Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Faith, Feminism and Fearlessness

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a courageous, outspoken and inspiring woman. As a politician, writer, speaker, feminist and advocate she has continually challenged the position of women in Islamic societies and the practice of female genital mutilation.  

Infidel: My Life (2007) details Hirsi Ali’s childhood and youth in Africa and the Middle East. She enlightens readers with her first hand account of life as a young Muslim woman in an increasingly oppressive society.

Hirsi Ali was born into a political family in Somalia. With her father often absent, Hirsi Ali’s mother and grandmother raised her and her siblings. Her mother was a harsh disciplinarian and her grandmother was insistent on circumcising the young girl despite her father’s opposition. Moving to Nairobi, Hirsi Ali went to an Islamic school and became increasingly devout.

Later her father arranges her marriage, and while en route to Canada to live with her husband, she seeks asylum in the Netherlands. Lying to authorities to claim refugee status, she is permitted to stay in the Netherlands. Here she attends university, becomes a politician and is elected to Parliament. When her film maker friend Theo van Gogh is killed by Muslim extremists, Hirsi Ali goes into hiding and lives under armed guard because of constant death threats.

Infidel: My Life is more than a memoir. It is a biography, certainly, and a coming of age story. But it is also a treatise on women in Islam, a free speech, on immigration and on Islam itself.

I particularly enjoyed the way Hirsi Ali describes her early devotion to Islam and her gradual awakening and growing atheism. Overall it is an excellent read and a compelling story of an inspirational woman.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Maugham's Melodrama in Malaya

“The Letter” first appeared in 1926 as a short story by W. Somerset Maugham in his collection The Casuarina Tree (later published by Vintage in Collected Short Stories Volume 4). In 1927 Maugham dramatised “The Letter” as a play which was performed in London and on Broadway. First filmed by Paramount in 1929, Warner Brothers remade the picture in 1940. 
Set in British Malaya, Leslie Crosbie is the wife of a farmer living on a rubber plantation. Leslie shoots and kills a man named Hammond, allegedly in self defence when he attempts rape. Arrested and put on trial for Hammond’s murder, the case is relatively straight forward but Leslie’s lawyer, Howard Joyce, worries about how to explain the six shots she fired at close range, four of which land in Hammond’s back.
Before trial, Joyce is advised of incriminating evidence that could damn his client in the form of a letter Leslie wrote to Hammond. Leslie’s husband Robert tells Joyce to spare no expense to free his wife from jail or possible hanging, so Joyce secures the letter for $10,000 despite the compromise to his ethics and potential legal repercussions. Joyce is conflicted not knowing whether his client is an innocent woman defending her honour or a calculating adulteress who committed cold blooded murder.
The short story is delightful, littered with Maugham’s clever dialogue and colourful imagery. I love the way he describes the Chinese woman residing with Hammond as being stout with a “broad, phlegmatic face”. Another example is the way Leslie’s face changes when confronted with the letter:
“… as she read a horrible change came over her. Her colourless face grew dreadful to look at. It turned green. The flesh seemed on a sudden to fall away and her skin was tightly stretched over her bones. Her lips receded, showing her teeth, so that she had the appearance of making a grimace.”
The 1940 film directed by William Wyler stars the brilliant Bette Davis at her melodramatic best as the plucky but plain Leslie Crosbie. The black and white cinematography punctuates the atmosphere, with mood lighting through venetian blinds or in the form of shadows from the full moon. The score by Max Steiner swells and flourishes to dramatic effect.
Thankfully the film makes the most of Maugham’s dialogue. Some elements of the story were changed to add to the drama in the film version. For example, in the story Mr Crosbie travels with Joyce to collect the letter while in the film Leslie goes to allow for a wordless, yet dramatic meeting of the two women in Hammond’s life. The source of the funds to purchase the letter varies in each version. But the largest change is with the film’s ending, allowing audiences to see that ‘justice’ is done with Leslie getting her comeuppance.
The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards including best picture, director, actress, supporting actor (James Stephenson as Joyce), cinematography, editing and score.

Friday, 22 July 2011

A Life Less Ordinary

Lawrence Hill’s bestselling novel The Book of Negroes (2007) is a reflection by the elderly Aminita Diallo as she looks back on her life prior to the British abolition of slavery. Aminata’s story is an epic journey from her childhood in an African village, transportation as a slave to America to work on an indigo plantation, on to New York, then Nova Scotia, returning to Africa before finally settling in London in 1802.

The author was inspired by the 1783 historical document The Book of Negroes, which is a register of 3000 former slaves who fought for the British in the American Revolution and thus granted passage to British colonies. Many of those registered settled in Nova Scotia while others returned to Africa to work for the Sierra Leone Company in Freetown.

I have read many novels that explored the lives of slaves, but never before have I been so engrossed. Aminata is an extraordinary woman (more resilient and stronger than Sethe in Toni Morrison’s Beloved) and her first person narrative invites the reader to feel her fear, pain, horror, joy and hope directly.

Hill’s research of the historical fact is seemlessly woven into the novel. He alerted me to aspects of Canadian history and the abolitionist movement that I had never known. I would highly recommend this compelling, thought-provoking, page-turning read.

It was awarded the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for Best Overall Book (2008) and chosen as the winner of Canada Reads (2009). In Australia The Book of Negroes is published as Someone Knows My Name.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Good Times in Bon Temps

As a fan of the HBO series True Blood, to fill the gap between the airing of seasons 3 and 4 I commenced reading the first two Sookie Stackhouse novels by Charlaine Harris, on which the television series is based.

