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In which Netty reads And The Band Played On … and The Chimp And The River

December 30, 2015

This is the most important book that you will never read.

shilts-coverBack in 1981, a young, openly gay journalist named Randy Shilts got a position at the San Francisco Chronicle. His round was “gay issues”, in a city that was more heavily involved in gay liberation and its civil rights than any other in the United States. A city in which two in five adult males were openly gay, and to which about 5000 gay men were relocating every year. Not to mention gay tourism, which attracted thousands of men from all over the world to its precincts, including its infamous bath houses.

The other thing that was happening in San Francisco in 1981 – and, on the other side of the country, in New York City – was that gay men were presenting at their GPs and at hospitals with enlarged lymph nodes, serious pneumonia-like symptoms and ugly skin rashes. And then they started dying.

In the prologue to his book And The Band Played On, first published in 1987, Shilts writes: “AIDS did not just happen to America – it was allowed to happen by an array of institutions, all of which failed to perform their appropriate tasks to safeguard the public health.” And later on: “The story of politics, people, and the AIDS epidemic is, ultimately, a tale of courage as well as cowardice, compassion as well as bigotry, inspiration as well as venality, and redemption as well as despair.”

And over six years, and 600 pages, Shilts documents the AIDS crisis from every imaginable angle – political, personal, scientific, bureaucratic. I seriously doubt there could be a better, more thorough book written on this subject. Its breadth, scope and the meticulous attention to detail is breathtaking. Shilts had access to every major player in the scientific and political communities and no stone is left unturned in the recounting of this devastating period of western medical history.

Shilts opens his book in Zaire in 1976, where Danish doctor Grethe Rask – a specialist in tropical diseases who had worked in Africa for the past decade – is sick and getting sicker. By the following year, aged 47, she would be dead, officially of a rare pneumonia. Nine years later, tests on her blood would reveal she had contracted HIV.

From there, Shilts sets the scene in San Francisco and NYC in the late 1970s, giddy on its giant strides in the hard-fought battle for gay rights and liberation. Presciently, a few members of the community – such as New York playwright Larry Kramer – were sounding early alarm bells and despairing that the battle had degenerated into “fighting for the prerogative of gays to bump like bunnies”.

In both cities, doctors were alarmed at the raft of health issues developing amongst the male gay community; in the early 1980s the medical community referred to AIDS as “gay pneumonia” or “gay cancer”. Add to that in the US, the Republicans, led by new president Ronald Reagan, had just come to power; Reagan had foreshadowed – and then set about implementing – serious budgetary cuts that affected medicine and science and their various bodies.

A perfect storm was brewing.

By 1981 the so-called “gay pneumonia” was turning up in intravenous drug users in New York City. By 1982 it was first detected in hemophiliacs. But it was still causing the most havoc in the male gay community, where everybody knew somebody who was getting sick and inevitably dying – yet few were changing their behaviours, even as their doctors were warning that this disease was being spread through unprotected sex. Those same doctors were also initially castigated for suggesting it also looked like it was a blood-borne disease. They also quickly realised this was a disease with a lengthy incubation period; that it could lay dormant in a person for years, rather than the months originally thought.

Meanwhile the medical and scientific bodies were fighting for funding and resources, and fighting against each other in the race to be the first to claim credit for isolating and naming this new epidemic. The media was largely ignoring what was fast becoming the biggest health crisis of the 20th century. And everybody was caught up in the prevailing political correctness – “don’t offend the gays and don’t inflame the homophobes”.

Collectively, this stunning display of stonewalling, denial and sheer ineptitude – which lasted for more than half a decade and criss-crossed all public and political spheres – would cost hundreds, then thousands, then millions of people their lives.

A San Francisco man who addressed a series of government hearings in 1983 summed it up thus: “There is no reason this disease cannot be conquered … this is not a political issue. This is a health issue. This is not a gay issue. This is a human issue … I came here today in the hope that my epitaph would not read that I died of red tape.”

It’s enough to make you want to bang your head against a brick wall and weep.

