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‘Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation’, edited by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman ***

I had not heard of Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation before spotting it in my local Fopp store.   I felt as though this collection of essays, which all revolve around the Israeli military’s occupation of Palestine, was worthy of an extended review.  Whilst I knew quite a bit about the situation and its history before picking the book up, I am always eager to learn, and hoped that it would fill in the gaps which I was certain I had. 9780008229191

Edited by husband and wife team Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, who also contribute an essay each, Kingdom of Olives and Ash brings together twenty-six pieces by a variety of celebrated authors, most of them novelists, from all over the world.  Each was offered a trip to the occupied zone, and was invited to write about whatever it was that struck them the most on their travels.  Their work, viewed both separately and collectively, ‘shows the human cost of fifty years of Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.’  These ‘perceptive and poignant essays’, says the book’s blurb, ‘offer unique insight into the narratives behind the litany of grim destruction broadcast nightly on the news, as well as a deeper understanding of the conflict as experienced by the people who live in the occupied territories.’

Chabon and Waldman are frank in their introduction.  They write: ‘We didn’t want to edit this book.  We didn’t want to write, or even think, in any kind of sustained way, about Israel and Palestine, about the nature and meaning of occupation, about intifadas and settlements, about whose claims were more valid, whose suffering more bitter, whose crimes more egregious, whose outrage more justified.  Our reluctance to engage with the issue was so acute that for nearly a quarter of a century we didn’t even visit the place [Jerusalem] where Ayelet was born.’  1992, they go on to discuss, was the first time in which they visited Israel together.  This was a ‘time of optimism, new initiatives, relative tranquility.’

Despite enjoying their trip, and believing that they would often return, they did not get the opportunity to do so for over twenty years.  As violence escalated following their visit, they remark: ‘Horrified and bewildered by the blur of violence and destruction, of reprisal and counter-reprisal and counter-counter-reprisal, put off by the dehumanizing rhetoric prevalent on both sides, we did what so many others in the ambivalent middle have done: we averted our gaze.  We opted out of the debate, and stayed away from the country.’  Following an invitation to a writers’ festival, Ayelet returned to Israel by herself in 2014, where she also visited Hebron and Tel Aviv: ‘The city sparkles, it hums.  And it averts its gaze.  One would never know, on the streets of Tel Aviv, that an hour’s drive away, millions of people are living and dying under oppressive military rule.’

As the project for Kingdom of Olives and Ash began to take shape, the editors speak of how they selected a vast array of contributors for the volume, in order to make the collection as far-reaching as was possible.  The core idea was this: ‘Conscious of the imminence of June 2017, the fiftieth anniversary of the occupation, we put the word out – to writers on every continent except Antarctica, of all ages and eight mother tongues.  Writers who identified as Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu, and writers of no religious affiliation at all.  Some had already made clear and public their political feelings on the subject of Palestine-Israel, but most had not, and many acknowledged from the outset that they had never really given the subject more than a glancing consideration.’

I had heard of a lot of the authors collected here, and was familiar with some of their work.  I was particularly excited to read essays by Anita Desai, Eimear McBride, and Geraldine Brooks, all writers whose novels I admire.  There were a few writers who were new to me, too.  Some of these authors were invited to stay at houses in Palestinian refugee camps and villages, and some spoke to civilians about their experiences.  Others explored cities, some tried to cross the many checkpoints strewn over a small area, and still others interviewed those working in factories or on archaeological sites.  There are many tragic stories told here, as one might expect given the circumstances.  The contributors variously meet advocates for peace and change, artisans cultivating ancient practices (soap making, for instance), students, bereaved parents, non-conformists, and taxi drivers who have to navigate the checkpoints many times each day.

