Books That Show Us Other Lives

One of the highlights of a recent trip to Auckland was the launch of Aorewa McLeod’s new novel Who Was That Woman Anyway? Snapshots of a lesbian life. The crowd in The Women’s Bookshop spilled out into the street as Stella Duffy did the honours and Aorewa talked about the writing of the book and read two extracts. 

Reviewer Elizabeth Heritage writes in the Booksellers NZ blog: “Who Was That Woman, Anyway? is an engaging and determined attempt to look at the ways in which we structure our own identity in terms of gender and sexuality. Why do we act the way we do? Why do we feel sexual desire the way we do? What determines who we are attracted to? To what extent is gender a cultural performance, and to what extent is it biologically determined? Ngaio doesn’t definitively answer any of these questions; her life in this book becomes a process of examining and querying and arguing.” Read the whole review at:
I read Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother partly because it’s sci-fi-ish, slightly-in-the-future setting makes it background for the novel I have embarked on. It’s a novel about what happens when “homeland security” goes, well, mad. Marcus, a 17-year-old who cares about justice, gets his friends into trouble. Marcus — a fictional character — has been compared to Aaron Swartz, the internet activist charged with using a university computer network to, without authority, download millions of academic journal articles with the idea of making them freely available. Aaron Swartz committed suicide. Little Brother is good, and chilling, and I plan to read the sequel, Homeland.
When I started reading Rose Tremaine’s Merivel, I thought it might be a variation on Hilary Mantel’s magnificent Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. It isn’t. Merivel the character is not a political figure, he’s much more Montaigne—to whom he refers often—than Thomas Cromwell. He wants to believe in himself as worthwhile but struggles with his own past and present dissipations and can’t decide whether he is slave or friend to Charles II. As a physician of his time, he pays plenty of attention to bodily functions, smells and (lack of) sanitation. In many ways a foolish character given to weeping, he survives many changes of fortune.
“Such are the days and times of every man and, no matter how hard we work and strive, we can never know when something shall be given to us and when it will be taken away.” (page 286)
I recommend this beautifully written book.
I don’t very often give up on a book, but I did on America. And it’s Franz Kafka! I found it a great disappointment compared to Metamorphosis, The Trial and The Castle. The protagonist of America endlessly introspects on minor matters, makes and breaks “friendships” oddly and doesn’t seem to learn anything. The book has a Kafkaesque sense of doom but about halfway through I couldn’t be bothered finding out any more.
“Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity,” it says on the cover of Behind The Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo. I didn’t see a lot of hope as I read of people living grim, stinking, insecure, violent, self-punishing lives recycling the waste of the rich on a rubbish dump. One woman’s plan for getting on in the world involved becoming a slumlord. However,
“Among powerful Indians, the distribution of opportunity was typically an insider trade.” (Page 138)
Katherine Boo says in an excellent note at the end of the book that it’s all true, including people’s names. She used interviews, recordings and public records to get the stories. It’s hard to read about such unrelenting poverty and awful living conditions, but somehow, once you have started this book, necessary.
“Sunil thought that he, too, had a life, a bad life, certainly—the kind that could be ended as Kalu’s had been and then forgotten, because it made no difference to the people who lived in the overcity. But something he’d come to realise on the roof, leaning out, thinking about what would happen if he leaned too far, was that a boy’s life could still matter to himself.” (page 199)


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