Yoko Ogawa has won every literary award there is in her country. That’s how the novel is introduced before it begins, and it struck me as an odd thing to write. Each story stands alone. Why should my enjoyment of this story be affected by what other people think or how she is judged? But as I finished reading about a trapped writer writing about a writer who was trapped it occurred to me that maybe it’s all part of the same narrative.
Ogawa blends reality and fiction in a way that the dystopian events around her become understandable to us. We live on an island where things have gone wrong. Things disappear — ordinary things, things that shouldn’t matter to the people in power — and life goes on. How much can we stand to lose? Today it’s a rose but tomorrow?
What can you let go of right now? Your laptop, phone, coffee, children, parents? There’s a sense of a Buddhist letting go in this story. Remembering how things used to be hurts. When you don’t remember, however, you can float away, free.
Does the same life go on? What does it mean and what are the consequences? Her lyrical approach to reality and to isolation helps us explore how it feels. Seeing it through a Buddhist angle shifts the narrative from the dystopia we are used to.
In the reviews, many compare it to Orwell’s 1984. There is a secretive police that round up those who won’t obey. They are then tortured and murdered. Some come back — those found not guilty/useful — but most are never seen again. We do have a sense that they are uncaring and certainly destructive.
This is a wonderful narrative. I never quite knew where I would end up as I followed our nameless characters. We don’t find out their names. We learn of R — her editor — and the old man, and her mother and father. We don’t find out her name. Which makes sense. Are our names in our diaries? Do we need them when we talk to ourselves, or listen?
Jesus was such a great Buddhist that he even gave up his own body. Ogawa wonders and answers, what happened next?
Boxing is “the only sport where you have two doctors on hand, a resuscitation team on standby, and an ambulance outside” (Roger, 63, retired boxing coach). It’s also being promoted as the sport that will help young men desist from violent crime. How can this violent sport help in preventing violent crime?
I come to Jump’s work via the filter of Loic Wacquant’s Body & Soul, an ethnographic research study on, as he described it in a lecture, ‘a skinny French white guy in South Chicago’s Black neighbourhood learning to box’.
Wacquant (2004:31) referred to boxing gyms as ‘islands of stability and order’, in that they ‘protect an individual from the street’ and ‘act as a buffer against the insecurity of the neighbourhood and pressures of everyday life’. Wacquant believed that boxing gyms helped to regulate men’s lives, when disorder and delinquency engulf it.
When I discovered Wacquant at university, we weren’t yet as a society at the stage of promoting boxing as the answer to social ills. As that focus has increased, however, Deborah Jump’s book The Criminology of Boxing, Violence and Desistance provides an in-depth and very specific look at the merits of it.
In Bristol, we have had the election of a mayor who has said, “Boxing was a big part of my teenage years and taught me discipline, self-control and how to overcome set-backs”. This has been almost as prominent as Banksy’s painting of the door to the Empire Fighting Club and subsequently providing them with quite a boon. The mayor has proudly brought boxing into City Hall.
He has also made the front pages of the local press by bullying a member of the media, has said that activists can expect to be ‘tackled’, and has aggressively rebutted an NHS doctor who had brought a petition to City Hall about the air quality that is killing 300 a year; so much so that councillors approached the doctor afterwards to offer their apologies for his behaviour.
While the paradox is fresh of how violence can fight violence, let’s look at how this text can help us understand boxing and its potential.
The biggest contradiction seems to be about helping men avoid violent crime in an environment that suggests violence is the answer. As she writes:
the masculine cultural values transmitted in the gym environment, especially in relation to homophobia, hyper-masculinity and the accomplishment of such through ‘masculinized vocabulary’ (Deuchar et al 2016) are not necessarily conducive to desistance from crime.
