Sunday, 29 September 2013

Have a Nice Day!

American writer Barbara Ehrenreich wrote Smile of Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World (2009) in response to the multi-billion dollar industry promoting the notion that positive thinking can cure what ails you.

When she was diagnosed with breast cancer, Ehrenreich became frustrated by continually being told during her treatment and recovery that attitude was the key to her survival. From the pink products and positive affirmations, to putting on a brave face for loved ones and survivor stories, there was an expectation that patients must see illness as an opportunity and have the right attitude to get well.

Sceptical of the guff surrounding thinking your way to wellness, Ehrenreich set out to explore the origins of this new thinking from the 19th century response to Calvinism though to motivational speakers, self-help gurus, spiritual advisers, and get-rich-quick schemes. She discovered that Americans have whole-heartedly bought in to the belief that you can visualise health, wealth and happiness. All it takes to attain your desires is thinking yourself in a new situation.

While on the surface this seems like a great idea - an easy way to imagine success without putting in much effort - what happens when things go wrong? Clearly, you must have attracted the bad things that happened to you and therefore deserved them. The cult of positive thinking would have you believing that it is your fault because you didn't pray enough or failed to be sufficiently optimistic.

Smile or Die is a well-researched, though-provoking and powerful critique. Ehrenreich's humour balances her skepticism. Ultimately I found it a refreshing alternative to the fortune cookie wisdom and empty platitudes spruiked by so many business books and self-improvement tomes.

In America Ehrenreich's book was published as Bright-Sided: How Positive thinking is Undermining America (2009). Sounds like a more positive title for the American market!

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

In Cold Blood

I have spent the last few days in Iceland.  Australian author Hannah Kent transported me there with her deliciously descriptive debut novel, Burial Rites (2013).  So engrossing was this book that I could hear the wind rattle the windows in my claustrophobic turf croft and feel the chill in my bones as the snow piled high outside my door.

Kent tells the story of Agnes Magnusdottir, a woman in her thirties who was sentenced to death for her role in the violent murder of two men on a remote farm in Northern Iceland. As there was no prison to hold her, Agnes was sent to a farm in Kornsa to live with a Christian family while special equipment was being created for her execution. Assistant Reverend Toti is appointed to administer to her spiritual needs and prepare her for her death.

Told from alternating perspectives as the seasons pass, Agnes’ childhood and the events leading up to the murders gradually unfold. The whole community is impacted by the arrival of Agnes, especially the family with whom she is billeted. The relationship between Margret and Agnes is particularly interesting, commencing with fear and disdain and evolving into empathy and even admiration. 

Reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s brilliant Alias Grace (1996), this historical fiction is based on real events and Kent has done tremendous research to embed this fictional account with such rich detail. Readers are left to contemplate broad issues of justice, guilt/innocence, capital punishment, poverty, family, faith, freedom and love.

I did not anticipate how much of page-turner this novel would be, and once I started I could not stop. I highly recommend this novel and cannot wait to see what Kent writes next.