Jean Paget is English, living in Malaysia, when World War Two suddenly booms: the Japanese are invading, and within a week Jean is a Prisoner-Of-War (POW). Grouped with other ‘foreign’ women and children, they are marched under guard from one town to always another far distant town, as war rages around them, Jean’s group and the Japanese soldiers wrestle with their honour, cruelty and these unwanted, unexpected women and kids. As the days roll into weeks and the Malaysian Summer comes to a boil, women and children die, food is scarce and Jean morphs from a fragile English flower into something much sturdier, stronger and powerful.
War and love follow no timetables – Jean meets and becomes friends with Joe Harmon, an Australian POW soldier, who decides to help Jean in finding food and medicine for her struggling, still marching group. The repercussions of their conversations, individual actions, promises and stubborness whip around in awful, beautiful ways during and after the war, both in Malaysia and in a tiny town – “a town like Alice” (Springs) – deep in the Australian outback.
Published in 1950, A Town Like Alice is a gritty and touching fictional chronicle* of ordinary, stubborn people living in, through and after terrible times. Friends and lives are lost, people stand tall in rebellion promises are kept and sacrifices honoured. More than sixty years on the story remains evocative, gripping and a fascinating glimpse into the society of the time. Mostly, it is an enthralling read about normal people doing what they can, for who they can, and refusing to give up their humanity and decency – and falling in love.
A Town Like Alice is one of my ten favourite books, one of my top three most adored love stories. Being three days out from the official start of an already cranky Summer the book clamours to be read again, with sweat at my forehead and night insects singing in my ears, just like in the pages. I’ve read A Town Like Alice every December for at least a decade now (it is the PERFECT Summer read), and have even read it when Winter’s teeth scrape at my bones, letting Jean, Joe, the Malaysian jungle humidity and the outback’s heat sink in deep, from my imagination down.
Recommended to: Readers who like historical accuracy, non-formulaic love stories, and/or real, actual drama*.
Not recommended for: Vampire seekers, high literature aficionados, people without empathy.
Rated: PG for themes (it’s war, there’s violence, some 1950′s racial slurs)
Have you read A Town Like Alice? What did you think of it? Is there a book which transports you to a different place/season? Do you read books from several decades ago? Do you have a war-related book you love to recommend?
* While fictional, A Town Like Alice is based on actual events and people.
Note: A Town Like Alice was also made into a popular, acclaimed movie in 1956 starring Virginia McKenna and Peter Finch, though my absolute favourite version is the 1981 miniseries starring Helen Morse and Bryan Brown. (The former available on DVD, the latter – oddly – only available on VHS but well worth the effort.)
I can feel change coming, taste it like dust and jasmine on my tongue, but I can’t work out the direction, or what it will mean, or how it will cause bits of me to crumble away and reveal the pink and twitchy bits I try to hide. From everyone.
Change is coming, and I’ve been sniffing the air, trying to identify which area it’s going to bite first. There’s a couple of contenders. One scares me more than the others though.
For some time now I’ve been recognising things I like, enjoy or love about being single.
I can have my chair, my lamp, my pillow the exact way I want without having/wanting/needing to be considerate of another person’s preferences.
I take huge amounts of delight in having no idea of which way I’ll be facing when I wake up. Some mornings I’m neatly on one side of the bed, the other half barely interrupted with a bump of linen. Other mornings the bed is a mountain range after avalanche, pillows clinging desperately to the side, sheets pulled free and I’m a monster starfish claiming sovereignty over every thread and surface. The headboard is just a suggestion, a signpost, not a magnet or alignment.
The household budget is mine. I can spend, save, splurge and systematically allocate however I see fit, and not have to juggle anybody else’s spending amid the columns and tallies.
I can pick and watch whichever weird and wonderful movie strikes my fancy, or funny bone, or fickle mood. I can watch the same move over and again, or just bits of it, and watch according to my timetable and wants.
I choose the groceries I buy, and don’t have to buy or cook food I dislike. I can read as late or as early as I want, wear my favourite raggedy shirt, have the entire wardrobe to myself.
I haven’t had a brain cramp working out what to get my monster/mother-in-law for her birthday or Christmas “From us” and all the emotional damages that would be loaded with it. I haven’t had to sit through barbed conversations at “family” dinners, or carefully word sentences dodging offences and verboten subjects.
I have no need to look good for anyone but me. Shaving my legs is a love note to myself, wrapped in smooth skin and moisturiser. Putting on makeup is an in-joke between me and the woman poking out her tongue half a breath away.
I can make decisions and just GO, no discussion necessary or negotiation required. What I say goes with the boyos, with no other power to present their case to. (In this instance God doesn’t count – we have established cases and rules concerning this in our household.)
