Book Review: A Christmas Carol

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Since Charles Dickens is one of the most beloved authors of all time (big call, I know), I just had to finally pick up one of his books. Though it isn’t Christmas, I thought I’d start with one of his heart-warming classics, A Christmas Carol.

Everyone knows who Scrooge is. The bah humbug-ing old miser, with too much money and not enough soul, Scrooge detests Christmas and everything that it stands for. He doesn’t care that his employee is cold and poor, he doesn’t care about those who are begging on the streets – after all, what is it of his concern?

On Christmas Eve in 1843, Scrooge is visited by the rattling, chain-covered ghost of his former business partner, Jacob Marley, a man who was equally stringy and only interested in making money. He warns Scrooge that if he does not change how he lives he will become a tortured soul, destined to walk the earth for all eternity, covered in the chains of his wrong-doing. Furthermore, he warms Scrooge that he will be visited by three ghosts, who will each teach him a lesson about the importance of Christmas.

Historically, A Christmas Carol is more than simply a much-loved fable: Dickens was the first well-known author to impose his idea of a secular Christmas onto the public. Furthermore, part of his motivation behind A Christmas Carol was his own mortification that he felt in his upbringing during this time.

I decided to read A Christmas Carol first because, embarrassingly enough, it was rather short. It sounds terrible, but with formidable authors, regardless of how loved they are, I try to start with a small novel, and that way if it isn’t to my taste, I can get it over and done with quickly. I know, I know, it’s really rather shaming to admit. But, at the same time, I used that method with both James Joyce and Joseph Conrad, and thank goodness I did, because even their slim 100 page novels were tough for me to get through.

I shouldn’t have worried about Dickens – he is a superb writer and his reputation clearly reflects this. Not only is his writing classy, understated and engrossing, it also teaches important ethical and moral questions – all without being churlish. His use of symbolism is captivating – the idea of Scrooge portraying the coldness of winter, and his newfound faith in life as the beginnings of Spring – oh! I couldn’t have asked for anything more beautiful.

Perhaps what is the nicest part of Dicken’s tale is that reminds us to be warm, loving and giving around Christmas. Sure, it is a cliche and has been copied thousands of times over, but it is still a sentiment that resonates with most people. Even if we don’t have much, it doesn’t stop us from being happy or loving. And if we do have a bit more than our neighbour? Well, would it really hurt to share in what we’ve achieved? Of course not.

I can’t wait to crack open some of Dicken’s other works, and while they may be more complex, wordy or symbolic than A Christmas Carol, if they still have that certain Dickenese style about them, then I’m sure I won’t be disappointed.

Have you read A Christmas Carol? Have you read anything by Charles Dickens? Which of his novels are your favourite? Let me know!

Book Review: Money

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Martin Amis’s book, Money, is consistently reviewed positively by readers and critics alike. It is on Time Magazine’s list of the 100 Best English Language Novels from 1923 to 2005. It is universally acknowledged to be daring, destructive and utterly brilliant.

Sorry Martin Amis, but Money made me want to chew off my own arm, in want of something that was less painful than reading Money.

Set between New York and London in the 1980s, Money follows the life of hedonistic, money-obsessed John Self, an ad director who was in the midst of pre-production for his first feature length film. Self is larger than life and consumed with the need for more: more junk food, more sex, more cigarettes, alcohol and women, but most of all, more money. A satirical perspective on the consumerist nature of our society (particularly in New York in the 1980s), Amis screams at you from the pages, daring you to be affronted by this depraved universe that he has created in the eyes of John Self.

Something about Money just reeked of American Psycho. While each of the characters are wildly different (one a murderous psycho, the other just a money-driven bore), they were both obsessed with having more and appearing as though they had it all. While I’m uncertain which came first, both Easton Ellis and Amis write in a way that is sanctimonious and smug: ‘look at the excess of their lifestyles. Look how above all this I am’. Just to reinforce this, Amis even writes himself into Money, as an author who lives on the bare minimum, despite being paid thousands to be a writer.

There is no doubt that Amis is a clever writer, with a keen sense of irony and wit, yet I didn’t derive any pleasure from this. Instead of feeling included as a reader, Amis’s writing style makes you feel as though you are as bad as his protagonist, as self-absorbed. And though he does some very smart things with his writing style and his use of motif and symbolism, there was something about certain passages of the book that read as though Amis KNEW how witty he was being. I know that sounds a bit strange, but when an author tries too hard to be clever, or is too self-aware of it, it becomes too noticable as a reader. Martin Amis, great that you know how to combine irony with reflection, but I don’t need to be aware that you’re congratulating yourself, alright?

