Wednesday, 28 February 2018

The Truth About Ruth

Ever since it was published in 2015, I have been keen to get my hands on a copy of Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik. I couldn't find it in the bookshops I browsed but my local library came to the rescue and I have just enjoyed a week of reading.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG) has been a feminist hero of mine for three decades. During my undergraduate studies of American Constitutional Law and my thesis on the undermining of Roe v Wade, I repeatedly relied on the wisdom of RBG, the cases she argued and the opinions she gave. She was also the inspiration that lead me to law school.

RBG was appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States in 1993. During her 25 years on the bench she has written opinions and dissents on some of the most important civil rights cases to come before the court. In Ledbetter v Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co 550 US 618 (2007), the plaintiff was paid significantly less then her male colleagues working in comparable roles. RBG's dissent was read from the bench, arguing that with each pay check the company was reinforcing pay discrimination. In Gonzales v Carhart 550 US 124 (2007) and Burwell v Hobby Lobby 573 US __ (2014) , Ginsberg's dissents focussed on women's personal autonomy and equal rights to control fertility.

But long before she joined the Supreme Court, RBG had developed a solid reputation as a diligent, progressive litigator, committed to equality and human rights. Raised in Brooklyn, New York,  and educated at Cornell University, RBG's early career was marred by discrimination, in an age where women with young children did not work. She went on to be a professor at Rutgers Law School and later Columbia where she was the first woman to receive tenure. She co-founded the Women's Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union and took six gender discrimination to the Supreme Court. In 1980 she was appointed to the US Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia.

Co-author Shana Knizhnik was a law student when she began the 'Notorious RBG' Tumblr blog as a tribute to the Supreme Court justice who routinely defended the rights of minorities and women. Journalist Irin Carmon interviewed RBG, and came together with Knizhnik to produce this wonderfully unique biography. While the book follows some elements of conventional biography, what makes the Notorious RBG so delightful is the inclusion of fan art, photos of RBG tattoos, even a recipe from RBG's devoted husband, the late Marty Ginsburg. The authors interviewed RBG's children, her clerks, her colleagues and even her personal trainer.

Each chapter is named after lyrics by the late rapper Notorious B.I.G. (Biggie Smalls), a homage to a hip-hop music trailblazer who has influenced all who came after him. While pop culture permeates this book, it doesn't detract from the seriousness of the subject and the message it is trying to convey.

At 84 years of age RBG has no plans to retire. She is fit and healthy, her mind is sharp. Given the increasingly conservative make up of the court, she still has a lot of work to do. Long may she reign.

Saturday, 24 February 2018

Sliding Doors

Mohsin Hamid's novel Exit West (2017) was shortlisted for last year's Booker Prize. It is the story of Nadia and Saeed, two young lovers who seek to escape the war in their homeland.

Nadia is independent and open-minded, living on her own in a country where women's rights are becoming increasingly curtailed. She meets Saeed at night school and they begin a relationship. As the violence escalates and parts of their city become uninhabitable, Nadia moves in with Saeed and his family. Rumours start to form about secret doors which will take you away, to a new location and a new life.

Saeed and Nadia find a broker who will help them to a door. Leaving behind all they know and love, with just a small bag of provisions and their memories, they venture into the unknown. But the world is not always welcoming to strangers seeking shelter...

I really loved Hamid's eloquent writing in this novel. It has a fable-like quality to it, while providing gems like "their phones rested screens-down between them, like the weapons of desperadoes at a parley" and "when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind". I was curious about Hamid's long, meandering sentences in some parts, such as when Saeed's father encourages them to leave and the string of words rolls on. But he is an expert storyteller, and I was mesmerised by his writing from beginning to end.

About the magical realism... I must admit I was really skeptical about the magical, transporting doors device. Doors could appear in wardrobes and cupboards anywhere and one might take you to Sydney or San Francisco, another to Kabul. I kept thinking about how the tourism industry would respond to these doors - would the airlines collapse or would they capitalise? But these portals aren't the point, the people are. This novel comes about when doors are closing to refugees worldwide, and people are so desperate to survive they will do anything they can to find safety.

This is a timely, urgent book. It is very short and can be read quite quickly, but the impact will linger long after you have finished reading.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

The Stella Prize Longlist 2018

The Stella Prize longlist has been announced! The annual literary award celebrating women writers of both fiction and non-fiction is named after Australian author Stella Miles Franklin. Past winners include:

  • Carrie Tiffany for Mateship with Birds (2013)
  • Claire Wright for The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka (2014)
  • Emily Bitto for The Strays (2015)
  • Charlotte Wood for The Natural Way of Things (2016)
  • Heather Rose for The Museum of Modern Love (2017)

  • I love the Stella Prize and generally find that the winning book ends up being my favourite read of the year and the book I most often recommend or give as gifts to friends and family.

