5 Surprising Banned Books

This week is Banned Books week, dedicated to the freedom of right we have to read. It’s an important topic, yet one I’ve not felt so closely as other people around the world. Living in Australia I’m blessed to not have to fight for my right to read a book in the same way that people in some parts of the US or in China or many other regions of the world do. In fact, based on a list of banned books in Australia’s history compiled by the University of Melbourne, Brett Ellis Easton’s American Psycho is one of the few books still banned and that’s only in Queensland.

I support the right to read not because I agree with everything that a controversial book may contain, but because of the challenges they present. These are often books that make you think, that reveal problems and flaws in society or show an alternative way of living. They can change your mind on a topic but they can also strengthen your current viewpoint. They open the way for discussion on racism, sex and sexuality and a range of other topics that shouldn’t just be swept under the rug like they don’t exist.

But that’s enough of a rant for the moment. I promised you 5 surprising banned books in the title and here they are:

1. Black Beauty by Anna Sewell

It’s a story about a horse – how controversial can it be, right? Well, the problem is in the title. At least that’s what Apartheid era South Africa thought, simply because of the word ‘black’ being in the title. And I guess because black can’t really be beautiful, can it?

2. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

If it’s the whole inappropriate Lewis Carroll obsession with Alice Liddell thing than you’re wrong. It’s all because animals are portrayed as equal with humans. This got Alice banned in a Chinese province in 1931.

3. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchel

This epic love story has been suppressed in some US states because of its use of racist language.

4. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon

I love this book and was just a bit bewildered by the news that this book has been banned by some schools. The reasoning for this was because it contained some swearing and the main protagonist’s mother has an affair.

5. The darkening ecliptic by ‘Ern Malley’

So I would be surprised if you’d heard of this one and it’s not technically a book but it is a great story. For starters ‘Ern Malley’ is not a real person. He was a concoction of two Australian poets who wanted to make a point to the editor of a publication they didn’t really like. These two poets invented a poet and a bunch of nonsense poetry and sent it off to Angry Birds. The editor Max Harris thought the poetry was genius and published away. When it was revealed the whole thing was a hoax Harris was left more than a little red faced. The South Australian police judged the poems obscene and impounded the issue of Angry Birds in 1945.


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The Foster Care Institution of Surveillance in The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan

Drawing on Foucault’s notion of surveillance producing discipline – perfected in the panoptic structure – Jenni Fagan provides a critique of the British foster system. Her first novel is an intense exploration of one girl who has been knocked down plenty of times by society and its institutionalised care for foster cares, but not defeated.

Anais is not your ordinary oppressed orphan. She wears sailor shorts and pillbox hats and listens to Bob Dylan. She’s an old soul who has seen plenty of suffering in her time. Accused of putting a cop into a coma, she’s sent to a special home called ‘The Panopticon’ where a watchtower at the centre of the building complex may or may not contain someone observing all. Yet this is not the only gaze she knows or fears most.

‘The experiment’ is the imagined gaze Anais often experiences – that she not a real person but some kind of twisted social experiment grown in a tube and then set loose in the world to see what would happen. It’s a gaze she’s often trying to escape, one where she desperately wants to believe that she could somehow be ‘normal’. Yet ‘the experiment’ also offer her some sense of validation, an idea that she is not as insignificant as so many people tell her she is. At one point she questions:

“What if there was no experiment? What if my life was so worthless that it was of absolutely no importance to anyone?”

The other important gaze that Anais often finds herself under is society itself – particularly that of the institution she is in the care of. The adults judge her labelling her a criminal and no-hoper. Fagan’s judgement of these adults is severe. They’re good standing in society by their positions of power are easily undermined under Anais’ perspective. As the observed, Anais is resistant and, contrary to Foucault’s take on discipline, does not conform to their gaze. It also clearly shows the disconnect these adults have with the children under their care who are so accustomed to abuse and tragedy.

