24.02.10

Book Review: Somebody’s Crying by Maureen McCarthy

Posted in Uncategorized at 8:58 pm

Three years have passed since the murder of Alice’s mother, but still the killer is unknown. Alice, her cousin Jonty and his friend Tom are drawn together by the mystery, but what is each of them hiding? Will their secrets bind them tighter or tear everything apart?

First things first: I loved this book.  I read it compulsively and was extremely reluctant to put it down until I finished it.  McCarthy has a gift of creating entirely believable characters and then getting inside their heads; quietly mourning Alice, easygoing Tom and even loose cannon Jonty feel like people I’ve met and hung out with at some point.   Their emotional responses, psychological makeup and dialogue feel entirely real, and sweep the reader up.

Set in Warrnambool in Victoria, Somebody’s Crying felt at once familiar and alien; having grown up in a rural Victorian town myself (albeit on the other side of the state), the atmosphere McCarthy creates seemed intimately familiar in some ways, but as I don’ t know Warrnambool at all, there was still a measure of distance.

The mystery of who killed Alice’s mother, Lillian, forms the binding narrative of the book, drawing in the three distinct characters of Alice, Tom and Jonty.  The chapters skip between the three main characters, with McCarthy using third-person omniscient narration to great effect.  Flashbacks to the past from all three characters help to round out the story’s history and build up the intrigue as to who is Lillian’s real killer – a crime for which Jonty, her nephew, was arrested, but not convicted due to lack of evidence.  Jonty has returned to Woollongong, and faces a cloud of suspicion wherever he goes, despite his lack of conviction.  Alice has returned to her hometown to face her mother’s death and find the killer once and for all, and Tom is drifting after three years away, looking for some answers in his life.

Somebody’s Crying is not a perfect book; there are some fairly major plot points that feel somewhat flimsy, and the characters occasionally behave in ways that it would be very difficult to imagine someone behaving in real life; Alice’s choice to take a job with Luke, who is Tom’s father and the lawyer who represented Jonty in court, seems unlikely, yet several aspects of the plot hinge on this decision.

Overall, however, it’s a strong and compelling novel that shows great insight into its characters; despite the tragic backstory, there is also a great deal of emotional reality in the lives of the three main characters, and many of the minor characters are well-developed and engaging too.  It’s definitely worth reading if you haven’t already done so.

However.  There is just one thing I’d like to address – briefly, because I suspect it’s going to come up in its own post sometime soon.  See that cover up there?  Moody, dramatic, evocative of a scene in the book, and pretty eye-catching. The girl on it is meant to be Alice.  Except it’s not.  I don’t say that as a fangirl who thinks they’re Doin It Rong, either.

See, Alice is meant to be fat.  Not pudgy.  Not a normal-sized girl with body image issues.  Fat.  It’s made explicitly clear in the book; it’s by no means a plot point, it just is.  It’s not really an issue for her either; she suffers some moments of self-consciousness about her weight, but a lot of young women her age do anyway.  She’s written as being an intelligent, captivating and beautiful young woman, whose weight generally isn’t an issue for her, and whose attractiveness is absolutely unquestionable.

So why did the publishers choose to portray her this way?  Well, okay, I get that: fat panic!  But why stigmatise a stigmatised physical characteristic further when an author has done such a good job of portraying it sensitively and in an empowering manner (something which McCarthy has also done in previous books such as Queen Kat, Carmel and St Jude Get a Life)?  Alice is one of three main characters whose journeys are followed in the book, yet she’s the only one depicted on the cover, and is depicted incorrectly at that.  If featuring a fat girl, even a conventionally stunningly beautiful one such as Alice, was so distasteful, why not feature the guys as well, or one of them?  Why not have an abstract, moody cover with no people in it at all?  I guess what I’m really asking is why can’t a fat character be fat?  Yes, yes, I know, fatphobic society, book sales to consider, fat girls aren’t “aspirational” or whatever.  But why couldn’t this book been jacketed in a way that doesn’t lie about one of the characters, particularly about a part of her appearance that sometimes affects how she interacts with the world, and how the world sees her?  It puts me in mind of the (rightful) fiasco surrounding the American cover of Justine Larbalestier’s Liar.

But like I said, this is something I’ll probably come back to in another post.

