Book Review: We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves

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Karen Joy Fowler’s latest book, We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves (a title I routinely forgot, even while I was reading it), is an easy, compelling read that is somehow breaking the illusion that ‘award’ books have to be literary tomes. See, We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves is up for the 2014 Man Booker Prize, a prize that is considered one of the very best that an author can win.

For me, when I think of the Man Booker Prize, I think of Hilary Mantel and Wolf Hall. This is not a compliment to the Man Booker Prize. Sure, I have also enjoyed Life of Pi, which won the award a few years ago, but both aren’t exactly ‘light reading’. So I was pleasantly surprised when this quirky, off-beat novel, which I had randomly decided to pick up at the bookstore, was in the running for such a prestigious award. Quirky, off-beat novels for the win!

I should point out that I haven’t actually READ any of the other books that are nominated, so my opinion may be slightly biased, but really, has that ever stopped me judging before?

We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves is a bit of a mystery: Rosemary has a story to tell, but she’s going to start in the middle. Rosemary used to be an outgoing and outspoken child; now, she has to be prompted to speak. So what was it that made her change so completely? Is it her missing brother, who is wanted by the FBI? Is it her painful relationship with her father, whom she loathes to spend time with? Or is it her sister, Fern, who the family refuses to speak about, but explains so much about Rosemary’s upbringing?

To give away any more of the plot would be to give away one of the biggest twists in the story (although, I will admit, it seems pretty obvious after you’ve been told). Though We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves (shortened to WAACBO, because I’m lazy and I quite like how WAACBO sounds) reads like a light-hearted comedy, it unfolds almost like a mystery, which brilliantly keeps the reader wanting more. Who is Fern? Where is she? What happened in Rosemary’s childhood? Needless to say, this is a page-turner, and if you have the time, then you will very quickly demolish this book like I did.

The charm in WAACBO is its off-beat nature: the storyline isn’t linear, but that only adds to its uniqueness; Rosemary, at times, isn’t the most lovable protagonist, but you are amused by her quirk; and though the crescendo of the story doesn’t happen at the end, you’re still compelled to read right through to the last page. And this is all thanks to Fowler’s ability to write a quite confronting story in a way that is light-hearted and amusing. What could easily have run out of her control, become jumbled, or quite honestly, turn into an absolute tear-jerker, is a warm, friendly novel that invites you in to join in on the fun.

In a way, WAACBO, is a book of juxtapositions: it is up for a prestigious literary award, yet it would be accessible to almost any reader; it is an easy page-turner, yet the non-linear plot line is exceedingly complex; it follows a deeply troubled protagonist with a gut-wrenching past, yet it is light and witty. The result? A wonderful read that shows that a novel doesn’t have to be ‘hard to read’ or high literature to be a great book. Regardless of whether it wins the Booker Prize, I would highly recommend this book. Perfect for a lazy weekend or a trip to the beach, We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves, will not disappoint.

Just make sure to stay away from any spoilers.

 

Have you read We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves? Have you heard of Karen Joy Fowler? Will you read any of the other nominations for the Man Booker Prize? Let me know!

we are all completely besides ourselves by karen joy fowler

We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves – (image taken rom http://www.themanbookerprize.com)

Book Review: How We Are Hungry

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How We Are Hungry is a collection of short stories by acclaimed author, publisher and all-round over-achiever, Dave Eggers. Although to say Dave Eggers is an over-achiever is, somehow, an understatement. He became the custodian of his younger brother when he was still only 21, after his parents both passed away; his first book, a memoir, which describes the experience, went on to be a finalist for the Pulitzer prize; he started the independent publishing house McSweeney’s, which also pumps out a literary magazine every three months; he was the co-founder of the literacy project 826 Valencia (which is now worldwide); and he was the founder of ScholarMatch.

Now that we’re up to speed, you’ll probably understand why I realised it was high time that I actually read one of Egger’s book. Luckily for me, How We Are Hungry was at the book store for the low price of $10. Even better, it was an enticing, electrifying read, which says a lot, because I’m not usually a fan of short stories.

Some only a few pages long, some far longer, and one memorable story that is simply a few bare pages, How We Are Hungry is just the right side of eccentric: though it uses odd narrative devices, it changes from first to third person perspective, and it has a moral undertone that is reminiscent of a fairytale.

