Wednesday, August 27, 2008

I've been known to peek...

I have a teeny confession (come on, it’s been months since my last one) … I sometimes peek at pages towards the end of a book.

Yes, I know, very juvenile and somewhat pathetic, but sometimes I just can’t help it.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t read the end of the story (I actually want the plot resolution to still be a surprise), I simply skim the pages to see if names of characters I care about are still there.

I try hard to not let my attention grab on to full sentences. I just want to see enough to know the character/s I care about are still in the picture.

Even if I discover the worst, I’ll still keeping reading – but at least I’m prepared for a particular ending … and often I’m even impressed with how the narrative arc made me OK with that ending by the time I reached it.

I don’t do this with all novels, and if I’m being honest, it tends to involve stories that are relationship based. I did it with The Remains of the Day (would Mr Stevens make his meeting with Miss Kenton?) and I did it this week – despite giving myself a good talking to that it was not the behaviour of a mature reader!!

I was reading the second instalment of Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight series (full posting to come on this once I’ve made it through all four novels), and found I needed to know if Bella and Edward were going to be reunited. (Of course, I know there are two more, so they would be together again at some point, but I needed to know if it was going to happen in this book.)

I guess it’s a sign of well created tension that I feel the need to do this with certain stories. It could also be a sign I don’t yet trust the author - there's a fear they may make me care about a character, only to rip my heart out. (With more books, and more understanding of an author’s style, this becomes less of an issue).

Perhaps this is one of the reasons I enjoy writing so much: I’m in control of my characters’ destinies. No surprises!

Is anyone else brave enough to admit to this embarrassing compulsion (or give me the lecture I deserve!), and if so, what books prompted it?

Friday, August 22, 2008

We are now beginning our descent

With some books, it’s easy to recognise a theme, comment or purpose to a story. With others, the themes are more subtle and require a greater level of analysis or perception.

We are now beginning our descent by James Meek sits somewhere in between.

There are so many ideas, metaphors, observations and analogies in this novel, it’s hard to extract a single dominant theme. So it’s no surprise readers are taking away a myriad of different messages.

The story is told through the eyes of Adam Kellas, a British war correspondent who’d rather be a novelist, but whose literary efforts are not bringing in the kind of money and lifestyle he thinks he wants.

After September 11, he’s sent to Afghanistan to cover the Northern Alliance forces fighting the Taliban. There, he falls for Astrid, a moody and unpredictable American magazine writer. After sleeping together an Alliance outpost, they unwittingly play a part of an impromptu artillery attack which leaves them both traumatised.

Kellas returns to London, where he writes a “sell-out” novel about Europe going to war against the Americans. But he struggles to live at ease with his friends, insulated as they are from the realities of the world.

He’s also haunted by thoughts of Astrid, so when he receives a strange but short email demanding to see him, he jumps on a plane and heads straight to her – after a night in which he does irrevocable damage to some long standing friendships.

The story is told along three timelines, which the author seamlessly moves between (usually without warning): Kellas’ experiences in Afghanistan, his present journey from London to the east coast of the US, and the events of that fateful dinner party before his flight.

This is one of those occasions when the detail of story – particularly Kellas’ experiences and observations in Afghanistan – carry more weight when you know the author has first experience with what he’s writing about. Meek is a journalist, whose reports from Iraq about Guantanamo Bay won a number of British and international awards. In 2001 he reported for the Guardian from Afghanistan on the ware against the Taliban and the liberation of Kabul.

In this latest novel, he questions the US and its role in the Middle East, but tempers his criticism by recognising that “…America is no exception to the iron rule that every country, seen for the outside, seems to know itself, and that no country, seen from inside, ever does.”

But back to the themes readers and critics are finding in this well-written and highly readable novel. According to a few of the comments I’ve come across, We are now beginning our descent is:
- a criticism of war correspondents’ complicity in the conflicts they cover
- a post traumatic syndrome love story
- about the futile search for love and meaning in a world of pain and chaos
- a criticism of novelists who “sell-out” from writing important literary works to make big bucks
- a comment on the way the world's comfortable societies insulate themselves - politically, mentally and emotionally - from the world of the deprived
- exposes the lofty presumption of the West as it loses altitude and comes ignominiously to ground among the long-ignored and newly unstoppable hungers and angers of the Third World.

For me, it was the theme of connection – or lack of – between people, and people and places, that resonated the most.

But it was interesting to note the reactions of others, which probably says as much about each reader’s politics, state of mind and viewof the world, as it does about the author’s intentions with this story.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Bitter chocolate

Every now and then, a story comes along that makes you change your habits – or at least your mindset – as a consumer.

Before I saw Blood Diamond last year, I had no idea just how brutal the diamond trade in Africa could be. I don’t buy a lot of diamonds, but it made me look at my modest engagement ring and wonder whether or not its purchase had come from a country where men, women and children were brutally exploited in its mining.

Should I buy another diamond at some point, it’s a question I’ll certainly be asking.

Not long after, I read about a potential shortage of chocolate in some parts of the world due to unrest on the Ivory Coast. The story made me curious (and, I confess, a tad panicked), so I started researching the cocoa bean industry to understand how trouble in Africa could affect the products on my supermarket shelves in Australia.

The result was the appalling discovery of the conditions under which a sizeable percentage of the world’s cocoa beans are farmed.

How had I never heard about this before?

Stories of kidnapping, slavery and torture left me horrified, and prompted several hours of further research – and a few emails – to ascertain which chocolate brands I could eat without feeling guilty.

Chocolate may come from France, Italy, Switzerland and Belgium (and, of course, Tasmania), but the cocoa it is made from is grown and farmed far away from those glamorous locations – in far harsher conditions.

Former war correspondent Carol Off has attempted to expose the horrors of the cocoa bean industry in a new book, Bitter Chocolate: Investigating the Dark Side of The World’s Most Seductive Sweet.

She writes about the seedier side to our favourite decadent indulgence, from corporate espionage to the rise of child slavery in cocoa production

She travelled to the Ivory Coast and interviewed children who had no idea what the cocoa crop was used for – let alone tasted chocolate – risking her own safety to fully understand the violence and brutality of the industry in that part of the world.

Hers is an important book, but very few people will read it.

If its contents were the subject of a fictional film – a la Blood Diamond – it might actually have wider impact. As we’ve talked about many times on this blog, narrative has a way of getting under the skin, making people see a situation through different eyes, that straight reporting can rarely achieve.

Chocolat, Like Water For Chocolate … these are stories that make us salivate. But what about a story that made us think twice about what chocolate we buy? What if there was a story that made us think about kidnapping and child slavery every time we ate it?

I wonder if such a film could ever be made. And if it was, would we watch it?

Which leads me to a question: have you seen a film or read a novel that changed you as a consumer?

(For those interested, Kerrie Murphy of The Australian has an interesting article about Carol Off and Bitter Chocolate: Investigating the Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet. You can read it here.)