Review: Dadland

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As Keggie Carew’s father begins to dissolve into the mists of his own mind thanks to the horrors of dementia, she travels back in time to find out more about his past, and her own.

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Tom Carew was a remarkable man – inventive, anti-authoritarian, and  involved in behind enemy lines tactics in the Second World War in France and then Burma – who then struggles to transition into the role of father and provider to his young family. Carew explores what made her father the amazing man she grew up with and who she finally lost to senility and old age.

I enjoyed this book. I didn’t necessarily understand the logic of the construction and pacing, but it worked well and I enjoyed it none the less. Carew darts back and forth between different times to tell her story, moving effortlessly between her father’s war stories, her childhood recollections and the devastating day to day moments of dealing with a loved one slowly dissolving in front of you.

Carew has plenty of material to work with. There are lots of photos included in the book: from her father’s war exploits,  her family, to the heartbreaking notes left by Tom to himself as he recognises that his mind is slowly unraveling and he is not the man he used to be. I found these to be particularly moving, as Tom, aware that he was not as clear as he had been in the past desperately wrote to himself to try to keep himself on track.

The book seems to have been very much a cathartic journey for Carew – she managed to piece together the failed and flawed relationships over the last two generations of her family and the effect these had on her father, his failed marriage with her mother and the flow on effects to herself and her siblings.

For some reason I was expecting this to be more of a memoir from the author’s point of view, but I learned a lot more about the English involvement in the second world war than I was expecting, and the ins and outs of Tom’s Special Operations unit and the politics of the areas of the time. So if you like a good war story, this book is definitely one for you.

This is a wonderful salute to a man who deserves to be remembered.

4 out of 5 wicked Stepmothers .

Thanks to Netgalley and Randomhouse UK for an advanced copy in exchange for an honest review.

Righteous Anger: Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jessica Valenti

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I’m a latecomer to the Overdrive party (here’s to free audio books that you can borrow and not have to buy!! How very civilised!) So the joys of Overdrive and the pressure of ‘borrowed’ books means that I knocked over Between the World and Me and Sex Object in the one day. And I was struck by just how similar in nature these two books are.

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Both are about the author’s need to live in a world where their body means they are treated in a particular way by (white, male) society.  Certain assumptions are made about who they are and how they are expected to behave given certain physical characteristics. Assumptions are also made about how they should react to a world that treats them as a sub-class.

One of these authors is receiving praise, while the other is receiving a stream of hate filled vitriol on social media.

Between the World and Me is a beautifully written essay addressed by Coates to his son, talking about his life experience as a black American male. The impact of being a black male in a society that accepts that black men are second class citizens and inherently dangerous. How this affected his home life, including the fear of his parents for his wellbeing and future.  What this has meant for him growing up, becoming educated, working and with the continuous threat of an early death hanging over him. I’m a stoic reader, but I had tears in my eyes a number of times listening to the fear and sorrow in this man’s story. The average Goodreads rating for this book at the moment is 4.39 (over 57,000 ratings).

Valenti’s story is a very different beast. Sex Object is a raw and angry treatise on what it was like to grow up as a girl in a society that both hates girls and wants to possess them. And then hates them even more if they happen to engage in sex. Valenti’s experiences are awful -from the abuse suffered by the matrilineal line of her family to the perverts she encountered in public as a young teen, to her string of arsehole boyfriends, and her own observations of her dissociated behaviour.

To me, this book is clearly a memoir of a young woman’s decent into anxiety and  mental illness due to strings of abuses which society writes off as ‘normal’. Because women are supposed to take this behaviour from men and, if not thrive , at least not be scarred. Being flashed is normal. The threat of being grabbed and abducted is normal. The threat of rape is normal. Being cat-called is normal. Being humiliated in public for the way you look is normal. Being expected to humour boys and men is normal. And reacting negatively to any of these behaviours can result in your injury or death.

Both Valenti and Coates talk about the ability of white men to take the lives of their victims with impunity. If only the victim had done “the right thing” there would not have been a problem.

The thing that bemuses me most are the reactions to Valenti’s book – the average  Goodreads rating is 3.79 (1200 reviews) with comments along the lines of ‘I’m not sure what her point is, so she saw some dicks on the subway’. (At 12, Valenti got off the subway to discover some filthy animal had ejaculated on her during her commute. Plus the other exposed dicks.)

One of Goodreads reviewer criticises Valenti for her hostility, but not being hostile or traumatised enough to not participate with her fans or attend book signings. (Excuse me?? The woman has to be too traumatised to make a living for her suffering to be valid?)

Sex Object makes me angry and also brought tears to my eyes for a very different reason to Between the World and Me. There is so much truth in it, and to me it seems that a number of reactions criticising it for it’s lack of scholarly direction are wilfully ignorant. This is the story of an abuse survivor – except her abusers are the general public, men who go home to their wives and families, but see no issue with harassing underage girls on the subway or on the street, or in the classroom. Valenti ends the book by reading a stream of comments on her articles and tweets. Trolls are the underbelly of the internet community – cowards who hide behind their keyboards. There should be a legal option to find and prosecute animals who threaten to do harm to anyone via this medium.