By 1984 the retrovirus that causes AIDS had been isolated. Later that year it was concluded that the virus had originated from equatorial Africa, lying dormant in primates until it was transferred to humans. “As efficient a virus as I’ve ever seen,” noted Dr Robert Gallo, the American biomedical researcher who was eventually credited as the “co-discoverer” of HIV.

And by the time it was announced that American movie star Rock Hudson was dying from AIDS-related complications in July 1985 – which is considered a turning point for the US at large to finally sit up and take notice – more than 4300 of more than 9000 people with the virus had died in that country alone.

How relevant is it to today? Well, they say that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. And that, for me, is the intrinsic lesson of And The Band Played On.

Also, vale to its author. Shilts died in 1994, aged 42, of complications from the HIV virus, which he didn’t ­­learn he’d contracted until after he’d finished writing his book. Yet another casualty that might not have happened and that certainly didn’t need to happen.

chimp-coverPostscript: We also read American science writer David Quammen’s The Chimp And The River, which came out earlier this year. This small book confirms the speculation from two decades ago – that AIDS was transferred from chimpanzees to humans in Africa at the beginning of the previous century in a “spillover”. Similarly it’s an essential read on this devastating pandemic, which, while no longer an automatic death sentence (not in the wealthy west, at any rate) still kills more than a million people every year and infects many more.

This fight is far from over.

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And the Band Played On – Andy has no puns

December 29, 2015

Apologies to the one or two people who still bother reading this blog regularly – for a variety of reasons posting has been problematic for the past couple of months. Although given who those one or two readers are, they probably know why it’s been problematic, so there’s no need to be cryptic. Nevermind.

Given my age and the times in which I grew up, I probably came out a bit late – early- to mid-20s. Early ‘90s, anyway. At that stage, HIV meant AIDS, and AIDS meant death. I was living in London at the time, and I remember one night drunkenly telling a friend that I had absolutely no doubt I would end up positive at some point, and the day I got the diagnosis I would go out and get spectacularly shitfaced and the following day I would go vegetarian. To her credit she did not look at me with the complete and utter contempt I deserved; instead she said something along the lines of “Andy. what the fuck are you talking about?”

As it turns out, more than 20 years down the track, I am not a vegetarian, and I am negative – in a time when a positive diagnosis is no longer a death sentence. And that little anecdote is of no relevance whatsoever, really.

 

AIDSAnd The Band Played On (a reference to the musicians playing on the deck of the Titanic as the ship sank – in that story a symbol of humanity, here something far more sinister) takes us back almost 20 years before I came out, to Kinshasa, capital of what was then Zaire. Via Scandinavia, Paris, but mostly the United States, San Fran journo Randy Shiltz unravels the medical, political and cultural nightmare that unfurled over the ‘80s and was ultimately to claim his own life a few years after he finished this book.

It’s a few weeks since I finished it and so I’ll limit myself to a few vague observations. First off, and sorry if I sound flippant – but fuck this is a good read, especially early on. Early on it feels a bit like you’re reading a detective story – Shiltz’s construction borders on faultless. His research is meticulous (although apparently he took some “artistic licence” in reconstructing certain episodes – I don’t know which these are). As the story he has to tell unfolds, and the horror of what is occurring becomes more apparent – I thought I knew a bit about what happened in the ‘80s, but turns out I didn’t really know shit – the compulsive readability of the book sobers up somewhat; towards the end I found I had to read smaller and yet smaller chunks, so disturbing and upsetting does it all become.

This is mostly because so many fucking people are dying (mostly, in the US and the rest of the West, gay men, but by no means only gay men – one of the things Shiltz makes screamingly, infuriatingly clear was that this “gay disease”, from the outset, affected a far wider population). But it’s also because of the response of many in the gay community. So soon after gay lib people are being told, Actually, maybe you need to slow down, and people, understandably, initially, say Fuck off. But the fact that the owners of the “bathhouses” (better known in Australia these days as saunas) put their profits above the lives of their patrons is appalling; that attitude is also found in the operators of the US’s private blood banks.