“I argue that the enclave of the gym and the majority of its members are actually compatible with violent criminogenic attitudes, especially those that pertain to the defence of masculine ideals. “
Jump questions common tropes that suggest boxing is a panacea for all social ills, and she unpicks the criminal justice responses to youth crime and the well-intended misgivings that boxing is the cure.
policy makers and parents, as well as criminal justice agencies, believe that the structured disciplining environment of the gym is enough to combat criminogenic attitudes and violent behaviour.
She dispels this myth.
She proposes that boxing is a convincing ‘hook for change’ (Giordano 2002), and the appeal of the gym is undoubtedly a powerful one. However, more needs to be done to challenge the masculine discourses present within the gym environment. She does this by revealing the fragility of the narratives.
She suggests that the appeal of boxing lies in its ability to generate a “defence against male anxiety and vulnerability, and that the environment itself is tailored to the prevention of repeat victimisation.”
“In other words, the attendees are not just there to become boxers, they are there to sequester any form of male vulnerability and victimisation behind physical capital and gloved fists.”
In her 2016 article: They didn’t know whether to ” fuck me or fight me ” : An ethnographic account of North Town boxing gym, she writes: “The ‘habitus’ of the boxing gym enabled most men to view violence as an acceptable solution to a problem.” A particularly striking point is made in relation to the people she met at the boxing gym: boxing was “employed as a resource to command fear.”
Men’s identities are stripped down and examined. The intention of some seeking the boxing gym is to hide their weaknesses and to find affirmation. In relation to this, Jump writes:
Certainly, the concept of ‘hardness’ sits neatly with psychoanalytical object relation theories, whereby some men are endowed with fragile self-boundaries and a deep ambivalence towards intimacy, and will defend against this exposing vulnerability, by disguising it behind a carapace of muscle and bodily capital (Wacquant 1995b).
Jump’s text starts with a history of boxing, and its masculine traditions, starting from its Spartan usage to train men in between battles, and ending up in the use of it as a sport with a particular appeal in relation to class. She then provides ethnographic case studies of boxers she was able to approach and interview as part of her research.
The ethnographic chapters provide insight and a lens through which we can hear the boxers speak for themselves. Jump highlights her own effect in the interviews while simultaneously drawing out the messages from her case studies. We learn about the roles of the gym members and particularly the influential position of the trainer at the gym.
Her conclusions are useful to note. “Not every sport provides the same outcomes in terms of pro-social development, and desistance from crime.” There is also an argument to be made that “sports – particularly violent, combative ones – reinforce a sense of hegemony and promote attitudes favourable to violence, especially when concepts of status or winning become threatened.”
In boxing, violence is specifically linked with winning and this is imperative in “maintaining valued identities and status-forming attributes” such as respect, honour and status through violence. This mentality fostered through such sports, normalises violence as an everyday occurrence.
How does that help individual growth and change, however? One suggestion is that change can’t come without a ‘redemption script’ (Maruna 2001).
This is a process where previous behaviour becomes acknowledged and worked through, and subsequently ‘knifed off’ as a part of oneself no longer valued.
In boxing, however, violence and physical status are valued so it is difficult to cut off this identity because as Jump puts it, “young men often draw upon the social capital that violence can offer, regardless of whether or not they take it ‘out of the ring’.”
There are three detailed case studies of interviews Jump has with Frank, Eric, and Leroy. Their families, histories and experiences at the gym are approached and used as context for how they see boxing. Jump sets out the theories and approaches she will be using in the first chapters of the book, and then examines them in relation to people she has interviewed.
Reality comes up against theory.
The reality is that boxing is appealing for men, as cited in this text, and the way it is used to gain respect and promote fear. Physical toughness and bravery are noted as boxers revel in being perceived as fighters. Not only does it come with a sense of “satisfaction and pride for those who participate, but also adds to the element of danger and masculine prestige contained in the image.”
Winning is associated with violence, and preparation comes from the establishment of physical capital — one’s body.