Often set in exotic locations, including Tanzania, Scotland and Costa Rica, my favourite part about the stories in How We Are Hungry is their ability to set the scene and encapsulate the feeling of a place in so few pages. Frequently, I feel as though I finish a short story without it ever starting, but this wasn’t the case in any of Dave Egger’s stories. Instead, in as little as 10 – 20 pages, I created a bond with the character, and what’s more, I felt saddened to leave the little world they’ve created (particularly in Costa Rica, because who wouldn’t want to be transported there?).

Overall, How We Are Hungry is an enticing glimpse into the imagination of Dave Eggers. With fluid, descriptive writing, How We Are Hungry has only encouraged me to read more of his work – particularly some of his longer pieces. Until then, I will simply have to feel like an underachiever (in more ways than one).

 

Have you heard of Dave Eggers? Have you read How We Are Hungry or any of his other stories? Let me know!

how we are hungry by dave eggers

How We Are Hungry – (image taken from http://www.albany.edu)

Book Review: This House of Grief

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This House of Grief is the highly anticipated new release by Helen Garner (aka my homegirl, she who I have written about numerously in the past). Of course, I pre-ordered it so that I could my hands on it as soon as possible (ah, the life of a book nerd). So, not only was it a first edition novel that was signed (signed!) by Ms Garner herself, but I also got to see her discuss her book at the Melbourne Writers Festival (where I was a volunteer. Refer to book nerd comment above).

This House of Grief follows the case and subsequent trials of Robert Farquharson, a name that resonates with most Australians, but is probably unfamiliar to those of you overseas. In 2005 on Father’s Day, Farquharson drove his three sons into a dam and they all drowned. He survived and claims that he blacked out from a coughing fit. Many believe that he did it as a form of revenge against his ex-wife.

This isn’t a case that ‘divided a nation’, but it was one that was so notorious that many refused to discuss it, or simply swept it away, as though it were too awful to contemplate. The idea of children suffering a very premature death is terrible enough, but the idea that it was through the revengeful acts of their father? Needless to say, after he was convicted, few felt sorry for the man.

This is the trial that Helen Garner covers in her latest book, This House of Grief. In an unbiased, thoughtful tone, she describes the scene as it occurred, the subsequent trials and re-trials that followed, and the emotions that not only she felt through the entire process, but the emotions that others felt around her; journalists, friends, even those who she barely knew.

Helen Garner is considered one of the most iconic writers in Australia. And she knows it. She came into my work late last year, and I asked her what she was working on; she responded with this book, but ruefully admitted that another writer had just released a book on the same topic. I responded that, what did it matter, hers would be better, as she was Helen Garner!

Her response? ‘Yeah, you’re probably right.’

Yet although she is such a prolific writer, opinions are very divided about her: you either think she is the greatest Australian author living, or you think she deserves to keep her thoughts and opinions to herself. While I was reading This House of Grief, I couldn’t help but think, multiple times, that ‘un-Garner fans’ would not be happy.

In a way that is similar to a narrator starring in her own documentary, Garner has a way of inserting herself into the story (whether fiction or non-fiction), so that you see things from her perspective. Yet at the same time, she tries to stay unbiased – rather, she presents all the facts on the table, and sees things from a compassionate point of view, without anger. While this is usually highly applauded in narrators, I can see why so many people would be infuriated that she talks about the empathy and pity that she feels for this man…a man who has been sentenced to life for killing his three sons.

I love Helen Garner’s writing because it’s human and it’s painfully truthful – we all have thoughts, beliefs and emotions that sometimes we’re not proud of. It may be flashes of anger at a loved one (when they really don’t deserve it), it might be doubt when everyone else believes, or it may even be a stomach-twinge as you watch a man cry over the death of his children, even if he is responsible for his death.

More than that those, Helen Garner’s writing is so beautifully written: each line, each detail added paints an extra emotion into the landscape of her novel, all without coming across as trite, overly emotional or even as an obvious literary device. There’s a scene in This House of Grief, where she describes the boys’ grave, and she adds that it includes a golden Bob the Builder. Is this anything else, so subtle, so heart-wrenching, that could describe how wrong it was that these boys died?

This House of Grief is well-written, succinct, beautifully told and, as always, unerringly honest. It isn’t as nuanced as her other non-fiction books (particularly Joe Cinque’s Consolation), but is still an absorbing read that I knocked back in less than three days (when really, I should have been studying). For Australians, I think it is a book that will resonate with a lot of us, and for those who are overseas, if you’re able to get your hands on a Helen Garner book, then I’d really recommend reading it!