I enjoyed and engaged with several of the essays in Kingdom of Olives and Ash, but others did not capture my attention in the same way.  The pieces which I particularly enjoyed tended to be written by the authors which I wasn’t already overly familiar with.  Jacqueline Woodson’s essay, ‘One’s Own People’, in which she contrasts her privileged, shielded life in New York with those she sees lived in occupied territory, was particularly striking.  She writes: ‘I knew the Palestine-Israel of newspaper articles and television journalism.  This Palestine-Israel was as foreign to me as Yemen, a place somewhere out there where people who had no connection to me fought among themselves – and killed others.  People who were not 100 percent people…  how could they be?  They were outside my very comfortable America.  Outside anything I could – or needed to – imagine.’  I also very much enjoyed Norwegian author Lars Saabye Christensen’s ‘Occupied Words’, which considers the language which we use: ‘And when our language is occupied, attitudes change too, and sometimes the distance from attitude to action is short.  The front lines move quicker than the thought.  We can’t keep up.’

Of course, there are elements of interest in each and every essay here, but I found some of the writing styles a little awkward in their choice of prose, overly and unnecessarily sensationalised, or not to my taste.  I found the essays which focus on one individual, or one family, particularly intriguing and accessible.  Others, like Madeleine Thien’s, are overly fact-heavy, and took far longer to read and consider.

Kingdom of Olives and Ash is certainly not an easy read, but it is a challenging and important one.  A lot has been explored here.  I had intended to read the book all in one go, but it proved far better to read and consider one or two essays each day over an extended period.  Much of the information here needed time to settle.  I found this varied collection a little uneven at times, but overarchingly, the pieces are interesting and informative, and form rather an essential whole.

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‘Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings’ by Shirley Jackson ****

I am an enormous fan of Shirley Jackson’s work, and have been eager to read Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings since its publication in 2015.  For various reasons, I hadn’t managed to pick it up, but finally requested a copy from my local library.  The volume, which contains a great deal of unseen work of Jackson’s, from early stories to pieces of observation, has been edited by her son and daughter, Laurence Jackson Hyman and Sarah Hyman DeWitt.  The foreword to the book has been written by Jackson’s biographer, Ruth Franklin.

The blurb explains that Let Me Tell You ‘brings together a treasure trove of short stories – 81nzbak1holeach a miniature masterpiece of unease – with candid, fascinating essays, lectures, articles and drawings.’  In each of these pieces, ‘strange encounters occur, unwanted visitors arrive, places and objects take on lives of their own.’  They shift between the ‘ordinary and the uncanny, the comic and the horrific.’  Many of the stories collected here are from Jackson’s earliest writing period; they were written in a time of ‘impressive productivity as well as inspiring persistence.’

In her introduction, Franklin talks at length about the importance of Jackson’s posthumous collection.  She writes that the real highlight in Let Me Tell You is ‘especially for aspiring writers’, as Jackson shares ‘succinct, specific advice about creating fiction’ in both essays and transcripts of lectures which she gave.

Let Me Tell You has been split into several sections, which are often thematic.  Due to the emphasis which Jackson placed on writing about her family and her own life, many of the sections which are not purely made up of her short stories have overlapping content.

Let Me Tell You further demonstrates just how marvellous Jackson was at writing, and how she could so deftly create atmosphere and foreboding.  She had an innate ability to know just where to end a story, when all of the reader’s senses are heightened, and the tension which she is built is almost unbearable.  Jackson was also wonderful at suggestion, and of making her readers question often quite ordinary things.  As with her better known work, her stories contain clever and surprising twists.  At first, the situations which she crafts, and the lives which she lets us glimpse, appear ordinary; however, her stories are anything but. Even the shortest of her stories has been meticulously plotted, and strikes just the right balance.  A mixture of narrative perspectives has been used throughout, the characters are varied, and there is an unsettling quality to each.