Both of these books are looking at the sub-category of what it means to be human. Of who is deserving of justice and a voice  and who is not.

Please read them.

Without You, There Is No Us: Revisiting Suki Kim

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I’m a pretty big Book Riot fan – I mean what’s not to love. The staff and writers are passionate about books and reading and I love their philosophy of encouraging wider reading throughout the book loving community.

I’m also pretty interested in stuff coming out of North Korea. North Korea is such a restricted, sealed off part of the world, we really have no idea what’s happening there with the exception of the state of the current Kim Jong’s hair do.

I’ve been unwell this week and took the opportunity to catch up on my favourite podcasts, and something I heard Amanda and Rebecca talking about in episode 164 left me absolutely cold and angry.

In 2014, Without You, There Is No Us was published, detailing Kim’s time spent as an undercover journalist working as an English teacher at a school for the sons of the regime. The book was published and marketed as a memoir. It should not have been – Kim is an investigative journalist. Kim feels that if she had written the same book as a white male, this would not be the rabbit hole she would have fallen down.

I read Without You, There Is No Us last year, not long after having come across Kim’s TED Talk. It was interesting and offered a view of what was going on inside the regime from a perspective not given by the “defector lit” that seems to be most of what we, the public, know of what’s going on in North Korea at the moment.

One of the things that bothered me about the book was the ‘sub-plot’ (if you like) about Kim’s ‘lover’  and her difficulty keeping her relationship together whilst in one of the most cut off places in the planet. This struck me at the time as a tad juvenile, but the writing of these sections were so  underdeveloped and under described compared to the rest of the book, it was almost as though it didn’t belong there.

Now I can’t help but wonder if perhaps, in fact,  it didn’t belong there- if this was something edited in to help sell the book as a memoir (‘honey, you need a love interest’) rather than what was actually going on for her. It would certainly explain the jarring sensation those sections gave me.

This also leads me to ask – what else was edited out? I was  a little perturbed by the book seeming to hold not as many insights as were hinted to in Kim’s TED Talk. I initially assumed this was a writing problem, but perhaps this too was an editing issue. I would love to see what edits were made to Kim’s work to see if there was indeed, as she claims, an effort to make it into a Korean Eat, Pray, Love. (You can read the interview here.)

Let’s make no mistake – Kim’s achievement it huge. She infiltrated, investigated, escaped and reported on one of the most repressive and dangerous regimes in the world at the moment.  This has been trivialised by her publisher – the organisation that should be going out of its way for her –  because of her gender and her race, and how that makes them view her as a marketable commodity.

Remember that all Hunter S Thompson had to do to be labelled an amazing journalist was hang with a bunch of bikies and take a heap of drugs. How would a woman in that situation be labelled and/or marketed?

Review: Cockroaches

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Every night the same nightmare interrupts my sleep. I’m being chased … I don’t look back. There’s no need. I know who’s chasing me … I know they have machetes…. I know I’m going to fall, I’m going to be trampled, I don’t want to feel the cold blade on my neck ….

So begins Cockroaches, the harrowing memoir by Scholastique Mukasonga. Mukasonga tells of growing up Tutsi in Hutu dominated Rwanda. She documents her family’s initial displacement in the early 60s from to Nyamata and then to Gitwe, and the ongoing terrorism against her people.

Mukasonga retells the story of the horror of her daily life, of the regular raids of her village, attacks on children on their way to school, of the men kidnapped and never heard from again. She tells of children maimed, girls raped, of the bodies of fathers and brothers found by the side of the road. Of the skin and rotting pieces of the dead floating in their drinking water.

She tells of her parents doing the best they can for their children. Her mother creating a garden of  hard-to-find crops that were plentiful in their old home, so the children can understand the way of life they left behind. Her father working hard to put together enough money to send at least a few of the children away to school. Of her parents doing their best to maintain some of their tradtions.

Mukasonga is essentially saved by her father’s efforts. It is “understood” without so many words that she and her brother are to be sent away in order that the family might survive elsewhere. She manages to pass the national test and gains a place in a prestigious school. The entire community assists with money to send her away. There she is one of few Tutsis amongst the Hutu majority, and the Tutsi girls work hard at their studies to ensure their grades are impeccable.

Mukasonga had settled in France with her husband and children by the time the massacre of 1994 occurred. She speaks of her guilt of not being there, of not knowing what happened to her family, or where their bodies are. She lost 37 members of her family in the atrocity. She recounts the stories she has from the few survivors.

In  2004, Mukasonga makes a pilgrimage back to the site of the massacre – and finds her parent’s Hutu neighbours living in their house. How many of these people – who brutally murdered families – are still living in the area, amongst the blood and bones of their victims? No one talks about the massacre, and those who are asked have seen nothing and weren’t there. A population of genocide deniers.

This is not a fun read – it is sad, harrowing, disturbing and so incredibly necessary. Cockroaches is a story for the dead a documentation of their lives and worth, and an acknowledgement of the sorrow of those who survived the horrors.

 

5 out of 5 wishes for peace.