Book Reviews

American literature – through the fence

For a long time I have been wanting to read more American fiction. Great GatsbyThis spark was renewed last year when I read the hauntingly beautifully written William Stegner’s Crossing to Safety. A book I really, really enjoyed.

To my shame, it wasn’t until 2011 that I read John Cheever’s classic and perfectly formed short story The Swimmer and The Lottery, by Shirley Jackson, which when first published, resulted in hate mail to The New Yorker and cancelled subscriptions (I highly recommend the New Yorker Fiction podcast of this story, it gives me chills.) I should add my thanks to Kylie Ladd for both introducing me to the joy of the podcast and to The Swimmer.

Prior to this I’d plowed my way through much of Tom Wolfe (the whole of it actually), Don DeLillo, Toni Morrison, Dave Eggers (as well as McSweeney’s) and David Foster Wallace – all of whom write in a specifically American way, to my way of reading. But the wider range of the classic American texts and the best exponents of the short story, I have ignored. Largely this is because the emphasis was on reading English literature, and in some circles American literature was considered somehow less. Even at university, the bulk of my first year English texts were British. Except Fahrenheit 451, which I didn’t read – by then I was busy with other entertainments.

This is just such a wrong perception. It was said often when I was young that American fiction was full of sound and fury signifying nothing – a reference which, embarrassingly I always thought was about Macbeth. I had no idea about Faulkner. This belief that American fiction was not worth my reading time, coloured my view of the ‘classic American’ texts. And Gatsby, God’s Little Acre, Hemingway and Mark Twain.

Of course, I read To Kill A Mocking Bird, Catcher in the Rye, Grapes of Wrath (oh how I cried and cried), and even most of Kurt Vonnegut as a rebellion against the requirements to toil through all those Austens and Brontes. Indeed I think Vonnegut was the turning point. I read every single book our library possessed, and those who know how much I hate the library, will understand the commitment required.

Interestingly, now with a soul searching period of literature, post the past decade and a half, of tragedies and disasters, of bombs and hostility; the Americans are out in front in my view for dealing with what David Foster Wallace called “real American type sadness”. While here we wallow, trying to make sense of our own time in Australian fiction, and of our own stories, the Americans are dealing with their own loss and breakdown. The Road, White Noise, Falling Man, Infinite Jest, Back to Blood – the list goes on. All books about the end of times in their own specific way. All by men.

It was clear when I started writing this post, that I would get myself into trouble, it was stunning how quickly this happened. I can’t shake the academic training and I’ve stopped short of presenting any analysis because I haven’t read enough. It is ironic really that I am pronouncing that I want to read more American fiction but can’t write about it as I would like because I haven’t read enough of it. I am now in danger of labouring this point so long you’ve stopped reading!

How to proceed then. Limited reading time, but the desire to know more about a tradition that I had alternatively ignored and loved. To start, I think it might be worth addressing the gender imbalance. I’d love your suggestions. Online reading group this isn’t. That would be doomed to fail for lack of time right now. But I think a list of classics that I could work my through would be great.

I would like to compile a list. Tell me then, which American fiction should I read?

More particularly, which American women writers should I start with?

Comments please.


There be monsters – in praise of wild things and the darkness of childhood

‘Childhood is cannibals and psychotics vomiting in your mouth!’

Maurice Sendak died this week. As a child, his books were like sacred objects, which to me, is against the spirit of his work completely. Not only did I have to wash my hands before I touched them, I was not allowed to pore over these books without supervision. This is because almost all the copies we had were hardbacks, neatly covered in opaque library plastic, carefully hoarded by my teacher-librarian mother and protected by her from the sticky, dirty, page bending hands of children. They are even now, more than 30 years later, still in pristine condition; withstanding three children and five grandchildren.

As an adult, with my own sticky, dirty, page bending, book chewing child, this makes me incredibly sad. So I let him have them, all of them. And they are all paperbacks, and if we have to have two copies of each to see us through his childhood, then so be it.

Of course, being forbidden, only increased their cachet. More than once, I read them on the quiet, hoping I wouldn’t get sprung. Aside from being well looked after, they were also beautiful and subversive books, featuring imagery and themes, seldom dealt with in children’s literature.

I still remember the mild scandal that erupted about In the Night Kitchen, which features Mickey’s naked bottom, not to mention the rest of him. This was the cause of some consternation among librarians, although it was fair to say not my mother, who had bought it for the school library. In The Night Kitchen deals with falling into the dark, and indeed the bakers all have strangely even, square and short moustaches. The oven imagery is thinly veiled, in my opinion, and Sendak confirmed in interviews, that the references are indeed a comment on the Holocaust. Much more concerning you would think, than a naked bum or the full frontal Mickey.

A baby is snatched away by goblins in Maurice Sendak's Outside Over There. The beloved author and illustrator — who took a darker approach to children's storytelling — died Tuesday at the age of 83.

