The Media and the Massacre by Sonya Voumard

31144282Nonfiction — Kindle edition. Transit Lounge, 2016. 140 pgs. Purchased.

On April 28, 1996, a twenty-eight-year-old from a suburb outside of Hobart, Tasmania murdered two individuals at a guest accommodation site that his father had wanted to purchase. The man then drove to Port Arthur, a tourist site and former convict prison colony, and murdered 33 people and wounded 23 before being captured by police the following day. The Port Arthur massacre was the deadliest mass shooting in Australian history and among the worst in the world.

As a non-Australian (and a child at the time of the horrific crime), I cannot name the time or place I was when I first heard about the massacre. As an American, though, I often hear the massacre mentioned after yet another mass shooting in America. If Australia could pass strict gun control laws following Port Arthur, why can’t America?

That is not the question Voumard attempts to address in her book. Rather, she examines the reactions of the media to the event centering much of her analysis on a 2009 book titled Born or Bred? by two journalists, Robert Wainwright and Paola Totaro. Their book tried to place blame for the massacre on either the genetic make-up of the murderer or on the way Martin Bryant was raised.

“As the mother of a massacre’s perpetrator, Carleen is expected to acknowledge Martin’s guilt and to show remorse on his behalf. By not doing so unequivocally, she joins the ranks of society’s least popular causes: she is an unyielding female victim. Who would bother standing up for her?”

Either way, these two journalists placed the blame on his mother, Carleen Bryant. With the aid of a friend, Bryant had contacted Wainwright and Totaro to help write a memoir about her life. She provided photographs and her own personal manuscript to Wainwright and Totaro and, after the relationship between herself and the journalists soured, she asked for the manuscript back. Instead, portions of the manuscript were used in the book, and Bryant would later receive an undisclosed legal settlement for its use.

There are always two sides to any story, and Voumard attempts to suss out exactly what happened between Wainwright and Totaro and Bryant. Both parties refuse to speak to her, however, and she ends up relying heavily upon published interviews or friends and lawyers to establish the timeline of how and when consent (or lack thereof) was given. The controversy over the use of Bryant’s unpublished manuscript is then used to launch into a larger examination of how journalistic misconduct is (or is not) dealt with in Australia, if book journalism should be treated differently from periodical journalism, how the desire to nab headlines and sales (and, now, Internet clicks) drives this misconduct.

These questions about ethics and the media’s role in the public are what kept me reading Voumard’s book long after I realized one needed more than a cursory understanding of the Port Arthur massacre. (I have never read Totaro and Wainwrights’ book nor had I known about Bryant’s accusations against them.)

Much of what she says about the predatory nature of journalism rang true to me, and the circling around tragedy like vultures is actually why I decided against becoming a journalist. On my first day as a journalist for a summer internship at a major daily paper,  I called the country coroner for a cause of death ruling on a four-year-old child. On my second day, I was instructed to call the family and ask for an interview on the accidental drowning of said child. I knew right then that I didn’t want to be a journalist.

Granted, the singular death of a child versus a mass killing seemly invites different journalistic responses. Yet, in the end, each loss is a personal one for the family, and Voumard documents how journalists often fail to walk the precarious line between public interest and salacious interest. A line that is, of course, difficult to enforce under when one lives in a society with an ever so important freedom afford the press. A moral ambiguity that makes for interesting contemplation even after setting the book aside.

Voumard’s book was published nearly twenty years to the day after the massacre occurred and she — rightfully, in my view — spends some time on whether or not the media should continue to engage in a remembrance or a rehashing of events. One of her sources goes so far as to say that people should be left to move on with their lives after the ten year anniversary, and Voumard reports that the Port Arthur tourist site offers a brochure on the massacre with the caveat that it is too distressing for employees to speak of.

I did not set out to read this book around the anniversary of the Port Arthur massacre, but Voumard’s discussion of when the media and, therefore, the public should collectively move on ended up being timely for me in another way. April 15, 2017 marks the four year anniversary of the Boston Marathon Bombing and as a Bostonian, as someone who provides tours of a public site located near the bombings, the question of when the media and the public should move on is often raised for me. It sickens me when tourists ask me to point out the location of where the bombs went off just as I’m sure it sickens victims to be asked to relive their pain for the general public.

(And, least you think I’m wrong on that account, the father of the youngest victim was quoted in the media as saying that if he had to lose his child, he wishes it had occurred in a private fashion rather than at a public event that will occur each year and be associated with his loss forever. The family also asked that their son not be included in the Hollywood movie interpretation of the bombing.)

For all the gaps in my knowledge about the Port Arthur massacre and the media’s handling of the event both immediately and in the intervening years, Voumard’s book was still well-worth the time it took to read.

The Media and the Massacre was longlisted for the 2017 Stella Prize.

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Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson

30107561Fiction – print. Ecco, 2017. 336 pgs. Borrowed from a friend.

