Category Archives: Soul Food And Sanity Savers

Africa, Unbound: The Poisonwood Bible

bookgrouppoison1

Get ready for a bold statement: I have just read one of the best books I have ever come across. Take a moment to think about how many books I’ve read since I learned to read and you can imagine why I’m impressed. Have you ever come across The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver? She’s an American novelist, daughter of medical and public health-workers who lived and worked in the Congo at some point in her youth. She’s written more novels I know nothing about, but this book – this book is one that worms its way into your head and changes the way you think.

It’s the story of Nathan Price, a fervent and terrifying evangelical Baptist preacher who takes his wife and four daughters to the Belgian Congo in 1959. More accurately it’s the story of the women, not Nathan himself, as the narrative is taken up by his wife Orleanna and each daughter in turn: Rachel, the self-centred eldest, Leah and Adah, twins, and Ruth May, the youngest. Nathan’s narrative is, in itself, not especially important, so isn’t included. His dominance is such that the women in his family must construct their lives as a reaction to him, and make their own peace with the shattering tragedy caused by his single-minded pursuit of conversion.

It’s also a story about Africa, the long years of political turbulence in the Congo, and the effect on a people who know that, after decades of Western exploitation, ‘a Congolese life is like the useless Congolese bill, which you can pile by the fistful or the bucketful…and still not purchase a single banana’. Each woman in the Price family must reconcile herself to her experiences in the Congo, and they do so in ways that are surprising but somehow entirely satisfactory.

The individuality and richness of each character is what I love about this book. Each section of narration is so entirely in the ‘voice’ of whoever is speaking that the writing style alters completely, but seamlessly and consistently throughout the book. Spiky, caustic Adah is my favourite, and I find her story especially poignant, but Orleanna’s sections are lyrically beautiful at times. Leah’s narrative I felt tended to become Kingsolver’s soapbox, especially in the second half, when the politics rather overcomes the plot. Having said that, the picture created of the history of the Congo is vivid and disturbing, and manages to make something human and personal out of the faceless news reports. I’ve no idea whether all the claims made in the book are true – Kingsolver is so richly scathing about Western intervention in Africa that I was both shocked and sceptical – but that’s the point. Now I’m going to find out. It’s not a perfect book, but now, when the Congo comes to mind, I feel as well as think something. And I suppose the author would be quite pleased with that.

Every Dog Has His Day: Slumdog Millionaire

Definitely worth the ticket price

Definitely worth the ticket price

During the opening credits of ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, the film’s title is splashed across the colourful, ragged t-shirt of a tiny Indian boy playing cricket outside his slum, in a frozen second before he throws the ball. The action speeds back up again, the batter hits the ball, and immediately we’re flung into the middle of the dirt, noise and energy of the slum child’s world, all fast cuts and breathless running and gleeful Indian music. An odd contrast to the sickly yellows of the brief scene of police brutality that precedes it.  

This wonderful, chaotic film starts as it means to go on. The story is based loosely on the book ‘Q & A’ by Vikas Swarup, and tells the tale of a poor boy from the slums, Jamal Malik, who grips the nation of TV watchers by reaching the final question of the Indian ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’. Close to winning 20 million rupees, Jamal is taken to be interrogated by police, who believe he is cheating. Each correctly-answered question prompts a flashback to Jamal’s childhood that shows exactly why he knows the answer. We see Jamal and his brother Salim escape a Muslim riot, join a gang of child-beggars with the Fagin-like Maman, escape to work and steal from the crowds at the Taj Mahal, and eventually separate as Salim becomes a gangster and Jamal a chai-wallah at a busy call-centre. All the while Jamal is trying to track down his childhood sweetheart, Latika, who was left behind as the brothers escaped from Maman.     

The attention to detail in this film is astonishing. Relentlessly upbeat and energetic, it still doesn’t shy away from showing the filth, squalor and brutality of the slum alongside the money-obsessed hive of activity in the booming technology industries. Depictions of India usually focus on one or the other, but in reality both coexist quite happily on each other’s doorsteps, and it’s good to see both given equal attention. A third of the film is in Hindi, with brilliantly original subtitles, and the child actors are perfect. 