And the bullshit that happened at a bureaucratic and political level is monstrous. Prioritising the “gay cancer” under a profoundly reactionary Republican administration? Good luck with that. Scientists write to each other lamenting the criminal lack of funding and then front Congressional committees and, to avoid pissing off their bosses, tell the Congressmen No, no, funding is absolutely adequate. We’re fine.

Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit. So many people died because of this bullshit – and in the ‘80s, in the States, and in Australia, and in most of the West, most of those people were young gay men.

As I’ve mentioned, there’s the suggestion that Shiltz allowed his imagination a bit too much free rein in his depiction of some episodes. The only other criticism I would add is that the very last chapter, detailing the death of one of the people who played a vital role in much of what Shiltz has recorded, lacks any sense of dignity. Perhaps this is intentional. The vast majority of these guys died without a shred of dignity, one of AIDS’ most horrible attributes. Still, that last chapter jarred.

The Chimp and the River, by US science writer David Quammen, is an expanded extract on his much bigger book Spillover, about diseases that cross from animals to humans. The science that is available to us now, compared to what Shiltz had access to, is astounding. Kinshasa was not where AIDS began, but you could call it Ground Zero, to some extent – that city is where the virus was allowed to launch itself upon the world. That researchers can now pretty much pinpoint the crossover of HIV from chimp to human to a corner of the jungle on a tributary of a tributary of the Congo in about 1908 is just astounding. Chimp meat was (and possibly still is) a bit of a delicacy in the Congolese jungle; a hunter cuts himself as he’s butchering the carcass of a chimp infected with the simian version of HIV; and the world turns.

What’s infuriating is that had HIV/AIDS been confronted rationally in the ‘80s we’d probably have a vaccine by now (a vaccine, not a “cure”; to my knowledge there is no such thing as a “cure” to a virus, you vaccinate against viruses; but for Big Pharma, “cures” are more lucrative, and so … You know where I’m going here). We don’t have a vaccine. HIV may not be killing nearly as many people in the West as it was even 10 years ago, but in the majority world…?

Fascinating and enthralling, sure. But in the age of PrEP and PEP and [+u] (positive but undetectable), to look back on those first years of the holocaust is to be made sick with rage and grief.

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In which Netty goes back to school and meets Miss Jean Brodie, but learns a different lesson …

November 10, 2015

Sometimes I don’t know as much as I think I know.

For example, when Andy suggested at the beginning of the year that we include Scottish writer Muriel Spark in this year’s ANRC, I could only stare blankly across the table.

“Who?” I asked, somewhat dumbly.

This is the cover of the first edition, which is a bit more inspiring than the orange and white of my Penguin copy ...

This is the cover of the first edition, which is a bit more inspiring than the orange and white of my Penguin copy …

Who indeedy. Well, as it turns out, Spark – make that Dame Spark – was the highly decorated author of some 20-odd novels and more than that again of other works, including biographies, short stories and poetry anthologies, written over a near 50-year career. Additionally, she is considered one of the greatest mid-to-late 20th century British writers.

Yeah, maybe I need to get out more often or sumthink like that …

So obviously it was Andy who suggested we read The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, one of Spark’s best-known novels and her sixth, published in 1961. It has been widely adapted for both stage and screen (most famously as a 1969 film for which Maggie Smith, in the title role, won the Best Actress Oscar). And no, I didn’t know that, either. Until now, obves.

I suppose I should be pleased I’m still learning new shit at this age. I guess.

I did enjoy Brodie – indeed, muchly so – although that is not necessarily going to translate into me racing down to my local bookstore and boning up on the rest of Dame Spark’s oeuvre any time soon. No reason, really, other than my bedside book pile is already ceiling high at any given time, and it never really goes down, as the pile seems to absorb two or three for every one that is removed.

As Andy notes, the novel – more like a novella, really, at a mere 128 pages long – is unconventionally structured, with its plot spoilers and skipping back and forth throughout its timeline. This does not detract from the novel(la) one iota, merely giving it something of a modern veneer.