Eighteen-year-old Isabelle Poole graduates from high school with perfect grades and a baby on the way. Her job as a pig roaster at the local BBQ joint doesn’t pay enough for her to raise the baby on her own, and the father of her baby — her high school art teacher — has checked himself into a mental hospital. Yet Izzy is determined to keep her baby — so determined that she’s willing to join “The Infinite Family Project” headed by Dr. Preston Grind and funded by an eccentric Tennessean businesswoman.

The goal of the project is to prove that cooperatively raising children in a single home provides the best start in life. Izzy and the other nine couples are to raise the babies for ten years without distinguishing which child is biologically their own and, in return, the program will provide them with job training, parenting classes, and free room and board.

The bond between parent and child proves to be too strong, though, and other parents in the program begin to struggle with the need to be with their — and only their — child. And as the ten individual families begin to morph into one big family, the lines between couples and families begin to fracture in ways the Dr. Grind and his small group of doctoral students did not expect.

When a friend asked me if I wanted to borrow this book from her, she announced that the book is good, but weird. “Like really, really weird”. At the time, I figured she was referring to the premise, which sounded bizarre but intriguing enough that I left the coffee shop with the book tucked under my arm.

Having finished the book (and, later confirming with her), it is clear that she meant to say the plot structure are the “really, really weird” parts of the book. The first third follows a more traditional narrative structure with the reader being introduced to Izzy, learning of her emotional and financial dilemmas around her baby, and watching her decide whether or not to pursue a spot in Dr. Grind’s story.

Soon after she gives birth and is whisked away to the Infinite Family compound, the novel switches into bi-yearly updates as to how the project is going. Wilson drops the reader into the most important scene for that year’s drama — a mother deciding she needs to see her baby more, a couple deciding to wife swap — for two chapters, and then proceeds to do the same for the next year. After a number of years, the novel switches back to the more traditional structure with Izzy facing a decision about how she wants to move on with her son now that the project is over.

The benefit to this structure is Wilson can cover more time in a shorter number of pages. He drills right down into the heart of the problem for each year exposing the fatal flaws in the overall project and showing how Izzy matures from an indecisive eighteen-year-old to a much more confident young woman. The downside to this structure — and, ultimately, why the novel didn’t work for me — is Wilson denies readers the opportunity to get to know the other characters.

Everyone else — the other parents, the grad students, Dr. Grind — become caricatures rather than fully fleshed out individuals. The other eighteen parents were indistinguishable from the next and, if Izzy claimed one was her best friend and the other was rude, I had to take her word for it rather than seeing for myself.  I cared for Izzy because the earlier third of the novel helped me see why I should, but the middle third did not lend the same courtesy to the other parents and their children and there was little motivation to keep reading as things between Izzy and the other parents came to a head.

Frankly, Wilson’s examination of fringe parenting methods and their impact on the human psyche provided the scaffolding for a weirdly intriguing novel. Sadly, this scaffolding crumbled thanks to the underdevelopment of supporting characters and the cramming of an ambitious scope into a 336-paged book.

Gulp by Mary Roach

13615414Nonfiction — print. W.W. Norton, 2013. 348 pgs. Library copy. 

Subtitled “Adventures on the Alimentary Canal”, Roach’s book guides readers on the journey of their food — from the saliva generated at the smell of food to the stomach and then onto the colon and the way out. The path isn’t without a few side trips to answer questions like can one survive being swallowed alive, can the gas you pass be set on fire, and can you really eat yourself to death?

Bizarre-sounding? Maybe, but I enjoy learning random pieces of information that I can then share as “fun facts of the day”. And Roach makes the alimentary canal a far more fascinating place than I ever thought possible. Some of the more interesting facts I gleamed from reading this book (or, at least ones I can publicly share without attracting the spambots):

  • Like us, dogs are attracted to food based on smell, but what smells good to us is not actually what attracts them to food. (Nearly rotten meat is a pet favorite!) Same situation with cats, although they ultimately decide what to eat based on taste. An entire facility — complete with taste-testing dogs and cats — is decided to cracking the code.
  • Food preferences are largely set by the age of ten and are decided by the people around you. Namely, by the “gatekeeper” who (is presumed) to do all the shopping and cooking — mom.
  • In 1901, a man named Horace Fletcher tried to get the general public to adopt an intense regime of chewing — 722 bites for a shallot — because he believed chewing each mouthful of food until it liquefies could help the eater absorb double the nutrients. And, if people received more nutrients per meal, they wouldn’t need to spend as much on food.
  • Your brain calibrates its understanding of “full” based on how much food you regularly eat. If you feel full more quickly after eating less, it is because your tolerance for food has diminished overtime. This “tolerance” affects the feedback loops stimulated for hormone and enzyme production.

Roach’s conversational tone makes it easy to understand some of the more difficult chemistry and biology concepts discussed in this book. (It only took me so long to read the book because the topic made it a distinctly bad choice for my lunch break.) Yet some of levity is a bit unnecessary. I don’t need to know how sexy or dull the scientists she’s conversing with, and there were certain chapters — the one about William Beaumont and Alexis St. Martin, especially — when I wished there was more of a serious, technical bent to her writing.

