Book Review: How to Build a Girl

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This book was so funny I became that creep on public transport who laughs insanely to themselves. It was entirely worth it. Even if you’re not into teenage coming-of-age/angst stories, you’ll want to read this one. Sure, How to Build a Girl is no Catcher in the Rye, but does Catcher in the Rye have a scene where the 14 year old female protagonist masturbates to her Mum? No.

And I’m referring to the deodorant, you filthy readers.

A ‘fictional’ story that still smacks of author Caitlin Moran and her own upbringing, How to Build a Girl tells the story of Johanna Morrigan, a teenager who lives in Wolverhampton, a town that’s been royally screwed over by Margaret Thatcher. Her dad’s on welfare waiting for his big break in showbiz, her mum’s depressed and worst of all, fat, poor Johanna Morrigan can’t get anyone to kiss her, so she’s stuck masturbating with various bathroom items in her room next to her brothers.

So, Johanna re-invents herself. And she does so in the same way that countless teenager girls have across the globe – through excessive make-up, booze, sex with strangers and a constant stream of vitriol. After all, if you’re too busy mouthing off someone else, you’ll never have time to hear them mouthing back at you, right?

After reading this book, I basically decided that I wanted Caitlin Moran to be my new best friend (sorry, actual, real life best friends for saying that). Whether it was the references to Lord of the Rings, the utter perfection of describing sex with a stranger (‘I’m not enjoying myself, so I’ll just pretend I’m witnessing things from his perspective’), or just the absolute strength of her unfazed protagonist, I was just overwhelmed by how cool she is. Which she probably gets on a daily basis.

Not that How to Build a Girl is all laughs. Well, actually it is, but nevertheless it included some eyeopeners, the major one being how much of a factor money is when you truly have none. There’s a moment when Johanna tells her boss at the music magazine that she can’t listen to CDs because she can’t afford the 20p it costs to hire them out…and I was just like, fuck. I am so middle class. Even though I whinge that I never have any money, and that I want to spend more clothes on shoes/alcohol/books, I’m basically a middle class pain-in-the-arse that has no idea what poverty feels like. I’m poor because I’m too busy saving up for a ridiculous holiday overseas (which, quite frankly, is usually in a country far poorer than Australia, so I can really be an arsehole and rub it in their face by living like a king). ‘Being poor’ means buying a bottle of wine instead of buying a bottle at the restaurant. ‘Being poor’ is waiting until cheap Tuesdays because I hate spending $18 on a cinema ticket (although seriously, $18?!). ‘Being poor’ is complaining about rent, but refusing to live further than 5km outside of the city centre.

Basically, I’m an arsehole. And How to Build a Girl showed me the light, so to speak. Not in a preachy way, thank god, but in a way that just allowed me to actually consider the situation I was in, and be grateful that I can afford my bottle of wine/cheap Tuesday ticket. Because Johanna, however fictional she may be, and countless others, don’t have that luxury. And Johanna is a teenage girl living in England – only she wasn’t lucky enough to be born in London.

How to Build a Girl is brilliant because it’s an ode to one’s adolescent, and the process we all go through growing up (or, let’s face it, still going through), without being a horrific gimmick-y, sugar-sweet love story that basically ends in flowers and rainbows. How to Build a Girl ends up almost how it starts – except Johanna has taken the responsibility to change her life, be a better person, and not mutilate, because surprisingly, that shit hurts.

 

Have you read How to Build a Girl? Are you also basically like ‘Step aside Lena Durham, I got a new fake bestie’? No? Well, read How to Build a Girl. Seriously. Then talk to me about it.

how to build a girl by caitlin moran

How to Build a Girl – (image taken from http://www.westerndailypress.co.uk)

Book Review: Journey from Venice

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I want to go back to Europe. According to my newsfeed on Facebook, apparently everyone I know is enjoying the sun’s rays in the Netherlands, the Mediterranean in Italy or a chocolate croissant in Paris. By comparison, Melbourne is cold, miserable and stressful. Basically, the combination of winter, working full-time and reality (i.e. not being on a holiday) sucks.

Which is why I decided to pick up Ruth Cracknell’s Journey From Venice: if I can’t physically visit Venice, I’ll do the next best thing and experience it through the pages of a book. By reading about blue skies, gondolas and endless descriptions of beautiful art, I can at least pretend I’m there, right?

Wrong. Apparently, Journey from Venice isn’t about the joys of international travel. It isn’t about exquisite art or outrageous food. Well, that’s a lie. It is. For the first thirty pages. And then it is a memoir of the endurances a couple has to go through, and the strength that they have within their love.