Andy compares it to Dead Poet’s Society (you can read more about what he has to say about it right here), which never would have occurred to me, but which made perfect sense when he first advanced his theories. Certainly it’s the story of a highly influential teacher and his/her effect on his/her pupils. But whilst Dead Poets is all chest-beating, teeth-gnashing honour betrayed (admittedly it has been quite some time, maybe 30 years, since I last saw it), Brodie is a slightly different beast. A slyly, decidedly devious and manipulative beast.

Miss Jean Brodie might well be in her prime, but she might not necessarily be in her right mind. I oscillated between thinking she knew exactly what she was doing – a puppeteer expertly pulling her wide-eyed, slavishly devoted pupils’ strings – to wondering if maybe she wasn’t, to use that wonderful Australian vernacular, two sangers short of a barbie. I think delusional was the word I used during a conversation with Andy. Which would certainly marry into Brodie’s forays into, and approval of, European fascism (albeit an early 1930s version, before the shit really hit the fan).

Back to the book, then. Miss Jean Brodie, an unmarried thirtysomething teacher at an Edinburgh girls’ school, selects a group of six primary school-aged girls – who become known as the Brodie Set – and goes about “educating” them in what she considers the classical sense, ie, not at all. Brodie stages outdoor classes (away from the prying eyes of the headmistress Miss Mackay, who knows something’s up but can’t quite pin down her suspicions to anything concrete enough that would warrant a dismissal) where she bangs on about love, life, travel, anything that takes her fancy, really – the polar opposite to equipping her students with anything remotely resembling the sort of schooling they will need to do unnecessary things such as pass exams, etc. And clearly overstepping teacher-student boundaries by regularly hosting the girls at her home outside school hours.

Brodie is the object of the attentions and affections of two male teachers at the school – Gordon Lowther, the short-statured singing master, and Teddy Lloyd, the roguish, one-armed arts master. In love with Mr Lloyd, but unable to pursue a married father-of-six, Brodie instead takes up with Mr Lowther. But she also involves the Brodie Set in her imbroglio, revealing through her machinations the extent of her furtive chicanery – something that will ultimately lead to her downfall.

Moving through the grades and separating the students fails to break down the Brodie set, something that is only ultimately accomplished by the girls themselves as they move through their teenage years and start the inevitable questioning of authority, even under the tightly held control Brodie has exerted on them from a young age. Ultimately there is a betrayal (this is not really a spoiler, thanks to the book’s structure – the reader knows from the get-go that the Brodie empire is destined to eventually fall) that is both inevitable and fitting. You know all along that Brodie is going to get her comeuppance – that is just part and parcel of the plot.

The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie (the novel gets its title from Brodie’s oft-repeated assertion that she is in her prime, although that statement becomes increasingly desperate throughout the duration) is a clever and compelling read, with a cast of memorable, if not particularly likeable characters (I warmed to none of them, something which often impedes my enjoyment of a book, but not in this particular case). And I would certainly be intrigued to see the film treatment.

But that’s about the size of that. As I’ve said before, and I’ll undoubtedly say again, so many books, so little time. Sometimes there’s nothing wrong with saying so long, it’s been short but sweet. And tomorrow is another day, and another author. So it goes …

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The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Andy’s impressed by Muriel’s spark of genius

October 21, 2015

Yeah yeah. Dreadful pun. You expect better?

Back in the late ‘80s I remember being quite offended by a review of what at that stage was probably my favourite movie ever, Dead Poets Society. The review suggested John Keating (Robin Williams) was basically just a charismatic fascist. A young Hitler might’ve appreciated some pointers from the teacher, I seem to remember another critic suggesting. Rubbish, I thought. Keating is a liberating character, surely, and fascism/Nazism is all about slavish devotion to an authoritarian state.

Dead Poets Society is still a favourite film, although I hope I watch it with a more nuanced eye today than my 20-year-old self back in the ‘80s. And those fascist accusations take on an interesting facet after reading Muriel Spark’s novella, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

And yes, before you tell me. I’ve trawled the internet, and I’m aware parallels have been drawn between the two works for years – were probably being drawn within weeks of DPS hitting cinema screens.

