Man Booker shortlist review #5 – “The Mars Room” by Rachel Kushner

I have finally finished The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner, my penultimate read on this year’s Man Booker shortlist. I blogged last week that had been finding it quite hard-going. I wouldn’t say it’s a ‘difficult’ book, like Everything Under, where it helps to be aware of the Oedipus myth in order to be able to enjoy it. No, I just found the pace of the book very slow and, I’m afraid, uneventful.

The Mars Room imgThe story concerns Romy Hall, a young woman whom we first meet in a prison van en route to Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility, somewhere in California. Romy was convicted of a brutal murder and has been given two life sentences plus six years. Romy worked as a lap dancer at The Mars Room nightclub in San Francisco and it was a former customer at the nightclub that she killed. Romy is at once similar but different to her fellow convicts. For one thing she has a seven year old child, Jackson, whose welfare she becomes increasingly concerned about during her incarceration, and she also completed high school, so she is considerably more educated than many of those around her.

 

Romy quickly finds her way in the prison and most of the book is about prison life, the community, the social norms and the formal and informal rules that dictate life inside. There is also the cast of characters, the gender non-binary, the ambiguous sexualities, the weak and the strong, the hierarchy. The women appear to have two things in common, one implicit, they are mostly racial minorities, the other explicit, they are nearly all poor and of low educational attainment.

To that extent the book is, in my view, largely a political one. The author has insisted this is not the case, preferring to think of it as showing the humanity, the variety of life and the personalities in prisons in America, where society is normally inclined to dehumanise and to view homogeneously, the prison population. However, I think the political message is inescapable – that prison is a dumping ground for the poor and under-educated that society does not know what to do with. Kushner is also exposing the twisted logic of differing sentences for similar crimes. I found the comparison of the crimes committed by Stanville’s residents to the killings of civilians by the American state in Iraq, and the notion of double standards, a little clumsy, but she has a point.

The book is not just about Romy and prison life, there are the back stories too: the unsavoury characters both Romy and some of the other women knew before they ended up in prison, many of them no better than the convicted women, and the events and circumstances of their lives, which most of us will never experience. This is the world of an American underclass. An underclass which usually ends up in the corrupt and failing (in Kushner’s view) penal system. There is also the character of Hauser, the prison teacher who Romy hopes might help her find out what has happened to Jackson. It is strictly against the rules for Hauser to do this, but there is something about Romy which appeals to him, and he breaks with procedure when he finds himself inexplicably attracted to her. (Spoiler alert: I was hoping this storyline might go further but it doesn’t). Hauser represents grey, upstanding, dutiful middle America which wants to do the right thing, recognising that some of those in jail have some good qualities, but which is clueless and naïve, and which cannot deal with the brutal realities of prisoners and prison life.

This is an exposing book and Kushner spent a lot of time inside jails in America, talking to women prisoners, trying to understand their lives and their perspectives, and for that she is to be commended. Whilst I appreciated what the author is trying to do here, and certainly it was an eye opener, for me the book didn’t go anywhere. Some have described the ending, where Romy is driven to extreme action on account of her son, as intense and thrilling. For me it wasn’t. I found it anti-climactic.

The book reminded me of those Louis Theroux documentaries, where he went into American jails, and talked to prisoners. The people he met were a complex mix of terrifying, troubled, under-educated and deeply in need. And mostly black and Hispanic. The book is a bit like that, but, for me, with not quite enough of a story going on.

Recommended if you like Louis Theroux documentaries about American jails.

Have you read The Mars Room or any other of the books on this year’s Man Booker shortlist? If so, I’d love to hear how you’re getting on.

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Book review: “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou

When Maya Angelou died in 2014 at the age of 86, she was one of the towering figures of American culture and politics. Poet, author, civil rights activist, speaker, friend and advisor to figures of national and international importance, her career was, by any standards, glittering. And yet, her start was a decidedly inauspicious one. In the late 1960s she was persuaded to begin writing an autobiography and she went on to publish it in seven volumes, the latest one appearing in 2013, just a year before her death. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is the first volume and covers her childhood and coming of age. Her early life in Arkansas featured parental abandonment, overt racism, sexual abuse, discrimination and poverty. It is a sobering tale, and a testament to her immense ability, that someone with that kind of background could become such a great and important figure, well-known not just in the United States, but throughout the world.

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings imgI chose this book for my 2018 Facebook Reading Challenge. The June theme was an autobiography, a tricky category since enjoyment can often depend on your feelings about the author. I also wanted to avoid titles that would most likely have been ghost-written. After thinking about it for some time, I chose this, the first volume in Angelou’s memoir series, and the one which is often considered to be the best. It can be read as a stand-alone.

I had read it myself many years ago; I have written on here before that at some point in my teens, I resolved to work my way along my local library bookshelves starting at ‘A’! I read the first five volumes (the fifth was published in 1986 when I would have been 18, so I imagine I did not read them all consecutively). I remember I enjoyed the book at the time, and parts of it were familiar, coming back to it so many years later, not least the horrific scene where she is raped by her mother’s lover. This aspect of Maya’s story, like all the other terrible instances of injustice she experienced, is told without self-pity (apart, perhaps from the toothache!) or sentimentality, and this, I think, is the mark of her greatness as a writer.