Journey from Venice, a memoir by Australian author, actor and playwright Ruth Cracknell is the heartbreaking and somber story of the journey her and her husband make, both literally and metaphorically when they go on a trip to Venice. What starts as a much-needed break for the couple quickly turns into a nightmare, when her husband, Eric, has a stroke and ends up hospitalised. Things go from bad to worse when they discover that Eric not only has had a stroke, but he also has a rare blood condition, pneumonia and, eventually, lung cancer. Not only does Ruth have to deal with the anxieties, stresses and heartbreak of watching a loved one fall ill, but she faces the daunting task of getting Eric flown back to Australia where he can die amongst his friends and family.

Journey from Venice deals with life-changing (in fact, life-ending) issues in a simple and poignant way. The harrowing journey that Ruth and Eric take, both together and separately, could have been written as a macabre adventure, a gut-wrenching sob fest, or even just a 200 page outpouring of rage and pain. All would have been fitting, and definitely understandable. However, Ruth has written Journey from Venice instead as a tribute to the 41-year marriage that she and Eric have, she writes about a bond that grows ever stronger as his health deteriorates, and the strength that Ruth finds in herself, her family and the small pleasures in life.

This memoir is beautifully written and Ruth captures the essence of what she was feeling and experiencing in a spine-tinglingly accurate way. My heart broke for her and her family, of the pain that she must have gone through, a pain that almost everyone will experience in their lives. I felt completely immersed into Ruth and Eric’s journey, and their suffering, whether it was in Venice or Sydney.

While Journey from Venice is a sad memoir, it is also poignant, simple and sweet. I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to read some more Australian fiction or to anyone who appreciates simple love stories that don’t always end in fireworks.

Have you read Journey from Venice? Have you heard of Ruth Cracknell? Let me know!

journey from venice by ruth cracknell

Journey from Venice – (image taken from http://www.gr-assets.com)

Book Review: The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.

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The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P, by Adelle Waldman, is kinda like a modern day High Fidelity. Except with books, instead of music, and instead of the wonderfully lovable John Cusack, we have Nathaniel, a 30 year old literary yuppie, whom you want to slap. In the face. With a chair.

Set in present day, but with multiple flashbacks, Love Affairs tells the story of Nathaniel, a 30 year old who has had his first taste of literary fame, as he remembers past relationships, and why they went wrong. The beginnings of a relationship with Hannah, a woman described as ‘smart and nice’ or ‘nice and smart’, makes Nathaniel question whether he is the ‘relationship type’.

Nathaniel is, essentially, a 21st century knob. He and his friends are the typical middle to upper-middle class type of adults who believe that the less ‘mainstream’ you are, the better. After all, it isn’t enough to be smart, attractive and successful, but you have to be interested in obscure music, literature and film to REALLY belong.

Part of me wanted to be part of Nate’s circle of friends, if only to discuss some of the wonderful ideas and theories that they discuss. I’m always up for a bit of philosophy, politics and I definitely enjoy having a chinwag with someone else about great literature. Yet…as the novel went on, I realised that Nate and his friends hide behind this facade to show that perhaps they aren’t very nice people. While it may come across as sophisticated to talk about existential and racialism, would you really want to hang out with people who are ‘above’ discussing mainstream culture, what’s been happening with your family, or even, you know, shoes. I love shoes. Would you really want to be friends with people who judge you for reading Dan Brown? If so, enjoy being surrounded by wet blankets.

Before I read this book, I noticed that most of the reviews on Goodreads were either two or four stars, with many arguing that they just couldn’t stand Nate. Which I completely understand. Nate is a white, middle-class male who believes he understands the ramifications of a sexist society, yet refuses to let his girlfriend know what he is thinking, because he is annoyed that her self-doubt makes her unsexy. He feels terrible about all the disadvantaged and homeless people living in his neighbourhood, but does nothing to help their situation. In short, Nate is a self-absorbed twat.

In saying that, I loved reading this book, partially because it was so accurate, yet so chilling, considering that it is written by a woman. I became totally absorbed in reading about Nate and his awful, yet interesting, friends and much as I hate to admit it, I think it’s because I would be somewhat dazzled by their beauty and intellect. Would I want to be friends with these people? Probably not, but I enjoyed being in their world for a few hundred pages.

