The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson

The Family Fang was one of the best books I’ve read this year- it was smart, funny with a gripping plot but what really made this an enjoyeble rtead for me was the characters in this book. They were quirky and original and each one of the Fang family member just stood out.

The story is about a weird family, The Fangs: Camille & Caleb are the artist parents who love their children but put their art before everything else.  Annie and Buster (aka Child A and Child B, as their parents addressed them during performances) are the children; Annie is an actress and Buster is a writer.

The book goes back and forth in time; going as back as the time where we see Camille and Caleb were just the two of them doing performance art and then coming back to the present time where Annie and Buster, both adults who are suffering setbacks in their careers and personal lives, moving back in with their parents. After they move back, their parents mysteriously disappear (the police think they are dead) and almost certain that this is just another stunt their parents called “art”, Annie and Buster decide to find them and confront them.

While the plot goes back and forth between past and present we witness a lot of the performance art that the family had done together. Annie and Buster had to kiss each other, Buster vomited in the middle of a fancy dinner in a fancy restaurant and there was this one time where Buster even attended a beauty contest dressed as a girl.

What made this a very interesting read was the approach the book had taken towards art. Camille, the mother, who also painted had to keep this hidden from Caleb who believed that art should not be rehearsed. His philosophy was that if you know that what’s happening is art, then it most certainly is not.

Their father, on several occasion throughout their childhood, had referred to painting and photography and drawing as dead forms of art, incapable of accurately reflecting the unwieldy nature of real life. “Art happens when things fucking move around,” he told them, “not when you freeze them in a goddamn block of ice.” He would then take whatever item was closest to him, a glass or a tape recorder, and smash it against the wall. “That was art,” he said, and then he would pick up the pieces of the shattered object and hold them out for his children to inspect. “This,” he said, offering the remains of the broken things, “is not.

As for the other characters; Annie was the angry child. She was the older and relatively stronger one who was also the first one to decide to break free from her parents and what they called “art” and go to Hollywood to be an actress. She was smart, talented but you could feel just how broken she was and how much her parent were inside her head from the choices she made.

Was this how trauma worked? she wondered. Those closest to it remained dumbfounded by the fact that those who weren’t present could drive meaning from it?

Buster was definitely my favorite Fang! He was the fragile, sensitive one who looked up to Annie. He wrote two unsuccessful novels and worked as a freelance writer for a magazine who gave him dull topics. He was so emotionally unstable that he simply ended his one and only long-lasting relationship by simply stating that he was going to the bathroom at a cafe, then walked out and never came back.

The other central idea the book flirted with was “art & kids”. The question of whether kids killed art came up on several occasions. The Fangs, when they found out that Camille was pregnant with Annie were pretty terrified that this child would simply be the end of their careers as artists. But then they surprised everyone and made their children a part of their performances- so much so that after Annie left, nothing was the same again.

At the end of the book, an old art professor and Caleb’s mentor says that it was him who said that kids killed art but now that he met Annie and Buster he understood that he was wrong. “It is art that kills kids,” he concluded.

The Family Fang is the story of a weird, artistic family that is original, witty and allows you to look at “art” from a different perspective. I recommend it to everyone.

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A Tribute to the World’s Wisest Prince

That is the hardest thing of all. It is much harder to judge yourself than to judge others. If you succeed in judging yourself, it’s because you’re truly a wise man.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

By now you probably have noticed, from my Gravatar or my Twitter photo or from the quote at the very end of this blog, that I suffer from mild The Little Prince obsession. I don’t follow the latest trends on children’s books and I haven’t read that many to make a fair conclusion and say that this is one of the best children’s books- EVER! :)

I can, however, tell you that The Little Prince is the first book I remember reading- ever. I must have been eight or nine, and I’m sure I’ve read some books, at home & at school, before reading The Little Prince since I was a curious child obsessed with stories (I would make my mother read the same books over and over again before bedtime). But The Little Prince must have made quite the impression on me for I could remember reading the first bit of the book, coming across the passage where the storyteller explains how he had drawn snakes and adults had mistaken them for hats and I was so excited by the story that I had to rush over to my mother’s room and read the passage to her.

We read many books; some we can’t read further than 50 pages, some make us angry, some we fall in love with, some move us so deeply that we change the way we view the world around us, some we go through on a plane ride and never think about it again…

But I think there is a special place in our hearts for the first books we can remember reading. The very beginning of a fascinating, magical journey, of a life-long friendship.

