Saturday, 27 September 2014

Don't Read This!

The week of 21-27 September 2014 is designated as Banned Books Week, an event sponsored by the American Library Association (ALA) with the purpose of celebrating the freedom to read and ensuring that unorthodox viewpoints are available. Amnesty International also promotes Banned Books Week as a means of drawing attention to those who have been persecuted for their writing or disseminating the works of others.

Censorship is ridiculously narrow-minded. Most books that are challenged are done so on the grounds that they offend particular moralities (e.g. sexuality, language, reproductive freedoms). While I do not have a problem with moves to identify the age-appropriateness of content for young people, I do not agree with any attempts to restrict access to materials.

According to the ALA, the most frequently challenged books in the past decade were reported due to sexually explicit material, offensive language, unsuited to age group. violence and homosexuality.  These challenges often occur in school libraries and classrooms, but also public libraries. Parents are the most likely to challenge books.

In the past few years challenged books include The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon and Beloved (Toni Morrison), The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins),  Fifty Shades of Grey (EL James), The Kite Runner (Khaled Hosseini), To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee), Nickel and Dimed (Barbara Ehrenreich), The Color Purple (Alice Walker), and The Golden Compass (Philip Pullman).

Some of my favourite challenged or banned books are:
  • Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) by George Orwell
  • Harry Potter series by JK Rowling
  • The Handmaid's Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood
  • The Grapes of Wrath (1939) and Of Mice and Men (1937) by John Steinbeck
  • Beloved (1987) by Toni Morrison
  • July's People (1981) by Nadine Gordimer
  • Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928) by DH Lawrence
  • One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962) by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
  • Peyton Place (1956) by Grace Metalious
  • Fahrenheit 451 (1953) by Ray Bradbury
  • Catcher in the Rye (1951) by JD Salinger
And so many more...

Make the most of Banned Books Week - Celebrate the freedom to read in your community. Grab a challenged text or re-read a favourite banned book. 

Sunday, 21 September 2014

The Handmaid's Tale

Kajsa Ekis Ekman is a Swedish journalist and author that I had the pleasure of hearing speak at the 2014 Festival of Dangerous Ideas a few weeks ago. I have just finished reading her thought-provoking book Being and Being Bought - Prostitution, Surrogacy and the Split Self (2013) which casts a Marxist and feminist lens on these divisive subjects.

The first half of the book focuses on prostitution. Ekman effectively demolishes the notion that prostitution is a normal job.  She explores feminist attempts to reposition prostitution as "sex work",  a conscious non-exploitative career choice, and of moves to legalise/decriminalise prostitution in many jurisdictions.

Ekman writes of the slippery slope from independent escort to human trafficking (when there is not enough supply of local women to meet the demand of the consumers). She exposes attempts to unionise sex work as fraudulent as these moves are not traditional trade unions seeking better wages and conditions for workers but rather justification for exploitation. Prostitution has an exceptionally high mortality rate and there is no compliance to labour laws.

The second half of the book looks at the messy issue of surrogacy which Ekman sees as an extension of prostitution. Ekman's presentation at the Festival came in the weeks following the media maelstrom of the Baby Gammy case in which an Australian couple had contracted with a young Thai surrogate to carry their child for around $16,000. The surrogate gave birth to twins - a healthy girl and a disabled boy (Gammy). It later emerged that the father was a convicted child sex offender, giving rise to concerns about the lack of regulation in the surrogacy business.

Ekman digs deep into the surrogacy industry and exposes how women in poor countries or poor circumstances are relied on to rent out their womb to a childless person. She looks at how the notion of motherhood is denied the gestational carrier as parents seek to have a child that is biologically related to them.

For me the whole problem of surrogacy was summed up in the quote from Elizabeth Kane, a surrogate who regretted giving up the child she bore for others. Kane stated "I now believe that surrogate motherhood is nothing more than the transference of pain from one woman to another. One woman is in anguish because she cannot become a mother, and another woman may suffer for the rest of her life because she cannot know the child she bore for someone else" (in Ekman, p186).

In both her exploration of prostitution and of surrogacy, Ekman argues that the Self has to be separate from the body in order to be able to sell yourself. This Cartesian concept of the Split Self enables sex workers and surrogates to create a barrier within themselves.