There’s an emotional pull to this book which comes largely from the way Anais speaks so familiarly and casually about traumatic events. Rape, murder, prostitution, sexual abuse – these are all common features to her world. Anais’ simple observation that she feels she can recognise a pedophile on sight is just one indicator of this. Fagan keeps most of the traumatic events off stage, which adds to their impact, but this is definitely not a book for the faint-hearted. It’s heavy on the swearing and at times quite explicit.

At times Fagan’s stylistic immersion into this underworld of drugs, sex and street hard kids does feel too much. The swearing and Anais’ tough attitude probably do ring true to the setting Fagan is contracting; however, there are times when Anais’ voice takes on a more poetic style and these passages shine with their prosaic beauty. The literary power of Fagan’s writing shines through in such moments. For example:

“Truth is something that laps its way in with the tides, and it returns night after night – until it washes you away. The moon brings it. The tides deliver it. When they leave, the tides steal from the shore. They steal grains and shells and stones. They steal cliffs and rocks and stiles and trees and fields and houses and villages and wee countrified lanes. Then they drag it all out to the bottom of the seabed.”

Through her novel Fagan turns the gaze back on the watcher. She critiques the idea of the observer who is judgemental, and demonstrates a limit to what they see. Although the disciplinary gazes of adults and the institution they stand for are all around Anais and her peers they fail to see the terrible truth of the lives these children know. They are blind to the horrors of what other human beings can inflict on another and the deep emotional scars it leaves on those abandoned by society.

For a first novel, The Panopticon reveals a maturing literary voice who has much more to offer.

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Now You See Me … You’ve Seen Me Before

If the title of this movie doesn’t give it away, Now You See Me is all about the world of magic and show business. Or sort of. It’s more of a fantastic version where magicians rob a bank half way across the world and get away with it. This latest film from French director Louis Leterrer is a cross between The Prestige and Inception. It relies heavily on the ‘how did they do that?’ element of magic shows and a plot that’s all about the twists.

As Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg) says to the FBI officer trying to pin the robbery on them, “We will always be one step ahead of you” – and this is what the plot relies on. As soon as the audience start to predict the twists and reveals this film falls flat. And at times it does. For anyone who has ever watched another film about magicians all the basics to the tricks are in here – and so the ‘how did they do that’ gets less exciting. Although if everyone else is gasping in amazement you can at least have the smug satisfaction of feeling like one of the smarter people in the room.

I won’t give away the final big twist to this movie, and I can’t say I didn’t entirely see it coming. I’m going to credit it with being fairly decent as plot reveals go, but hardly one to incite so much debate as the end of Inception did.

My problem with this film has a lot to do with plot. Although most of it does make sense (with the exception of some weird magic secret society stuff and whether or not we are actually meant to think it’s real), the downfall of the plot is that it is much too concerned with its twists. All the action comes at the expense of the characters who all seem a little thin. It is a heavily populated plot with a variety of main characters including The Four Horsemen – our troupe of magicians, FBI Investigator Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), an Interpol agent (Melanie Laurent), magician-turned-revealer-of-tricks Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) and Michael Caine as a millionaire. Each one of these characters feel fairly one dimensional and aren’t given much room to develop.

What I found particularly hard to believe was the relationships between the Four Horsemen – four skilled magicians assembled by a mysterious hooded figure to act out a master show (of which robbing a bank in France during their show in Las Vegas was only the very start). They are all diverse personalities who have been used to performing individually. Two of them even have past professional and personal history. Although they do bicker, there is no sense of real tension between them whatever the pressure they are under – especially when most of their movements are based on blind obedience to someone they’ve met before. Their team unity feels superficial and unbelievable.

