Sorry, Queen Rowling.

The Casual Vacancy Launch

As I’m assuming much of the novel-reading world knows, J.K. Rowling recently released her first book outside of the Harry Potter empire. The Casual Vacancy, specifically aimed at an adult audience, is about the small town politics of Pagford, England and is, to the great dismay but not surprise of all her fans, totally void of wizardry. From a woman of humble beginnings but fabulous, deserved success, we are bequeathed with what is essentially a very straight-forward book about the life and times of the English working class, the nastiest of corners included…

Although I consider myself an avid and loyal fan of the Harry Potter books and do, on the odd occasion, hope to find my mailbox stuffed with Hogwarts letters, I did not await the release of Rowling’s new work with the kind of fervour I did the final Harry Potter instalment. I braced myself for what I knew would invariably be something vastly different to the story of magic that has captured and held us all for the last fifteen years. I did not get my hopes up.

I was however, incidentally browsing through a Dymocks Bookstore in Melbourne (on a wee little holiday!) on the day of The Casual Vacancy‘s release and, having just finished reading the novel I had taken with me, I decided to deposit a little more gold into J.K.’s Gringotts vault. I bought the whopping great boulder of a book and lugged it around in my handbag for the return trip home (involving taxi, plane and bus…plenty of reading time.)

Although I had been incessantly reminding myself that this was not Harry Potter, I did expect to be entertained and interested by she who has become known as the greatest living author. I began its first page with a melange of trepidation and excitement but found myself, a three hour flight and five chapters later, quite under-whelmed. To put it bluntly, I knew at the sixty page mark that I would not at all be impressed by The Casual Vacancy. 

My very honest thoughts:

The entire spectrum of swear words and adult themes (sexuality, domestic violence, drug use and adolescent disobedience) had been either directly included or at least alluded to before I had even read my way through the first quarter. Now, I’m nineteen and am therefore no stranger to profane language and rule-bending behaviour, but I cannot say I was impressed by The Casual Vacancy‘s flood of irreverence. When it comes to the use of profanities in literary works, I personally find that less is one hundred times more – not because I’m at all bothered by it but because after you read the word ‘fuck’ twenty times, you become immune to its impact. If used only once or twice, it knocks the reader back for a moment with its poignancy and isn’t that the point of using it at all?

From my perspective, Rowling’s overuse of mature language was a blatant attempt to get her foot in the door of adult literature, to shatter her image as ‘the author of Harry Potter’ in favour of a more general ‘best-selling author’ title and to prove that she really can write outside of the children’s fiction genre. However, by using certain literary techniques for the sake of her author’s reputation rather than for the sake of serving the novel’s actual content, I found she missed the mark.

Another aspect of The Casual Vacancy that I found less than impressive was its structure: numerous characters, multiple perspectives, countless sub-plots and too grand an array of themes – all of which happened to be exhaustingly dark. The plot felt scattered and unfocused and, although many books successfully include an abundance of different characters, in this instance, I felt torn between too many perspectives and was therefore unable to ever really get into the book.

To J.K. Rowling’s credit, she did not compromise the filthy truth of lower class English life for the sake of entertainment. Exposing the dirty underbelly of small town life and politics, Rowling painted quite a shocking picture and I applaud her for her bravery and honesty. However, that’s where my praise ends.

Although I wasn’t expecting another Harry Potter, I was thoroughly disappointed by J.K. Rowling’s newest literary venture. The Casual Vacancy, for me, left much to be desired in all literary arenas, inclusive of plot, character, style and scenery. Sorry, Queen Rowling, but I simply cannot recommend your latest read.

The Nanny Diaries – A Review

The Nanny Diaries Book

Sigh. You know what they say about diving into anything with preconceived ideas…something along the lines of: you’re usually disappointed. But I had to learn that lesson for myself, didn’t I? And the Nanny Diaries sure did teach it to me. I went in with the preconceived notion that I was going to get quite a kick out of it… and, in my defence, it has been raved about, gushed about and translated onto the screen; what was I supposed to deduce from such a response? However, to my dismay, I was left pondering one particular question: where the hell did all of this novel’s accolades come from? Did its reviewers even read the book? I sound unjustly harsh, I know. I sound a little over-critical, I know. However, in all seriousness, nearly every literary facet of this book left me disappointed.