    On 8 February 2018, the longlist for this year's Stella Prize was announced with 12 nominees from over 170 entries. Unsurprisingly, I have not read any of the books, and many of the authors are unknown to me. Part of the excitement of these prizes is finding new writers and new titles to read.

    The 2018 longlist is as follows:

    Shokoofeh Azar - The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree
    Writer Shokoofeh Azar was born in Iran and came to Australia as a refugee. Set in Iran in the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, this novel tells the story of five family members who deal with the loss of a son and daughter. The novel draws on Persian folklore and lyrical magical realism and sounds like Azar is a unique and refreshing voice.

    Bernadette Brennan - A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work
    Readers of this blog will know how much I love Helen Garner's writing. Academic and researcher Brennan accessed Garner's journals and correspondence in preparing this study of the author and her work. It is neither a biography or a literary critique, but rather an exploration of the influences of Garner's work. Sounds like a book to add to the queue.

    Kate Cole-Adams - Anaesthesia: The Gift of Oblivion and the Mystery of Consciousness
    Journalist Cole-Adams has written this  non-fiction account of what happens when people use anaesthesia. Most people having surgery are 'put under' but have no knowledge of what happens to their mind and consciousness while they are out. I am sure this is an interesting book for some people, but I don't think I will be reading it.

    Claire G Coleman - Terra Nullius
    Western Australia-based Coleman won the SLQ black&write! Fellowship for this manuscript. It is a novel about Australia's colonial history and the inevitable conflict between Natives and Settlers.  The judges describe the book as 'a novel for our times, one whose tone is as impassioned as its message is necessary.'

    Michelle de Krester - The Life to Come
    I have already heard so many great things about Michelle de Kretser's latest novel, that I am keen to track it down. Set in Sydney, Paris and Sri Lanka, the satirical story explores themes of intimacy, friendship and loneliness. De Krester won the Miles Franklin Award in 2013 for Questions of Travel.
    Beverley Farmer - This Water: Five Tales
    This is a collection of novellas focused on women and common concerns of love and loss. The judges praised Farmer's writing, stating 'Her euphonious prose fuses the fluency and gravitas of ancient storytelling traditions to the concentrated clarity of the greatest modern writers. She writes prose with the attentiveness of a poet, achieving much of her lyrical effect by means of a plainspoken vocabulary utilised with a perfectly attuned sense of rhythm.' Sounds fantastic!

    Paula Keogh - The Green Bell: A Memoir of Love, Madness and Poetry
    This memoir begins in a Canberra Hospital psychiatric ward in 1972.  Young Paula Keogh is being treated and meets Michael Dransfield a drug addicted poet, and they fall in love. Over the next year Paula begins to rebuild her life and Michael writes the poems later published as The Second Month of Spring. While they plan for the future together, will their love survive once they leave the hospital?

    Kristy Kneen - An Uncertain Grace
    Judges decribe this as 'a formally ingenious and often amusing novel that combines eroticism and science fiction with a playful spirit of intellectual inquisitiveness.' Made up of individual, loosely-tied, short stories this novel is set in the near future where technology alters our relationships with out own bodies and with those around us.

    Sofie Laguna - The Choke
    Laguna won the Miles Franklin Award in 2015 for her novel The Eye of the Sheep. The Choke centres on young Justine, abandoned by her parents and raised by her Pop in country Victoria. Neglected and left to make her way in the world, Justine has to navigate a world of violence. I reckon this novel is a real contender.

    Joyce Morgan - Martin Sharp: His Life and Times
    This is a biography of Australian artist Martin Sharp, best known as an illustrator for OZ magazine. Moving to London in the swinging sixties, Sharp lived with Eric Clapton, Germain Greer, Anthony Hayden-Guest and other creatives. Joyce Morgan has thoroughly researched her subject to create an account of a fascinating life.

    Mirandi Riwoe - The Fish Girl
    This novella was inspired by Somerset Maugham's story 'The Four Dutchman'. Riwoe's story is about an Indonesian girl who leaves her fishing village to work in the house of a Dutch merchant. The judges describe it as a 'subversive postcolonial work of fiction.'

    Alexis Wright - Tracker
    Tracker Tilmouth was an Aboriginal leader and entrepreneur who died in 2015 at 62 years of age. Part of the Stolen Generation, Tilmouth was raised on a mission on Croker Island, and went on to become a well regarded activist who established the Central Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid Council. Alexis Wright, the Miles Franklin Award winning novelist for Carpenteria,  knew Tracker and wrote this memoir.

    The Shortlist will be announced on 8 March - International Women's Day - with the winner revealed on 12 April 2018. Better get reading!