Trigger Warning (As If)

So, since last year, there has been global talk lately of instituting trigger warnings on books, ostensibly to warn people of potentially upsetting themes or scenes in a work of literature. It seems to be originating from students in the USA who are afraid of themes such as suicide, war, rape and racism in books.

To some extent, I can understand why some might see this as necessary. Rape scenes in books have their place as an exploration of the terrible act and how it affects our lives, but for a rape survivor, a warning might help avoid an unwanted recollection. But that said, we find ourselves back in the murky of arbiters. Who decides the trigger warnings? Publisher? Author? Distributor? Independent body of psychologists? Or worse, parents and schools? Considering the harm the MPAA (the ratings body in America) does to any movie more interesting or challenging than Transformers, do we really want someone deciding what is safe to read, and what isn’t? For religious readers, do we need to start putting blasphemy warnings on books? Do we really need another bullshit fatwa over a book that doesn’t deserve it?

It’s an old example, but always a useful one; consider that 90’s capsule American americanpsycho-book-coverPsycho. It is a study in ultra-violence, hyper-masculinity, the pointless excesses of yuppie life (exhibit A: the mineral water scene) and was way ahead of Wolf of Wall Street when it comes to looking at how the ultra-rich live. American Psycho would have so many trigger warnings that it would be unmarketable to anyone under the age of thirty. It is a shocking book, and remains relevant now. Sure, it is an uncomfortable read, but it has a valid point to make on how hideous excess wealth can be. Patrick Bateman buys women like other people buy steaks, and rapes and maims and kills. His wealth and position in society makes it easy for him to be utterly reprehensible. That’s a comment worth making, but it isn’t an easy one to read.

The idea of warning people about the contents of books with a neat label on the back (I really hope not the front of the book) denigrates the idea of intellectual exchange and growth. Treating every reader as an ignorant and fragile snowflake incapable of dealing with ideas in books should be unacceptable to a society that saw books being banned for just their titles less than 50 years ago. Books are already constantly challenged by supposedly well-meaning adults: Captain Underpants, Catcher in The Rye, Harry Potter and more often ignite some feeble-minded rage about what kids shouldn’t read. Adding another layer of interference in publishing bodes ill.

Let the people write whatever they want, and let the readers make decisions based on their own experience, and posterity will sort out the rest. I’m not sure that any intellectually curious reader would appreciate being told what is and isn’t safe reading. Otherwise, anything more interesting than a grade 1 reader will be emblazoned: warning: this book might upset you.

Review of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

the-twelve-tribes_custom-6a80054024c857973e6515991a8ed02933f28957-s6-c10The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis arrived with a great deal of literary street cred: it had been recommended by Oprah, who can still make or break books with nary a blog post. It came with a stunning recommendation from Marilynne Robinson, Orange Prize and Pulitzer Prize winner. Comparisons are being made to inimitable Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison.

Does Twelve Tribes of Hattie live up to these extraordinary claims? This book is an easy shoo-in for my top 13 for 2013, and is unlikely to be booted out of that list any time soon. While the Toni Morrison comparisons are not unfounded, I feel this book deserves more than being lumped in the ‘black female writer’ bracket and being treated as a progressive read by lily-white book clubs. This book, while touching on race, also deals with everything from family to gender to psychosis, while stopping by to discuss religion as well as music. There’s even a brush through midwifery and traditional healing. It is, quite surprisingly, more of a collection of short stories than it is a traditional novel. Through the twelve children of Hattie we discover twelve stories of twelve people, beginning with the heartbreaking departure of Philadelphia and Jubilee and the salvation of Sala.

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Eponymous Hattie is triumphantly drawn, though her life is a wide collection of pain and sacrifice. Called The General by her children, she is a hard, tough, strong woman who bears the pain of losing her children in every manner, who has a husband who is “the greatest mistake of her life”, who somehow manages to feed and clothe and raise a veritable horde of children, each of which grows into and inherits their share of trouble. Each chapter is a look through a prism at Hattie, and her impact on the lives of her children. She is never far from the foreground, and even if she doesn’t appear in the action, she appears in every chapter. Mathis has drawn a remarkably complex woman that one struggles to like or hate, though her strength is easy enough to love.