The Plot

The Nanny Diaries recounts the  journey of New York University student, Nanny, as her childcare job with the X family steadily transitions from two-day-a-week child-minding to full-time surrogate mothering. Nanny battles the elements of the Upper West Side elitist lifestyle, frantically hunting for lavender water (whatever the hell that is), steaming kale for a four year old who just wants a hot dog and searching desperately for the panties of Mr. X’s mistress before they fall into the hands of his wife. This is a book about a nanny called Nanny who hates her job with ever fibre of her being but can’t quit for her love of Grayer X, the little kid who has her by the heart strings while his mother threatens to cut them.

If you allow me to be blunt, here is my opinion of the plot: boring, repetitive and anticlimactic. Yes, there were brief moments that brought a smile to my face or had me raging at Mrs. X but as an entire novel, The Nanny Diaries was quite a dull, and therefore tiring, read. While I do value a novel that provokes me into sharing its characters’ emotions, whether they be anger, grief, hope or euphoria, I do not enjoy spending chapter after chapter in a state of incessant frustration. As a result of a very cyclical storyline, whose action sequence was void of some much needed contrast, The Nanny Diaries lacked pause for relief and quickly began to feel like one tiresome rant about the Xs.

The minor sub-plots of the story, those involving Nanny’s romance, family and friends, were neglected by the authors and remained unconcluded by the novel’s completion. I found myself frequently yearning for a chapter devoted to Nanny’s love life or her eclectic grandmother, just for a little break from the stream of employment misery.  These things did flit across the pages every now and again but not often enough to satisfactorily compensate for the childcare tedium. These facets of the storyline seemed to me to simply be strings woven into the story but left untied. As a reader, I felt no closure regarding Nanny’s relationship, nor did I feel particularly satiated by the novel’s actual ending. Sorry, The Nanny Diaries, but your plot was weak.

The Writing

I will not unfairly claim that the writing was elementary, incomprehensible or bland; I quite liked the colourful vocabulary and the frequent wit, two elements of style that brought life and texture to the novel as well as to the main character, Nanny, from whose first person perspective the story was told. Unfortunately however, that’s where my positive feedback comes to a grinding halt. It took me a full four chapters to become acquainted enough with the authors’ style to easily flow with the writing. On too many occasions, I found there to be sentences ill-formed, nonsensical or missing altogether, making it difficult to easily (and therefore enjoyably) understand Nanny’s intentions. While this sporadic and candid style of first person prose was obviously used by the authors as a method of characterising Nanny, I often felt that its effect was lost as a result of poor structure and expression. Overall, the writing was not terrible and could definitely be classed as funny and intelligent. However, I found that certain ill-formed elements of the book’s style detracted from much of the characterisation and expression.

My Conclusion

The Nanny Diaries, by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, was a book that I was quite excited to read and picked up with a cheery enthusiasm. Expecting humour, wit and warmth, I was disappointed to find myself ploughing exhaustedly through endless chapters of frustration. While the mark of a good book is the sensation of being addicted to it, I found The Nanny Diaries to almost be a chore and was quite relieved when I finally reached its closing paragraph. Although certain elements of its style and characterisation were colourful and textured, the novel as a whole is certainly not one that I would read again, nor one that I would recommend.

I’m curious however, in spite of what may seem to you to be a determinedly negative response to this book, whether you found it be at all enjoyable and what you liked and disliked about it. Do you feel I’ve been unjust in my criticisms? Would you recommend this book? Share your thoughts!

Words and ideas can change the world.

Dead Poets Society

I know, I know, Dead Poets Society is a film, not a book, but it should be at the top of your to-read list nonetheless. Starring the incredible Robin Williams and directed by Peter Weir, this 1989 film tells the story of Todd Anderson and his peers at the very strict, very up-right Welton Academy. Tradition, convention and routine are fundamental features of this boys’ boarding school, everything taught word-for-word from the textbook. In short: life is boring, school is strict and the lessons are uninteresting and uninspiring. Everything a good boys school should be, right? Not according to John Keating.

John Keating is the new English teacher. He’s been employed to teach these boys poetry and is equipped with another one of those textbooks so beloved by Welton. But John Keating does not much care for by-the-book teaching and is therefore unorthodox by Welton standards. He is different. He is odd. He is a revelation. “Carpe Diem. Seize the day. Make your lives extraordinary,” he whispers to the class. He has them listening with bated breath, engaged like no one knew was possible in a classroom setting. And he teaches them. About love, about poetry, about literature, about life, about dreams and about how all of these things intertwine.

Dead Poets Society

Dead Poets Society takes literature and words and poetry and illustrates their extraordinary power as tools of influence and growth and emotion in the lives of even the most flippant, careless and rebellious teenage boys. It demonstrates with incredible poignancy the potential for language to draw people together, transcend inhibitions and change the way things are done, thought and felt. Dead Poets Society is an intellectual and emotional feast.