I found Ekman's thesis to be a compelling and incisive look inside these industries. While overflowing with research, I thoroughly enjoyed the way in which she approached this subject and thought the book was easy to read. But the book does make you think about these issues and how all women are affected regardless of how far removed we are from these industries.

If you want to more but don't have access to her book, you can watch Ekman's "Surrogacy is Child Trafficking" presentation from the 2014 Festival of Dangerous Ideas on YouTube.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Fair is foul, and foul is fair

This week I attended the Sydney Theatre Company's production of Macbeth, directed by Kip Williams. We knew this was going to be a different theatrical experience as we were contacted months ago to say that our seats had changed due to a transformation of the theatre.

We arrived and were ushered down various corridors until we walked out on to the stage. Rows of bleachers were set up at the back of the stage for the audience to sit facing the auditorium. The theatre had been reversed with the action taking place among the stalls and dress circle. Packed in like sardines on uncomfortable chairs, we were literally metres away from the action.

Two trestle tables and a handful of mismatched chairs made for a minimalist stage. The lights dimmed and the actors took their places as if in tableau. Down one end of the table the witches began with an ice-bucket challenge, dipping their faces into a plastic tub of water before stating their opening lines.  At the other end of the table sat Duncan and Malcolm, frozen until it was their turn to begin.

So fair and foul a play I had not seen.

Let's start with the fair...  The title role was performed by the always excellent Hugo Weaving. His Macbeth was tormented, tragic and bold. He is terrific actor and truly brought life to the role - for example in the scene where Banquo's ghost appears, Weaving makes us feel his fear and his cries are unbearable. It was a pleasure to experience Weaving's deeply conflicted Macbeth.

Likewise, John Gaden is a brilliant actor. Playing both Duncan and one of the MacDuff children, Gaden is an articulate and believable stage veteran.

I also enjoyed the lighting and effects. The scene in the morning after Duncan's murder mist filled the auditorium and actors appeared from the fog. The snow falling at the end was equally mesmerising.

While I liked the idea of turning the stage around - with action taking place in the dress circle and among the stalls - ultimately I wondered if it was worth it. The change created a sense of intimacy and tension (the discomfort of our seating mirroring the discomfort of Macbeth's choices?) but in many ways it felt like a gimmick.

Now for the foul.... Lady Macbeth was played by Melita Jurisic, and while I do not doubt she is a fine actress, I felt she was dreadfully miscast and her sack dress did her no favours. There was no chemistry with Weaving and rather than play Lady Macbeth as a woman slowly driven to madness she seemed to be crazy from the outset. Kate Box (Witch/Macduff) or Paula Arundell (Banquo/Lady Macduff) should have taken this important role.

The Sydney Theatre Company often plays around with gender roles and I have no problem with women taking male roles and vice-versa. But having the actors play multiple roles did get confusing in parts. I also thought some of the other cast members were fairly ordinary - Ivan Donato (Seyton/Witch) and Eden Falk (Malcolm/Fleance) were uninspiring choices.

I think what bothered me the most was the costumes. The actors wore muted street clothes - for example Banquo wore skinny grey jeans, a grey sweatshirt and sneakers. This gave the production the feeling that it was a rehearsal rather than a live performance.

Ultimately, STC's Macbeth is worth seeing just for Hugo Weaving. But the production as a whole left a lot to be desired. While the production was clearly designed to be a vehicle for its lead actor, more care in casting and staging would have created a theatrical experience. Kevin Spacey's Richard III was able to balance the powerhouse performance of a legendary lead, with high production values.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

The Shortlist

The Man Booker shortlist was announced on 9 September 2014, consisting of 6 titles:
The bookies are apparently tipping Mukherjee to win. I know it is likely an outside chance but I am still hopeful that Richard Flanagan will take away the prize!

The winner will be announced on 14 October 2014.

Bird on a Wire

When I first heard that there was a new Donna Tartt novel coming out I vowed not to go anywhere near it. I had been so disappointed by The Little Friend (2002), which I literally struggled to get through, that I couldn't bear the thought of tackling The Goldfinch (2013). But after being persuaded by a friend, I decided to give Ms Tartt another chance.

The Goldfinch is a modern bildungsroman, heist caper and cautionary tale rolled into one. It begins with young protagonist Theo Decker attending the Metropolitan Museum of Art with his mother. They are there to see one of her favourite paintings, the tiny oil painting of The Goldfinch (1654) by Dutch artist Carel Fabritus, when suddenly there is an explosion. The bomb kills many, including Theo's mother, and in the chaos and confusion that follows Theo is given a ring by a man lying in the rubble and is urged to retrieve the painting of the tiny bird to save it from the fire and debris.