Many of Jackson’s stories are steeped in the domestic, and the everyday: for instance, Mrs Spencer in ‘Mrs. Spencer and the Oberons’, who sets about preparing a party with no help whatsoever from her indifferent husband; and the wife of a professor talking to two of his young female students in ‘Still Life and Students’, one of whom has been having an affair with him.  We meet a man who walks around a park fabricating stories to tell to everyone he meets, and a woman who returns to her hometown after many years, and finds that nothing at all is the same, or is as she expected.  In this last story, ‘The Lie’, Jackson writes: ‘She felt wary of going too close to her old house, although she had been anxious to see it again; perhaps if she came within its reach it would capture her again, and never let her go this time.  Or perhaps it was only because she was embarrassed about being seen by people looking out their windows and telling one another, “There’s Joyce Richards come back.  Thought she was doing so well in the city?”‘

The accompanying illustrations, of which there are surprisingly few, are whimsical, and her essays witty and amusing.  Throughout, there is a sharpness to Jackson’s writing, perhaps more apparent in her short stories than her non-fiction pieces.  She was an extremely perceptive and intelligent author.

For a Jackson fan, Let Me Tell You is a real treat.  To those unfamiliar with her work, it could act as a great introduction to both her stories and style.  Jackson is quite unlike any other author I have ever come across, and it feels like a real privilege to be able to read these previously unpublished and forgotten pieces.  They are polished, written with the hand of a very talented author who already seems at the height of her craft.

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‘Bad Feminist’ by Roxane Gay **

9781472119735I have previously read Gay’s short story collection Ayiti, and thoroughly enjoyed it.  Her writing has such a startling beauty to it.  I was therefore looking forward to reading her first collection of essays, Bad Feminist, and expected to be similarly blown away.

My interest was piqued particularly after I read the thoughts of one of my favourite authors, Elizabeth McCracken, on the book.  She writes: ‘Bad Feminist shows this extraordinary writer’s range…  Roxane Gay is alternately hilarious, full of righteous anger, confiding, moving.  [It] is like staying up agreeing and arguing with the smartest person you’ve ever met.’  Indeed, there is a lot of high praise surrounding Bad Feminist.  In the quotations published at the front of the book, Gay and her work are variously described as ‘alternately friendly and provocative, wry and serious’, ‘[She] playfully subverts the borders between pop-culture consumer and critic, between serious academic and lighthearted sister-girl, between despair and optimism, between good and bad’, and as ‘a necessary and brave voice when it comes to figuring out all the crazy mixed messages in our mixed-up world.’

The book has been split into five often overlapping sections.  Two of these concern Gay as an individual, and the others are ‘Gender & Sexuality’, ‘Race & Entertainment’, and ‘Politics, Gender & Race’.  In these essays, Gay deals variously with such topics as the language surrounding sexual violence, ‘The Trouble with Prince Charming’, homosexuality, Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, and Twitter.

In her introduction, Gay justifies her reasons for writing such a collection of essays, using the term ‘bad feminist’ as she is both ‘flawed and human’.  She posits, as one might expect, that in large sections of culture and the workplace, women are overlooked and subjugated: ‘Movies, more often than not, tell the stories of men as if men’s stories are the only stories that matter.  When women are involved, they are sidekicks, the romantic interests. the afterthoughts.  Rarely do women get to be the center of attention.  Rarely do our stories get to matter.’  I feel as though this all-or-nothing viewpoint is a little limiting, and can think of many films and books written before Bad Feminist was published, which do demonstrate the strength of women; the film Erin Brockovich is a striking example.

The style of Gay’s writing in Bad Feminist did not really work for me.  I found it rather repetitive at times, particularly from one essay to another, and some of the things which she said were, I felt, a little obvious.  Evidently, the book has been aimed at a general audience, but the odd balance struck between relatively highbrow, academic and data-informed writing and the chatty tone which Gay adopts felt a little awkward.  I also had an issue with the pop culture references which are used often throughout; they were, as one might expect, geared solely to a US audience, and I had no knowledge of some of the programmes and people whom she mentioned.

Bad Feminist was not at all what I expected it to be.  The beginnings of each essay failed to grab my attention, and I felt that sometimes more interesting points which Gay made were overlooked, or not worked to their full potential.  Few of the essay subjects really jumped out and grabbed me, and nothing had me on the edge of my seat as her fiction so often does.  Despite my largely negative feelings about Bad Feminist, I do intend to read her newest book of non-fiction, Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture.