Two more points for praise: the soundtrack, which is just right, and that fantastic Bollywood dance number set in the train station during the end credits.   Danny Boyle (the director) deserves every award thrown at him.  

I did feel that perhaps the plot was a little too contrived – the happy ending was signalled a mile off, which did mean that the boys never felt in any real danger. I couldn’t help thinking that there were plenty of people in India who are born in slums and live and die there without ever going on magical train journeys or being reunited with lost loves sold into prostitution. Still, everyone I saw during my brief stay in Chennai was bizarrely cheerful considering their circumstances, so perhaps the tone of the film is not so far off after all. And if rickshaw drivers can win Pop Idol (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/7699861.stm), why can’t slumdogs win Millionaire?  

Go see it. It’ll cheer you up for days.

Diversionary Tactics

Of all the improbable developments: I have this month turned into a genuine gym bunny.

I have long harboured a very deeply buried ambition to be a good runner. I suspect this aspiration has its roots in the triumphant Primary Sports Day at which I sailed to victory in the 8-year-old’s sprint. What a sweet moment. I’ve never since done anything about it, however, as it’s always been thoroughly overwhelmed by my utter, utter loathing of running. And a sad thing it is to be so conflicted inside.

This January I not only renewed my gym membership but actually started going. I diligently shrugged off all their offers of fitness assessments and programmes – when I’m doing exercise, I’d far rather no one was watching – and made up a little routine of my own. Slowly does it, I thought. So I started by walking on the treadmill, then running, hard, for as long as I could stand, then walking again to push my lungs back down my throat, and finishing with a crashingly heavy jog of despair. The first time I managed eight minutes of running before I was almost whipped off the treadmill in a floppy heap. With steely determination I have forced myself to hard-run for a minute longer each time I go back. I’m now up to a – gasp! – twelve minute hard-run, a feat that has me sweating and wobbling all over the rowing machine afterwards, but still feeling strangely satisfied.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s not nice. I find the whole process vaguely horrible, from the T-shirt-wetting splashiness of the water fountain, to the burly men grunting appreciatively in the weights corner, to the obstacle course of wobbly damp flesh in the changing rooms.  And there’s certainly nothing vague about how much it horribly hurts. So, I’ve found diversionary tactics are the key. The first couple of times I had nothing at all to distract from the rising chest agony: I couldn’t read the TV subtitles without my glasses on, so just watched myself in the mirror, hazily interested in how red my face was getting (fire-engine red, should you want to know). Repeating the mantra ‘Pain is weakness leaving the body’ only made me realise how fond I was of my weakness. No good. Then I started bringing my iPod, which aside from introducing the danger of being whipped at high speeds by the headphone cable worked better. As I reached the dizzy heights of ten and eleven minutes, though, the music lost my attention; worse, there are a couple of ex-favourite songs which now evoke a strange mixture of Antiques Roadshow and an ardent wish for death.

Today I found the ultimate solution, and dug out the last four chapters of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which I still had in my Audiobooks library. Twelve hard-run minutes flew by without a whimper – what’s a bit of chest pain compared to the final battle of Hogwarts? Not even running can shake my affection for Harry, so no bad associations are likely. I even kind of forgot I was in the gym for a moment, and came to with surprise as I tripped over the cycle machine, having finally lost all control over my limbs during the jog of despair.

The lesson here? The best way to exercise is to pretend you’re not doing it. Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt, y’know.

Real Men Do Their Crying On The Inside

Tim’s continuing recovery from the horrid mystery illness I have dubbed ‘Half Day Disease’ necessitated yesterday evening a Lord of the Rings pajama party. Under the circumstances this involved neither partying nor matching Lord of the Rings pajamas (I wish), but rather a kind of film-related slump with copious amounts of magic vitamin juice.