The novel takes a Dickensian turn as traumatised Theo, orphaned in the city, is taken in by the parents of a school friend. He stays as a guest of his benefactors, the Barbours, slowly readjusting to his new circumstances. He seeks out antique restorer Hobie, the business partner of the owner of the ring, and forges as friendship with him and Pippa, a young girl who also survived the blast. All the while, he protects and keeps secret, the painting that his mother loved.

Just when Theo's life has stability there is a reversal of fortune. His absent father and new girlfriend Xandra arrive in New York to collect Theo and any assets he might have.  Uprooted to Las Vegas, Theo lives in a suburban wasteland, drinking and doing drugs with his new Russian friend Boris, a petty thief channelling the Artful Dodger to Theo's Oliver Twist / Harry Potter. Theo's father, a compulsive gambler and alcoholic, makes little effort at parenting. Tragedy strikes in Vegas too, and Theo finds himself back in New York, residing with Hobie and learning the antiques business.

The final segment of the novel takes the adult Theo to Amsterdam with Boris as an international search to recover the painting unfolds.

Having finished The Goldfinch, I come away conflicted. There were parts of the book I absolutely loved - Tartt has a gift for beautiful prose which gives the reader a clarity of time and place, the inclusion of references to art and pop culture were enjoyable.  But at the same time, she can be over descriptive to the point of annoyance (how much do we need to know about wood polish?).  There were other things about the book which drove me crazy too, like the long-drawn out descriptions of Theo's drug use and the stupid, unrealistic choices he made. Ultimately, I found myself not caring about the characters anymore and wanting the book to end. The only thing I cared about was the little bird on the wire...

The Goldfinch won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and has divided critics. Vanity Fair published an interesting piece - It's Tartt-But Is It Art? - on the critical reaction to the novel. In some respects the sideshow surrounding the novel is more interesting than the book itself.

While frustratingly uneven, ultimately I enjoyed The Goldfinch and I am glad that I read it.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

The Lives of Others

In 2013 Canadian writer Alice Munro was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. This was the culmination of a long list of awards and honours including the Governor General's Award (x3), Giller Prize (x2), Man Booker Prize and much, much more.

Author of collections like Dance of the Happy Shades (1968), Lives of Girls and Women (1971), Friends of My Youth (1990), and Open Secrets (1994), Munro has been hailed as one of the world's greatest short-story writers.  

I have long been a fan of Munro's ability to weave a meticulously crafted tale from the seemingly ordinary aspects of daily existence. I recently enjoyed her 2012 collection Dear Life. Many of these fourteen stories had been published elsewhere (such as in the New Yorker) and as such I had read one or two before. But in reading/re-reading her tales, I was reminded of the genius of Munro's craft. In my view, there are two ways in which Munro captivates her readers.

First, she is able to create a full, vibrant tale in about 20-30 pages, constructing each story with precision. She grabs characters at some point in their life, throws them together and sees what happens. She doesn't waste too much time on what happened before the reader arrives, and doesn't linger on what would happen next. 

Which brings me to the second aspect of her ability - Munro always knows when to end a story. She stops and leaves the remainder of the tale to the reader's imagination. For example, in "To Reach Japan" Greta travels across Canada by train to Toronto to meet a man that she has been infatuated with. Greta arrives at Union Station and he is there to meet her. Munro simply writes "She just stood there waiting for whatever had to come next" and the reader can fill in the blanks. 

Throughout Dear Life are stories of love and loss, friendship and betrayal, the stuff of human existence. Whether it is a young teacher jilted by her lover in "Amundsen", a girl who watches her sister drown in a water-filled quarry in "Gravel", or a police officer who cares for his terminally ill wife in "Leaving Maverley", the characters are real and keenly drawn. We readers inhabit their world for a brief time and inhabit their lives. 

I also loved Dear Life for it reminded me of my childhood in Canada. The descriptions of rural Ontario, references to The Friendly Giant and the Royal Ontario Museum, and name-dropping familiar places like Goderich and Kapuskasing, added much nostalgic joy to my reading. Thank you Ms Munro.