You’re lovely, but you’re empty,” he went on. “One couldn’t die for you. Of course an ordinary passerby would think my rose looked just like you. But my rose, all on her own, is more important than you altogether, since she’s the one I’ve watered. Since she’s the one I put under glass. Since she’s the one I sheltered behind a screen. Since she’s the one for whom I killed the caterpillars (except for two or three for butterflies). Since she’s the one I listened to when she complained, or when she boasted, or even sometimes when she said nothing at all. Since she’s my rose.

I’ve been enjoying the blogosphere very much, and the company of the wonderful book-bloggers out there that I thought I’d just take a quick break from reviewing and share this little detail and ask you about the first book that you remember reading… :)

And to show you the gravity of my obsession with this little wise prince, here are my slippers and my favourite coffee mugs! (And of course one of my dogs is called “Prince” but people usually mistake him for the musician.)

(A quick bookish update- I’ll be posting the review of The Family Fang towards the end of this week and I started reading Atlas Shrugged. I always wanted to read it but (here comes the confession-) always been kind of err… scared of it. Hopefully I’ll be able to finish it before this year ends!)

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180 Degrees: New Fiction by South African Women Writers

I admit, anytime I see those words, women’s writing, I raise my brows in suspicion. Perhaps that’s why the foreword of this collection of short stories begins with addressing just that.

There is no other way of saying it really, is there? Women’s writing. Women’s words, what women writes. It wouldn’t matter, except that there’s often an unsaid something that goes with the phrase ‘women’s writing’, like ‘women’s movies’, it implies- what? That it’s going to be soft, sensitive, romantic, cathartic, therapeutically, touchy-feely?

There is a difference between women’s writing and men’s writing- at least for me. I’m not in no way saying one is superior, better, deeper than the other; I’m just simply saying that I can sense the difference. I usually can tell if a story is written by a man or a woman without knowing the author’s name beforehand. And I don’t think that’s such a bad thing; variety gives depth to literature.

180 Degrees is a collected short stories written by African women. There isn’t a single theme in particular that the stories circle around; these writes have written about love, loss, hate, motherhood, childhood, marriage, fear, faith, being deceived… There are 21 stories and since I can’t talk about all of them, I had to narrow them down to two of my favourite ones out of the collection (which was harder than I thought).

Beginning of Wisdom  (by Sue de Groot) is the story of Amanda, who one morning wakes up and realises that she is not afraid anymore. For Amanda, this was a very unusual feeling since she had spent her entire life in fear; not being able to get out of the house, go to work or function as a normal human being. She is agoraphobic and one day her therapist tells her about this drug that was being tested and has not yet been proved. Amanda takes the drug anyway, disregarding the unknown side effects and suddenly she is a new woman.

Day by day she loses that internal fear which helps human beings stay alive. She feels like there isn’t anything she can’t do anymore because she is not afraid of anything anymore. Including death. So she begins to question: what’s the point of living if you’re not afraid of dying?

‘Death be not proud’, the priest quoted, and she decided, impatiently waiting for her failed exercise to end, that John Donne was a fool. Death should be very proud indeed. Death should have its thumbs hooked in eternal smugness under its armpits. Death had put men on the moon. If we weren’t afraid of dying we might as well be immortal. If we lived for ever, would we ever bother doing anything? She flipped disconsolately through a hymnbook as the priest gave the final blessing. Without fear of death, she thought, humans would have died out long ago.

We witness Amanda coming to terms with what once turned her life into a prison: her fear. She realises that fear of dying motivate humans to take action, the fear of losing makes people cling to their significant others and it is fear that nurtures our basic needs.

At the conference she’d heard a speaker say that fear and greed were the prime human motivations. Now she thought perhaps he’d got it wrong. It was need that ruled alongside fear. Fear and need- cancel one and you automatically cancel the other. She was no longer afraid because she didn’t need anyone. She didn’t need them because she was no longer afraid.

The second story is called Gabriel’s Wife and it is about adultery. Gabriel is having an affair with an ambitious, care-free girl from the office, Libs. What made this story stand out for me was its voice. It was distant, as if the author was aiming for a ‘matter-of-fact’ effect. The author, Pamela Joostle, sets the tone as soon as the story opens:

Gabriel and Libs work for a one-stop advertising agency. Three floors of a raw face-brick building down near the dock in an area that’s in a constant fever of activity. That’s where you’ll find them.

Then comes the basic scenario; Gabriel tells his wife that he doesn’t want to wear his wedding ring anymore because he thinks ‘What difference does a ring make? Why is the paraphernalia of marriage suddenly so important?’ and he starts ‘working late’ and going to ‘business dinners’ but his wife knows about Libs. She never confronts him, but she knows. And it’s her perspective, the way she reacts (or refuses to react) gives the story its depth.