In the meantime, read Somebody’s Crying if you haven’t already done so, and let me know what you think of it.

19.02.10

To-Be-Read Pile: Three Werewolf Tomes (Sort Of)

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:53 pm

The following books are on my to-be-read pile (which, like for many people who love books, is in reality a series of piles, and some shelves, and a wistful with for more reading time); expect reviews when I finally get down to reading them.

Shiver by Maggie StiefvaterShiver, by Maggie Stiefvater

For years, Grace has watched the wolves in the woods behind her house. One yellow-eyed wolf—her wolf—is a chilling presence she can’t seem to live without. Meanwhile, Sam has lived two lives: In winter, the frozen woods, the protection of the pack, and the silent company of a fearless girl. In summer, a few precious months of being human… until the cold makes him shift back again.

Now, Grace meets a yellow-eyed boy whose familiarity takes her breath away. It’s her wolf. It has to be. But as winter nears, Sam must fight to stay human—or risk losing himself, and Grace, forever.

I’ve been meaning to read this one for a while, after hearing great things about it, and finally got around to getting my hands on a copy.  Gorgeous cover, and I’ve become a fan of Maggie Stiefvater’s thanks to her blog and that Kraken video.  I’m looking forward to this one a lot.

Lonely Werewolg GirlLonely Werewolf Girl, by Martin Millar

Lonely Werewolf Girl is an expansive tale of werewolves in the modern world. The MacRinnalch family contains elegant werewolves, troubled teenage werewolves, friendly werewolves, homicidal werewolves, fashion designers, warriors, punks, cross-dressers, musicians – an entire Clan of Werewolves, involved in conflict from the Scottish Highlands to London, and several dimensions beyond.

I picked this one up in the bookshop, not having heard ot it before, but doesn’t it sound like fun?  Plus, the edition I own has a very flattering comment from Neil Gaiman on the back.  That man could convince me to buy just about anything.

SteppenwolfSteppenwolf, by Herman Hesse

This Faust-like and magical story of the humanization of a middle-aged misanthrope was described in The New York Times as a ‘savage indictment of bourgeois society’. But, as the author notes in this edition, Steppenwolf is a book that has been consistently misinterpreted. This self-portrait of a man who felt himself to be half-human and half-wolf can also be seen as a plea for rigorous self-examination and an indictment of intellectual hypocrisy.

All right, so it’s something of a departure from the other two, for a variety of reasons.  But werewolf (or man-wolf, however you want to play it) as metaphor is just as compelling to me as werewof as actual werewolf, and is something I’m tinkering with in my own fiction writing.


18.02.10

The Children’s Side of Librarianing

Posted in Uncategorized at 11:18 am

I don’t believe, as some do, that my job is my ‘calling’.  In fact, if you’d said to me five years ago, “Aimee, you’re going to be a children’s librarian, and you’re going to love it,” I would have thought you were nuts, or at least having a lend.

But it turns out I love my job.  This blog, when I discuss it, will probably focus more on the youth side of things, since that’s where my passions lie, but I wanted to take a moment to talk about The Children.  Specifically, that oft-maligned portion of the Children’s Librarian’s job: Storytime.

My colleagues and I often joke that it takes a certain type of person to run a Storytime session successfully, and that being mildly insane helps.  This may be something of an exaggeration, but not much.  It takes skill to maintain a straight face and continue with the story while a toddler humps your leg (oh, I wish I was making that up.  Someone’s parents need to discipline the family dog).  You need to be able to perform, but you also need to be willing to reign children and parents alike in if they’re not quite behaving properly.  And you need to be comfortable with young children, obviously, and communicate with them in an honest and friendly way.  Including being able to explain the meaning of the word “naked” in a meaningful way when you’ve decided to read Mo Willems’s Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed at a Storytime.

Despite the early literacy and socialisation benefits of Storytime programs, they seem to be pretty disrespected by those who don’t deal directly with them, by other library patrons and sometimes – upsettingly – by other library staff.  Despite a host of experience and skills needed to successfully run a Storytime or baby rhyme time program, there is sometimes a pretty pervasive idea that what you’re doing is, well, a stupid waste of time.  Fortunately for me, I haven’t come across that view much personally, but I know that it’s a pervasive experience across the industry.