Not the Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Or Maggie Smith, for that matter

Not the Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Or Maggie Smith, for that matter

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was published in 1961 – two years after DPS is set. Brodie was later played on the silver screen (stupendously) by Maggie Smith, and she won an Oscar for her efforts. While her performance lingers in my mind it’s years since I’ve seen the movie, so I can’t remember exactly how closely it follows the book – it’s broadly accurate, but the book features flash-forwards that signal the story’s denouement, and I don’t remember the movie featuring those (though it might have). As it happens, Spark would have been pretty much exactly the same age in Depression-era Edinburgh as the young female students who fall under Miss Brodie’s spell.

For its length, Brodie manages to touch on a wide number of subjects. While most of the main characters seem to be from relatively well-off backgrounds, mostly untouched by the Depression, there are fleeting glimpses of Edinburgh’s poor. Scottish pride gets a (rather satirical) nod. More substantially it deals with human sexuality, both its burgeoning presence in the bodies and minds of the young ‘uns and in the dalliances of those swiftly declining into middle age – the “prime” of the novella’s title.

Most importantly, though, it’s about education, and its value or lack thereof. Spark seems to value education, and while she has the sort of affection for Miss Brodie that Middle Age locals reserved for the village idiot she skewers the approach to education that Brodie venerates. Late in the novel the girl who ultimately betrays Brodie (not a spoiler, or not much of one, anyway – I did mention flash-forwards, remember?) refers to her old teacher as stupid. And yet in the novel’s closing line, that same girl – now a vastly transformed woman – refers to Brodie as an important influence in her younger years.

Brodie’s link to DPS’s Keating is mostly about their “irregular” teaching methods. It’s interesting, though, that Keating is regarded by some critics as a sort of benign dictator, given Brodie’s adulation for Mussolini and Hitler, and that adulation’s central role in her downfall (oops – spoiler). And of course they are both betrayed, although in DPS Keating is presented as a Christ-like victim of reluctant, blackmailed traitors while Brodie’s downfall is, though effectively the central element of the story, presented as worthy of wry amusement.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is clever, witty, dry, sarcastic and satirical. As a work of art it is superior to, and in its presentation of the relations between students and their charismatic elders far more complex than, Dead Poets Society, although DPS holds a place in my heart (Ethan Hawke? Robert Sean Leonar? Swoon!) that Brodie can never hope to attain.

Netty, incidentally, thinks Miss Brodie is delusional. This didn’t occur to me as I read the book – I just thought she was a bit daft – although in hindsight “delusional” does make some sense. I’ll let Netty explore that.

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In which Netty does not discover the female Carver (again), but is pretty damn happy with discovering Ann Beattie instead …

October 12, 2015

I must say, we do love a good short story here at Andy and Netty’s Reading Challenge. And during the eight-odd years of this Challenge, we have read our way through some of the finest proponents of the art-form that the late 20th century has to offer.

A portrait of the author as, well, herself ...

A portrait of the author as, well, herself …

Although now, when I think about it, I realise that mostly we have read white, middle-class, American women. Nothing wrong with that, of course. Are short stories a medium to which female writers are most drawn? I’d need to see some stats on that. I do love a good stat set.

But as always, when we are talking short stories, the omnipresent elephant in the room must be addressed first. Andy and I read Raymond Carver early in this Challenge – so early that it was on our original, short-lived blogsite that now no longer exists, so unfortunately I can’t link to the effusive praise which we both heaped upon the bloke at the time.

Carver is, and may well always be, the first and last point of reference in this genre. He is so far ahead of the game that it will always be Carver first, daylight second. Well, maybe that’s a little unfair. Other writers get close. They can’t surpass him, but they get close.

Ann Beattie gets close.