Overall, the only criticism I had for this book was the ending – I thought that things turned out too smoothly for Nate, who had treated the women and the family in his life terribly throughout the entire novel. For things to end perfectly, with no lesson learnt, seemed like a let down.

If you’re into literature, High Fidelity, laughing at pretentious wankers or want to move to Brooklyn, I’d suggest reading The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. Although, ironically enough, Nate and his friends wouldn’t be caught dead with a book like this. Perfect.

 

Have you read The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P? Are you a ‘literary snob’? Let me know!

the love affairs of nathaniel p. by adelle waldman

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. – (image taken from http://www.dailymail.co.uk)

Book Review: Postcards from Surfers

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As we’ve already established that Helen Garner is basically my homegirl, or to quote Anne of Green Gables, we’re ‘kindred spirits’ (based on the one and only occasion where I have actually conversed with her). So, while I’m not a big fan of short stories, I thought I’d give her collection of short stories, titled Postcards from Surfers, a go.

Some shorter than other, some without a narrative, some without even a character’s name, all of the stories from Postcards from Surfers deal with longing, lost and sometimes grief. Sometimes for a relationship, sometimes for a person, or even for who they once were. Each of them are poignant and somehow feel very Australian. I’m definitely making a massive generalisation here, but many Australian novels from the 20th century (at least the one’s I’ve read recently) have sparse, simple writing that manages to paint an evocative picture, despite a lack of lengthy words. Postcards from Surfers is no exception to this (completely biased and made up on the spot) rule.

What I like best about Helen Garner’s writing is that she creates characters that are flawed, yet completely realistic. Not only do they feel like they are extensions of her own person, but they are created in a way so that you feel as though they are your best friend, or even yourself. Garner encapsulates the small details that make a person, the everyday aspects that we all do that all become influential to the overall storyline.

Though Postcards from Surfers isn’t as absolutely wonderful as The Spare Room or some of her non-fiction work, it was still an enjoyable read that I finished within a couple of hours. I was absorbed by the often faceless and nameless characters in her stories, and I became immersed into the Australian scenery and way of life that feature so heavily in her stories.

As an introduction to Helen Garner, I wouldn’t recommend Postcards from Surfers, but if you’re read her other books, then you will see how this one does justice to her lovely, simplistic writing. Plus, Australia! Why not, right?

Have you read anything by Helen Garner? Are you a fan of Australian literature? Let me know!

postcards from surfers by helen garner

Postcards from Surfers – (image taken from http://www.penguin.com.au)

Book Review: Wolf Hall

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Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, was kinda like one of those super serious films that won about a billion awards so you felt as though you should go to the movies and watch it. Except in the end you just sat there for the entire movie bored out of your brain, waiting for it to finish, and feeling as though more blood and guts could have livened things up for a bit. Wondering if you’re perhaps uncultured, you leave the cinema confused as to why everyone loved this film sooooo much.

This is how I felt about Wolf Hall.

Wolf Hall is a ‘historical novel’ that is unfortunately more history than it is novel. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind me a bit of history, but my knowledge of it, particularly English 16th century history, isn’t great. To put things into context of how bad I am at history, I once asked my dad (a history teacher) if Karl Marx was the unloved and unfunny third brother of the Marx brothers, thus why he created the whole communism thing (in my mind, this still makes logical sense). Anyway, I’m pretty sure my dad died a little that day. So honestly, my knowledge of Thomas Cromwell and even Henry the 8th isn’t great. So that might have been a factor into why I didn’t like Wolf Hall. In saying that, multiple friends have said they tried to read Wolf Hall and thought it was the driest thing ever, and only continued because it had won soooooo many awards.

Now in terms of writing, structure and plot development, Wolf Hall is excellent. The amount of time, effort and research I assume that Hilary Mantel put into this book is simply staggering when I give it any thought. Basically, in theory, I can see why people liked this book, and how it went on to win the Man Brooker Prize.

But. This wasn’t the book for me, and I think that mostly had to do with pacing and the subject matter. While Tudor history, and even English history itself, can be interesting, Mantel has delved further into the political aspects of the rise of Thomas Cromwell and Anne Boleyn, as opposed to the emotional or even violent nature of their actions. The result was that while there are incredible parts of the book, even more incredible when you consider they actually happened, they were lost in the sheer number of pages of political waffle that surrounded them. Instead of being appalled by Henry the 8th’s ability to fly in the face of history and the Catholic Church, I was confused as to who was right and who was wrong throughout the whole thing. While I was amazed by Anne Boleyn’s manipulative power over the most powerful person in England, I was underwhelmed by her presence in the novel.