That said, children’s librarianship in general seems to get a bad rap.  The attitude that it’s not a “real” career seems pretty common, and indeed it seems to be a little ghettoised in terms of career path, despite that fact that a great number of senior librarians and library managers I’ve worked with were formerly children’s librarians.  There’s a perception that we just play around with craft all day.  Believe me, as a completely non-crafty person, if that’s all there was to the job then I would’ve stayed out of it.

I suspect that a lot of the antipathy comes from a combination of people projecting their fear of public speaking (because the number of times I have heard some variant of “I could never run a Storytime!” said with genuine fear is, well, it’s a big number), and dislike of children.  And while I am not someone who believes that every child is a Precious Giftto the entire world and blah blah Hallmark cards, I do think that our culture devalues and dislikes children in many ways, and that that dislike spills over into the realm of those who care for or provide services for children – things that are traditionally considered “women’s work”, a term used for allegedly unimportant things.  Any profession that could potentially be done by a woman, in the home, for free, tends to be undervalued – childcare, cleaning, cooking etc; and any profession traditionally dominated by women tends to be undervalued as well – nursing and midwifery, teaching and, yes, being a librarian (which is interesting considering that women weren’t considered to have what it takes in the profession’s early days).

Back on track, there is a lot to being a children’s librarian besides telling stories and doing craft – and there’s nothing wrong with those things, either.  Being a children’s librarian often means defending both your job and your key clientele to people who can’t or perhaps won’t understand the value of what you’re doing – and making that defence with a smile on your face.  In a lot of places, it means continually defending your budgetagainst those who would seek to cut it, so that you can actually develop collections and run programs that will serve your library patrons.  It means having a pretty clear idea of just what working with kids and babies can entail, and choosing to do that and working to do it well anyway.  It’s sometimes messy, often exhausting (particularly if you’re on the introverted side of things), sometimes thankless but most often rewarding work.

Oh, and it’s fun, too.  And the haters will be sorry when I finish amassing my itty-bitty army.

14.02.10

Krakens are the New Vampires

Posted in Uncategorized at 7:11 pm

I’ve been saying for a while now that Krakens, those lovely tentacly monsters of the deep that are so misunderstood (yet rarely sparkly) are going to be the next big thing in paranormal romance.  And it looks like YA writer Maggie Stiefvater has been developing the same hypothesis, and has made a very convincing (and thoroughly amusing) video to argue her case.

Hat tip to Bitch Books.

13.02.10

Terry Pratchett and Euthanasia

Posted in Uncategorized at 7:53 am

The Guardian has published an edited extract of UK author Terry Pratchett’s lecture Shaking Hands with Death, which discusses euthanasia through the lens of his father’s death and his own battle with early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease.

I don’t wish, at this time, to start a discussion about euthanasia/assisted suicide, nor do I intend to write a living eulogy or hagiography of Pratchett, who has been one of my favourite authors for more than half my life (and whose work, I am proud to say, is now enjoyed by no less than three generations of my own family).

I simply wanted to highlight this article, which I think is remarkable for Pratchett’s humour (although hardly surprising in a way given his novels, but welcome given the subject matter) and grace in talking about his disease, and his level-headedness in discussing an issue that has the tendency to instantly raise tempers and exclude rationality.  I think he’s an amazing man.  I’ve thought that for a long time, but things like this make me believe it even more fervently.

Health permitting, Pratchett will be attending the next Nullus Anxietus convention, which is in Sydney in 2011.  I’ve been slack about getting to a convention so far, even though they’ve always been in Melbourne, but perhaps I will have to make the effort this time around.  Road trip, anyone?

10.02.10

2010 Amelia Bloomer List

Posted in Uncategorized at 8:44 am

The annotated biography of books on the 2010 Amelia Bloomer List is now up.  The Amelia Bloomer Project was created by the American Library Association to recognise feminist books published for readers from birth to 18 years.  The project has been running since 2002, and always provides a great, although heavily US-centric for obvious reasons, resource.