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Penguin Moderns: ‘Dark Days’ by James Baldwin ****

The thirty-eighth book in the Penguin Modern series is Dark Days by James Baldwin, a selection of three searing and important essays – ‘Dark Days’ (1980), ‘The Price of the Ticket’ (1985), and ‘The White Man’s Guilt’ (1965).  All of them draw upon Baldwin’s own experiences of prejudice, and a life growing up in poverty.  I really enjoyed Baldwin’s novel, Giovanni’s Room, and have been hoping to read more of his work ever since, so I was very much looking forward to this title.

9780241337547Whilst Baldwin’s prose style is beautiful and intelligent, the content of these essays is sometimes quite difficult to read.  The titular essays begins with Baldwin’s beliefs about racial ideas which prevailed during the Great Depression: ‘To be black was to confront, and to be forced to alter, a condition forged in history.  To be white was to be forced to digest a delusion called white supremacy.  Indeed, without confronting the history that has either given white people an identity or divested them of it, it is hardly possible for anyone who thinks of himself as white to know what a black person is talking about at all.’  He goes on in this essay to discuss his education, which he received in Harlem during the Great Depression: ‘My education began, as does everyone’s, with the people who towered over me, who were responsible for me, who were forming me.  They were the people who loved me, in their fashion – whom I loved, in mine.  These were people whom I had no choice but to imitate and, in time, to outwit.  One realizes later that there is no one to outwit but oneself.’

Despite the brevity of these essays, Baldwin discusses an awful lot of topics, many of which are interconnected, in depth.  He talks about race, the economy, migration, family, community, war, identity, politics, education, sexuality, and poverty, to name but a handful.  He writes with piercing insight, and so much talent.

Baldwin comments throughout on American society and culture.  In ‘The White Man’s Guilt’, he writes, for instance: ‘This is the place in which, it seems to me, most white Americans find themselves.  Impaled.  They are dimly, or vividly, aware that the history they have fed themselves is mainly lie, but they do not know how to release themselves from it, and they suffer enormously from the resulting personal incoherence.  This incoherence is heard nowhere more plainly than in these stammering, terrified dialogues which white Americans sometime entertain with that black conscience, the black man in America.’

Dark Days feels incredibly modern, both with regard to the problems which it speaks about, and the harshly divided world which it presents.  The essays here are important and insightful, and should be read by everyone.  If we all took Baldwin’s ideas and sentiments to heart, the world would be a much nicer place in which to live.

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‘When I Was A Wolf’ by Terayama Shūji ****

As winter is settling down for good and Christmas is fast approaching, what better way to spend those chilly days than cosy up with a hot beverage and a good book of fairy tale-inspired stories. 61II3YJTd9L

My fascination with fairy tales and folk stories is nothing new, so as soon as I found out about When I Was A Wolf, a book of classic Western fairy tale retellings by Terayama Shūji, a Japanese author, I was incredibly excited to get my hands on it. Fairy tale retellings have been quite popular for a long time now, but since they are usually retold by a Western perspective, I thought it would be very intriguing to gain some insight on what a Japanese author would make of those Western tales most of us grew up with and are so fond of.

Terayama Shūji doesn’t merely retell the classic fairy tales that have been chosen for this collection, but instead he twists and turns them into an entirely different entity. Attempting to give them an adult twist, much like Angela Carter had also done, Terayama creates stories that are definitely not suitable for children, mostly due to the numerous sexual references and inuendos. One such example is Pinocchio’s nose, which is being turned into a phallus that grows more and more whenever he tells a lie. This collection is excellently translated by Elizabeth L. Armstrong, who also wrote a very useful and highly informative preface to the book, giving some much needed insight into the author’s style and literary achievements.

The book is divided into two main parts. The first one contains some essays and thought pieces where Terayama explains his interpretation of fairy tales like ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, ‘Puss in Boots’, ‘Pinocchio’, as well as of literary masterpieces like Ibsen’s ‘Doll House’, ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, ‘Don Quixote’ and so on. I have to admit that I thoroughly enjoyed his literary voice and the way he expressed his opinion, even if it was one that I wouldn’t always agree with. Terayama is a very talented critic and most of his opinions on the literary pieces he commented on were spot on and gave me a lot to ponder. What shines through the entire book, though, is undoubtedly his wit and sense of humour. Every sentence, every remark he makes is witty and purposeful and I believe this is what made me truly enjoy this book in the end.