The preening and manly display, coupled with the psychological realisation of physical capital, was carnivalesque at times – and, in some respects, grotesque, as some men would approach their bodies with a dysmorphic lens. Put simply, the investment in the body as a structure was extreme. Some men would push their desire for bodily perfection to bizarre lengths, sometimes culminating in vomiting after workout sessions or, as with the case of Eric, starving oneself to “make weight”.
In the gym as well, there was a hierarchy based on physicality and the “Bouncers and professional boxers were at the top of the hierarchy,” which seemed to be determined by the “participants’ capacity for violence”. Those with the most physical capital had the most power.
The main premise of Jump’s book is examining the notion that boxing can help men desist in violent crime. While there are female boxers, Jump herself notes that her ability to participate in the boxing environment was limited by being a woman.
Her text raises some important questions about ‘how’ boxing is meant to help with violent crime, and the limitations of just funnelling violence into a specific environment without the ability to transform it.
When you are taught that winning is important and that violence and physical capital are the primary methods of winning, then how can you go from that to cooperation and change?
Jump’s ideas on boxing being part of “boys’ socialisation through sport, competition and success, bodies, emotions and pain, domination of women, and aggression and violence” are important to note.
There are female boxers and the London 2012 Olympic Games were the first to feature women’s boxing. Jane Crouch, the first officially licensed British female boxer in 1998, who has won numerous world titles lives in Bristol and has just had autobiography optioned into a movie. Bristol is also known for its female pugilists who used to fight at the side of the Hatchet and inspired the novel The Fair Fight by Anna Freeman.
It feels there is more to be explored about boxing but Jump does a great job of focusing on only her remit. She doesn’t get distracted and she answers the questions that need answering.
Boxing can help provide a source of belonging, loyalty and support, and is helpful in breaking down barriers in segregated communities. The strenuous exercise also provides rewards and benefits to self-esteem. However, it is not possible to separate the benefits of the sport with the masculine discourses and physical risk.
When advocating boxing as a solution, it is also important to understand the underlying cultural messages transmitted in hyper-masculine arenas and to provide young men with positive role models who they can identify with.
A boy about to turn 13 coming home from a school in which he learns magic sounds a lot like Harry Potter but don’t be fooled like I was. Within the first chapter of Magisterium, the first book – The Iron Trial – there are twists and turns and a lot of colour which had me surprised and curious.
The writing is readable and the story consistently manages to surprise but not in a an-over-the-top way.
What the publishers say:
In the Iron Trial, the first book, Callum Hunt has no idea what he’ll come up against in the Iron Trial but if he passes the test he’ll become a student of magic at the Magisterium. All his life, however, Call has been warned against magic and even though he tries to stay away, he fails.
Now He must enter the Magisterium and it’s even more sensational and sinister than he could ever have imagined.
What I thought:
The tone is sent by the prologue which ends in a bit of an unexpected twist and makes the book very hard to put down after that. In the story, Call is 12 and a bit cheeky a bit naughty, a lot sarcastic and not exactly your lovely Harry Potter type character. He has the potential for using magic by drawing on the four elements: earth, fire, air and water.
The background is set out amongst the action so it doesn’t slow down the story much. In fact, all the elements of the story aim to progress the action and are never there just for the sake it. The writing is concise but descriptive and the tangents aren’t really tangents.
I liked it and was happy to move on to the second book: The Copper Gauntlet.
What the publishers say:
Call is now about to turn 13 and has returned from Magisterium victorious. He is now a mage in his own right – a Copper Year student. He has friends; he feels at home in the winding tunnels of the mysterious magical school.
But Call hides a terrible secret.
His soul is not his own. His body is a vessel for a powerful evil mage, wielder of chaos magic … murderer.
Salvation could lie in the Alkahest, a mysterious copper gauntlet. But it is a dangerous object, with a violent history. It could destroy everything Call knows and loves … and release the evil in him.
What I thought:
After a few months of reading nominees for the Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize I thought I would find this a little too casual for me but I really enjoyed it. This is a character and plot driven novel which gathers pace and then speeds things up even more. The scenes are short and instead of sticking to the same theme they then change.