Of the 2010 list, there’s a lot that catches my eye, particularly The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly, which is on the middle grade list.  I’ve wanted to read Yes Means Yes!: Visions of Female Sexual Power & a World Without Rape, edited by Jaclyn Friedman and Feministing‘s Jessica Valenti for a while, and there’s some familiar names on the young adult fiction list.  The only one I’ve read so far, however, is Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson, which is a powerful tale of obsession, eating disorders and a friendship gone horribly awry.  Needless to say, it’s not a happy read, but I think it’s an important contribution to the pool of fiction that deals with young women’s experiences with anorexia and bulimia.

I’ll be using this list to help with acquisitions for the titles that are relevant to readers at my library, and I can’t wait to read a few more of them.  In the meantime, any recommendations of books from the list would be greatly appreciated.

08.02.10

Of Twilight and Sexism

Posted in Uncategorized at 7:53 pm

It’s been kicking around for a few months now, but I wanted to comment on Sady at Tiger Beatdown’s post, The Edward Cullen Underpants Conundrum.  I think said post offers one of the most original and level-headed discussions of Twilight mania (and people’s discomfort with it) that I’ve come across.

Because there’s more than just literary criticism or high art/low art debates to the dismissal of twilight fans as “Twihards” and the looking-down-upon older women who are fans.  There’s a snideness levelled at them that you just don’t seem to see aimed at other fans of highly successful authors whose books trip into the pop culture realm, like, say, Dan Brown.

Part of it is sexuality.  Part of it is sexism.

Now, as a cranky loose-moralled feminist type, I will be among the first to say that the books’s promotion of abstinence and obsessive relationships disturbs me greatly.  And there’s a lot of ink that has been spilled over that fact, by people probably more clearheaded than me.

The interesting thing, which I think Sady really highlights, is that despite or because of this (and I’m sure arguments can be made for both, and I’m sure there’s truth to both for individual fans), is that the books (and, undeniably, films) seem to lend themselves to a highly sexual reading; seem to provide a conduit for sexual fantasy in a way that even other frequently-slashed popcult phenomenons like Harry Potter just don’t.  I would argue that is has got to be in part because the books themselves are completely sex-obsessed; they’re just coming at it from the perspective of abstinence rather than consummation (at least until the fourth book).

Sady writes:

“…Edward Cullen is porn. Weird, pre-sexual, socially conservative, deeply repressed and fucked-up porn, but in a world where ladies’ sexy feelings are fenced in with shame and warnings of danger from Day 1, is it any wonder that porn which consistently ties sex to death and fear and the urgent need for repression is selling to the girls? I mean, consider: Edward Cullen has no characteristics, as a person, other than wanting to “protect” Bella and being beautiful and gorgeous and perfect all the time. (And also an insufferable asshole, but that seems more like a mistake than a purposeful effort to give him a personality.) He has no goals in life other than being with Bella. He is over a hundred years old, and he’s never had sex with another person. He’s never wanted to have sex with another person. There is not and will never be a person or a thing or an event that is more important to him than (eventually) having sex with Bella. He is an object designed for the gratification of female desire. He’s the most ridiculous person who’s so amazing at everything, and he’s so beautiful you creamed yourself. And that’s it.”

Sady’s main point, the conundrum her title refers to, is that Edward Cullen as a character (and Robert Pattinson as an actor, now) is the focal point of the kind of sexual objectification that is usually in the domain of men; she refers to Pattinson as a “male Megan Fox”.  Objectification is usually a male privilege, and seen as a male prerogative, and it’s discomfiting to see it being utilised so forcefully by a group of fans that are largely (but not entirely) comprised of teenage girls and young women.

And this is where the sexism comes into it, and is arguably discrete from the quality or lack thereof of the Twilight franchise.  Because, while the series may be eminently mockable for a number of reasons, that fact that it’s so beloved to females shouldn’t be one of them, and yet this is happening.  There’s been a number of posts to oh-snap blogs like Lamebook and various sites in the Cheezburger empire in which guys are mocked for acknowledging that they – gasp! – might have read or seen and even enjoyed a foray into the world of Edward and Bella.  Like all good eighth-grade insults, there’s a lot of questioning of the victim’s sexuality, and a lot of feminisation as ridicule.  Because, seriously, being a girl is, like, the worst thing ever.

Twilight itself may display a world view that’s deeply uncomfortable with sexuality, but those who would mock it for daring to appeal to a feminised fan base are revealing themselves to be the flip side of the same coin.