I don’t have to wait ten minutes to use the already vacant toilet, or fight for the doona, or be irritated by the gnats born of sharing a bed and life and forever with another annoying, bewildering, frustrating individual.
Change is coming. I can feel it like a nosebleed, a muted weather warning, a burnt finger, a muttered curse. I can fight it – whichever form it takes, or whatever chunk of my life ends up in its jaws – I could be fearsome, all spit and vinegar. Or I could dance, hold onto the ebb and shadows and whirl into the new. Change is coming.
Fight or flight. Change.
Do you sometimes know when life is going to change for you? Have you ever had a prompting or premonition that life was about to get very “interesting”? How do you react to change? What is a part of your life that you are appreciating, enjoying, loving right now?
By now the recent New York Times article decrying the current state of Mormon Literature is old news. I’m not interested here in responding to the major argument that Mormon writers are, in general, inhibited by a cheerful outlook on life and a reluctance to address “adult” topics. Writers who are much smarter than I am have already addressed the article’s misconceptions about Mormon writers. (See, for instance George Handley’s list of cultural tendencies that may prevent LDS writers from reaching for literary greatness—and the great list of LDS fiction in the comments; or Scott Hales’ defense of existing Mormon literature.)
I am interested, however, in talking about what many of these responses suggest about readers.
When the NYT article first appeared, my Facebook feed lit up with threads all along the spectrum: those who passionately defended genre literature (including Larry Correia’s in-your-face response) and others who agreed the article was flawed, but conceded a concern with LDS readers who in general were not interested in reading “real” literature. One friend wrote, “Literature needs to help people figure out how to live their lives better. It offers warnings and opportunities for empathy. I worry when stories are only used for escape and entertainment.”
I can understand this worry. As an English teacher, I recognize that it’s the business of teachers to introduce students to “literature”—to books and themes and ideas that they might not voluntarily pick up themselves. But as a reader, I’m equally passionate about the fact that readers have a right to choose for themselves what they want to read.
I also know that what constitutes “literature” is highly debatable, and that it changes from generation to generation. My uncle Michael Collings, a former professor at Pepperdine, pointed out that our obsession with producing “Miltons and Shakespeares” “leaves out of the equation the fact that neither were best-selling authors in their own times; that neither wrote what was then considered ‘mainstream’ literature; that neither went out of his way to proclaim a specific literary allegiance to anything resembling the NYT and the literary establishment; and that both had to be re-interpreted in major ways decades–even centuries–later before they were exalted to literary sainthood.”
As members of the church, we are encouraged to seek after things that are “virtuous, lovely, or of good report, or praise-worthy.” I firmly believe this. But I also believe that what might be uplifting to one person may not be so to others (witness some of the music in Relief Society that brings some members to tears but sets my teeth on edge)—and that we do not have the right to stipulate what others should find moving, or to look down on them because their tastes are not as “highbrow” as our own. Literary snobbery is still a form of pride, no matter how tastefully it is dressed.
I think the act of reading—in any genre—pushes us outside of ourselves, asks us to see the world from a perspective unlike our own. Of course, some books may challenge us to do this more than others, but I think the challenges are as individual as the reader. In a recent defense of libraries, Neil Gaiman wrote a wonderful and passionate defense of all reading.
There are no bad authors for children, that children like and want to read and seek out, because every child is different. They can find the stories they need to, and they bring themselves to stories. A hackneyed, worn-out idea isn’t hackneyed and worn out to them. This is the first time the child has encountered it. Do not discourage children from reading because you feel they are reading the wrong thing. Fiction you do not like is a route to other books you may prefer. And not everyone has the same taste as you.
I think the same could be said of adult readers—we find the stories we need, and we bring ourselves to the stories. I don’t think we can make simple distinctions between genre literature and high literature, particularly not when we’re talking about what such books do for readers. Some of my most profound meditations on faith and individual relationships with the divine have come from reading genre books, like Lois Bujold’s Chalion series, or Mary Doria Russell’s Sparrow. But I also loved Leif Enger’s Peace like a River.
Gaiman continues his defense of reading for pleasure:
I’d like to say a few words about escapism. I hear the term bandied about as if it’s a bad thing. As if ‘escapist’ fiction is a cheap opiate used by the muddled and the foolish and the deluded, and the only fiction that is worthy, for adults or for children, is mimetic fiction, mirroring the worst of the world the reader finds herself in.
If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn’t you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with (and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.
I believe there are a few genuinely bad books—books with content so dark or obscene that it hurts us to read them. But most of the time, what we call “bad” is a reflection of taste. My mother to this day hates Lord of the Flies, read during her school years—but that was the book that introduced me to the joys (yes, joys!) of literary analysis.
So here, at the end, is my manifesto about reading. It’s pretty simple, but it’s what I believe.