 

Have you read anything by Helen Garner? Do you remember the Robert Farquharson case? Are we allowed to admit feeling empathy towards a criminal? Let me know!

this house of grief by helen garner

This House of Grief – (image taken from http://www.cloudfront.net)

 

 

Film Review: Magic in the Moonlight

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I like Woody Allen films. There, I’ve said it. Particularly in the past twelve months, heaps of people have come under flak for admitting that they like his films – unsurprising, since Dylan Farrow last year accused him of molesting her when she was a child. Though he wasn’t formally charged, and refused to acknowledge the allegations, the fact that he married his step-daughter already had a lot of people raising eyebrows.

While I can understand why people would want to boycott his films, when possible I try to separate the artist and the artist’s work, so to speak. I don’t encourage criminals who make an income from their crimes (which, now that I think about it, is actually against the law), but currently Woody Allen hasn’t been charged with anything illegal. Guilty until proven innocent, right?

Plus, if I’m completely honest, then I’ll also admit to loving both Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck – one who was an angry drunk who cheated on his wife, the other who was a racist who once said that Arabs were the dirtiest thing on the planet. Needless to say, neither of them have traits that I aspire to. Yet, because of their brilliant writing, I can’t help but read their books.

Now that I’ve given this review a somewhat lengthy intro, as a way to warn people that yes, I do like Woody Allen, I’ll formally begin by saying that last week, I saw Magic in the Moonlight, starring Colin Firth and Emma Stone, and I absolutely loved it. Critics may be lukewarm about it, but damn, it was one of my favourite films of the year. Plus, critics have never stopped me before.

Set in the 1920s, Colin Firth plays a magician, Stanley, who masquerades as the famous Wei Ling Soo (I’m going to hope that Woody Allen was being racist solely as a reflection of the times), while also debunking fraudulent psychics. When his friend and fellow magician, Howard, asks for his help to unmask a young psychic, Sophie (Emma Stone), Stanley immediately sets off for the south of France to do what he does best – bring the cold, harsh reality to those who have been fooled. Only problem is, the more time he spends with Sophie, the more uncertain he is about reality and he begins to question what he never believed possible – can magic really exist?

The magic in Magic in the Moonlight largely references the magic that occurs between Stanley and Sophie, yet while both of the actors are personable, charming and very attractive, it is still a bit creepy when you consider that Colin Firth is 53, while Emma Stone is 25. Extra creepy when you realise this closely resembles Woody Allen’s real-life marriage. Oh well. For the sake of the movie, I tried to put this out of my head, and for the most part I could.

The best bits about Magic in the Moonlight are the cinematography, the costumes, the lighting – basically everything about how the film looks. The scenery, set in the south of France, is achingly beautiful, and it is only improved by the chateau that the film is set in, complete with ocean views, sweeping lawns and a gasp-inducing garden. Topped with multiple scenes that showcase roads along cliff faces, the film couldn’t have been shot in a place more beautiful.

What really captured the feel of the film was the gorgeous outfits, as the 1920s seemed to excel in, combined with natural light that Allen obviously used to his advantage. The overall feel was a relaxing, romantic time and place, where things weren’t stressful or hurried, and pleasures were the main concern. Take me there, please!

While some critics have said that the storyline was a little ‘too light’ compared to other Allen films, I thought it charming and entertaining. Yes, it was relatively light, but that didn’t stop it from including beautiful gems that were just on the right side of sentimental, sarcastic one-liners and a smooth plot line that seemed neither hurried, nor dull. In short, it was exactly the type of thing one would expect from a Woody Allen film, based in the south of France, centred around love. Plus, despite their age difference, who doesn’t love watching a film that has both Colin Firth and Emma Stone, who are not only great actors, but seem to have that undefinable feature of always being likeable, attractive and charming, regardless of what their character is doing?

In short, I loved this film. It was smart, witty, charming and very likeable. The look and feel of the film, coupled with accomplished actors and a pleasant storyline lead to a blissful way to spend two hours on my Friday night. If you’re after something light and entertaining, that is still of a very high quality, then I’d recommend Magic in the Moonlight.

 

Have you seen Magic in the Moonlight? Are you a fan of Woody Allen’s films? Have you started boycotting them after what has been reported in the media? Let me know!

 

Book Review: In the Winter Dark

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Tim Winton is basically a superstar in terms of Australian literary history. Every time he writes a book, the Miles Franklin judges are practically like ‘Oh, Tim, just take the award. Just take it!’ If this were high school (and we lived in America), Tim Winton would be the cool, drama kid who reluctantly accepts the award of prom king, after turning up to the event as an ironic statement about the bourgeoisie society that we live in.