Perhaps worst of all though, I didn’t even get to read about how Anne Boleyn or any of the other wives ended up beheaded, which is obviously the most tantalising bit of Tudor history. About halfway through Wolf Hall, I learnt that it was to be a trilogy, with all of the (hopefully) gory, and truly evil, actions to occur in the later books. How crushing.

I don’t think that Wolf Hall is a bad book, in fact I can see why it is liked by a certain type of person. But just like the Oscar-winning films from year to year, while I can appreciate their virtues, I don’t necessarily find them absorbing or entertaining. I’m willing to give anything a go in terms of reading material, but unfortunately I couldn’t get into Wolf Hall, and unless you’re a history buff or truly into politics, keep in mind that it may come across as very dry.

Have you read Wolf Hall or anything by Hilary Mantel? How good is your knowledge of Henry the 8th and his six wives? Let me know!

wolf hall by himary mantel

Wolf Hall – (image taken from http://www.d.gr-assets.com)

Book Review: Holding the Man

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Timothy Conigrave’s memoir and ‘coming-out’ story  is perhaps one of the saddest books I’ve ever read. Ever. Poignant, uplifting and heartbreaking, Holding the Man, should be a considered an Australian classic.

Holding the Man is a first person narrative of Tim’s life, beginning when he is a young teenager who falls in love with another man. Set across a 20 year period, Holding the Man follows the incredible highs and lows of Tim’s romance with fellow schoolmate, John; from coming out to their Catholic parents, being separated by distance and eventually, the devastating impact of AIDS.

When I first picked up Holding the Man, I was intrigued by it, but it wasn’t until I started reading that I realised it was a true story. This made Tim’s story all the more heartbreaking. Reading a first person account of teenage years – awkward and confusing for most – can already be sobering, not to mention confronting. Reading about how a teenage boy is going through all the highs and lows of adolescent, as well having to come out as a homosexual? Horrific. And not because of the way that Tim feels about his sexual orientation, or even the very intense feelings of love he feels for John when he is still very young, but the responses of those around him. His father doesn’t want to believe him, his mother is appalled, John’s father refuses to accept that he exists. And throughout all of this, John and Tim feel ashamed for what is perhaps the greatest thing about being a human – being in love with one another. Not only are they going through a sexual awakening, and experiencing all of the joys that we feel during our first love, but they’re not allowed to express it? It’s frowned upon for them to hold hands in public, or to show affection for one another? I know Tim’s childhood was in the 70s, but sadly that stigma still occurs in certain social circles. And that honestly just breaks my heart.

Of course, the other devastating part of Holding the Man is when Tim and John both find out that they have contracted HIV, during a time when rumours and fear are rife about what causes the disease and how it spreads. While it was horrible to hear about the drawn-out death that John endures, and which Tim has to face knowing he may too face the same ending, it is the shunning that Tim faces afterwards that is perhaps more soul-destroying. Despite being his partner for 15 odd years, Tim never gets a mention in the obituary, and it is not mentioned at the funeral that John was a homosexual man. To take away a person’s right to be acknowledged during the hardest time of their life is not only cruel-spirited and selfish, but it’s also unfair to the memory of the person who has died. Once again, while things have improved, many homosexual couples still have to endure unfair actions by others because legally they aren’t seen as partners.

Though there were aspects of Holding the Man that I didn’t agree or sympathise with, particularly Tim’s continual urge to sleep with other men, I found his writing poignant, clear and at times, brutually honest. Tim paints a wonderfully bright picture of the life he and John create for themselves in a mesmerising, loud and colourful group of people, both gay and straight, that show how wonderful a life can be if a person is accepted for who they are. Furthermore, while I may not have understood why Tim was so interested in straying from John, I found it refreshing that Tim wasn’t afraid to tell the whole story – one that didn’t always paint him in the nicest picture. Many narrators would have shied away from this.

I loved this book. While I can’t exactly resonate with the characters, their stories have stayed with me long after I finished Holding the Man. Thinking about the plight that Tim had to go through – simply to love – filled my stomach with an unidentifiable feeling in my gut – like I wanted to cry, but knew I didn’t really have the right to. That same feeling is here right now, when I consider that as beautiful as Tim’s story is, it isn’t unusual. Many people have watched their loved ones pass away from AIDS, and unfortunately, most people who come out as homosexual have to face stigma and rejection from certain people, sometimes those closest to them.

