A lost kitten comes to symbolise all the love that we find so hard to grasp in life.
While at a writers retreat in Tuscany, Italy, American writer Mary Gaitskill adopted a stray cat. The kitten was one of a litter, scrawny and blind in one eye, that presented itself for patting. It seemed to have chosen the writer, even though she didn't want a kitten, especially one with special needs that would have to be brought back to the US. Despite all this, Gaitskill took the kitten to the vet, looked after it, got its shots so it could travel, and took it home. She first named the kitten “Chance”, but finally decided on Gattino. She settled Gattino into her new house, letting the kitten outside under supervision, but one day when she rushed inside to attend to something, he went missing.
Gattino was just seven months old. Gaitskill was heartbroken and went to extraordinary lengths to find her kitten, even employing psychics. There were a few suspected sightings, from less than reliable witnesses, but in the end it was accepted that Gattino must have died. A none too happy ending to a story about a pitiful kitten.
Interwoven through this story of Gattino is a series of personal dramas involving family members and adopted children, especially Gaitskill's emotionally complicated relationship with her father. Lost Cat works more as an extended autobiographical essay and asks the question, is it wrong to invest so much love in a small kitten, when our human relationships are so difficult?
“...the metaphor for love that I feel more deeply is a lost, hungry little animal dying as it tries to find its way back home in the cold. It isn’t truer. But I feel it more. “
A bracing, honest piece of autobiography, one that has an ineffable sadness about it.
Lost Cat, by Mary Gaitskill. Published by Daunt Books. $19.99
Review by Chris Saliba
In 1960s rural Victoria a nine-year-old girl goes missing.
It’s 1960, rural Victoria. Eleven-year-old Joy Henderson lives a nightmare existence, trying to avoid her father’s wrath. George Henderson is a pillar of the community, but at home he abuses his wife and children. A religious man and prominent member of his church, he viciously calls his children filthy sinners and enforces the most unforgiving, draconian version of Christianity. George's wife, Gwen, keeps her head down and tries to avoid her husband's terrible rages. Making matters worse, the family own a struggling dairy farm. With no money and ever stringent economies being forced on Gwen, who must put food on the table, life is one of unremitting misery.
Then one day nine-year-old Wendy Boscombe goes missing from a neighbouring property. It's a complete mystery, and locals hope that she's merely wandered off, but there are suspicions it could be a case of abduction or murder. The police come to the Henderson house and do a routine questioning. Everyone's nerves are on edge. George calmly answers questions and then announces he will go and pray with the Boscombe family.
The answer to what actually happened to Wendy Boscombe slowly unfurls over some 470 pages, going through many twists and turns until all is revealed near the book's very last pages. This is a psychological novel par excellence. Every page is filled with foreboding and dread, a feeling that never lets up. The plot is crafted with incredible skill, moving between the 1940s, 1960s and 1980s, slowly revealing its many layers. While the story is complicated and multifaceted, it's written in a lucid style that is totally addictive.
One of the novel's chief qualities is its realism. Apparently based loosely on the author's childhood, the descriptions of life on a farm in the 1940s and 1960s - of the dinginess, poverty, money worries and general meanness of life – have a gritty, true-to-life feeling. The portrait Yeowart paints of the food alone – eel stews, skinned rabbits and headless chooks – is stomach churning.
One could say the main theme of the book is the abuse of children, their helplessness and inability to speak for themselves. Many who have experienced compromised childhoods may find the book a cathartic experience.
A gripping psychological thriller, expertly told, but with a solid base of realism that lifts it above the pack.
The Silent Listener, by Lyn Yeowart. Published by Viking. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
An engaging look at gender inequality and how to fix it.
Former Australian prime-minister Julia Gillard and Nigerian-American economist Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala see it as a matter of urgency that women fill more leadership roles. The statistics for female participation in politics, business and leadership roles generally are abysmal. To help foster change, they teamed up to write a level-headed manual on how to navigate a male dominated world where the cards are stacked against women.
While Women and Leadership uses a wealth of research on the subject of gender inequality, one of the book's main attractions is its real life examples. Okonjo-Iweala and Gillard interviewed eight prominent women leaders, from a variety of different countries and cultures. They sought out personal stories of how these women achieved what they did, but also asked questions on a range of subjects. Does having supportive parents help young girls? Is there an unfair presumption that women should stay home to raise children? Is too much attention paid to the way a woman dresses? Do women really support women?
The resulting answers make for an engaging and insightful book that is accessible and could also appeal to young adult readers. It's most practical lesson is the proverbial "forewarned is forearmed", arguing preparation and war-gaming are the key to success. The world is not fair for women, the issues are often deeply rooted and structural, but that is all the more reason, the authors assert, to forge ahead and make lasting change.