Essentially, Tim Winton is that hipster on Brunswick Street (non-Melburnians, I recommend you Google that one) that you kinda don’t want to like, but you do, because he’s so cool. And just to cement that theory, I just Googled Tim Winton, and the first photo that shows up is him, with long hair and a black turtleneck. Cliche fulfilled.

Aside from all this though, up until recently I hadn’t read any Tim Winton books. Which is weird for two reasons (aside from my above ramblings): first, practically every ‘literary’ person in Melbourne appears to have read Cloudstreet and loved it, and second, up until 30 seconds ago when I Google’d him, I’d pictured Tim Winton as an exact replica of my high school English teacher. Who I’d loved, because, hello, English nerd.

So, obviously, I decided enough was enough and I had to change that. Earlier this year, I woefully admitted that my knowledge of Australian authors was terribly inadequate, and that I needed to make a change. While I’ve read some Ruth Park and Timothy Conigrave since that statement, it wasn’t until about a week ago that I picked up Tim Winton’s In the Winter Dark. Lo and behold, like many Australian classics, it’s set in the lonely outback, with a black centre at its core.

In the Winter Dark follows the lives of four near-strangers who live in the Sink, a lonely valley in the outback. Though they are neighbours, they seldom interact with one another, and each has a dark secret in their past. One evening, Murray’s dog is killed and eaten by an unknown figure, and Ronnie’s goat and birds are completely torn apart. What thing in the night is literally pulling apart their lives? Could it be an errant animal, fuelled by years of isolation and evolution? Or is it just a way to trick one another, as part of an elaborate and cruel prank, while someone watches from the sides?

A short novel, In the Winter Dark is one of those rare novels that goes from first to third person perspective without causing any strain or confusion for the reader. Winton has a sparse, strangely emotionless way of writing, that still manages to capture the reader’s attention. Though he isn’t over the top with adjectives, and his descriptions are left to a bare minimum, I felt oddly as though I could picture the loneliness of the Sink, and of the heart-wrenching, confusing emotions that are gathering momentum inside each of the characters.

Considering that there are so few characters, and essentially the one scene throughout the novel, Winton has done a captivating job of creating a story that is thick with nuances, tensions and emotions. He is the epitome of a writer who ‘shows, but doesn’t tell’ – he somehow leads the reader to do all of the work, often without us realising it. Cheeky! This sparse writing also fuelled the plot of the story, which hinted at so much, while revealing very little.

In the Winter Dark is a perfect thriller – one that keeps you guessing, while building to a crescendo that you know isn’t going to end well. It isn’t black and white, and though it may be slightly frustrating to end the book without definitive answers, it also means that you’re left pondering the themes in the novel for days afterwards. Screaming with literary motifs and clues, its overt plot repetitively points to the hazier, indistinguishable emotions that are inside each of the characters.

 

I would definitely recommend In the Winter Dark, and after reading it, I will admit that I feel like a bit of a dill for not picking up one of Tim Winton’s books earlier. Apparently, sometimes if everyone is reading it, it IS because it’s a good book! Other times, not so much.

Have you read In the Winter Dark? Have you read any of Tim Winton’s books? Let me know!

in the winter dark by tim winton

In the Winter Dark – (image taken from http://www.musingsofaliterarydilettante.files.wordpress.com)

Book Review: The Forever Girl

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The Forever Girl is the latest offering by best-selling author Alexander McCall Smith, who apparently, is not only one of the few male authors who attempts ‘chick lit’, but he’s also highly successful while doing so. In all truthfulness though, I’d only recently heard of him, and until now had never read one of his books. Either I’m not his target market, or I’ve been living under a rock.

The Forever Girl is a novel that spans over twenty years, telling the story of Clover, a girl who meets and falls in love with the man of her dreams, James, when she’s only four years old. Only problem is, he doesn’t appear to reciprocate. They’re childhood best friends until hormones, school and sheer distance come between them. Spanning The Caribbean, Australia and the UK, Clover follows James, and her heart, to give love one last shot.

While the relationship between Clover and James is the central plot of The Forever Girl, there’s also a secondary plot – one that follows the love that Clover’s mum, Amanda, and James’s dad have together. Though neither give into their feelings (they’re both married) their yearning and unspoken love for one another acts as a pantomime of Clover and James’s relationship.

WARNING: While I usually try to avoid it, to review this book I’ll be giving away some spoilers.

The Forever Girl was a fun, enjoyable read that I consumed in only a couple of days. It was lovely and breezy, with likeable characters and exactly the book I needed, after slogging my way through On The Road. McCall Smith is clearly an experience writer who knows his target audience and what they expect from his plots. His writing style is so perfectly tuned that it was even quite obvious when he was providing visual clues that reflected the plot. In short, I really liked this book.