Dangerous Ideas from Fascinating Women

The 2014 Festival of Dangerous Ideas was held on 30-31 August 2014 at the Sydney Opera House. Unfortunately, due to work, I was only able to attend one day of the Festival so missed a handful of sessions I would have liked. But I made the most of the day I had, attending three excellent sessions on a beautiful sunny Sunday with a very dear friend.

At last year's festival I attended many sessions looking at crime and justice. This year the sessions I went to were also looking at these issues, but much more, and from a feminist perspective. I also threw in a more light-hearted session on the new age of television.

We started the day at 'Slavery is Big Business' presented by tenatious Mexican investigative journalist Lydia Cacho. She exposed the international sex trade in a remarkable way. She began in her homeland by investigating and revealing a tycoon businessman (Jean Succar Kuri) who ran a pedophilia ring with politicians, judges and others among Mexico's elite, all supported and facilitated by corrupt police.  The publication of these crimes resulted in Cacho being kidnapped and imprisoned on defamation charges, as well as numerous attempts on her life.

Cacho's presentation described the conditions that permit the international sex trade to thrive, and the businesses that are linked to it - tourism, drugs and arms dealing, money laundering, organ sales, pornography, terrorism and sweat shops. Despite the horrific subject matter of her talk, I went away feeling inspired. Cacho provided practical, tangible suggestions about what needs to be done to stop this trade and what steps each of us can take. I purchased her book Slavery Inc. The Untold Story of International Sex Trafficking (2010) and was fortunate enough to meet Lydia and have her sign it for me.

Next up we went to a panel discussion called 'Television has replaced the Novel' featuring Emily Nussbaum (TV critic for The New Yorker) and author Salman Rushdie. Both love television and essentially agreed that TV has not replaced the novel. They highlighted the similarities between the novels of the 18th century which were released in serialised form, and the modern TV show which is incrementally aired.

They talked about groundbreaking shows (like Seinfeld, Sopranos, Deadwood, Sex and the City) and how they changed the way audiences relate to characters. They also talked about shows which blur the lines between genres and also those which have micro audiences. Critical of studios which find a success and repeat it ad nauseam, Rushdie described his experiences writing a show for Showtime which never got off the ground. It was a very interesting discussion, talking about many of the shows I love.

We took a break for lunch and returned for our final session - a panel titled 'Women for Sale'. On the panel were Lydia Cacho, Kajsa Ekis Ekman, Alissa Nutting, Elizabeth Pisani. The subject was supposed to be about everything from pay equity to surrogacy, but it ended up being almost entirely about prostitution. Elizabeth Pisani started her segment by giving up her seat to a prostitute Jules Kim from the Scarlet Alliance (an association for sex workers). While I agree it made sense to have someone representing prostitutes on the panel, the way it was done was deceitful and resulted in the presentation steering away from its original intent, which was disappointing.

I really enjoyed hearing from Swedish journalist Kajsa Ekis Ekman. She articulated her concerns about agency and issues of race, sex and class which are crucial in discussions of prostitution and surrogacy. She talks about how Sweden changed laws relating to prostitution to make the buying, not the selling, a crime. I purchased her book Being and Being Bought - Prostitution, Surrogacy and the Split Self (2013) and after the session my friend and I had a brief chat with her when she signed our copies. I have already started reading it and really admire her work.

Another panellist, American author Alissa Nutting, I knew very little about. I had heard of the controversy surrounding her novel Tampa (2013) which looks at a female sexual predator. Based on real life examples of women teachers seducing their young students, this novel was removed from some bookstores. Nutting made some interesting comments about double standards and perceived gender roles. I have not read her book, and I am not really sure that I want to. But I do think Nutting is quite an interesting woman.

Elizabeth Pisani is an American epidemiologist who has done a lot of work on HIV/AIDS. The author of The Wisdom of Whores - Bureaucrats, Brothels and the Business of AIDS (2008), Pisani has a lot to say about the sex industry and how HIV can be stopped. Unfortunately however, Pisani decided to hand over her seat and we never got to hear much from her. Having said that, the things Pisani did say were unhelpful - e.g. describing sex as 'putting out'. I did not particularly like Pisani and won't be reading her book.

As always, the Festival of Dangerous Ideas leaves me refreshed, excited and keen to read more. My friend and I look forward to FODI 2015.

You can also read a summary of my experiences at the 2013 Festival of Dangerous Ideas on this blog.