I thought it was a bit risky starting with a character who was ‘evil’ as such but things aren’t quite how they seem and a lot of humour about the Evil Overlord goes a long way. I found it entertaining. I even liked the Star Wars hints in there, especially with the latest one coming out soon. In Star Wars, in case you didn’t know, the father and son follow similar paths with both having a similar flaw – wanting to rush things and not waiting until they finished their training.
See if you can spot something similar in Magisterium.
The Copper Gauntlet is the second of five Magisterium books by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare. Holly Black is a prolific author with a few sets of books out there. She has just sold her latest trilogy The Folk of the Air to Hot Key Books and has previously written the Modern Faerie Tale series, as well as co-authoring The Spiderwick Chronicles and Magisterium.
Michael Alden overcame crime, drugs, and poverty to make millions of dollars in a short period of time. He is an average guy who learned how to “ask more” to “get more” out of life. The strategies and techniques he outlines in this book can help you get just about anything apparently—a better job, a new house, or a great vacation—faster and more consistently if you’re willing to follow his advice.
Alden starts off well. His tone is inspirational, his example motivational and his purpose apparently heartfelt. His work follows similar tales such as those of Tony Robbins who is a world-famous inspirational leader who is both practical in his techniques and electrifying in his words.
Alden doesn’t offer much practical advice until about a quarter of the way into the book and that’s not how to achieve in life, it’s a health and nutrition recipe. He is no Tony Robbins but he is a great example of success. His writing takes a little more perseverance and if I was his editor I would suggest he added the practical exercises much earlier on.
At 16 Laurel witnessed a horrible crime which remained unexplained for years. Now her mother lies dying and it is her last chance to discover what really happened.
The Secret Keeper is Kate Morton’s third book and it is one of the loveliest if not always pleasant stories I have read. The characters are drawn with incredible depth and the lightest touch which makes it hard easy to believe they are real.
The writing is addictive. Morton entices with her plot, settings and style so much that it is impossible to stop reading. From the present to war time and beyond, the back and forth of the storyline never loses its pace.
I found this story as utterly gripping as the characters Morton writes. It’s wonderful and I want to say as little as possible because I don’t want to give away any part of the plot.
Helen Walsh doesn’t believe in fear – it’s just a thing invented by men to get all the money and good job – and yet she’s sinking. Her work as a Private Investigator has dried up, her flat has been repossessed and now some old demons have resurfaced.
Not least in the form of her charming but dodgy ex-boyfriend Jay Parker, who shows up with a missing persons case. Money is tight – so tight Helen’s had to move back in with her elderly parents – and Jay is awash with cash. The missing person is Wayne Diffney, the ‘Wacky One’ from boyband Laddz. He’s vanished from his house in Mercy Close and it’s vital that he’s found – Laddz have a sell-out comeback gig in five days’ time.
What I thought:
I am a huge fan of Marian Keyes’ writing. She writes strong women and brilliant dialogue which is funny, witty, serious and sexy when it needs to be. And she always addresses real issues which aren’t usually found in the chick lit genre.
In the Mystery of Mercy Close she writes about depression in the context of a detective mystery. There is also exploration of romance and family relationships.
I enjoyed reading this but sometimes it felt a little too flippant on depression although I know that Keyes herself has struggled with the debilitating condition and has been at times unable to write because of it.
I found it hard to suspend disbelief occasionally and some of the characters just didn’t have the depth which I’ve grown used to with Keyes. I found Is Anybody Out There? much better when it came to showing the characters dealing with depression and grief.
Keyes always provides a good read in her fiction however so I would certainly recommend it. I particularly like her idea of a shovel list. A list of people or things or phrases the main character would like to hit in the face with a shovel.
This is one more of the family Walsh series and the fabulous parents, especially the mother, once again play a brilliant supporting role.
I reviewed the Politics of Voter Suppression and you can find the article on New Europe.
