We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler – Book review

 Book review We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

DSC_0564

ISBN 978-1846689666, Price £7.99, Publisher Serpent’s Tail

 

  “Sometimes in matters of great emotion, one representation, retaining all the original intensity, comes to replace another, which is then discarded and forgotten. The new representation is called a screen memory. A screen memory is a compromise between remembering something painful and defending yourself against that very remembering.”

Rosemary and her sister, Fern, are part of a psychological study conducted by their father. When Rosemary is five her sister Fern vanishes; a traumatic event that later leads to the break up of the family. First the mother becomes an emotional wreck, then a few years later Rosemary’s brother, Lowell, absconds from the family home and joins the Animal Liberation Front, an underground animal rights organisation,  Before the event of the sister’s disappearance, Rosemary was a talking machine gun, people would tell her to start stories in the middle rather than at the beginning, just to cut them to a manageable length. Now at college, Rosemary only shares prepared stories with strangers, keeping her mouth shut to hide her past in an attempt to protect herself from the painful memories relating to these traumatic events from her childhood. But Rosemary can only move forward with her life, if she faces her past. People who have issues with spoilers, probably shouldn’t read further. Personally, I don’t mind – we all know that Romeo and Juliet both die at the end and yet we still enjoy the play when we see or read it. There is a difference between knowing and experiencing something for yourself.

“What would it be like to have been the child in that experiment?”

DSC_0567

Peanut, my monkey

Rosemary carries her nickname ‘monkey-girl’ for a reason: her sister Fern happens to be a chimpanzee. The idea for the book came to Fowler whilst speaking to her daughter about the Kellog experiment; Winthrop Kellog famously conducted a study in which he tried to raise his infant son with a chimp (needless to say that this study and similar ones have never been successful). Fowler’s daughter suggested she (Fowler) write a book about the child in the study, which Fowler evidently thought was an excellent idea.

What makes the book a good summer read is not only the chimp-human relationship, but also the esprit in the voice of our narrator Rosemary. It captures the reader on the first few pages and carries them the whole way through the story. But don’t be fooled, the book deals with big issues: loss, identity, ethics and animal rights.

So what would be the consequences of growing up with a chimp? Rosemary, for example, mimics her simian sister, jumping on the desk of her father when wanting his attention. Not anticipated by the father, it is revealed that it is not just Fern who adapts human traits but also that the daughter imitates the actions of the ape. Fowler describes this process; ‘[…] the neutral system of a young brain develops partly by mirroring the brains around it.’ Which leads us to ask the question, if Rosemary adapts ape traits and she is still a human, are the traits in Fern not then human like? Furthermore, is it ever acceptable to treat another living being just as an experiment? And, if Fern comes to think that she is human, how can we ever cage her again?

Additionally, Fowler showcases the problems that come with our memory. At various points in the book, Fowler reminds the reader how flawed our memory is. Do we narrate stories so many times until they become our own memory? If I I remember an event in our family history but no one else can, does this mean the event never happened? There is a brilliant passage where Rosemary seems to rediscover a long lost memory: she believes that her father has impatiently run over a cat that wouldn’t cross the street. When she talks to her grandma about it, the old lady assures her grandchild that her father would never be capable of such a cruelty. The memory becomes Rosemary’s own ‘Schrödinger’s cat’: “To this day, I can feel the bump of the tire over the cat’s body. And to this day I am very clear in my mind that it never happened.” Can the reader trust such a narrator? What is a genuine true memory and what is just fable?

On a meta level the reader is in a similar position to Rosemary – the plot of We Are Completely Besides Ourselves is carefully woven together by using a combination of both fact and fiction. Throughout the book Fowler uses factual events to anchor her story in our world, making it plausible for the reader to believe that someone like Rosemary could exist. By doing so, the effect on the reader reflects Rosemary’s state; it becomes our role to distinguish between the fictional and factual elements of the book, thus we are thrown in a similar state of confusion as our heroine.

The word list

As a non-native speaker, I thought it would be interesting to see what words caught my attention. Be prepared, I might bring them up in the conversations to come…

  • ithyphallic – (especially of a statue or other representation of a deity) having an erect penis.
  • Latinates – words that entered the English language through a Romance language, borrowed directly from Latin.
  • Catachresis – grammatical misuse or error or a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is being applied in a way that significantly departs from conventional (or traditional) usage.
  • ebullient – cheerful and full of energy.
  • limpid – completely clear and transparent.
  • refulgent – shining very brightly.

The eye catcher #1

DSC_0068

 

I failed miserably again: I didn’t want to buy any new books until next pay day. But I couldn’t resist some comics that people have been talking about, so I ordered myself two tradebacks, one of it being Rat Queens. I thought I share this fun little panel with you. It’s in the end of the tradeback when the Queens are having a party and the socially awkward Dee enjoys her time reading a book instead of mingling with others. Book reading > flirting. Who cannot relate to this?