A baby is snatched away by goblins in Outside Over There. Image: Harper Collins.

Outside Over There, less well-known than Where the Wild Things Are, features incredibly distracted parental figures, who so preoccupied with themselves and their love, leave their eldest daughter in charge of her younger sibling. Young Ida is initially no match for the goblins who kidnap her baby sister while she plays her wonder horn. An allegory for children everywhere, that sometimes you just have to fix it yourself and be courageous and brave. Rescuing your little sister, what higher achievement could you wish? The dark themes of this book have so far washed over my toddler, although he recognises that the baby is in trouble and needs saving. In the middle where the illustrations are of all the crying babies the goblins have kidnapped, he shouts loudly about how sad they are.

I let him have Higglety Pigglety Pop! too. Subtitled There must be more to life, it tells the story of a dog called Jennie who has everything, but is desperately unhappy. It is the story of how having everything handed to you can make you unhappy, and that to be fulfilled, you need to pursue your own dreams – even if that means saving baby from being eaten by the lion and joining ‘The World Mother Goose Theatre’. This book too, features distracted, ill-attentive adults. In Higglety Pigglety Pop, the parents of the baby move house, and forget to take her with them. It is a book for older children, and yet despite the density of the text, the story carries Benedict along, just not in a single sitting, yet.

Sendak understood how frightening childhood could be, how images and ideas, without comprehension of context, could loom large; being considered wild, being naked and having grand plans, could all get you into trouble with adults. Could lead to being sent to bed, which for some children was a blessing, as it meant getting out of eating your dinner, a torture all of its own. The sadness a child feels when she realises that these adults have no idea what they are doing, is a sadness that never leaves a person. What Sendak’s books give you is a sense that it doesn’t matter if the world is a confusing mess, you can work it all out for yourself and that sometimes the monsters are just that little bit closer than you imagine.

Amanda Katz writes in an essay for NPR books, that it is the adults who are scared of Sendak’s books, not the children. She writes:

‘Meanwhile, he [Sendak] reminds adults — even those of us who were once those young and fascinated readers, but who are grown now — to trust our children, who may in the end be less fearful of climbing outside than we are to watch them do it.’

Fortunately, while my mother was over-protective of the precious books, she let us climb out of the windows and be wild things. Sendak reminds us, and we need reminding, that children need to be wild, they need to allowed to express themselves, and tell their stories, even when these stories are too difficult for adults to hear.

‘I knew terrible things, but I knew I mustn’t let adults know I knew … it would scare them.’

Book review – Animal People – Charlotte Wood

Welcome to my first review of 2012. The first of many for this year – she says hopefully.

Charlotte Wood’s novel Animal People, follows one day in the life of Stephen, a character who also appears in her novel, The Children. Stephen is a character without ambition – lost in the distance he creates from the rest of the world and its concerns, he observes and pities those around him. He struggles to make sense of ‘animal people’, ‘dog people’ and the visitors to the zoo where he works, as they fawn over the animals. Isolation and desolation wash over Stephen’s life. Read More

The Finkler Question – part two – why I hated the Man Booker 2010 prize winner

Last night was bookclub. We discussed The Finkler Question. I have already declared my hatred for it. I won’t finish it. What did the rest of us think? Read More

Book review – The Idle Parent – Tom Hodgkinson

Why Laid-back Parents Raise Happier and Healthier Kids

Tom Hodgkinson, author of How to Be Idle and The Freedom Manifesto, is described by philosopher Alain de Botton as having written, “the most counter-intuitive but most helpful and consoling child-raising manual I’ve yet read”. Having purposefully avoided reading child raising manuals, with the exception of Baby Love, which was helpful to me in a practical sense, I loved the idea of a book that combined being horizontal with parenting.

I hate the idea of being so worried about Benedict that I can’t take him to the park, or let him walk to school or play with sticks or whatever else could hurt him, injure him or not be good for him. I am appalled at the idea that I will have to watch him assiduously.  I am also concerned about children who don’t know how to entertain themselves, who think that helping with the washing up is optional not expected, and that there shouldn’t be time for adults to be alone and not surrounded by children and their demands. I wanted alternatives to the parenting I frequently see around me, an alternative to the tyrannical infant ordering the lives of its parents.

My interest in The Idle Parent was sparked by the visit to Australia of Lenore Skenazy, author of Free Range Kids. What most struck me was the outrage of parents to her idea of take your kids to the park and leave them there all day. How completely outrageous! What an idea! Leave them alone!  How revolutionary! Skenazy’s visit sparked off another round of public commentary on raising children, modern life and parenting. So to Tom Hodgkinson and The Idle Parent.