I loved also, the evocation of the setting – 1930s Arkansas is set out vividly before us, particularly the evangelical Christianity of the black community, the tense relations with their white neighbours on the other side of town, and the poverty of the community, scraping a meagre living in the most challenging of circumstances, from cotton-picking, domestic service or, in the case of Maya’s grandmother “Momma”, from running a small business.

I also loved the language – the Deep South comes across so profoundly in the words and phrases used by the author, such as the wonderful term “powhitetrash” to refer to the prejudiced white townspeople of Stamps who blight the lives of the black community with their bullying, their cruelty and their vulgar behaviour. And I loved the characters, from the young Maya, to her elder brother Bailey, whom she adored, to Momma, the starched Christian woman of steadfast values and brilliant business acumen. The author brings them alive so skilfully that they walk the pages of this book.

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is a must-read. I trust that it is on academic reading lists throughout the United States, but it should also form part of the historical context for any student of American history. It is not an easy read and the nature of the language definitely slows the pace (it took me twice as long to read as any other book of this size), but you would do well to read it slowly as the pace draws you into the languid lifestyle of the setting. Someone on the Facebook group listened to the audiobook, narrated by Angelou, herself, which sounds like a must-listen. Coincidentally, the book was also abridged for Radio 4’s book of the week recently, and that should still be available online. It was very good.

Highly recommended, should probably even be on everyone’s books bucket list.

If you have read Maya Angelou’s memoirs what impact did they have on you?

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Science writing: “Catching Breath: the making and unmaking of tuberculosis” by Kathryn Lougheed

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have been working on my first book for just under a year now. It’s a long process! I finished my first draft just before Easter, but even though it was gratifying to reach that milestone, to be able to type “The End” I was aware that, in many ways it was just that – a milestone, not the end. It was the end of the beginning.

In the last few weeks of writing I had begun to build up a list of gaps, things I still needed to research, passages or chapters that I knew would not read the way I wanted and tweaks that may be necessary with the structure. I conducted my first full read through a couple of weeks ago and found it reassuring that I was indeed right – there were gaps, bits that did not flow and the non-linear structure I was so excited about, well, perhaps that did not work as well as I thought. I wasn’t down about it though. I have a long list of tasks again, but feel generally positive.

Emily Bronte, John Keats and George Orwell are among the many artists who died young from TB, giving the disease a ‘romantic’ image

An area where I felt I needed more information was in understanding tuberculosis (TB). This disease was rife in Britain in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The numbers are astonishing: in England and Wales about four million people are thought to have died from TB between 1851 and 1910. TB-related deaths began to fall from this point onwards but were still shocking: in 1913, there were 36,500 deaths from TB in England and Wales (reaching a peak of 46,200 in 1918, at the time of the European Spanish ‘flu pandemic). By 2013, there were just 280, down from a rate of almost 100 per 100,000 population in 1913, to 0.5 per 100,000 a century later. (Source: Office for National Statistics)

The decline in the mortality rate for the disease can be put down to a number of factors: mainly improved living conditions and sanitation, but also better understanding of the disease (it was once thought to be hereditary, not contagious), the discovery of an effective antibiotic treatment in the late 1940s and, latterly, a nationwide vaccination programme (remember the BCG?). The virtual eradication of the disease in this country is a cause for celebration, but, worldwide, it remains a devastating killer: 1.4 million people a year die from TB.

Catching Breath imgOne of the books I consulted as part of my research into understanding more about the disease, its symptoms and its effects, was published very recently, in 2017. It’s called Catching Breath: the making and unmaking of tuberculosis by Kathryn Lougheed. The author is a former scientific researcher and is now a journalist and science writer. The book is excellent. It is fantastically well-written, even funny in parts (the author has an interesting sense of humour – her Twitter handle is @ilovebacteria!). She is out to make some serious points, however, about this, one of the oldest diseases known to humanity, which has so successfully mutated, crossed species and diversified and which just keeps on winning. Her main argument is that TB remains a disease of poverty and inequality. Globally, it affects the weakest – the young, the old, the poor or those who are already sick.  She argues that, although it is a complex disease, if there was sufficient political will, many more lives could be saved. If there was as much resource and international effort put into tackling TB as there has been, say, to addressing AIDS, there would have been far greater success to date. In 2015 the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced its ‘End TB strategy‘, which set a goal to reduce worldwide deaths from the disease by 95% by 2035, although it would seem that nothing short of a heroic research effort will be required to meet this.

If you are at all interested in the politics of health and disease, inequality between the developed and the developing world, and about humanity’s ongoing battles with diseases old and new, this is a fascinating and engaging read. I had intended merely to dip into the bits that interested me for my own research, but I have ended up reading the whole book. In Kathryn Lougheed, science’s loss is the publishing world’s gain. I hope this book gets nominated for some non-fiction or science-writing prizes.

Have you read any good science or non-fiction books recently?

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