But I found the ending disappointed, and I found the two lead characters frustrating. Essentially, The Forever Girl follows Clover as she tries again and again to get over James. She knows she should move on from him, but she can’t. She tries dating another man for years (never a good idea), and yet she still can’t get over him. In short, the entire novel is of her yearning to be James, yet never being courageous enough to actually tell her how she feels.

And then, while the reader has clearly been waiting the entire novel for it to happen, James declares his love to Clover. Doesn’t explain why now, or why is he even telling her now, it’s just BAM, I love you, and then the book is completed two pages later. And as a reader, I just felt that this was an absolute cope out by McCall Smith, and without an explanation, it soured the entire novel.

Why, after all, was James telling Clover only now that he had feelings for her? If he has always been in love with her (as he announced he did), why was he calling her ‘sister’? Why didn’t he actually contact her or provide her with an email address when she asked for it? And dear god, how on earth can two people go twenty years knowing one another, yet both being too afraid to tell each other how they feel – or even, just flirt a little? I mean, I was happy and relieved when they got their happy ever after (even if I was jibbed a lovely big finale), but I got so frustrated with Clover that I almost felt she didn’t deserve it.

I did enjoy this book. It is the perfect ‘too tired to think, just want to relax’ type of book. It would be wonderful to read by a pool or on the beach. While I wasn’t particularly happy with the ending, I still enjoyed McCall Smith’s writing style. I would definitely pick up one of his other books, and if you want something that is carefree and predicable, then I recommend you do too (although you probably have, with over 20 million copies sold).

Have you read anything by Alexander McCall Smith? Have you read The Forever Girl? Can a man successfully write Chick Lit? Let me know!

the forever girl by alexander mccall smith

The Forever Girl – (image taken from http://www.blogspot.com)

Book Review: On The Road

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On The Road by Jack Kerouac is universally regarded as ‘the’ novel of the Beat generation. Echoing Kerouac’s own life, filled with writing, booze, drugs and travel, On The Road is the original salute to living life without a damn, and without thinking of the consequences.

Sal Paradise is an author writing in his first manuscript, living with his aunt in New York. Then, he meets con man and fellow beatnik, Dean Moriarty, and decides to travel cross country to San Francisco. No money, no plans, no worries. Hitch-hiking across the continent, Paradise meets and falls in love with a girl, destroys a friendship, gets a job as a night watchmen and never even meets up with his mate Moriarty.

And that’s just the first trip across the country, of which there are several.

On The Road is considered an iconic example of roman a clef, using fiction to mask the real lives that Kerouac (Paradise), Allen Ginsberg (Carlo Marx) and William S. Burroughs (Old Bull Lee) led. While this is the first Kerouac novel that I’ve read, I’ve come across him before in other books – notably in Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels.

I can see where On The Road would be a cult classic, beloved by a certain type of person and reader. In terms of quality, it is a fantastic book. Kerouac captures the essence of the Beat generation, the feel of poverty and travel, the debauchery rakishness of his main characters. His richly painted scenes of American countryside, particularly towards the end in Mexico, were vivid, colourful and engrossing.

Yet I didn’t like this book.

I just couldn’t stand Sal Paradise and his mates. While the reality of getting drunk, sleeping with women, travelling the country, all sounds great, as a reader I just felt as though it was all utterly, totally pointless. Paradise goes across the country only to curse San Francisco and to return home, with his tail between his legs. Then, bam, off he goes again, not once, but twice. And each time that he travels he isn’t prepared, he has no money, he stresses that he won’t be able to eat.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there are definitely people out there that would read On The Road and envy Sal Paradise’s lifestyle. I’m not one of those people. And while I usually love reading stories from the perspective of a character whose life is so far removed form mine (isn’t that the purpose of reading, after all?), I was just overcome by the absolute pointlessness of Sal’s character. What is he trying to prove? What he is trying to achieve? Why am I being carried along beside him, as a reader, only to find that he is doing the same nothingness with his life over and over? What has changed from the beginning and the end of his story?

Overall, I can see why Jack Kerouac’s On The Road is considered a classic, but it wasn’t the book for me. I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad book, but it contained characters that I couldn’t relate to, and their stories just seemed uninteresting and pointless. However, I know that this is a beloved novel by a lot, so if you would like to prove me wrong, please don’t hesitate.

Have you read On The Road or anything by Jack Kerouac? Are you a fan of the Beat generation? Let me know!

on the road by jack kerouac

On The Road – (image taken from http://www.happyybrown.files.wordpress.com)

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