I had never heard of this American writer when Andy first suggested her for this year’s ANRC. Beattie, now 68, has nine short story collections and eight novels to her name, a body of work that spans 40 years. She has a lengthy relationship with venerable magazine The New Yorker, which has been publishing her short stories since 1974. The aptly named The New Yorker Stories is a chronologically ordered collection that starts in 1974 and finishes, 48 stories later, in 2006; the collection itself was first published in 2010.

In his post, Andy referenced other white, middle-class American female writers that we have read, for comparison’s sake. The only one on whom we violently disagree is Mary Gaitskill (I can’t stand her, Andy thinks she’s some sort of second coming); also Andy had little time for Lydia Davis, who I quite enjoyed. Otherwise we see roughly eye to eye – for mine, Lorrie Moore is probably still the pick of the bunch, but Beattie is roughly her equal. For the record, Flannery O’Connor is also all sorts of wonderful, but she was far from middle class and yes, she’s dead. I still don’t think that excludes her from the broader conversation, however!

Short story writers have an eye for detail that sets them apart from their longer-form counterparts, and often a brevity that necessarily accompanies the genre, although length is not an issue here. Beattie’s short stories are like miniature time capsules, beautifully summing up the era in which they are set – an era, as Andy notes, that seems to broadly follows the age of the author herself (she was 27 in 1974, when the first short story in this collection was originally published). For me it was often quite jarring to be reminded of the ways and means that were perfectly acceptable in the 1970s (smoking around children during a meal, for example).

Beattie is also an expert at capturing the minutiae of relationships and peeling back the layers of something that seems quite ordinary and unremarkable on the surface to reveal its dark, unsettling, or troubled core. In doing so she reminds us of the tensions and angst that bubble under the otherwise civilised veneer of our fellow human beings. Not all of these stories have nice, neatly wrapped, bow-on-top conclusions – but nor would you want them to.

I love a short story that is resolved but yet isn’t – that is, one that keeps me wondering, days, maybe even months, down the track. The best short stories will satisfy you but also keep you guessing – it’s a very fine, delicate balance to strike; few get it right, and few again get it right consistently. It’s a credit to Beattie that nine times out of 10 she falls on the right side of this ledger. Her short stories are clever, touching, wry, humorous – everything you want in the form, really.

I could single out just about every one of this stories, but instead I am going to use just one as an example. It’s not the best here, not by a long shot, and it’s more a rough sketch than a fully formed entity. But I think it perfectly illustrates Beattie’s schtick. Sam, a slightly rag-bag bloke, is out in the country with his brother, his former sister-in-law and their young daughter when they spy a snake among the rocks. While her parents are issuing their daughter with the usual litany of warnings you’d expect, Sam starts telling his niece about snakes. “They have feet, but they shed them in the summer,” he asserts. “If you ever see tiny shoes in the woods, they belong to the snakes.” “Tell her the truth,” implores his ex-sister-in-law. “Imagination is better than reality,” Sam replies. See? In less than a page, Beattie has set up the relationships between all three adult protagonists and told us everything we need to know about their characters. In less than a page.

And, more or less, that’s what she does in the other 47 stories in this collection. It’s quite the accomplishment.

So if, like me, your answer the question “Ann Beattie” was “Who?”, you could do worse than to grab yourself a copy of The New Yorker Stories (the editors at that magazine certainly know their shit when it comes to authors) and dive in. Especially if you’re a fan of short stories. Beattie is an awesome writer – and she deserves an audience in this country.

OK, she’s not Carver. Moot point. No one is. But she gets close.

And sometimes close is close enough.

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The New Yorker Stories -Andy and Ann share a moment (48 moments, to be precise)

October 2, 2015

So here we are in October, about to discuss August’s book, which was supposed to be some other month’s book, while December’s book is now September’s book because – nevermind. Ah, the joys of blogging.

Ann Beattie was born in 1947, which means she turned 18 in 1965, which sounds like a grand year to be turning 18. I turned 18 in 1987. Fuck that for a game of soldiers.