Women and Leadership is sure to become a classic text on gender inequality and how to fight it. It's hard to think of a more perfect manual to put in the hands of aspiring women and supportive men.
Women and Leadership: Real Lives, Real Lessons, by Julia Gillard and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. Published by Vintage. $34.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Domestic dramas are explored in this fine collection from Penelope Mortimer.
Despite a busy and complex personal life, English writer Penelope Mortimer managed to fit in a career as a journalist and novelist, writing over a dozen books. Saturday Lunch with the Brownings was Mortimer's only book of short stories, published in 1960.
In this collection of 12 stories, Mortimer covers a storm of domestic dramas, mostly involving disgruntled husbands and put-upon, overworked wives. The children of these unions are also fairly disturbed, navigating feelings of guilt and abandonment. It's all quite a mess, reminiscent of Christina's Stead's classic The Man Who Loved Children.
In the title story, we are invited to lunch with the unhappy Browning family, where there is a blow up between step father and daughter; “Little Mrs Perkins” details a stay in a maternity ward, where a woman convalescing with her new born overhears several fraught conversations; a rather creepy father performs a bizarre ritual in “The King of Kissingdom”, one that involves secrets and betrayals; and in the stand-out story, the hilarious “Such a Super Evening”, a dinner party is held for a famous literary couple, the hostess almost having a nervous breakdown trying to keep everyone happy.
While most of the stories in this collection describe the messy, complicated and emotionally fraught circumstances of family life – the meltdowns, the anger and rage – Mortimer keeps things lively with her excellent pacing and gripping portraits. There's also some great doses of humour. In one story obstetricians are described as looking like matinee idols that suddenly struck oil in middle age. Mortimer elsewhere exhibits a quick wit that is exhilarating.
A savagely honest collection told with consummate skill.
Saturday Lunch with the Brownings, by Penelope Mortimer. Daunt Books. $22.99
Review by Chris Saliba
The classic text about racism in America
In 1959, journalist John Howard Griffin took the extraordinary step of changing his skin colour in order to pass as a Black man. Under the guidance of a dermatologist, Griffin took oral doses of a drug to darken his skin pigmentation, went under a tanning lamp and applied make-up. His first step to test if he passed among African-Americans was to go out in public and catch a bus. No one could tell he was actually white. African-Americans accepted him as one of their own.
The reason for Griffin changing his skin colour was not to test the reactions of African-Americans, but of white people. Passing as a Black man he spent six weeks travelling the deep south, reporting for Sepia magazine (who also funded the experiment) and later turning the magazine articles he wrote into the book, Black Like Me.
We often think we understand what racism is, how it impacts people and why it's wrong. However, it's an entirely different thing to literally walk in the shoes of a coloured person. It opens up a whole world of subtle and not so subtle politics, soul destroying rules on behaviour and barely contained, seething rage. Early in the book, Griffin highlights a simple problem in the segregated south. If you're a coloured person out in public and you need to use the bathroom, that can be a major problem. You can be made to walk miles because there are no toilets available to you. Planning a trip can be fraught for this simple reason – there will be nowhere to go to the toilet. On one bus trip that Griffin describes, the driver refuses to stop the bus at a segregated restroom, meaning none of the coloured commuters could relieve themselves.
Another thing Griffin describes is the “hate stare”, being stared at by white people who utterly loathe the colour of your skin, and you because you inhabit it. Many a time Griffin would meet white people he thought were decent and civilised, but it didn't take long for the veneer to come off and racist attitudes to prevail. White people essentially think life as a person of colour is not so bad and can't see what all the fuss is about. They are blind to the structural disadvantage caused by white society. Black and white live side by side in America, yet there are major misunderstandings about each other's experience.
Griffin was shaken to the core by his experiences as a Black man. Shaken by his own latent racism that he didn't realise he harbored, and profoundly disturbed by the depth of hatred in white America. He dreaded publishing his experiences for fear of the backlash. He and his family received death threats and moved to Mexico for a year. He later worked in the Civil Rights movement and many of his friends and associates were assassinated by white supremacists.
Black Like Me is powerful and shocking. It provides deep, unique insights into racism in America and should be essential reading.
Black Like Me, by John Howard Griffin. Serpent's Tail. $22.99
The bamboozled white residents of a southern town can't figure out why its African-American population is leaving.
It's 1957, deep south America. In a small town the entire African-American population has pulled up stumps and decided to leave. It's a mass exodus. The person who seems to have set these events in motion in a young man named Tucker Caliban. He has until recently worked for the Willson family, the descendants of slave owners. Caliban himself is the descendant of a slave simply named “the African”, a man of mighty strength, once a leader of men, eventually shot dead by white slave traders.