Ayana Mathis

Ayana Mathis

The novel asks: how do you prepare your children for a world you know is cruel? Through Hattie the reader explores the burdens of parenting, of growing up in the shadow of a mother’s pain and how even the very best intentions can go horribly awry. Add to this the difficulties of racial tensions and outright hatred in America between 1925 – 1980, of being black and gay, of being black and ill, and the novel is filled with complicated troubles and unsentimental discussion. This isn’t a misery memoir but it is filled with great sadness, as it is also lightened by moments of happiness and growth.

Pick this up because you will weep for Hattie, and all she endures for so little thanks. For all she loses, and for all that her children suffer, and for the outstanding depth and maturity of this debut author’s prose.

Read more:

Oprah Interviews Ayana Mathis

Sarah Churchill reviews Twelve Tribes for The Guardian

 The Sunday Times: Three Writers to Watch

 The Atlantic: The Russian Poetry that Inspires Ayana Mathis

A Stirring Portrait of Family, Loss, and Endurance: The Everyday E-Book

The New York Times Sunday Review

VIDEO: Ayana Mathis’ 3 Greatest Writing Lessons

Review of “Two Brothers” by Ben Elton

two-brothers-by-ben-eltonTwo Brothers by Ben Elton

I don’t usually dip into historical fiction, as the writers often hide poor character-building behind supposed historical accuracy instead. Often the books are unreadable due to their saturation of research and lack of coherent plot or technical ability. But Two Brothers is not ruined by either of these things: instead it manages to capture madness rather than shoving it in the face of the reader.

Undoubtedly, any story with Nazis in it treads a fine line between being comically grotesque or insultingly dramatic. While the Nazi regime was undoubtedly hideous, boundless in depravity and as insane as it was ruthless, it is still possible for an author to trip over this into ridiculous territory. Every sane person knows the Nazis were evil. But it takes a talented author to shade in the madness at all of its levels rather than creating a caricature that strips it of its terror. And, too often, books rely on ‘here’s a Nazi thing, so terrible so terrible’ without taking the time to put the horror in context and give it the appropriate death.

Two Brothers follows the story of a family from Berlin 1920 right through to 2006 (but without being one of those tedious ‘the story of three generations, family, love, wark wark’ efforts). When Frieda gives birth to twins and one dies, she immediately adopts another son whose mother dies in childbirth. That the child is German is unimportant to this Jewish mother, and the first quarter of the book is filled with the loveliest of stories of the boys Otto and Paulus, as well as the charming father Wolfgang and beautiful, kind mother Frieda. One becomes grateful for this time setting up the characters and their personalities, because by the end of it I truly cared for this family, ruined by the Nazis. (This isn’t really a spoiler – it is a book about a Jewish family in Nazi Berlin, after all.)

I enjoyed this book particularly because it combined outstanding research with several levels of human pain – from petty teenage fighting to full-scale war, from unrequited love to suicide to being rounded up and taken away. The insanity of the regime, often forgotten amongst the industrial scale of its cruelty, is looked at in the Nazi schooling, the petty laws (so similar to Apartheid) and in two key events in German history: The Night of the Long Knives and The Night of Broken Glass.

There are thousands of books about the Nazis, and about the lives they ruined. I have read a few, key of them being Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels, Maus by Art Spiegelman and Night by Elie Wiesel. The good ones are the ones that balance horror with hope, which is hard to do with such heart-rending material. This book has stayed with me since I finished it, which doesn’t happen nearly as often as it should. I felt such anger towards the character of Dagmar, who is selfish and beautiful and doesn’t deserve the love of the wonderful Stengel twins. Poor Silke, who is kind and loyal and never gets rewarded for it. Frieda, the brave Jewish doctor who was filled with kindness and strength until the very end, and who I will remember through many books, and her musical, ruined husband Wolfgang, who goes through more than any one should have to endure. Through them, and those they meet, the true horror of the Nazi regime is delivered right into the reader’s heart. In the sixty-odd years since the Holocaust, that entire terrible time has become so caricatured, appropriated and simplified that sometimes we need a book that explains the extent of Nazi crime, the slow, fine grinding of Jewish lives into something approximating oblivion and the people caught up in it.

Read this because it is a wonderfully detailed, wide-ranging story of a family you will come to adore within an exquisitely, carefully detailed setting. It does not trivialise violence by putting it at the very front and centre, but keeps it constantly  menacingly in the background. I would give this to my children one day as part of their reading, to help them understand the nature of the Nazi regime, in all of its howling, murderous insanity.

