What I’m reading now: Lionel Shriver’s latest – So Much For That

5 06 2010

I’m a big fan of Lionel Shriver. I loved her first successful book – We Need To Talk About Kevin – although my book group wanted to kick me out after they all read it on my recommendation. I stick to my guns, though. After a slow start, it was unputdownable.  My daughter and I were both reading it from the one copy, something we often do, and we started to fight over whose turn it was. Her follow-up The Post-Birthday World was also a great read, if very different from Kevin. Being something of a completist (someone who has just got to read everything a particular author has written (I’m a bit that way with Ian McEwan), I then tried some of her pre-Kevin work, but was bored and disappointed. Her latest, though, So Much For That, has restored a good deal of my faith in her. Once again, unputdownable. It’s a book that can be read a number of different ways – the story of a marriage; a tale of disappointment; middle America writ large; disenchantment and disenfranchisement. But perhaps predominantly, it’s devoted to a very timely subject in USA and possibly anywhere there’s an ageing population – that’s most of the Western world, I think.  I’m talk about healthcare and health insurance. Boy, do they have a problem in USA! Now I know what all the fuss is about.

What I’m Reading…

14 05 2010

2 new books, on related topics.

1. David Crystal’s A Little Book of Language (UNSW Press) – Crystal’s umpteenth book on the area of his expertise – language. This time a narrative history of language written explcitly for a young audience. It contains 40 short chapters on themes such as “Baby Talk”, “Accents and Dialects”, “Slang”, “Language for Feelings” and “Language Change”. As is typical of Crystal, there are no exaggerated hygienics or didacticism. He doesn’t tell us what language ought to be; rather, what it is. Quintessentially descriptive, and in parts, fun.

2. Robert McCrum’s Globish. How the English Language Became the World’s Language (Penguin, Australia). This is also a work with a historical perspective – this time, telling how “a small island in the North Atlantic, colonized by Rome, then pillaged for hundreds of years by marauding neighbours, becomes the dominant world power in the 19th century”. Then the rise of another power, originally a colony of the tiny island, and later an industrial, military and cultural colossus. Then, into the 21st century,  as the English speaking world begins an economic and political decline, English performs an unprecedented manoevre. In short, English + Microsoft = Globish.

A combined review of these titles will be published in Spectrum, in The Sydney Morning Herald, in the next few weeks.

Tumarkin, M.(2010). Otherland. A Journey with my Daughter. Vintage Books: Sydney.

6 05 2010

All emigrations are traumatic. They all involve some degree of uprooting. “Deracination” is the word for it –  when you’re displaced from your native or accustomed environment  and sent hurtling into an alien space.

Yet all emigrations are differently traumatic. Some are forced, necessitating a violent wrenching of the spirit. Some are precipitated by the wish/dream/belief that life can be better somewhere else. Sometimes it’s a matter of escape, pure life-and-limb stuff, where the past becomes a no-go-zone, and all that matters is looking ahead. Sometimes, the emigration has the tincture of exile, a kind of limbo status, neither here nor there. Sometimes, the exit might begin as a matter of historical circumstance, and later it’s all about a wistful nostalgia, the hope of reunion with loved ones, somewhere, someplace, a life lived in perpetual displacement.

In Maria Tumarkin’s case the past is not just another country, but one that no longer exists. The Soviet Union that she left in 1989, on the eve of the collapse of Communism, changed irrevocably. So when she returns, some twenty years later, she arrives in an entirely different landscape. This journey, which she undertook with her daughter, is the substance of Otherland.

Painfully aware of having been absent, she writes: “I was not there when my generation was cornered by history”. When a supposedly monolithic super-empire imploded, seemingly overnight, its people emerged blinking and shell-shocked in the daylight, then disintegrated  into multiple fractious ethnic enclaves, fully stocked with all the old internecine prejudices and hatreds, among them anti-Semitism. It is into this messy world of upheaval, where the rule book has been tossed out but the new one not yet written, that Tumarkin takes herself, her daughter and her reader.

The literary beauty of Otherland is essentially textual. Multiple layers of memory and reflection, intertwining historical commentary, cultural and literary criticism, and personal reminiscence. At once a road trip of anecdotes peppered with yearning and longing as well as a politico-cultural window on a huge part of twentieth century history  – the Soviet Empire, from the Revolution, to the War, to the post-war proxy satellite wars (Budapest, Prague, Warsaw), to the fall of the Iron Curtain,  to post-Communist Russia, in all its heady lawless turbulence. Somewhere in there was a moment of glasnost.

The reader’s challenge is to stay with the surface narrative while simultaneously being seduced down cultural, historical, political and literary side-roads. Then you realize that the gold is in the off-centre commentaries, the interstitial moments, when a sentence or two, or a phrase in brackets, or a wry aside to the reader, sums up an entire era.  Highly subjective, and unashamedly so, the personal and the political intertwine, just as they do in life, if not always in history books.

Indeed, several stories nest tightly within the larger one. Most immediately, there’s the personal narrative of a woman travelling with her feisty Australian-born, teenage daughter Billie (after Billie Holliday, and defiantly not an Irina or Olga) “back” to the place that once was home to the author-mother. From the outset we enter the tightly constricted world of mother-daughter dialogue where the hopes and expectations of one generation collide with the burgeoning free spirit of the next. The book is suffused in this relationship richness, a hallmark of Tumarkin’s writing.

It’s also an imaginative journey back in time, back to Tumarkin’s mother’s generation, pregnant with multiple heard stories that now find their first dramatic backdrop and dress rehearsal. In refusing to believe, as many children do, that their parents were born old, Tumarkin comes to know them as if for the first time.

For Tumarkin herself, the return trip is yet another story – it’s how she comes to understand, why her parents “took the biggest leap of faith” and left everything behind.  Not for “sausages and whitegoods” (her demeaning expression for the lure of consumerism). “They just wanted someone in our family to [be able to] think of freedom as a birthright”.

Exile has its rewards, but the price is high.

This review appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald, Spectrum, 1-2 May, 2010