Apparently early in her career (mid 70s to early 80s) there was talk of a “Beattie Generation”. Beattie Generation – Beat Generation. Do you see what they did there? There wasn’t really a generation of writers who emulated or imitated Beattie’s style, and in fact she has placed herself firmly within the (male-dominated, obvs) American tradition that includes Hemingway and Carver, writers that both Netty and I hugely enjoyed. And for both of us Raymond Carver remains the high-water mark for short-story writers over eight years of the reading challenge.

Ann Beattie, though, is seriously up there.

newyorkerThe New Yorker Stories is a 500-page-plus collection featuring every story Beattie had published in The New Yorker from 1974 to 2006. And it’s a hugely impressive accomplishment. There were a handful of times – actually less than a handful, since by my perverse reckoning a “handful” is exactly five, and I can only think of two or maybe three – when I finished a story and thought OK, that did not work. But the majority are quietly spectacular.

Of the contemporary white, female, American short-story writers Netty and I have read over the past few years (Lorrie Moore, Mary Gaitskill, Lydia Davis, Beattie – there’s also Flannery O’Connor, who was awesome, but she doesn’t quite count here because, y’know, she’s kind of old n dead n shit) I probably enjoyed Gaitskill a little more than Beattie, but for arguably puerile reasons. Beattie is easily the best writer of the four (again, not counting O’Connor, because, y’know…). This may seem simplistic, but: Beattie does first and third person and she can do both superbly (although if memory serves she never attempts second person, which some of the other writers mentioned might). She mostly does female voice, and most of those female voices are roughly the age she was at the time she was writing; but she can do female voices at different ages, and she can do male voice, at various ages, and be convincing at all of it. And of course she can do past tense and present tense and mix them up, but she can also, more subtly and delicately than many, blend the present with the past, ironically but compassionately contrasting a grim, regretful today with a sunnier, hopeful yesterday.

And while there may never have been a Beattie Generation, she has for the four decades represented in this collection been a wry, ironic observer of her own generation – middle-class America, liberated or debilitated (or both) by the sixties, fond of their cigarettes and their marijuana and their booze and their music and their dogs and their infidelities and their divorces and their ex-wives or ex-husbands and their ill-judged decisions to shake life up and move elsewhere; rarely terribly fond of their children (Is that harsh? That might be a bit harsh. Actually sometimes not that fond of their exes, either. Or their neighbours).

Unlike many American short-story writers (and I have Gaitskill in my sights when I say this) Beattie is not afraid to experiment with the length of her stories. Gaitskill sometimes gives the impression that she has a word count to meet and by christ she will meet it. Beattie’s stories, like Carver’s, although let’s not raise the Lish word, are all over the shop. She has a story to tell and she tells it, and when the story is told the story ends. Lorrie Moore and Mary Gaitskill don’t necessarily pad, but… well, maybe they pad. And Lydia Davis is basically incomprehensible to me, no matter how long or short her fucking stories are. No, sorry, not incomprehensible, just… irrelevant. I seem to remember Netty asking, after we’d read Lorrie Moore’s stories (which are mostly very impressive) if we’d found the female Carver. The question now strikes me as slightly misogynist – and I’m supposed to be the literary sexist of this challenge. As a writer – female, male or otherwise – Carver trumps Beattie. But you know what? Only just.

Half a dozen recommendations: Dwarf House (bizarre, hilarious, touching), Colorado (ironic and insightful), The Lawn Party (cynical yet moving), The Burning House (best last two pars of a short story you’ll ever read), Home to Marie (great plot twist less than a third of the way through), The Confidence Decoy (last story, still resonating).

Top stuff.

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In which Netty tells you why you should drop everything you are doing right now and read Half Of A Yellow Sun …

September 2, 2015

Half Of A Yellow Sun is the best book I have read so far this year. Hell, come year’s end, it may end up being the best book I have read all year.

half-of-a-yellow-sunIt is the second novel by Nigerian-born author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, published in 2006, and set in the 1960s before, during and immediately after the Nigerian civil war. Until now, if you’d said to me, “Biafra”, I would have replied, “Jello” (turns out the lead singer of The Dead Kennedys did name himself after the fledgling country that formed out of the Nigerian civil war and existed for a brief but extremely tumultuous three years from 1967 to 1970).