That said, I enjoyed learning more about the part of the body that’s often derided and ignored, and I’d gladly pick up another one of Roach’s books. Probably as an audiobook since that seems like a better fit for her writing style.

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

28449257Fiction – print. Little, Brown and Company, 2016. 291 pgs. Library copy.

Seven years after the Irish potato famine of 1845 and 1852, a Nightingale-trained English nurse by the name of Lib Wright is employed by an Irish town council to investigate the claim that an eleven-year-old resident by the name Anna O’Donnell has existed some four months without consuming any food. As deeply pious Catholics, Anna, her parents, and her cousin-turned-maid believe the young girl’s faith in God is sustaining her life, and the council is eager to prove whether or not they have a fraudster or the next saint living among them.

As a science-oriented woman with, to the O’Donnells’ and the community’s disgust, no religious inclination, Lib is determined to employ a through and structured watch to catch the young girl out in her deception. This watch is shared, however, with a nun by the name of Sister Michael, who Lib assumes will be easily swayed by claims of divine intervention like the rest of this small Irish community.

At its heart, Donoghue’s novel is a detective novel. The central focus is on Lib’s efforts the satisfy the council’s query (and her own) into whether or not this is all a rouse. If Anna is secretly eating, is she doing so on her own or are people assisting her? Who planted the idea in her head? Was it her mother or her cousin or the local priest? These questions certainly had me racing to the end.

Yet, it is the presentation of life in the Irish countryside in the 1800s and the way such a life can feel claustrophobic and oppressive to an outside that pulled me into the story. Like Lib, I am a (very) lapsed Protestant who favors science over religion and, like Lib, I spent much of the book mystified by the Catholic rituals performed daily and horrified that people could attribute the starvation of a young girl to religious piety. My reaction was Lib’s reaction; my horror was Lib’s horror.

(This shared reaction ended up leading to one more the interesting discussions my book club has engaged in. With the exception of myself, all in attendance were raised Catholic and a number attended Catholic school so they were more familiar with the seemingly bizarre behavior of Anna and her family. Of course, that’s not to say that any of them supported the idea that God was sustaining Anna’s life. More of a “well, of course, Anna would say a particular prayer thirty times a day to help her brother out of purgatory”.)

Donoghue’s writing is stunning, and the relationship between Lib and Anna evolves beautifully over the two weeks the two are together. (If that seems too short to develop a genuine fondness for a person, the two do spend up to sixteen hours a day in each other’s presence.) I awarded Donoghue’s novel five starts on GoodReads immediately upon finishing the novel and, for once, I don’t feel any inclination to downgrade that rating after expressing my thoughts here.

The Wonder was shortlisted for both the 2016 Giller Prize and the 2017 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

28683066Fiction — Kindle edition. Knopf, 2016. 320 pgs. Library copy.

Gyasi’s novel opens with the story of Effia, a young girl living a small village along the Gold Coast (present-day Ghana) with a father who adores her and a mother whose good graces Effia is excluded from. On the cusp of womanhood, Effia is desperate to marry the future chief of her village, Abeeku, and is told she will as soon as she has her period. Her mother, Baaba, convinces Effia to tell only her when her period finally begins yet, when the moment happens, Baaba refuses to inform Effia’s father, Cobbee, so the marriage to Abeeku can occur.

Baaba’s silence is twisted into a myth about Effia — the large fire that accompanied her birth is a sign of a witchcraft that has left her unable to bleed — and Cobbee must send his beloved daughter away to preserve the safety of his village from her curse. Effia is married to the British commander of the Castle, James, and learns about the existence of unknown sister.

“We believe the one who has the power. He is one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must always ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there, you begin to get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.”

This unknown sister, Esi, is then introduced in the following chapter, and Gyasi’s novel proceeds to jump back and forth from the descendant of one sister to the next as their lives split further apart. One descendant is raised to be the bookkeeper for the family’s business trading in slaves from present-day Ghana; one descendant is sold into slavery in America. One descendant becomes a college professor; one descendant ends up addicted to drugs.

“Forgiveness was an act done after the fact, a piece of the bad deed’s future. And if you point the people’s eye to the future, they might not see what is being done to hurt them in the present.”

Because each chapter introduces a different character, the novel takes on the form of a collection of short stories. There are some connecting themes and characters who move from one story to the next, but the focus is largely on the pinnacle moment in each character’s life. The moment where their husband leaves them or their mother dies or they become addicted to drugs or kill their child.

In another author’s hand, this structure would feel superficial; the reader only being able to see the surface of each character’s life. Yet Gyasi managed to pull me into every single story, to make me feel for each character, to leave me frustrated when she forced me to move along to another character because I just wanted to spend one more second with this character.

I would gladly read a full-length novel on any one of these characters, particularly those still living in Ghana whose experiences have not featured in other novels I’ve read. (The structure and themes of the American stories of Gyasi’s novel reminded me quite strongly of Alex Haley’s Roots.) Given how stunning this novel is, particularly for a debut, I look forward to reading whatever Gyasi decides to write next.