Tucker Caliban asks his employer, David Willson, if he can buy a plot of land, the same land his slave ancestors once worked. He tells David Willson he intends to start farming. But once he owns the land, he shoots his animals, burns the farmhouse and spreads salt over his fields, destroying the soil. He and his wife and child then leave town.
The white people of the town are mystified by these events. What could it mean? Why would the town's Black folk want to leave? Theories are proposed – it's suggested that Tucker Caliban has the rebellious blood of “the African” in him – until eventually the townsfolk grow fed up, disgruntled and even angry.
A Different Drummer was William Melvin Kelley's debut novel, published in 1962. He was only twenty-five at the time. The story, while in large part a satire on white ignorance, traces two interweaving lineages, that of the Willsons and the Calibans. We learn of the horrific circumstances of slave trading and owning, and how attitudes to African-Americans slowly changed over generations. A large part of the narration concentrates on David Willson's shame at his own moral failings, his inability to make sacrifices and take a stand against racism and inequality. Kelley here critiques progressive liberals for not doing enough. By the book's end we see this inability to create a bulwark against a riding tide of racism lead to tragedy – a tragedy white people fail to see, even though they are the cause of it.
Written in crystal clear language, A Different Drummer elucidates how deeply ingrained racism is, so ingrained that even those who are trying to resist it are nonetheless its unconscious proponents. William Melvin Kelley published novels and stories for another decade, moved to Jamaica, and finally returned to the United States to teach. He wrote two unpublished novels in that time. Hopefully one day we'll see them in print.
A Different Drummer, by William Melvin Kelley. Riverrun. $22.99
A burnt out social worker goes on a quest to find peaceful employment.
The 36-year-old unnamed narrator of There's No Such Thing as an Easy Job has quit her social worker job of 14 years and embarked on a new career. Or rather, she's trying to discover if a new career is even a possibility. Her recruiter, Mrs Masakado, is given the task of finding something that is not too demanding, something easy on the nerves.
What follows is essentially a description of five jobs trialled over the period of a year. There is surveillance work done in an office in front of a computer, with hours watching an unsuspecting male subject via hidden camera; next is a job writing advertising copy for a local bus company; then a humorous, off-beat stint writing trivia questions and answers for the back of a popular commercial cracker biscuit; a job putting up local posters, one that involves some petty politics and aggression from a rival organisation; and finally, a dreamy job working in a park doing pretty much nothing, but one that comes with its own strange and mysterious events.
The style of the book is quite bland and flat, yet strangely addictive, with a dry humour shot throughout. Kikuko Tsumura describes the minutiae of everyday life and the small scale politics of human interactions. Through this attention to detail, the narrator even surprises herself at how little she knows of her own world, even her own desires. Studying the man in her surveillance job from the comfort of a desk, she starts to live vicariously through him, developing an appetite for whatever he is eating. When taking the local bus she now writes advertisements for, she starts to study more closely the route, only to discover, quite to her shock, new shops and restaurants she never knew existed.
There's No Such Thing as an Easy Job is unconventional to be sure. There's no real story arc, no major characters on which the action really pivots, just the narrator passing through five jobs. Yet there's something very human and sympathetic about Kikuko Tsumura's writing. Her gentle negotiating of the world of work and the different personalities that we bump up against make for an astute portrait of contemporary life. A clever contrast here is made in the last chapter with one of our original hunter gatherer forbears, the Obayashi hominin, a fossil of which was found at the park the narrator works at. It is discovered that a man has been living wild in the park, living off fruit and nut trees, trying to escape his middle-class life. Can we transition from burn out to the possibility of oneness with nature and the world? seems to be one of the novel's many existential questions.
A mind bending trip through the mind numbing world of modern work.
There's No Such Thing as an Easy Job, by Kikuko Tsumura. Published by Bloomsbury. $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
In 1830s Mississippi, two young men find moments of solace with each other as they are kept as slaves on a cotton plantation.
Isaiah and Samuel live in a barn together on a Mississippi cotton plantation in the early 1830s. They are slaves in the American South, around seventeen years of age. Theirs is a life ruled by fear and humiliation. Keep your eyes down and always appear submissive, although that doesn’t always work. Paul Halifax, the plantation owner, and his wife, Ruth, mete out a justice based on their own whims. If a slight or wrongdoing is imagined, then it is as good as having happened. The two youths, however, have each other. In the precarious privacy of the barn, the young men carry out an intimate relationship and are lovers – as far their circumstances will allow.
The plantation owner has plans for Isaiah and Samuel. They are strong, fit young men and he intends to couple them with other slaves. In the economy of the South, slaves are treated like livestock, to be bred and sold. When Isaiah and Samuel don’t produce the required results, questions start to be asked. The others on the plantation know about their unique relationship, but when they are betrayed to Paul, the plantation owner, it sets in train a series of events that lead to tragedy.