The second part contains the actual retellings of fairy tales by Andersen, Aesop’s Fables and Perrault’s Mother Goose, which Terayama turns into adult-themed stories. Although it was this part of the book I was most looking forward to reading, I have to admit I was slightly disappointed in the result. Yes, the author’s wit and caustic humour encompass his writing and that makes it enjoyable, but I was probably expecting something different. In most cases, instead of a full-fledged story, we get a conglomeration of opinion pieces, “readers’ letters” and a partial rewriting of the fairy tale in question. I soon came to realise, though, that this is just Terayama’s writing style and my disappointment is mostly due to my creating unrealistic expectations, as I was expecting a rather conventionally retold story, if I can call it that.

Elizabeth L. Armstrong, the translator, perfectly describes the experience of reading Terayama’s essays and stories in her preface: “His work is often like a piece of performance art you simply cannot tear your eyes away from, so you bear witness to it, awash with feelings of revulsion, morbid attraction, revelation and compassion” (p. vii). This first encounter with Terayama’s work might not have been what I expected, but it definitely piqued my interest and made me want to seek more of his work, especially since he’s an author I had never heard of before.

Have you read this book? Do you enjoy fairy tale retellings and if yes, which is your favourite? Let me know in the comments below 🙂

A copy of the book was very kindly sent to me by the publisher, Kurodahan Press.

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Penguin Moderns: ‘Notes on “Camp”‘ by Susan Sontag **

Penguin Modern number 29 is Susan Sontag’s Notes on “Camp”, which is comprised of the title essay alongside ‘One Culture and the New Sensibility’.  These two essays, both of which can be found in Against Interpretation and Other Essays (1966), are heralded in the book’s blurb as ‘the first works of criticism to break down the boundaries between “high” and “low” culture, and made Susan Sontag a literary sensation.’

9780241339701To date, I have only read two of Sontag’s other essays, collected together in Illness as Metaphor and Aids and Its Metaphors, and read for an Illness Narratives class during my Master’s degree.  The essays were interesting enough, but I did feel as though they were rather too brief in places.

In ‘Notes on Camp’, Sontag essentially talks about our concept of what is ‘camp’.  She believes ‘Camp’ to be a demonstration of artifice, something ‘silly’ and ‘extravagant’.  Near to the beginning of the essay, she writes: ‘One of the facts to be reckoned with is that taste tends to develop very unevenly.  It’s rare that the same person has good visual taste and good taste in people and taste in ideas’.  Of course – and this is something which Sontag strangely does not consider at all in her essay – taste is entirely subjective.  This put me off on the wrong footing with Sontag’s work.  Throughout, I must admit that I found her brand of essayism a touch pretentious.

‘Notes on Camp’ feels quite fragmented to read.  It is as though Sontag randomly jotted down a lot of quotes and thoughts, and did not bother to sort them into any order, or even to categorise them coherently.  It very much feels like a series of notes which could perhaps have done with a little revising.  Oscar Wilde quotes are shoved in at random, and not commented upon for the most part.  I found it quite bizarre in places.  Sontag believes, for instance, that ‘many of the works of Jean Cocteau are Camp, but not those of Andre Gide; the operas of Richard Strauss, but not those of Wagner; concoctions of Tin Pan Alley and Liverpool, but not jazz’.  Never does she explain how or why she has come to these strange conclusions.  When she does occasionally give reasoning for a point which she makes, I found it quite odd, and did not appreciate the occasional prejudices which come to light in her writing.