Set in the fictional small town Bon Temps Louisiana, in America’s Deep South, locals hang out at Merlotte’s bar, attend church, and generally hold conservative values. But supernatural elements permeate this idyllic setting with telepaths, shape-shifters, vampires, werewolves and others secretly living alongside the human inhabitants.

With the invention of a mass produced synthetic blood product, vampires no longer need to feed on humans. Seemingly less threatening, vampires have ‘come out’ and are attempting to assert their political and civil rights. While feared by people who do not wish to associate with the undead, they hold a seductive allure to others known as fang bangers.

The central character is the sassy, straight talking, waitress Sookie Stackhouse. She is a telepath who hears the thoughts of those around her. Sookie is in love with local vampire and civil war veteran Bill Compton.  She also has other men in her life like her goofy brother Jason, shape-shifting boss Sam, and Bill’s main rival, vampire Eric Northman.

Part romance, part fantasy, these are also mystery books collectively known as the Southern Vampire Mystery series. Sookie puts her telepathic skills to work as amateur detective. The first two books of the series, Dead Until Dark (2001) and Living Dead in Dallas (2002), see Sookie using her telepathy to identify a serial killer in Bon Temps and infiltrate the anti-vampire religious cult, Fellowship of the Sun.

There are problems with pacing in the books and the number of characters can often be overwhelming. But Harris' dialogue is excellent - quick, witty, and dry – and her humour matches her story telling abilities.

The novels, while entertaining and engaging in their own right, left me feeling even more impressed with the True Blood television series. Creator Alan Ball has taken elements of the various books and woven them across the seasons so it is not a novel-by-novel adaptation. This allows for appreciation of both the books and television series without spoilers. In fact while the books made me admire the TV series more, the TV series encouraged greater enjoyment of the books. I cannot wait to see/read what happens next in Bon Temps.

My review of the third novel in this series, Club Dead (2003), is also available on this blog. 

Monday, 4 July 2011

The Smoke Clears

Since 1994 I have had a relationship with New Jersey bounty hunter Stephanie Plum. In recent years the relationship has been strained as my enjoyment of the series has wavered.

The first few Plum novels were fantastic – hilarious, well written, with interesting story lines. As the series became more popular, however, the plots got thinner and the laughs more distant. There have been times where I have considered turning my back on Evanovich. But each year when the next instalment is released I immediately rush to read it despite my disappointment in the previous book (and my deep dislike of the ‘between the numbers’ novellas).

Thankfully Smokin’ Seventeen is a vast improvement over books 13-16 and is, in many ways, a return to the form of the earlier Plum books. The story begins at the Vincent Plum Bail Bonds office, which is now a building site. Bodies are being dumped there and the killer is trying to attract the attention of Stephanie. In between collecting bail skips and eating fast food, Stephanie tries to figure out the killer’s identity (although it’s fairly obvious).

Evanovich described this as her ‘sex book’ and there is a lot of it as Morelli’s Grandma Bella puts a "vordo" curse on Stephanie. She is still trying to decide whether she should be with on/off boyfriend Morelli or the enigmatic Ranger. This indecision over these two gorgeous men has dragged on a bit too long.

There is plenty of humour too. Lula fears she is becoming a vampire. Stephanie’s mother attempts to set her up with a man who will cook for her. The biggest weakness in this novel is that Grandma Mazur only has a minor role. But there are plenty of other characters to keep the reader engaged.

In other Plum news, the first book in the series One for the Money has been made into a film starring Katherine Heigl as Stephanie, due for release in January 2012. The next Evanovich book, Explosive Eighteen, will be out in November 2011.

Friday, 1 July 2011

How Malcolm's Mind Works

Malcolm Gladwell’s What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures is a collection of the author’s articles published in The New Yorker magazine from 1996 to 2008. While articles are loosely grouped together, it is the sort of book you can pick up to read the articles in no particular order.

Gladwell has an inquisitive mind, which leads him to examine a diverse range of obscure and interesting topics including: birth control; breast screening; plagiarism; ketchup; criminal profiling; and, kitchen gadgets.

Despite the high quality of the writing, the variety in the subject matter results in an uneven read. Some topics were fascinating while others left me shrugging indifferently. There were a number of chapters which particularly interested me and that I continue to ponder.

The chapter I think about most often is “Million Dollar Murray”. It describes how solutions that can end homelessness (like free housing) are more cost effective than the support services needed to assist the homeless. Gladwell reviews the causes of homelessness (often addiction, mental illness and/or unemployment) and the costs of supporting the homeless (medical, legal, shelters, rehab etc). He then examines how several American cities approached this complex issue.

Giving hope to those of us who were not child prodigies, “Late Bloomers” looks at people who have not found their passions until later in life and then excelled.

In “The Art of Failure” Gladwell explores what happens when competent, qualified and experienced people are under pressure and let their emotions get the better of them. Do they choke or do they panic – and what determines their response?

The difficulties of hiring the right person for the job was the subject of “Most Likely to Succeed” where Gladwell looked at how someone who looks good on paper may fail in a different environment.

These are just a few of the thought provoking and insightful articles that I particularly enjoyed. What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures would also be excellent fodder for group discussion and debate.