It’s been a long time since I last saw The Fellowship of the Ring, but I reacquainted myself with Frodo’s dopey face, Gandalf’s twinkly one-liners and the magnificent score during the dwarf-hall scene as though with old friends. During my first year of sixth form we were utterly obsessed with this film: I think in the months leading up to its release we spent more on copies of Empire Magazine than we did on lunch. Naturally we divided ourselves into the Legolas and Frodo camps, though in retrospect the lack of an Aragorn Appreciation Society seems like a serious oversight. Perhaps he had too much hair to win the hearts of seventeen-year-olds. When we finally went to see it, the first night it came out, we were overcome to the extent that a dumpy woman in black sat in front of us mistook our sobs for laughter, and roundly abused us in the foyer afterwards for ‘ruining her cinema experience’. Unfeeling nitwit.

I still cry at Fellowship, but I’ve discovered that it’s not the sad event itself starting the flood, but the sight of other characters crying. Gandalf won’t get a twitch out of me as he tumbles into the abyss, wild grey mop a-flying, but start up that wailing music and those little hobbit tears just afterwards and I’ll start to feel my eyes prickle. Boromir can take as many arrows in the chest as he likes, but I don’t break down completely until Aragorn gets a few manly trickles down his manly beard. I hoped this would make me an empathetic soul, sensitive to the pain of others; Tim labelled me an ’emotive sheep’ instead. I choose to interpret this as jealousy because he has never cried at a film in his life, though he did inform me at one point that he was ‘crying inside’.

Aragorn holds it all in

Aragorn holds it all in

 Remembering the offended harpy at the cinema seven years ago, I asked whether his ‘crying inside’ had disturbed anyone else in the theatre when he first saw the film. Oh no, he didn’t cry inside back then, he said. It didn’t occur to him to cry inside until he got married, and his wife kept demanding indignantly why he wasn’t crying at ALL during a sad film. It’s a useful response: you can cry inside without ruining your reputation or your manly beard.

And who says men don’t learn to emote within marriage?!

PS: I finished We Need to Talk About Kevin. Oh, the horror. I’ve been thoroughly disturbed all weekend, but its sheer persistence in my head only reinforces how impressive it was. Go read it! But don’t follow it with the death scenes in LoTR, because that way misery lies…

Glued to the page: We Need to Talk About Kevin

January is turning into the Month Free Time Forgot. I love my new job (or at least, I love being an Important Person, which I’m beginning to suspect was why I wanted it in the first place), but unfortunately I’m also still doing my old job, as I haven’t been replaced in the company yet. I’d be busy at this time of year anyway, never mind with the shiny new Monster Journal to contend with. Between this and the bright-and-smiley demands of Relief Society, enjoyable as they are, it’s a wonder I still remember where I live.

Cushions of time are the key. I’m currently filling in slots reading (yes, I know!) a novel that got quite a bit of attention when it was first published: Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. I first ran into Shriver when she wrote an affectionately observant tribute to her father, as part of the Observer’s ‘My Old Man’ feature (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/jun/15/biography.features6).

Nothing affectionate about this novel. It’s written in a style that’s been unfashionable for years – the epistolary mode, a series of letters from one person to another – but the premise is modern enough: one day fifteen-year-old Kevin Khatchadourian walks into school and kills seven other students. The letters are written by his mother, Eva, to her estranged husband, as she visits Kevin in prison and tries to make sense of having raised a mass murderer.

There’s something about the way Shriver writes – it’s nastily brilliant. She can express beautifully the way we react to life-changing events, and how we think we ought to react to them, and how we convince ourselves that if we pretend long enough, the conventional response will come true. Her characters are simultaneously vicious and sympathetic – I can’t stop reading it, but I’m reading with my mouth hanging open.

The back of the book jacket promises a twist at the end. I plan to be horrified. But I’ll also be very impressed – this woman can write compulsively about the worst of things like no one I’ve ever seen.

We Need to Talk About Kevin

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