2. Read because you love reading.
3. Read what you love to read.
4. Challenge yourself sometimes—read something outside your typical genre. You might surprise yourself.
5. Respect that others may need different things from books than you do.
6. Read more.
Ultimately, what I want to say is this: People read for a lot of different reasons, and I think that if we’re going to take writing and reading seriously, we need to respect that.
Did you read the original NYT article? What did you think? What do you love to read—and why?
The Simplicity of Thanksgiving
Posted by Shelah | November 25, 2008 | 13 Comments
Back in my undergraduate days, I took a Shakespeare course like every other English major. And just like everyone else, we read Macbeth and King Lear. When I was doing research for my paper on King Lear, I remember reading lots of sources that called it Shakespeare’s “most important” dramatic work. I couldn’t decide what to write about, because there was just so much going on– should I focus on the pagan symbolism? The Christian symbolism? The familial relationships? And it was just so long and convoluted that frankly, I was glad to be done reading it. Macbeth, on the other hand, wasn’t as well-regarded by scholars, but it followed a linear progression, which made it easy to read (it’s short too, which is always good). It was essentially about one thing– a couple’s blind ambition. While both plays were emotionally charged, one was beautiful for its complexities, the other for its simplicities.
I went grocery shopping this morning, and unless I’d checked my calendar before leaving the house, I would have been quite sure I had landed smack in the middle of December. Christmas carols blared over the loudspeaker, the shelf stockers wore Santa hats, and the florist section was full of poinsettias. It took me a while to locate the lone display of Thanksgiving paper plates. Thanksgiving always gets short shrift, but I think the fact that it’s the underdog might be one of the reasons why it’s also my favorite holiday.
Celebrationally speaking, Christmas is definitely King Lear. Christmas is five weeks away, and I already have a list taped to my fridge of the candy and cookies I’ll be making and a rough draft of our annual Christmas letter percolating in my brain. I’m planning a luncheon for the women I Visit Teach. We have tickets to the Nutcracker and invitations to office Christmas parties. My kids are chomping at the bit to get the five rubbermaid bins of decorations and ornaments out of the attic. But the season isn’t technically even here yet. Once it gets here we’ll have to balance the “are we buying too much and spoiling our children forever?” with all of the Santa wish lists. We have to balance the chaos of seeing both sides of our families or the loneliness of not seeing any of them. We’ll try to balance the emphasis on Christ with the ubiquitousness of the man in red. It’s a great time of year, and would be seen by many as the “most important” holiday of the year, but let’s face it, it’s also exhausting.
Thanksgiving reminds me more of Macbeth. A couple of weeks ago we invited some friends and a family member to have dinner with us, but it wasn’t until last night that I finally pulled out the cookbooks and started to plan a menu, which took about fifteen minutes. We have exactly two Thanksgiving decorations– a set of pilgrims sitting on the mantel. I do have plans to spend a lot of time tomorrow and Thursday in the kitchen, but it won’t hold a candle to the hours my mom and I spend each year rolling tiny balls of dough into millions of Christmas cookies. During the Christmas season, I’m very careful to say “Happy Holidays,” so as not to inadvertently offend anyone who may not believe the way I do. I appreciate that Thanksgiving celebrates something we can all agree on– good food and being thankful.
I’m thankful for sweet potatoes and cranberry apple pie and fresh whipped cream. I’m thankful for friends to share the day with. I’m thankful for the simplicity of Thanksgiving. It may not be the most important holiday of the year, but sometimes simple is best.
“Mom, how much money is in your bank account?” This was the question my son chose to spring on me the other night during the chaos of cleaning up dinner. I hesitated a bit, partly because I wasn’t sure of the exact amount and partly because I wasn’t sure how much to share with my son. I did finally tell him an approximate amount of money, and then we talked a little bit about how it might sound like a large number, but that we had quite a few bills to pay and how much they were in relation to the amount of money currently in my bank account. After listening to me for a minute, he launched into a detailed explanation of his savings and expenditures of tokens in an online game that he has been playing lately, then ran off to take a shower.
As I finished cleaning the kitchen and thought more about our conversation, I realized that I haven’t talked to my kids much about money. I don’t know what their thoughts and attitudes are about it; other than a few random conversations about our budget and sporadic FHE lessons about tithing, the topic doesn’t come up much in our house. I do know, however, that even if we aren’t talking about, they are still forming attitudes and beliefs about money from the things they see and hear around them. A few years ago I read a book about budgeting that focused on the psychological issues surrounding money—the premise of the book was that no budgeting system will ever fix your money issues until you figure out and solve the particular money beliefs that are driving your behavior. Until I read that book, I thought I was doing pretty well when it came to money management, but I was able to discover some unpleasant truths about myself and the way I handle money (like being scared to talk to my children about it, for example). Read more