Want to read what others think? Head on here:

The Independent.ie

Jenny Colgan at the Guardian.co.uk

Elena Seymenliyska for The Telegraph

Liked this? Try these:

Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels

Maus by Art Spiegelman

Night by Elie Wiesel

The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak

The Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank

Surviving the Angel of Death – Eva Mozes Kor and Lisa Rojany Buccieri

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne

Sophie’s Choice by William Styron

Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis

If This is a Man by Primo Levi

Quick Fix: A Writing Submission Gone Horribly Wrong

Pictured: manliness, circa 1900

Pictured: manliness, circa 1900

Far be it from me to piss on the writing parade of someone who likes to scribble cowboy fiction. After all, I suppose it has its place, much like bric-a-brac in the glorious, universe-spanning world of literature. While undoubtedly a genre that pretty much reinforces every heterosexual norm you can think of (the manly man that provides manly protection for his lone bride wasting away on the farm and too lady-like to fight the bison etc), it bakes someone’s cake. And I suppose there is the chance that it can be an intellectual, egalitarian, tasteful discussion of body politics, cattle and sex. A tiny chance, but a chance nonetheless.

Gaze upon the entry conditions for this cowboy anthology, and when you’re done, come back here and laugh with me.

And cry a little.

You see, I find these kind of anthologies more than just mildly offensive. Look at this clause:

Material that includes the following will be summarily rejected:

Necrophilia (sex with dead bodies—vampires don’t count)

Bestiality (sex with non-sentient animals)

Rape intended to arouse (though we will consider forced seduction or dubious consent if it is respectfully handled)

What does that even mean, ‘forced seduction’? Is this just another way of writing non-con? I don’t think its possible to tastefully handle ‘dubious consent’, that euphemism for rape. Rape is inherently distasteful, and to try write it as ‘they actually are really into each other, she just doesn’t know it, the bint’ is as offensive as it is misguided. And how do vampires not count? They’re undead, is anyone fooled by this? (And why are there vampires in a cowboy story? Isn’t that the worst combination of genres ever?) And sentient animals are somehow not animals, so it’s fine to hump them? (Stephenie Meyer, I blame you for this shit.) My cats are pretty sentient, able to make decisions and unlock doors and manipulate humans. I guess that means it’s okay to sex them up.

And add to it this shamefully sexist tripe:

Their rugged masculinity make us feel attractive, protected, womanly and pursued. They are the perfect antidote to the glut of androgynous and metrosexual men the media is saturated with. Sun-bronzed skin stretched taught over work-hardened muscles, and the soft sound of a deep Texan drawl, is enough to quieten the wildest of women.

‘Quieten the wildest of women’. I see. I wasn’t aware that we were meant to offended by men who have better things to do than beat up animals, bench-press and belch. A man who dresses well, takes the time to groom himself and who doesn’t want to go camping is definitely an upgrade on the ultra-boring Camel Man as described above (and so perfect for a smoking ad! Don Draper would be proud.) But maybe I’m just a crazy person. Millions of Shades-reading women can’t be wrong (oh but I think they are.)

My point is (and I always have one) is that this is an anthology for women written by women, and it encourages the same kind of tedious, negative crap that we should have grown out of reading round about the 1930s. We shouldn’t be encouraging anything that allows for tasteful descriptions of rape, or reinforces outdated norms of sexuality. This is 2013, a grand new millennium that is looking away from this kind of backwards thinking and towards a world with (hopefully) better literature. If we’re ever going to have anything tasteful to read, there has to be some kind of backlash against this kind of unmitigated drivel. If I am that lone person, fine, I can deal with that. Someone has to stand against the tanks of shitty literature.

The Hobbit HFR 3D Review

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So, I was fortunate enough to get a preview ticket to see The Hobbit in very sexy HFR 3D. This luxurious new 3D format actually delivers what it promises: increased depth (which sometimes creates a weird soap opera feel) and no more blurriness. Thankfully, it is also much, much easier on the eyes. I was pleased that I didn’t have a headache after nearly three hours of 3D. For that alone, the new format is worth your time, especially for epic battle scenes.

The-HobbitNow, onto the movie itself. I read The Hobbit a long time ago, like most people, and haven’t reread it since for a number of reasons. Mostly because a) I very rarely reread books when there’s so much out there that should be read and b) I find fantasy the most boring genre in the world. So, the movie should ideally be a distillation of the best parts of the book to encourage people to explore the book further while making the movie a manageable, digestible experience.

