the same grounds, was backed up by Twenty-six, and he didn't read them until he was in his mid teens - and understood then why I'd taken my stance.

There seem to be hugely blurry lines between what our kids should and shouldn't read/watch/hear these days. And that, I suspect, is at the bottom of a lot of the contention about The Hunger Games. In an interview at Scholastic Books, Collins was asked about the inspiration for the story, she cites the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. OK, fair enough. Then - and this is where the contemporary culture element raises its head - she says she was tired, channel surfing on TV, flicked between channels showing, alternatively, war coverage and a reality show with kids competing - and 'the lines began to blur'. So what we have is a totalitarian regime, ruled from one region, the Capitol, which is supplied with all its needs by the work of the population in the other twelve oppressed regions. Every year, a girl and a boy between twelve and eighteen are chosen by lot to represent their districts in the ultimate, gladiatorial reality version of Survivor where, to win and return home to their family, the victor has to kill or be killed. They are groomed and presented at the beginning of the contest in a way that is calculated to make them appeal to the populous and attract sponsorship - the more sponsors, the greater chance they have of gifts that could mean the difference between life and death. Then they are thrown into the arena, equipped with tracking devices so that their movements can be monitored at all times, where there are embedded cameras that broadcast the 'game' to the whole population.

In searching for commentary, I came across a number of different critical pieces that have been written about this genre of young adult dystopian fiction. Laura Miller in her essay for The New Yorker, 'Fresh Hell', makes comparisons between the adult and young adult versions of the genre, saying that the YA version offers a stream of hope that is not usually a feature in the adult form, citing as examples Brave New World and 1984. She also acknowledges that the YA version has been around for years, listing titles like Robert C. O'Brien's Z for Zacharia and John Christopher's The White Mountains Trilogy - both of which I have in my bookcase from my original teen collection... She's right. And I read them. Z for Zacharia still spooks me to this day, the Christopher books not so much. The thing is, while the essence of the struggles for survival in both books are marked by the powerlessness of kids against adult authority - in the same way as The Hunger Games - they are nowhere near as graphic, but none the less powerful for the lack of gore.

I think that part of my cringe reaction to The Hunger Games comes from the same place that prompts me to avoid most current reality television, gratuitously violent movies and violent TV series. With a lot of reality television there is, for me, a subversive sense of glamourisation of the levels that people will stoop to in order to take others down in an artificially created environment in order to win a large sum of money. To take the premise behind many of these shows and use it as the basis for a story for kids where the prize at the end of the game is your life, because everyone else has been killed and you're the last one standing - and you've had to take part in the killing as well... - is a frightening extension of what has become, via programs like Survivor, Big Brother, even My Biggest Loser, a societal condoning of behaviour that we wouldn't normally accept in the normal course of functional relationships.

Sixteen loved this book. He said it was really cool. He told me that he didn't think it was really my kind of reading - to which I responded that I'll read nearly anything if it's between two covers, which made him laugh. But, my point about Sixteen and this generation and loving this book, is that this is the generation who grew up with games on screens, played with a mouse or a joystick, where to win, you have to splatter characters across the screen in great floods of messy, gory graphics. For them, the evening news has been one war after another. I remember the first Gulf War and the coverage with night vision of the missiles being fired - it looked just like one of the emerging computer games... If it isn't the news, it's a program where the whole basis is a competition. Just look at what's on offer and ask yourself where the quality programs, adaptations from good literature, documentaries, clever comedies have all gone. If it isn't a reality show, it's probably a crime series - more killing... It has become so normal to watch death, and to make a game of it.

And this book is about a game of death. A game. Sure, there are other issues that can be taken from it, and probably discussed very usefully with the kids. But at what point do we stop and consider that one basic fact - that this is a book where death is a game and it is children killing children, being watched and manipulated to do so by adults, for entertainment?

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Shopping, shopping, shopping....

Oh dear...the bookshop... Our local indi bookshop, Oscar's. I am going to blame it on the pressures of contemporary culture, and any number of other factors that a well-practiced book junkie can summon up to justify a literary spending spree...

Actually, it could have been worse. It could have been a lot worse. Consider this scenario... There is a new blockbuster film out in the cinemas that everyone is talking about; an adaptation of the first novel in a teen series. Sixteen informs me that the book was fantastic, and haven't I read it? Really? And no, I reply to the incredulous face - after all, I've read everything, haven't I? - I haven't read this particular series. You should, he tells me, cos it's fantastic. And then there's the movie and all the hype. And then, there's this thing I have that reacts against that kind of hype and refuses, utterly, to have anything to do with whatever the new, fabulous thing is that everyone should read/see/eat/ I put lots of energy into not buying/reading/eating/seeing whatever the new super-hyped thing is. It's how I missed out on the beginnings of Harry Potter, never watched Friends or Sex and the City (both of which I'm catching up on way after the original telecasts), and any number of other things - some of which I've discovered way later and some of which I've never taken on.

This time, it's The Hunger Games. So much advertising and such a lot of commentary - and it's the latter that's finally got me to the point that I went to the bookshop to buy a copy of the first book. Recently, there was an opinion piece by Clare Cannon in the Sydney Morning Herald that caught my attention. She's a reviewer and had read and reviewed the books originally, but says she won't see the film. Her commentary focused on the artificiality of the concept. She points to the glorification of violence, the desensitisation of violence and murder that is, in the narrative, justifiable in order for the lead character to survive, desensitisation - again - to sexual exploitation, and sensational story telling...likening it to the graphic depiction of war and other acts of violence that we are now accustomed to seeing on the evening news.

A family friend of mine, a contemporary of Twentysix's, is a high school teacher, teaching back at their high school. She's on holidays at the moment, and decided to read The Hunger Games, because her students are all talking about it. She posted on Facebook how disturbing she was finding it, and made a comment that had she read it at the age a lot of her students are doing so, she'd have found it even more disturbing. We chatted about it and I sent her the link to the aforementioned article. I have yet to hear her final view of the book.

However, I now own a copy of the first book and it's my next read, so watch this space for my thoughts. I am certainly less eager to see the movie at this stage as I am bothered by the commentary so far.

In addition to The Hunger Games - which is why I went to the bookshop - I came away with two other books. One was impossible not to buy - it was on a sale table outside the shop...and it cost $10 for a ducky little hardback. The Lost Art of Reading by David L. Ulin is a 'ruminative essay' that speaks to the concept that, in these days of electronic media, 'reading is a revolutionary act.' Given where I started with this blog, this was $10 worth of irresistible purchase!

That in hand, I went into the shop in search of The Hunger Games, which meant wandering past many shelves full of books, against which I am simply not proof after many weeks of reading deprivation and, when I did manage to read, re-reading.... So, when I found Joanna Trollope's latest offering, The Soldier's Wife, I picked that up too. I do enjoy her books - she's one of the most consistent exponents of the contemporary novel. It's not high literature, but it's good solid writing of current times and issues, and she tells a good story peopled with believable characters.

There were many other books picked up, and resolutely put back. Tough call with many of them. But I have three new books that will find homes in different parts of the bookcases. This post is pre reading any of them, so there will be reviews and my commentary to follow...