Once I had my hands on the book, I happily read the manifesto. It contains sensible ideas, like rejecting the idea that parenting requires hard work, that parents should lie in bed as long as possible, and that time is more important than money. Great! Not working too hard, staying in bed and happily embracing time with the children.

The central thesis of The Idle Parent is that contemporary ideas of life and parenting are founded in the precept that children need to be moulded and improved. This notion is informed by the Elizabethan idea, Hodgkinson argues, that the child is waiting to be formed into an ‘ideal’ of perfection. Taken together with modern competition and the Protestant work ethic; the idea of perfect children is threatening to crush childhood by forcing parents into ‘improving’ their children with ‘organised team sport’, school, over-stimulation and over-engineered experiences which results in huge stress for all involved. These patterns of thought also confine children to a weak position where they cannot think for themselves, are overly dependent on adults and are only being prepared for their own time on the treadmill of the wage slave.

Hodgkinson’s ideas of The Idle Parent, reflect his own experience and are, in part, derived from his interpretation of the works of Rousseau and Locke, who argued in various texts for leaving children alone and to their own devices. In short in letting them be free. This does not, however, mean that the parents are doing all the work and the children are running wild, far from it. In Hodgkinson’s world of idle parenting, the parent is able to be idle because they have freed themselves, and their family, from the relentless treadmill of materialism and capitalism. Bring back child labour, he cries! By this he means, do not do everything for the child so that they are helpless. Do not make work sound like suffering but organise yourself so that children help and that chores are fun. Play music, take turns, create games out of things that have to be done. Give children responsibility.

While not a path open to us all, he exhorts us to spend more time at home, and less time at work; particularly when the children are little. This provides more time for sleep, meaning you will be less tired and likely to be irritated and cranky and also more time for you to be idle. This does imply a substantial amount of thrift and doing without, but along the way Hodgkinson provides money saving ideas, like not buying expensive battery operated toys, making things at home and living in the country. Like I said, options not always open to us all. Saving money by not buying things children don’t really need is however, something that most parents could easily do.

The key to idle parenting is to get rid of whingeing. All parents want this. In Hodgkinson’s world, the fastest way to achieve this is not to whinge yourself. If your child does not hear you complaining about washing up or chores or work, then they won’t complain either, he argues. Especially, little children who hear and absorb everything you DO much more than what you say. Do it lightly, play music, have fun. Don’t tell them what to do, ask them to join in. Better still, Hodgkinson says, is to teach them how to get their own juice, breakfast or whatever they need so you can stay in bed – a strategy he employs with some success by his own account.

Hodgkinson is a huge fan of children roaming in packs. If the children are to leave you alone to be idle, they must be engaged in something else, or with someone else. He describes his ideal as a party in a field. Adults drinking in a marquee at one end and flocks of children cavorting at the other end. Everyone enjoying themselves. No nagging, hovering, and no whingeing about being bored.

If I have to take issue with the Idle Parent, it is with the relentless middle class assumptions that underlie what is an otherwise enjoyable approach to dealing with the conflicts thrown up by parenting. Working through the book, I found that as Hodgkinson shifted from explaining his ideas to describing how to implement them he was describing a world that was not within the reach of most people, certainly not most people outside the comfortable environment of the southern counties of England. The ideas in The Idle Parent become more difficult to implement, and less practical for all but a few. He argues for a rejection of materialism and the capitalist impulse to acquisition. He also thinks it is a good idea to live in the country, keep animals and home school your children. His reasons for this are all based on a sort of anti-puritan movement which would see children made resilient and robust by discovering things themselves – he waxes lyrically for several pages about activities that strike fear into people – let children outside of the gaze of adults play with matches, build cubbies, climb trees, keep pets. Drag your children out of the house away from television and the internet. End all organised activities, don’t trap them in the car and let children explore and be free. Down with School is the title of one chapter.

Hodgkinson tempers these ideas with practical advice on things like saying no. He quotes Rousseau who writes; “Let your ‘No’ once uttered, be a wall of brass against which the child may exhaust his strength some five or six times, but in the end he will try no more to overthrow it.” Hodgkinson also suggests having only a few important rules so you need say no less often.

Taking the best of Hodgkinson’s concepts, to embrace, really embrace, being an idle parent there are a few ideas to let go of first. You need to be there, you need to not care what anyone thinks, you need to ignore reports from school, reject television or at least limit it to as few hours as possible. All sound advice but best started when the children are babies and not after as Hodgkinson acknowledges.

Putting aside some of the impracticalities of Hodgkinson’s implementation of his ideas, the Idle Parent advocates children fitting in. Parents doing what they want to do and children following them – in most existing families this would be an adjustment. I will start today. I will also say no and mean it when the time comes. I will try to let go of my fear of the sleep-over and embrace children roaming through my backyard because while they are doing that, I can be inside drinking tea and reading a book. - Australia's #1 online bookstore