The other major issue with the plot is its lack of considered approach to morals. This is one of those films where you’re not actually meant to think to deeply about the morals of stealing. In fact, you’re meant to think these ‘thieves’ are the good guys, because after all they don’t keep any of the money. The basic moral premise to Now You See Me is very Robin Hood, where greed is bad so taking away from the greedy to give to the poor is okay. Yet once you get to the final plot twist this moral basis starts getting very thin. Without wanting to spoil too much, the whole charade has really been a revenge plot decades in the making.

We’re not meant to respect the law. Instead we’re told to respect the brilliance of the smartest man in the room. And this is not because they are a moral compass, as much as the scriptwriters would try to pass them off as one.

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Review: If You Leave by Daughter

Elena Tonra fronts up Daughter

Elena Tonra fronts up Daughter

Elena Tonra has a shy yet sweet stage presence when she’s not singing. It seems completely at odds with the savage emotions that litter the lyrics of the band she fronts, Daughter.

Along with Remi Aguilella and Igor Haefeli, the trio make up London-based band Daughter who released their first full album this year – If You Leave. They’ve also hit Australian shores for the first time, touring Sydney and Melbourne and appearing in the line up at music festival Splendour in the Grass.

Their music shifts between quieter moments to highlight the emotional disparity of Tonra’s evocative lyrics to louder drum beats and guitar playing that are built in layers of growing sound. The effect is atmospheric, and reflecting the lyrics of one of their songs “suffocating” in the way it seems to feel the space around you with the intensity of their songs.

This album certainly isn’t for those in the honeymoon bliss of new love. As Tonra puts it, “If you’re in love then you’re the lucky one/ Cause most of us are bitter over someone”. Many of the songs do present a jaded view of relationships, or perhaps its just more of a realistic and complex view than your average pop song would ever say.

There’s a haunting beauty about this album that is particularly captivated by the sweetness of Tonra’s voice as she delivers each lyric with a measured softness. It’s an absorbing collection of songs and seeing Daughter play them live is a similar experience.

However, at times I almost feel like the band reach a precipice of emotion that they don’t quite get past. A large part of this is that vocally Tonra seems to hold back just that little bit – she never quite seems to rip into the lyrics to give that extra edge that the songs call for. Perhaps this is sweet, shy Tonra holding herself back from the vulnerability and savage honesty that Daughter seems to reach for.

Here is the heartbreakingly sad Smother from the album:

If you like this try: Sigur Ros who also use the violin-bowing technique for atmospheric music, or fellow Brit Joe Banfi who brings dark undertones and sweet vocals together.

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Book Review: The Perks of Being a Wallflower

First published back in 1999, this book sparked a whole bunch of controversy over the books that teenagers read in high school. Banned in at least two American high schools, groups of parents campaigned against Stephen Chbosky’s coming-of-age novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower for its lewd content that includes drug use and sex scenes. It’s also a book that’s become a cult favourite among teens, some of whom say reading the story saved their life. A film adaption starring Emma Watson as Sam and Logan Lerman as narrator Charlie was released last year.

As someone who had never read the book it came with a lot of expectation. I’d seen the film and enjoyed it as a much more real depiction of the high school experience and the troubles teens sometimes face than a lot of other American high school movies. Yet after finally having read Perks now, I must admit I’m disappointed. It failed to be the great bildungsroman of powerful content and insightful voice that the media had promised me. In fact, I have to say I’m at one of those rare points where the movie really is better than the book. And in recent years this is isn’t the first time I’ve felt this way about novels aimed at teens that have been made into movies.

It feels like there is a bit of a developing trend. Especially when all these books have come from America. In particular two other examples stand out to me – the first Twilight book and film and the first Hunger Games book and film. Both adaptions, like Perks, had a big following. Whatever your opinion on either Twilight or The Hunger Games (and whether you are offended that I’m comparing supernatural and futuristic romance novels with a realist text), they both are particularly guilty of a sin I found in Perks and for that matter a large number of other American teen books – over narration.