Yet there it is. About as difficult to spot as a cornet shooting across the sky on a night with no moon. How, she wonders, is she supposed to feel now? What do other women feel? Not, she suspects, quite the way she does. Do other women want to laugh out loud? Do other women, she wonders, not see the desperate banality of it all and find it amusing?

Gabriel’s wife finds herself trapped. Not in motherhood or marriage, neither of which, on good days, are uncongenial to her. What careless, thoughtless, selfish Gabriel has done is to trap her inside a cliché. This is what she finds most difficult to forgive.

The title of the story, Gabriel’s Wife, is not a random title; we do not get to learn her name. Throughout the story she is simply referred as ‘Gabriel’s wife’.

I spent the past few days with stories of women written by women… And I realised that perhaps women do, as the foreword implies, write soft, sensitive, romantic and cathartic stories. But they are also raw, painful, deep and honest stories. Some of them I laughed while reading but some were difficult. Harder to swallow because the authors talk about the kind of incidents we see around us happening everyday and doesn’t hold back. They let us see what’s beneath the mask, behind the curtain, inside the character’s heart.

If you enjoy short stories and women’s writing then I highly recommend this book.

 

 

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Some books are difficult to read, albeit their uncomplicated, easy-to-read language, because you realise how close the story is to the authors life. It’s one thing to read about a character going mad, suffering, the world around her growing darker with each day; it’s another to know that the author had experienced it firsthand.

All authors bring something from themselves and their lives to their work. But semi-autobiographical novels like this one have always made me feel like I’m snooping through someone’s diary without permission.

The Bell Jaris is Sylvia Plath’s one and only novel which was originally published under the pseudonym ‘Victoria Lucas’ in 1963. It follows the main character, a young  and bright woman named Ester Greenwood, through her year where in the first half of the books she is doing fine, trying to find her way through life and at the second half we see her mental state declining, getting more and more lost every day.

The thing about the main character, Ester, is that she is socially unconventional; she feels like an outside not rather because of the choices she make but because of the ones she refuses to make.  Plath doesn’t just take us on a journey with Ester as she gradually loses all contact with the world around her but she shows us what it means to be a young, mart women with ambitions during those times and how it’s the choices you do not make that comes to haunt you rather than the ones you do make.

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig-tree in the story.

From the tip of every branch, like a flat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and SOUTH America and another fig was Constantine and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and off-beat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out.

I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig-tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose.

 I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

Plath, being one of the most brilliant poets the world have ever seen, knows how to explain emotions like despair, disappointment,
self-destruction, detachment in vivid and striking imagery such as this one. The book, as we can see from the passage, was written in first person point of view, which gives us unlimited access to Ester’s mind.

We witness Ester coming home after her summer internship at the New York City magazine and follow her through the rabbit hole as she struggles to find out who she is, what she wants to do with her life and watch her as she tries to come to terms with the fact that her expectations from her life does not align with what the society expects from a young woman her age. And her mother is a big part of that ‘society’. She continuously expects her to be “alright” and fit the norms of society and eventually helps Ester reach her breaking point.

People often state that this novel begins so normal and then go crazy… What Plath does here is that she doesn’t just allow us to see what goes through Ester’s head when she is at her worst but allows us to see how the situation had built up to that point. We witness how Ester’s mantel health starts showing cracks, then begins to come crumbling down. We don’t meet a girl who is already mentally ill; we follow her through the road as she takes a turn for the worst. And inevitably, that gives the story a whole new dimension and adds depth. But there is also the other thing- by showing how “normal” Ester was and then how she was not, I think Plath is trying to indicate just how tangible our mental states are. One day you think you’re alright and the next day you realise just how wrong you were.

The last thing I’d like to discuss about this novel would be its ending. Plath, after all the struggle Ester had to go through, leaves us hopeful for her future. Throughout the book this feeling of hope leaks through the pages which is one of my favourite things about this story. Even at her darkest moments you think “Wait a minute, she will get through this.” You inevitably care for Ester, you root for her and as she walks through that door for the last time to hear her final verdict at the mental hospital we hope that they will rule for her release because we want to see her getting well and taking her life back. Be happy. We never get to hear what they decide; but we finish the book with the feeling that she’s going to be alright. I think a hopeful ending fits very nicely with the general tone of the story. (But something to keep in mind while reading this book: Plath committed suicide two months after the book was published.)

       A bad dream.

      To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream.

      A bad dream.

      I remembered everything.

      …

      Maybe forgetfulness, like a kind snow, should numb and cover them.

      But they were part of me. They were my landscape.

The Bell Jar

Sylvia Plath

faber and faber

first published in 1963

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