Furthermore, I didn’t enjoy being a part of John Self’s world. Not only is Money slow to start, but the extreme excess of Self’s lifestyle quickly became tedious – there is only so many passages of drunken binges, hitting on whores or getting into bar fights before it becomes all a bit, well, dull. And though I understood what Amis was trying to say through his narcissistic narrator, it didn’t compel me to keep reading. In all honesty, the only thing that kept me going was the belief that SURELY, it had to get better, right?

It didn’t.

I’m sure there are many, many Martin Amis fans out there that I would probably piss of with this book review. That’s fine. I get the impression that you either love his writing style, or you hate it. Unfortunately for me, I’m in the second category. I would love to have loved Money, to have enjoyed Amis’s distinctive writing style and unique characters, but I didn’t. If you would like to explain to me what I’m missing, seriously, please do. Until then, I would definitely not recommend this book.

 

Have you read Money? Have you read anything by Martin Amis? Can you enjoy a book even if you’re not a fan of the protagonist? Let me know!

money by martin amis

Money – (image taken from http://www.cynicalreviewer.com)

Harry Potter For The Lazy Amongst Us

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Doing the rounds the past couple of days on the Internet is a Harry Potter infograph that essentially sums up seven books (not to mention a large percentage of our childhoods), in one nifty comic-strip style infograph.

While I would much rather lock myself in my room and read the seven books from start to finish, unfortunately, life/job/uni/friends and all that other boring ‘necessary’ stuff gets between me and my Harry Potter books. So rude. So at least now I have this. Plus for those amongst us who haven’t actually read Harry Potter, well, at least now they can join in on dinner party discussions.

harry potter infograph

Harry Potter Infograph – (image taken from http://www.fastcompany.net)

Book Review: Fever Pitch

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Before I go any further, I’d like to point out that I had completely finished reading Fever Pitch, had even given it a bit of thought over the past two weeks, and only just realised, two minutes ago, that a film I had since when I was in high school…was based on this book.

In my defence, it was called The Perfect Catch and was centred around baseball. Oh, when things are Americanised and the rest of the world has no idea.

Nick Hornby‘s 1992 autobiography (of sorts), Fever Pitch, follows the life he has had as a football (or to Aussies, soccer) nut. Since he was a young boy, and his dad needed to find something they could bond over, Nick has been a mad Arsenal fan. Despite the losses, the disappointments, the football tragedies (both real and exaggerated) and the constant criticism of everyone else in the league, Nick has had a love for the sport, and for his team. While it means that he has had to decline weddings, important birthday parties, and perhaps even a career as a sportswriter, Nick swears by his team…even when they seem to continually lose.

While I have seen the film Bend It Like Beckham multiple times, and though I do understand how the offside rule works, to say I am a soccer fan would be akin to saying I know how to change a type…a lie I would only use in dire situations. In saying that, I resonated many a time with Nick Hornby as he expunged his grief, love and memories over his football team.

Here in Australia we have AFL, which for anyone who has not grown up around it, essentially looks like a shit version of football concocted by those who enjoy having a laugh. Seriously, the ball isn’t even round. Just like Nick, my parents separated when I was quite young, and I think my dad used sport as a way to bond with his two daughters. He picked tennis and football. While tennis is something I’m still a big fan to this day, it is football that has stayed with me for life…largely because I’m so scarred.

See, my dad, just like Nick’s dad, goes for a team that doesn’t win. Richmond. Oooh, they did once, or so I’m told. And while they made the finals this year, after a record-breaking nine games in a row (which actually occurred while I was reading this), they fell dismally during finals, getting completely thrashed by another team. This is only the third finals they’ve made in 17 years.

So, in a way, I could relate to Nick. Sport is frustrating, painful, agonising…but oh, isn’t it good when you win? Particularly if you go for a team that doesn’t actually win all that often? You betcha. And while I may not be the level of mad that Nick Hornby is (can you imagine not going to a wedding for a football match?) I could see why he went a bit bonkers over it. Especially when you threw in the atmosphere, habit, locals and, of course, nostalgia over time spent there with his dad.

This is the first non-fiction book I’ve read by Nick Hornby, but during my first year of uni I went on a bit of a Hornby spree and read most of his fiction stuff. While there are parallelisms between his novels and Fever Pitch (of which I refer to High Fidelity and the also obsessive view on music and records), what stands out most is his strong, tongue-in-cheek sense of humour. Nick Hornby is your classic example of dry English wit, the type of humour that invokes short bursts of laughter…even if you’re simply reading it from a page.

A 300 hundred page autobiography on a subject that I don’t know that much about could have easily been overwhelming and boring. Fever Pitch was anything but. With his usual charm, ease and cheeky sense of humour that is incredibly spot on, Nick Hornby shows the funnier side of an obsession.

Plus, it was far better than the movie. Sorry Jimmy Fallon.

 

Have you read Fever Pitch? Have you seen The Perfect Catch? Let me know!

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)

 

 

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