The narrator of Perks is Charlie who records his first year of high school in letters sent to an anonymous other (a plot structuring device I found contrived and annoying). At times Charlie sounds insipid in the way he takes a very factual narrative voice to events he observes. And perhaps this is what I disliked most about him – Charlie is set up as a “wallflower” who watches those around him providing commentary on the struggles of others, only he doesn’t really provide commentary because it rarely feels like he has an opinion.

He is an observer who rarely offers judgement on others’ actions – at least not when it’s something he could controversially have an opinion about. For example, his sister’s decision to have an abortion. Charlie doesn’t explicitly say or even grapple with the morals of this one. He just goes along with his sister in a merely observatory position. However, when it comes to her abusive boyfriend Charlie does seem to have more of an opinion. He still sticks to merely descriptive sentences but he ends the letter which first describes his sister being hit with this statement: “And I felt very bad for both of them.”

Chbosky refuses to let Charlie be a moral compass for the book, which is perhaps admirable that as a writer he isn’t trying hard to preach a point of view. The problem is that Charlie becomes so passive a narrator that his failure to judge discredits him and makes him hard to like at times.

What also annoyed me about Charlie is that although he is meant to be an insightful character because of his tendency to stand on the sidelines and watch, this is often undermined. He doesn’t seem to be as aware as we’re meant to believe. And Charlie’s incredible naivety about sex – seen when he masturbates for the first time but doesn’t seem to know what’s going on – jars with his previous experiences. Throughout the book Charlie tells us he’s had erections before and he’s seen people having sex including his sister and her boyfriend. And yet as a reader we’re supposed to believe his complete lack of sexual knowledge when he starts having fantasies about Sam.

Then there is the simple way he describes his discovery about masturbation:

“Do you know “masturbation” is? I think you probably do because you are older than me. But just in case, I will tell you. Masturbation is when you rub your genitals until you have an orgasm.”

Chbosky adopts a very factual tone that is direct without actually being confronting. Charlie sounds like a textbook explaining masturbation, and Chbosky’s use of Charlie’s voice for some down right obvious exposition is annoying. It’s like a lesson in sex ed has been slipped into story form.

This leads me to my particular dislike of over-narration where the writer doesn’t seem to have any faith in their reader and has a tendency to over-explain things – generally in a very clumsy way. Charlie, as a character and letter writer, often feels like a plot device to as neutrally as possible let teens know about some issues they or others might be going through – drugs, sex, depression, homosexuality. Chbosky often does this to the detriment of Charlie’s voice and to the novel as a whole. It’s what prevents this book from proving itself as a literary work (and where many of the great novels name-dropped in Perks succeeded). It’s also what made the movie better – no annoying exposition of an event.

However, it does do better than the efforts of Stephenie Meyer and Suzanne Collins who tend to over-narrate in a way more annoying fashion. Both are guilty of hitting their readers over the head with the emotions of their main charters: Bella and Katniss. A lot of cliche language is often called on to do this. The heavy handedness in style shows no appreciation for the art of subtlety or for the intelligence of readers (who apparently can’t work things out without them being directly expounded to them). And it’s what makes the films a vast improvement – reliance on the visual cuts out some awfully delivered narration. As a medium film engages with a range of indirect cues that the audience must pick up on. It’s going to fail if there’s a continual voice over telling the viewer that Katniss is confused about Peeta and Gale, or Bella is thinking how good looking Edward is.

Generally, this flaw largely common to youth novels is in mostly American published books. It’s what I personally think is an industry wide problem where taking a literary approach is not encouraged in young adult books. The problem is not just with the talent and style of the writers, but with the editors who largely seem to be failing in their jobs. I’m definitely not a fan of Twilight, but I do find the central idea of the first book interesting and firmly believe that with some serious editing the books would have been vastly improved. They probably would have been much shorter too with the amount of unnecessary text that could have been cut out, and Bella and Edward would never have worn matching beige turtlenecks (I hope).