If you haven’t seen it, it will change your life. If you have, do you agree?

Slaughterhouse-Five: A Review

Slaughterhouse-Five

In a word? Bizarre. Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death is a satirical novel chronicling the outlandish journey of Billy Pilgrim. Shall I illustrate just how bizarre this bizarre novel is? Take a read of its full title:

Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty Dance with Death, by Kurt Vonnegut, a Fourth-Generation German-American Now Living in Easy Circumstances on Cape Cod [and Smoking Too Much], Who, as an American Infantry Scout Hors de Combat, as a Prisoner of War, Witnessed the Fire Bombing of Dresden, Germany, ‘The Florence of the Elbe,’ a Long Time Ago, and Survived to Tell the Tale. This Is a Novel Somewhat in the Telegraphic Schizophrenic Manner of Tales of the Planet Tralfamadore, Where the Flying Saucers Come From. Peace.

Yes, that is the actual title. Shortened to Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death and frequently shortened even further to Slaughterhouse-Five, one mightn’t be quite aware of they’re getting themselves into when they first pick up Vonnegut’s highly acclaimed novel. I know I wasn’t. I bought it on the weekend when I had a couple of hours to waste and began reading it without knowing anything about its actual content. I expected a serious book that tackles heavy and confronting issues, as the shortened version of the title might suggest… but I was wrong. I was very, very wrong…

Billy Pilgrim is an American optometrist. He is an ill-prepared soldier in World War II. He is subsequently a prisoner of war. He is married to a fat woman named Valencia. He is abducted by aliens and displayed in a zoo on the planet Tralfamadore. He reads science fiction books. He wears a toga to keep warm at the prison camp. He survives an aeroplane crash. He survives the bombing of Dresden. And all of this in the present tense because time is just an illusion and every moment exists at every moment. Or so we are told by the Tralfamadorians who, incidentally, find the human capacity to only view the world in three dimensions quite comically sad.

Yes, Kurt Vonnegut is a master of the bizarre, the berserk and the bewildering. But upon finishing Slaughterhouse-Five I was struck by the realisation that although each chapter alone is entirely absurd, the book as a whole is a masterfully designed insight into humanity,  time, emotion, love, regret and the mind. Much of the outlandish content is metaphorical or intended specifically to illustrate a particular point and because Vonnegut does so with extraordinary finesse, the final result is a profound and entertaining tale.

My conclusion? Slaughterhouse-Five is an incredible literary cocktail of absurdity, existentialism, humour, insight and depth. It tackles some very heavy issues through very unconventional methods and is a classic novel that is not to be ignored. I highly recommend it.

The Catcher in the Rye: A Review

The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger, is oft considered a classic, a remarkable feat of psychological literature, a must-read. It’s a common feature of high school reading lists and with a page count just short of two hundred, is labelled as quick and easy reading. Which it is. You could plough through the entire book in a day if you really wanted to. But that’s not to say that you really do want to…

The Catcher in the Rye

I desperately wanted to like The Catcher in the Rye. It’s been sitting on my bookshelf for about four years and the number of times it’s been recommended to me is quite unbelievable. I picked it up and put it down on dozens of occasions and even began reading its first chapter a couple of times. It wasn’t until recently however, after having officially added it to me ‘Books to Read in 2012’ list, that I pulled it from my shelf with the intention of actually reaching its end.

The Writing

It cannot be denied that J.D. Salinger is an excellent writer with a flair for first person prose. His characterisation of Holden Caulfield, from whose point of view The Catcher in the Rye is told, is unfaltering; throughout the entire novel, I felt as if I were inhabiting a chamber of Holden’s mind, viewing the world through his eyes, responding to the world with the same feelings. The style is reminiscent almost of a stream-of-consciousness told anecdotally and irreverently, brimming with the 1940s’ idea of profane language and serving to poignantly illustrate the the peculiarities of Holden’s psyche. In this sense, J.D. Salinger’s novel is a literary triumph.

The Story

From the very first sentence, Salinger acquaints you with Holden’s peculiar way of thinking and from there, you’re taken on the journey of a sixteen year-old boy disillusioned by the world. You’re taken from boarding school to New York City to home. You meet a dozen different characters, some whose impacts on Holden are negative, others whose impacts on Holden are profoundly positive. You meet his friends, his teachers, his family, his girlfriends and you’re introduced to them crudely, frankly and through Holden’s very intriguing perspective. With Holden, you grow and you learn. You taste the raw and filthy underbelly of life. You contemplate the expectations that others have of you. You dapple with care and with carelessness. In its entirety, The Catcher in the Rye is the world seen through the eyes of a boy who sees differently.