Holding the Man is a tribute to the love that Tim Conigrave felt for John and the life that they lived together. It is an memoir that throws its hands up in the air and screams ‘It’s OK to be you!’, without holding back any punches or preaching how a person should live their life. Regardless of your opinions on same-sex couples or whether you were alive when the AIDS epidemic hit, read Holding the Man to see insight to how one person lived their life and loved to the fullest.

Have you read Holding the Man or heard of Tim Conigrave? Let me know!

PS For those who were wondering, Tim passed away from an AIDS-related illness two years after John’s death, in 1994.

holding the man by timothy conigrave

Holding the Man – (image taken from http://www.images.amazon.com)

Book Review: Catch-22

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What’s the Catch?

Joseph Heller’s satirical war novel, Catch-22, reigns above all other war novels – satirical or not. Not only does he actually succeed in making World War Two funny (always a fine line), but he also poses potentially the biggest dousy of a question, one that coined the term ‘Catch-22′. So what exactly is a catch-22? In this case, it’s an American fighter pilot, Yossarian, who has to fly because he’s sane enough to know he doesn’t WANT to fly. Yet if agrees to fly, he doesn’t have to, because it proves he’s insane. To quote Heller, ‘that’s some catch…’

While the novel centres around Captain Yossarian, Catch-22 also uses each chapter as a snapshot into the lives of the men who are part of the fictional 256th Squadron on the island of Pianosa, just off of Italy. While some of the characters have the logical viewpoint of ‘war is stupid, let’s get out of here’ just like Yossarian, others, such as Miles Minderbinder, use the war as a way to make money, while others use it to enhance their position in society.

Critics have complained that Catch-22 reads as though Heller has shouted the words onto the page. While they meant that as an insult, to me it was the perfect way to encapsulate how Heller writes. Despite the length of the book, the plot resembles a ball of tangled yarn – to start any description of the character, it involves describing another, and another. To begin any sort of plot involves backtracking, or fast forwarding, usually multiple times, in snippets, before the reader is finally told what is happening in the present (which, ironically enough, is usually not much). Basically, in terms of linear structure, Catch-22 is like Pulp Fiction on speed. As a result, for the first half of Catch-22, nothing really happens, and then, BAM!, in about the last five chapters, an avalanche of catastrophes, some hilarious, some heartbreaking, all happen at once.

Out of all the books I’ve read, and I can arrogantly say that it’s a fair amount, none of them, not one, has come close to displaying such a perfect display of wit and irony. Though Catch-22 largely occurs about nothing, every sentence, every character, has obviously been thought about. And while the characters are ludicrous, the plot frequently ridiculous, and the government’s input frighteningly pointless, it all somehow speaks the terrible truth of war. While we see horrific things on the news, a large part of war is pointless, dull and stupid. Yossarian is told to fly more missions, simply because that is what he has to do. The men are told to bomb an Italian town, not because they pose any threat, but because the bomb formation will look great as a picture. And bloody Milo Minderbinder, who trades with countries throughout the world (except Russia), justifies bombing his own Squadron, alongside the Nazis, because of the revenue that he can make from it. As Minderbinder complains, war would be far easier if it was less about fighting each other and more about making money. 60 years on since the book was written, and it is still frighteningly accurate to what is happening throughout the world today.

Perhaps what is most impressive about Heller’s writing, is that while he is most definitely poking fun at those in charge, and his writing is positively dripping in satire, he also creates a story that ends on a poignant note. There is a scene throughout the book that Yossarian goes to time and again, but because of the nature of Catch-22, we don’t actually find out the whole story until right at the end. Of course, when we do, we’re reminded about the atrocities of war, and why Yossarian doesn’t want to keep fighting – because he has seen grisly death firsthand, time and again, and he doesn’t want that fate for himself.

It would be a terribly difficult task to write a satirical novel on the biggest war in history, let alone one that doesn’t piss off any countries and get banned. Oh, and is actually relevant and entertaining without being insulting to all the victims. Needless to say, there is a reason why Catch-22 continues to crop up as people’s favourite book of all time. It isn’t a particularly easy book to read, the storyline takes convoluted to whole new level, but it is a book that is both entertaining and socially relevant. If you’re at all interested in taking note about how politics works, but in a way that isn’t dry or too serious, then I’d recommend reading Catch-22. Or, you know, if you just enjoy some great irony and want a good chuckle.

Have you read Catch-22 or anything by Joseph Heller? Comical war novels – are they appropriate? Let me know!

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