If you fancy a high body count or just want some action packed story line with female heroines kicking ass and on top of all this beautiful illustration, Rat Queens is your comic.

DSC_0077

ISBN 978-1607069454, Prize £7.50, Publisher Image Comics

 

 

Bookshop plunder – Haul #1 in June

 

The Haul #1

 

DSC_0555

 

  • We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
  • The Invention Of The Jewish people by Shlomo Sand
  • The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf
  • Tender Is The Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Intuition Pumps And Other Tools For Thinking by Daniel Dennett
  • Orientalism by Edward Said
  • Julius Caesar by W. Shakespeare
  • Origami All You Need To Know by Ashley Wood
  • Under The Banner Of Heaven by Jon Krakauer

Let’s start at the top of the pile.  I may never read half of them but the feeling that I could do makes me a happier person.

This week the longlist for next year’s Booker Prize was announced.  Shame on me, I hadn’t read a single title from it (I’m still waiting for the publication of the new David Mitchell and Ali Smith). In an attempt to change this, I read the first few pages of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler and as you can see, I must have enjoyed it. I am now 100 pages in and all I want to do is – finish it. Expect a review of it at a later date. So far I would say I am loving it.

Perhaps one of the most controversial books in this pile: The Invention Of The Jewish People by Shlomo Sand. I guess, I am curious what all the fuss is about.

Right under it we find Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth. – You probably know that I work in a bookshop, right? And what do we do all day in a bookshop? We certainly don’t read books – there’s no time, but on our breaks we often talk about them. This book was recommended by a colleague of mine. We were talking about beauty ideals and I had confessed that for years I hated my eyebrows. Compared to other people’s, mine seemed odd; never growing in a beautiful curve but always with a tendency to grow together. Can you imagine what a life changing event it was when I found out that those other girls’ brows were plucked and not natural?  Anyway, my colleague and I went on debating feminism (and yes, I call myself a feminist but unfortunately I still seem to care about my eyebrows and the shape they come in).  To cut a long story short, my colleague said I would have to read this book and it would change everything.  Big promises here, I hope it delivers.

The next one is a classic – Tender Is The Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The book is from  Ealing Oxfam and has a beautiful 70’s porn-style cover. But it will do. I read The great Gatsby two years ago and was impressed by the lyricalness of the prose. It’s time to gain a similar reading pleasure, I hope this can deliver…

Don’t ask me how Intuition Pumps And Other Tools For Thinking written by Dennett ended up in this pile. It was free, so I took it.

Orientalism is one of those texts you hear about because you study. Or studied. With all the islamophobic tendencies in society today, it’s probably a good thing to arm yourself with some counter arguments. Purchased. I had a photocopied version of this back in Germany but never read it.

So I went to the Globe today to see Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar . Preparation is key.

Another free book – this time about Origami. I like Origami although I am far from being good at it. It always was my dream to sit in a boring lecture and fold the most complicated paper models. Never happened before, but now it might.

This is that strange case where someone mentions a book to you and you think “perhaps” and then the book suddenly appears everywhere. At one point you will give in and accept fate – you have to buy it. Happened with Krakauer’s book Under the banner of heaven. I really liked Into Thin Air, fingers crossed this will be equally as good.

 

DSC_0558

This week I also bought the new issues of Saga and Revival. I love Saga, I started by buying the tradebacks but I am so intrigued with the story that I cannot wait for the next trade to come out. It is that good! When it comes to Revival I am a little bit behind, I still need to catch up with the story line and #17 & #18 are missing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why books?

He himself was the owner of the most important private library in the whole of this great city. He carried a minute portion of it with him wherever he went. His passion for it, the only one which he had permitted himself during a life of austere and exacting study, moved him to take special precautions. Books, even bad ones, tempted him easily into making a purchase. Fortunately, the great number of the book shops did not open until after eight o’clock

Elias Canetti, Auto-da-Fé

 

The Beginning

It probably all started when I was six. Whenever I packed my pink satchel for school, I would also take one or two books that I wanted to read with me. My mum always suggested that I leave them at home as I wouldn’t have time to read personal stuff at school. She probably envisioned me being one of those kids that were popular qua their own existence. We all knew them, the ones everyone felt inexplicably drawn to, much like the way the Earth attracts the moon. Needless to say I was never one of them; I was neither athletic enough nor pretty enough to attract any kind of unquestioned popularity. Furthermore, my mother was never too tired to remind me that the books I carried around would make my bag too heavy. Interestingly, she never stuck to this when I wanted to leave my math book at home.

Since then I have always found an excuse as to why I need to buy another book or two. When I was younger my parents would keep hold of my birthday money, trying to convince me to spend it on clothes. They were never very successful and it seems I haven’t learnt anything:  I may not have anything in the fridge or anything to wear, but at least I can pass my time very well entertained!

I am currently a full-time bookseller and part-time creative writing student who buys too many books, but can’t find the time to read all of them. You find just a little bit more about me  and how to contact me on Who’s that Kat?