Does the movie deliver? The action scenes are sublime in their direction and excitement. The post-production clearly cost a great number of millions. Gollum made an excellent appearance and his facial rendering now severely dates the Lord of the Rings trilogy in comparison. Martin Freeman, while a bit stilted initially, (basically Watson with no shoes on) still makes a great action hero. The dwarfs are fun, and of course Gandalf can save the movie by himself. The art direction is outstanding, the clothes are most beautiful. Taken on the value of those things, the movie is worth watching just for how it looks.

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But you knew that I was going to find something, and I hear the nitpick train coming into the station. The Hobbit is a product of the 50s, and it is going to be inherently problematic. Like Game of Thrones, it too is about a bunch of white men running around having adventures. (Thankfully, less rapey, gratuitious sex.) There is ONE speaking role for a woman in three hours. She mostly glides around like a lost bride and doesn’t really inspire much awe or even interest. As you can imagine, everyone is pretty much lily-white. Men are brave and manly and smoke a lot. It could have been mistaken for a tobacco ad, at times. I don’t see how problematic it would have been to have the dwarves being of different skin colours. (But you only have to look at the backlash about Hunger Games having a few black actors to see where the problem comes in).

The-Hobbit-550x281So, that’s the BA part of me speaking up. Now for the writer part. Dear god, did this one average-sized book have to be split into three movies? There’s still too much walking. There are goddamn musical numbers, which should have been left in the book. They were as trite and folksy as they were in the 50s; they have no right being in a movie now. (Also, sometimes sound editing dropped the ball and the lyrics weren’t very clear.) They jar with the whole movie and should really have been left out. There’s a lot of scenes that could have been left out to make a more coherent, interesting whole. Peter Jackson, like James Cameron, is dragging the viewer into his special circle-jerk. Sure, I can imagine the hardcore fans appreciate the thousands of details in Orc costumes that are only on screen for a few minutes. But what about those of us who want a better version of the books? With less walking and tedious descriptions and complicated family trees that make reading the books like chewing concrete?

My opinion of The Lord of the Rings trilogy has always been an unpopular one, but I stand by it. And unfortunately, the problematic things about the books have made their way into the films, the one chance the books had to get better. The movies are interminably long, as are the books. More writing is not necessarily good writing. Just because I want cheesecake, it does not mean I want to eat one the size of a dustbin lid. The racism and elision of women could have been addressed. After all, the idea of some races being better or smarter qua race is at the very foundation of this. Hobbits are lazy, Elves are smart, Dwaves are drunken and strong, etc.

Sherlock 2 Specials

The best example of a canon evolving is Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock Holmes the character (as written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the 1880s) was a racist, misogynist asshole, for all of his smartness. But the two most recent iterations of this phenomenon have changed Holmes for the better. BBC’s Sherlock has kept the asshole tendencies but at least he isn’t hardcore racist. I’m ambivalent on the sexism issue. Sherlock-Holmes-A-Game-of-Shadows-Poster-007Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes works with women and has lost the general dickishness of the character as developed in the 1960s and onwards. I don’t think this has harmed the character: if people can change and grow, why can’t characters?

The inherent problem with Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit is that it has one of the most puritanical fanbases (just like Jane Austen fans). They don’t like change, and they don’t like upgrades. Surely the core message can survive a little updating? Ultimately, the books are about being good, doing good and being brave regardless of size or strength. What difference does it really make if Sam had been a female hobbit? Or black? And if Tolkien couldn’t have done it then, surely Jackson could have done it now? If the characters are really defined by their personalities, there’s no reason race or gender could be an issue. Unfortunately, it is still edgy to to have a female lead. Or a gay one. Or a black one.

Alright, so segue aside, do you need to see the movie? If you can see it in HFR 3D (the Nu-Metro rep said that only four screens will have it nationally), then go see it just to enjoy the new tech and experience. If you’re a Hobbit/Lord of the Rings/fantasy fan, nothing I say here will dissuade you. The problems I have are not the ones everyone else will have. It is the holidays, and it isn’t the worst movie you will ever watch (because that movie is Sex and the City).

Read what others thought here:

Slashfilm.com – ‘Rousing, yet Repetitive’

Butter Scraped Over Too Much Bread: Robbie Collins

Variety.com – No kinder on small bladders or impressionable eyes

The Trilogy Will Test the Stamina of Non-Believers: The Guardian.co.uk 

Misty Mountain Out of a Molehill – The Daily Mail

Feels Twice As Long as Half a Movie Should – Film School Rejects