My Conclusion

Though written with magnificent style, I found The Catcher in the Rye to be lacking that certain inexplicable element that earns a book a place on my favourites list. On an intellectual level, I can acknowledge that this classic novel is not only written well, but is thought-provoking, blunt and extraordinarily profound. However, I did not manage to enjoy it any more than I would have had I have been reading it simply as a school assignment. I found it tedious in places, repetitive in others and as a whole, I found it to be a slow and effortful read. At no point was I impelled to continue reading and when I finally reached its end, I felt only relief. While I wanted very much to enjoy J.D. Salinger’s famous book, I could only appreciate it academically.

The Catcher in the Rye is not what I would describe as an enjoyable book but that’s not to say that I wouldn’t recommend it to other readers. It is intriguing, provoking and frank and for those in search of a novel that explores perspective, society, insanity and the world, The Catcher in the Rye is definitely worth picking up.

For those who’ve already read it, what are your thoughts of J.D. Salinger’s novel?

The New Yorker: Juicy Journalism

The New Yorker Logo

Magazines and newspapers are quite often thought of as rather dubious forms of intellectual expression. Tabloid and gossip magazines, too often at the forefront of new stands, connote a filthy feeling of trashy paparazzi journalism, with their airbrushed cover girls and less than factual facts, casting the entire journalism industry in an unflattering and morally questionable light. Newspapers often fall into this same bracket, my own town’s daily newspaper being so often riddled with spelling and grammatical errors that it’s too nauseating to read. However, these examples, though often monopolising the journalistic limelight, are only a sliver of the news industry and if you label all magazines and newspapers as inferior publications, you are doing yourself a great disservice, depriving yourself of a cornucopia of succulent articles, reviews and reports.

For quite a while, I was of the very unjust opinion that magazines were for those who couldn’t commit themselves to an actual book. I didn’t much care to read my friends’ favourites, Girlfriend and Dolly, nor was I inclined to spend $8 reading about Kim Kardashian’s new diet. I read real books and that’s all there was to it. Recently however, I discovered the other side of the journalism coin: the very shiny side; the side with juicy content, grammatical perfection, thorough research and sublime presentation. And let me just take a moment to lament all the time I’ve spent without it…

The New Yorker magazine has become a regular must-read for me. Far from the sickeningly shallow and inaccurate likes of sleaze journalism, the New Yorker is a thoughtful, diverse and informed collection of feature articles, politics, artistic reviews, pictures, fiction and poetry. Because I was such an angelic girl in 2011, Santa Claus left an iPad 2 in my stocking and I have therefore been able to subscribe to the New Yorker’s electronic version (a postal subscription being somewhat impractical considering my living in Australia). As a glorious result, I’ve read an in depth review of Meryl Streep’s portrayal of The Iron Lady, I’ve revelled in the poetry of Leonard Cohen and I’ve even stumbled across a fascinating and extraordinarily well-informed comparison of the film and book versions of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. A worthwhile allocation of my funds? You bet.

What really does make The New Yorker a divine publication, sent straight to Earth from the gods and goddesses of journalism, is the balance it achieves between informed, intelligent, researched writing and artistic, creative, satirical presentation. More so than for its content, I think The New Yorker is famous for and instantly recognisable by its cover art. Without ever displaying the flawlessly-skinned faces of young celebrities accompanied by article tasters, The New Yorker is adorned with thematic art, tailored to reflect its major feature article or the current economic, political or social climate. Always designed with talent and cleverness, the cover art can be deeply read into and interpreted in a variety ways, though always managing to clearly communicate its general gist.

Some examples of my favourite The New Yorker covers:

The New Yorker Magazine

On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, The New Yorker shows the ghosts of the twin towers reaching downward from Ground Zero.

The New Yorker Magazine

Illustrated by Ana Juan, this cover pays tribute to fashion designer, Alexander McQueen, who committed suicide a few weeks before this cover ran. He had once created a hat designed entirely of butterflies.

The New Yorker Magazine

In commemoration of Steve Jobs' death, this cover features him at the Pearly Gates with St Peter on an iPad. Note the very demanding, hands-on-hips stance of Jobs...

The New Yorker Magazine

In celebration of the 84th Academy Awards, The New Yorker's cover is that of a group of Oscar trophies no doubt drowning their sorrows as would the unsuccessful artists.