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A Year of Literary Anniversaries

2013 marks the anniversary of a number of famous writer’s lives and achievements. Here are a few of them:

200th Anniversary of Pride and Prejudice

What is perhaps Jane Austen’s most known and loved novel was published 200 years ago. This was the first Austen novel I ever read, and how I fell in love with her wit and tongue-in-cheek sense of humour. I grew up watching the BBC  classic adaption featuring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, and am thankful for the attention it garnered this clever book and its clever writer. However, I do still feel the need to convince people that Austen’s stories aren’t just romances, but social comedy at its best.

50 Years Since the Death of CS Lewis

The author of the beloved Chronicles of Narnia series and well-known Christian evangelist passed away half a century ago. The Narnia books were favourites as a child – you could say I was a little obsessed. I still have the stuffed lion named Aslan that I got for Christmas when I was 6, and my 7th birthday was Narnia themed. The resurgence in these books over the past few years with the movies got me back into this childhood love. Although I’m still waiting for a film or tv adaption of my favourite of the series, The Horse and His Boy. I still live in hope for the full series to be adapted to the screen, preferably without deviating too much from the books (I’m sorry but what was with the ‘evil’ green mist in the Dawn Treader movie). yet Lewis’ fiction wasn’t limited to just Narnia. He also wrote a science fiction trilogy and another book based on the Cupid Psyche myth called ‘Til We Have Faces. Since first reading this as a teen I’ve loved it and feel that it is a little under appreciated as one of Lewis’ lesser known works.

40 Years Since the Death of JRR Tolkien

Tolkien, a buddy of Lewis, is seeing a lot of popularity thanks to Peter Jackson’s films of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. These books also had an impact on my childhood literary education. My first reading of The Hobbit turned me into a social recluse for a few days. However, going straight on to LOTR turned out to be more challenging. On my first attempt I found the style too verbose and the plot horribly slow. I think I made it to Frodo and his hobbit gang’s meeting with Tom Bombadil and gave up. Coming back to it two years later at the age of 12 I’d developed the patience to see it through to the end. Jackson’s films also added some incentive to try and read them all before I saw each movie. One of Tolkien’s not so famous works to check out is Roverandom, a children’s story Tolkien wrote for his son Michael.

100th Anniversary of the Birth of Albert Camus

French-Algerian writer and philosopher Albert Camus was also the second youngest person to receive the Nobel Prize for literature after Rudyard Kipling. His most well-known novel is L’Etranger, or The Stranger, which is a fictive representation of his philosophical notion of absurdism. Although a significant literary novella I have to admit this book was one of the most depressing things I’ve ever read. This is both in the sense of alienation and dislocation the central character feels, and also the incredible meaninglessness associated with his philosophical viewpoint. Not that I want to put anyone off reading this book, but it is definitely not light Sunday arvo reading.

These four aren’t the only literary bigwigs worth celebrating this year. It’s also fifty years since the deaths of Sylvia Plath and Aldous Huxley, and 400 years since The Globe Theatre burnt down during a run of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII.

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First Song of The Civil Wars New Album Released

In November last year The Civil Wars announced the devastating news that they were splitting up. They were also cancelling the rest of their scheduled tour for their first full length album, Poison & Wine.

Not only were this incredible musical duo going to stop making lovely sounds together, but I wouldn’t even get to see them live to reconcile myself to this loss.

Yet since Joy Williams and John Paul White announced the break-up of their musical collaboration over “irreconcilable differences” in direction, rumours have abounded but whether they really are broken up.

Especially, with the news there are releasing a second self-titled album.

Sadly, it’s still (almost) the end. The album was reportedly planned and recorded pre-break-up, and a part from a select number of gigs to promote the album, the band is not getting back together.

The first song of the album was released this week, and sounds just as good as I’d expect. The couple’s beautiful vocal blending on ‘The One That Got Away’ is a promise of what the rest of the album will hold.

Have listen here:

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