Barack Obama’s reelection to the presidency of the United States was fraught not only with worry about whether he would be chosen by the people or get enough votes in the electoral college but also whether fraud would somehow alter the legitimate results.
An electronic voting machine in Perry County, Pennsylvania, selected Romney when the voter chose Obama, automated telephone messages called robo-calls in their thousands told people that the election was on Wednesday rather than Tuesday; people queued for most of the day because manipulation of voting hours meant they were likely to miss out and many states falsely advertised for the requirement of a photo id where none was needed.
Many, if not all of the above, were intentional acts of voter suppression. From state to state and from legislation to personal acts of intimidation there have been myriad ways that political parties have suppressed votes throughout the US’ election history.
I didn’t tell a soul I was reading Never Let Me Go because I couldn’t risk anyone spoiling it for me. There was something so precious about these recollections of a former student at one of what seem to be specialised schools around England. Kathy H spends her time driving around the country caring for others and telling her story.
The stories involve a time of gentle and developing friendships between children in what seems like an orphanage. They spent their time navigating the rules of friendship and social relations in a manner so familiar to anyone having navigated school and other people.
The stories go back in forth in time in a story full of foreshadowing and intrigue and of the utter gentleness of these little characters. I fell so in love with them and felt their anticipation and fear at growing up and having to transition into a strange and scary life outside of a known home.
This was a beautiful story, written so lovingly and carefully. I highly recommend it.
How do you say ‘this was utterly dreadful’ in 300 words or less because one iota of a sentence more than that would be giving this book space it doesn’t deserve?
The premise of Before I go to Sleep is utterly intriguing but the execution fails to deliver so badly that I worried about even reviewing it. A woman wakes up every day with no real recollection of the past at all. The only information she has is from photos in the bathroom and what her husband tells her. If this is not emotionally difficult enough she then finds her own diary which suggests she shouldn’t trust anything and nothing is as it seems.
An utterly brilliant premise (similar to Memento) but done and delivered quite poorly. The narrator isn’t very likeable, the story doesn’t deliver and the writing is annoying as hell.
Would I recommend it? Hell, no.
Update: voracious bibliophile Leeswammes commented to say that she loved the book and gave it 5 stars. This surprised me even though I had read her post at the time and then ironically, or rather, aptly, had forgotten all about it. Her comment has got me thinking about being more specific as to what makes me dislike Watson’s writing so much.
Part of it is the technique Watson uses of leading the reader and why. Our protagonist is a woman who has no memory and does not know who to trust. In attempting to decipher some meaning from the sparse clues around her she finds something, interprets it and then proceeds as if that is the truth. Here is an early example:
“He put his arm around my shoulder. I began to recoil, then remembered he is not a stranger but the man I married.”
There are two things about this sentence which exemplify the entire style of simplistic-but-not-in-a-clever-way type of writing:
1. That snippet “he is not a stranger but the man I married” is an obvious use of foreshadowing which reads as if it is normal but really is just a cheap narrative tool. Watson could have written it in the non-manipulative way of “then remembered he is my husband”. Some may protest, “but it is not obvious! We are reading to find out what has happened to her.” Then they roll their eyes at my daftness. I roll my eyes right back at you false-made-up-examples-which-I-have-dredged up-to-justify-my-reasoning.
I don’t know what has happened to this woman but as soon as I see a sentence such as this, which can only be part of a story as a cheap tool of foreshadowing although disguised as an ordinary fluttering thought through someone’s mind, because it is a rubbish line, I know exactly what has happened to her. Or if not exactly, then I can guess in a round-about way what we are about to find out and this is on the first day that we meet her!
The words “he is not a stranger” are blatantly untrue because at that moment when he puts his arm around her knowing she does not remember him, he is a stranger. Whether she knew him before or not, she does not know him now. And if he was her husband and there was nothing wrong, there would be no need for us to be reading this book.
The author leads the reader in a way the character wouldn’t. Take for example the following:
The protagonist is on a hill top overlooking London and discussing her past life of which she remembers practically nothing with the man who says he is her husband.