The New Yorker magazine saved the entire journalism industry from my to-avoid list of literary forms and I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in in-depth and thoughtful articles about politics, the world and the arts. Should you not find its feature articles of great consequence, at least you’ll be entertained and intrigued by its cover art, its poetry, its fiction examples and its commentary on the art scene. Impeccable writing, thoughtful content and witty illustrations…what more could a nerd want?

Julie and Julia: a book of profanity, hilarity and insanity

Julie and Julia Book

Julie and Julia is a memoir by the very Julie of the title, Julie Powell, and is aptly subtitled ‘My Year of Cooking Dangerously’. Julie Powell is ‘pushing thirty’ (as she is so infuriatingly often reminded), living in the crappiest of crap apartments in New York and barely coping with the mind-numbing inanity of her secretarial job. She is bored, depressed and quickly becoming fearful of how quickly time is slipping away while she continues to do nothing of note or satisfaction…but while on a parental visit to Texas, she stumbles across one of her mother’s very old and majestic-looking cookbooks, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume I, by Julia Child. And suddenly…the project is born.

Sunday, August 25, 2002

The Book:
Mastering the Art of French Cooking. ” First edition, 1961. Louisette Berthole. Simone Beck. And, of course, Julia Child. The book that launched a thousand celebrity chefs. Julia Child taught America to cook, and to eat. It’s forty years later. Today we think we live in the world Alice Waters made, but beneath it all is Julia, 90 if she’s a day, and no one can touch her.

The Contender:
Government drone by day, renegade foodie by night. Too old for theatre, too young for children, and too bitter for anything else, Julie Powell was looking for a challenge. And in the Julie/Julia project she found it. Risking her marriage, her job, and her cats’ well-being, she has signed on for a deranged assignment.

365 days. 536 recipes. One girl and a crappy outer borough kitchen.

How far will it go? We can only wait. And wait. And wait…..

The Julie/Julia Project. Coming soon to a computer terminal near you.

The Story

I found the true story of Julie’s absurd endeavour to cook her way through an entire cookbook to be funny, touching, inspiring and easily related to. She cooks and she blogs and that’s all there is to it. But her misfortune, her tendency to be melodramatic, her constant hysteria and the absurdity of her life make her story so very readable. Being a little bit overdramatic myself (only very occasionally, of course…), I couldn’t help but envision myself as Julie during her tantrums, throwing cookware and sobbing irrationally. Perhaps that’s why I enjoyed the book so much… I saw a lot of my own character flaws in Julie and the fact that she managed to channel hers into a book-worthy project is comforting to me; she gives me a little hope when in the midst of one of my ‘Oh Lord, I’m Too Insane For Life’ panics. I loved the book, I loved Julie and I loved her journey. I was at once entertained and inspired and what a wonderful combination that is!

The Writing

I can say without exaggeration or hesitancy that this book is the funniest I’ve ever read. I found it so amusing in fact that I began to attract the stares of strangers; while reading it in coffee shops and waiting rooms, I would suddenly burst out in hysterical laughter and be unable to control myself…I think you can imagine just the kind of sideways glances that I received. Julie Powell’s writing is a style of its very own: shockingly profane, sidesplittingly witty and endearingly self-deprecating. Every page contains half a dozen expletives but I didn’t find it at all vulgar, simply expressive. You cannot help but laugh out loud at some of the things she comes out with. The entertainment value of her writing however, is not its only appeal; Julie writes fluently, effectively and with a firm understanding of the conventions of good writing. In my humble opinion, Julie Powell achieved the ultimate balance between colloquial, flexible expression and intelligent, well-constructed writing.

My Conclusion

I loved this book but I don’t think it’s everybody’s cup of literary tea. I personally found it to be the perfect antidote to my cripplingly foul mood and was simultaneously uplifted, amused and inspired. But given my twisted sense of humour and my ability to relate to her insanity and melodrama, I can acknowledge that I may have enjoyed this book more than the average reader might. Nonetheless, I do recommend it as the perfect cure for a bad mood and as a surprisingly inspirational read.

Julie and Julia Film

Fun Facts Just For Fun

There is now (as you probably already know) a movie based on this book, starring Amy Adams as Julie Powell. My two fun facts are:

  1. In the book, Julie mentions Meryl Streep in passing, who eventually played Julia Child in the movie.
  2. In the book, Julie Powell also mentions in passing Stanley Tucci, who eventually played Julia Child’s husband, Paul, in the movie.
Coincidence?