In the second essay, Sontag proposes that there exist “two cultures”: the literary-artistic and the scientific.  She goes on to write: ‘According to this diagnosis, any intelligent and articulate modern person is likely to inhabit one culture to the exclusion of the other.  He will be concerned with different documents, different techniques, different problems; he will speak a different language.  Most important, the type of effort required for the mastery of these two cultures will differ vastly.  For the literary-artistic culture is understood as a general culture.  It is addressed to man insofar as he is man…  The scientific culture, in contrast, is a culture for specialists; it is founded on remembering and is set down in ways that require complete dedication of the effort to comprehend.’  In this essay, which is slightly more coherent than the first, and more traditional in its structure, Sontag also talks about the progression of art.

I always feel as though I should enjoy Sontag’s work more than I do.  However, Notes on “Camp” has cemented that I am not a great fan of her essayism.  The collection shows its age rather; perhaps it is just a product of its time, but it is not one which I particularly enjoyed, or took much from.  Sontag writes with a sort of knowing superiority, and I did not find her arguments here to be particularly measured, or compelling.  Her tone feels final and definite, as though her answers are the only correct ones.  I prefer the essayists I read to be more open in their conclusions, allowing inclusion, something which Sontag does not seem to concern herself with.

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Penguin Moderns: ‘Africa’s Tarnished Name’ by Chinua Achebe *****

The twenty-eighth book on the Penguin Modern list is ‘the father of modern African literature’ Chinua Achebe’s Africa’s Tarnished Name.  Of Achebe’s work, the only book of his which I had read before picking this up is Things Fall Apart, which I very much enjoyed.  I was really looking forward, therefore, to reading some of his non-fiction, and this collection of ‘electrifying essays on the history, complexity and appropriation of a continent’ felt like the perfect way in which to begin his oeuvre.9780241338834

Africa’s Tarnished Name is comprised of four essays: ‘What’s Nigeria to Me?’, which is adapted from a speech given in Lagos in 2008; ‘Travelling White’, which was first published in The Guardian in 1989; the titular essay, published in Another Africa in 1998; and ‘Africa is People’, which has been adapted from a speech delivered in Paris in 1998.  All of these essays can be found in the 2011 collection entitled The Education of a British-Protected Child.

Achebe was born into the ‘Igbo nation’, one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa, and the largest in Nigeria.  In ‘What’s Nigeria to Me?’, Achebe discusses nationality, and the granting of independence to Nigeria in 1960.  He goes on to point out the governmental issues which came with this independence, and the subsequent coups and massacres of citizens, which led to a bloody Biafran civil war.  He discusses, quite openly, his difficult relationship with Nigeria.  He writes that his feeling toward the country ‘was one of profound disappointment’, before going on to say: ‘I found it difficult to forgive Nigeria and my countrymen and -women for the political nonchalance and cruelty that unleashed upon us these terrible events, which set us back a whole generation and robbed us of the chance, clearly within our grasp, to become a medium-rank developed nation in the twentieth century.’

Achebe’s essays feel immediately warm and amusing, particularly with regard to their tongue-in-cheek humour.  The first essay begins: ‘Nigerian nationality was for me and my generation an acquired taste – like cheese.  Or, better still, like ballroom dancing.  Not dancing per se, for that came naturally; but this titillating version of slow-slow-quick-quick-slow performed in close body contact with a female against a strange, elusive beat.  I found, however, that once I had overcome my initial awkwardness I could do it pretty well.’

He discusses, amongst other things, the portrayal of Africa in fiction, and Western perceptions of the continent.  Achebe makes some very interesting points throughout.  ‘Africa’s Tarnished Name’, for instance, begins: ‘It is a great irony of history and geography that Africa, whose landmass is closer than any other to the mainland of Europe, should come to occupy in the European psychological disposition the furthest point of otherness, should indeed become Europe’s very antithesis.’  The second essay, ‘Travelling White’, details Achebe’s travels in other African countries during 1960, and the racism which he encountered along the way.

In each of these essays, Achebe has packed so much into such a compact space, without sparing his reader explanations.  He writes with brevity, and with confidence, and speaks with both authority and intelligence.  These essays are filled with wisdom and measured arguments, and are often quite profound.  There is so much which can be learnt from this important collection, and it is clear to see why the author is so revered.  Achebe is a gifted essayist, and I certainly do not want to leave it too long before I read more of his work.

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