“We had a fire,” he said. “In the last place we were living.”
“Yes,” he said. “Our house pretty much burned down. We lost a lot of things.”
I sighed. It did not seem fair, to have lost both my memories and my souvenirs of the past.
On first reading it may seem innocuous. Why yes, I guess it would be unfair (of what, life? but anyway, that is an aside) to lose all physical and non-physical things but hang on, isn’t that rather obvious? Does it not sound artificial to anyone else? The (implicit) assumption of such an obvious restatement of a conclusion which the reader will hopefully have reached on their own is that the reader is either too dumb or lazy to put together the sentiment on their own. I could understand this type of writing for children in primary school but this is not for that age group.
And then my second point;
2. There is a real lack of congruence between our character’s situation and her actions. I am not talking about times she fears for herself but doesn’t leave because she has nowhere to go. This would be akin to blaming domestic abuse victims. See the section in the book when her purported husband is having sex with her. No, I am talking about times she clearly feels that things aren’t right but uses language and justifications like above to convince herself that things are the way they appear to be.
I am not saying that this isn’t a normal life skill, it is. If we didn’t convince ourselves that things aren’t how they appear then we wouldn’t be in loveless relationships, hanging on to unrequited dreams, settling for a job which just isn’t working etc.
These are all part of normal life. No, I am referring to Watson’s attempt to let the reader know that things are strange but to also show that the character believes them to be something else. It is that old narrative trick where suddenly we, the readers, know more than the characters themselves do.
It is sneaky in a fun and exciting way if done right. It is that moment when the audience is let in to the secret that Niles and Daphne, after five years of unrequited love, are meant to be together after all and we go “Ooh!” but the characters walk off stage, one of them about to give up on the love of his life and the other saying yes to a wedding proposal from another man (see Frasier).
Watson does it badly. I could find a handful more things to criticise if I browsed through the book some more but I will spare you, and me, the angst and the anger. Instead I would recommend reading a brilliant author who does not need cheap narrative tricks to create something amazing. See Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk which was his debut novel just as this is Watson’s.
I came to Jeffrey Eugenides’ Marriage Plot somewhat disappointed with his previous novel Middlesex which no matter how brilliantly it was written, promised one thing and then failed to deliver.
It has to do with his style of writing, I suppose. Eugenides writes backwards. He presents a beautifully written scene, a believable and slightly perfectly flawed character or two, and then adds the depth and the detail through a lot of backstory but it’s all written so well that it’s hard to tell where the cracks in time appear.
In The Marriage Plot, one third of the book had gone by before I realised we were still only on the first day which is where we started. Madeline, one of our protagonists, wakes up a lot worse for wear on her graduation day, from Brown University, with her parents ringing the doorbell so as to take her out for a celebratory breakfast.
She has broken up with her boyfriend Leonard and outside the cafe, in which she and her parents end up, sits her friend Mitchell Grammaticus, who is no longer her friend but he pretends for a while to please her parents. These are the main characters and this is the starting point. We find out how they got here and where they end up.
Leonard is enigmatic, charismatic and all set to be a research fellow over summer. Madeline is not sure what to do next but is investigating the marriage plot, what happens to women after marriage, in Victorian fiction and Mitchell is trying to find some sort of religious truth which will give his life some meaning.
The time is the early 1980s but luckily Eugenides does not use this as an opportunity to revisit pop culture. The timing, instead, is useful as a backdrop to social conditions and it’s almost a bit of a shock how much feminism has changed the way we live in just three decades. Of course, these characters have parents who were raised in the 50s and 60s.
The role of women in society at that time, did not occur to me as a theme but in hindsight I can see how it works really well. There are many layers and even the unsympathetic parts are ultimately wrapped in compassion by the time we get through them.
Eugenides delivers on every single count in this book and has created a rather wonderful story which is possibly the best thing I will read in 2012.