I’m not sure if it’s a blight on my public school education, or on me, that I was completely clueless about this period of modern African history until now. Towards the end of this novel, one of the main characters, English expat Richard – who has started reporting from Biafra for the international press – meets two American foreign correspondents. Richard, who has been in the country since its inception and even considers himself Biafran, is dismayed and repulsed by the pair. Their questions centre on news of one dead white expat and they show little interest in the tens of thousands of black locals who have lost their lives, most in horrific circumstances.

“Richard would write about this, the rule of Western journalism: One hundred dead black people equal one dead white person,” Adichie writes, pointedly. It is a “rule” that still plays out today, across all forms of western media, and ultimately that may be why someone like me – caucausian, western, and well-educated – still remains ignorant of a tragedy like Biafra. I am horrified and chastened in equal measure.

But let’s go back to the beginning.

Half Of A Yellow Sun’s 400-plus pages are split into four sections – the early 1960s and the late 1960s, and these are spliced together. Which is just as well, because the late 1960s are such a harrowing read that it was a relief to be momentarily spared halfway through and transported back to the pre-war period. Adichie also uses this as a device to explain events not fully elaborated upon in the initial time shift. It is told from the point of view, in a third-person narrative, of three of the main characters, Ugwu, Olanna, and the aforementioned Richard.

As the novel opens, young village boy Ugwu has just taken up the post of houseboy to Odenigbo, a mathematics professor and socialist-leaning intellectual. Odenigbo soon persuades his partner Olanna, a sociology professor, to leave London and live with him in Nsukka. Olanna is the daughter of Chief Ozobia, a highly influential businessman of dubious professional and personal morals based in Lagos. She has a twin sister, Kainene, who moves to Port Harcourt to look after her father’s business interests with her partner Richard, an Englishman and would-be author who is interested in Igbo-Ukwu art.

The two early 1960s sections of the book explore the relationships between the main characters, and the many secondary characters, and set the domestic and political scene in Nigeria during that period, hinting at the developing turmoil between the Igbo, Hausa, Yoruba, and Fulani people that eventually explodes into civil war.

No spoilers from me on the late 1960s sections of the novel, except to say that amongst all the many, hideous horrors of conflict, Adichie also manages to capture the sheer banality of life during wartime – the desperation and exhaustion of trying to find adequate food, water and shelter, of the daily task of merely trying to stay alive. She paints vivid portraits that will stick in your head long after you’ve read the last page. And which may make you look at the nightly news grabs of current wars in a very different light.

There is no doubt Adichie is writing about what she knows – the history of her family and its larger community, indeed, the country. An Igbo born in 1977 – seven years after the war ended – she was raised in Nsukka, the university town where the pre-war sections of this book are set, the daughter of academics. The novel is dedicated to her grandparents – her grandmothers survived the war, but her grandfathers did not. In doing so, she has created a remarkable document of a conflict and time that she doesn’t want relegated to the footnotes of African history. One day we can only hope that another writer will do the same for Rwanda.

Andy half-jokes in his blog that he is almost out of therapy after reading Half Of A Yellow Sun, and I can definitely see his point. This novel will take you on an uncomfortable journey made all the more so for knowing that what is being written – and Adichie does not hold back on the horrific, graphic reality of this war – actually happened. DO NOT LET THIS DETER YOU. Great fiction, great novels, should sometimes be uncomfortable, difficult and emotionally draining. This is not a bad thing: this is what promotes our personal knowledge and, hopefully, our compassion and empathy. After all, as the adage goes, those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.

In the afterword of my edition, Adichie speaks about finding an “emotional truth” in fiction writing; she also notes that she factually depicts the central events: “If fiction is indeed the soul of history, then I was equally committed to the fiction and the history”. She achieves it, and then some. This is beautifully and meticulously crafted writing from an astonishingly talented young writer (she was in her very late twenties when it was published). Like Andy, I intend to read her other books (she has written two and a collection of short stories).

You must read this book. You just must. That is all.

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