The Prophets is the first novel by African-American writer Robert Jones, Jr. It’s an astonishing debut, one that achieves many great things. The story is written in a voice that is both assured and breathtakingly beautiful, a language that is full of sweeping Biblical cadences. The characters are fully drawn and three dimensional, with dialogue that punches through the page to speak with arresting clarity. The effect is to create an atmosphere that feels so real, one that inspires dread, fear, pity and sorrow. Lastly, but perhaps most important of all, The Prophets has a great moral authority. It delves deeply into the psychology of racism, the dark recesses of the human soul that allow people to mistreat others so abominably. Even more, it examines the pitiful moral collapse of the plantation owners and slave guards, how they have sunk so low, and know it, but cannot say it themselves.
One example will suffice. Paul Halifax, the plantation owner, has sired a son named Adam with one of the slave women. The two have similar features, and both know it, but it can’t be spoken of. Paul – a highly religious man – must pretend Adam is just another slave. One night Adam drives Paul out to a tavern, and Paul gets drunk, and he comes close to acknowledging his son. But of course he can’t, and it’s a sign of his depravity that his own flesh and blood he will treat as a piece of cattle.
The Prophets washes over the reader with its heightened poetic language and fully imagined characters, revealing a dark nightmare world without escape. It asks us to look into a mirror of the past, and see if we can see ourselves there.
The Prophets, by Robert Jones, Jr. Published by Riverrun. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Idealism clashes with reality in this thoughtful and revealing memoir.
A Promised Land was supposed to cover Barack Obama’s entire presidency, but it stops after 700 pages at 2011. A second volume is in the wings.
Let it be said at the outset, this is a very fine memoir. Its standout feature is an intellectual honesty that allows Obama to confront his personal limitations and the limitations of US democracy. Everywhere the overarching theme is the clash between idealism and reality. Good policy regularly takes a backseat to pointless political bickering and naked self-interest. US democratic politics doesn’t lend itself to reform and improvement, but is frustratingly weighted to maintain the status quo.
Often Obama fondly remembers his younger idealistic self, romantically wishing he could join progressive global protest movements, but finding himself inert, ironically hamstrung in the world’s most important political office. The US presidency might seem to confer power, but the reality is it is often a straitjacket. For all the personal sacrifices to attain the presidency – family, privacy, a normal life – a question constantly hangs in the air: how much is really being achieved? For the most part, achievement is measured in the ability to stop even worse things happening.
It is this honesty and candour that makes A Promised Land so compelling. The book gives a penetrating view into the presidency (we learn much about how the office actually works) and exposes the limitations of power. Obama remains optimistic about change, but this memoir, while deeply insightful, is also a sobering reminder of blunt political realities.
A Promised Land will go down as one of the great political memoirs.
A Promised Land, by Barack Obama. Vintage. $65
Review by Chris Saliba
Argentine writer Angélica Gorodischer’s 1979 book of stories Trafalgar offers a quirky new angle on the sci-fi genre.
Trafalgar Medrano is an intergalactic trader. He buys and sells whatever will make him a buck, travelling to exotic and bizarre planets in his “clunker”, a small spaceship that’s seen better days. In the bars and cafes of Rosario, Argentina, Trafalgar relates his adventures to various interlocutors. A favourite café is the Burgundy, where Trafalgar is served by the adept Marcos who has an uncanny skill in anticipating his every need. Chief among them is coffee: Trafalgar downs bitter black coffee by the gallon.
Trafalgar has seen it all in his day. There are planets run by matriarchal hybrid human/robots, societies where the dead keep living, causing all sorts of mischief and far away places that are populated by bizarre dancing troglodytes. Several of the stories feature time travel, with interesting twists. The book ends with the surprise introduction of Trafalgar’s daughter, Eritrea. A surprise, because Trafalgar is a known womaniser. He claims not to even know who Eritrea’s mother is.
As should be fairly clear from the above, Trafalgar is a series of freewheeling space stories linked together by their settings in bar rooms and cafes, and the roguish character of Trafalgar himself. There’s a lot of humour in Angélica Gorodischer’s writing. The dialogue is breezy and good natured, with many incredulous and playful interjections from friends, waiters and family giving the whole affair a realistic, earthy feel. Trafalgar as a character is somewhat reminiscent of Han Solo from the Star Wars series. He likes women to a fault, indulges in drink and cigarettes, drives a clapped out space ship and makes fast friends with all sorts from outer space.
The stories also have the irreverent quality of Kurt Vonnegut, describing topsy-turvy lands, while the Argentinian settings give a feeling of joi de vivre. Not classic sci-fi, but a trippy, hallucinatory side road that is worth the journey.
Trafalgar, by Angelica Gorodischer. Penguin. $19.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books