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.

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?

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?

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde…is indeed very strange.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’, by Robert Louis Stevenson, is a midget of a novel with a grand total of a mere 90 pages. But said anorexia is deceptive for within the paperback binding is a deliciously chunky stew of suspense, excitement, intrigue and horror. You may think that I’ve been living under a colossal boulder for previously having no idea as to the actual storyline of this classic tale but quite frankly, I’m deeply appreciative of this former ignorance because, as a result, I was able to truly and thoroughly enjoy the suspense and excitement of Stevenson’s thriller. I loved it.

In an almost murder-mystery style of prose, ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ follows a conservative lawyer, Mr Utterson, and the journey of his relationship with long time friend and client, Dr Jekyll. However, as quickly becomes apparent, all is not as it should be and Mr Utterson soon finds himself becoming deeply unsettled by the bizarre acquaintanceship of his friend and another, more sinister fellow by the name of Mr Hyde. Things are a’happening on the dreary, smoky streets of London and as the true, chillingly dark colours of Mr Hyde are displayed through a handful of horrifying events, the reputations and safeties of Dr Jekyll, Mr Utterson and the inhabitants of London are thrown into jeopardy, prompting drastic action. But very soon, Mr Utterson will become learned of the true nature of the behind-closed doors business of his friend…

I loved ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ for two reasons. Firstly, this suspenseful, well-constructed little tale had me chilled to the bone, hanging on for more and searching the abyss that is my mind for any conclusions as to the goings-on of the novel. In short, it was a fun and exciting read. The second reason for my love of this petite thriller was its metaphorical undertones. Right up until the very last chapter, I would never have guessed that I would be provoked into meaningful thought, but I was. Good versus evil, dark and light and the very double-natured state of humanity all become very prominent themes by the novella’s end and let me just say that Stevenson did a sterling job of concocting a thematically metaphorical tale while remaining true to the essence of a thriller.

I would recommend this book to anyone who a) wants to read a fun and exciting thriller, b) wants to read a classic but isn’t ready to commit to four hundred pages of Austen, c) wants a fun tale laced with a little moral metaphor or d) anyone at all who hasn’t read it. I commend you, Robert Louis Stevenson, for you scared me, excited me, intrigued me and even made me think a little bit.

Travelling ‘The Road’ as a cinephile

The Road FilmHaving recently read the ‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy, I decided to watch the film version, intrigued by how one might go about translating McCarthy’s powerful words to the screen. Directed by John Hillcoat and featuring Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee as the father and son, the film version of ‘The Road’ promised to be a vivid reflection of the book with its bleak, grey and stormy film poster. The truth is however, that this poster is probably the very best aspect of the film. For me, a major let-down. 

I will not deny that the scenery and cinematography were well produced to mirror the bleak and frightening atmosphere of the book; the professionals behind these aspects of the film did a stellar job of setting a post-apocalyptic scene. However, that’s where the positive attributes ended for me.

The acting, the casting, the tension, the structure and the general focus of the film were all disappointing and by no means did the book the justice it deserves. McCarthy’s best-seller focuses predominantly on the relationship between man and boy, father and son; the brutality, fragility and strength of unconditional love and the measures one takes to protect and guide the beholder of one’s heart. For me, the book’s naked and poignant illustration of this very theme was the key to its success. The makers of the film however, didn’t quite seem to understand where the focus ought to be. John Hillcoat’s interpretation was a messy mixture of father and son, husband and wife, then and now and thereby distracted from the powerful journey of man and boy.

The acting was also, in my opinion, sub-par. Kodi Smit-McPhee, as a thirteen year-old, can obviously not be expected to deliver an Oscar-worthy performance, but that said, I was still not impressed. Nor was I pleased by Viggo Mortensen’s portrayal of the father. The two together did not at all create a sense of family love with many of the moving lines that I remembered from the book delivered in such a way as to hardly convey their intended poignancy and weight, leaving me almost entirely unaffected. The only time throughout the film that I felt myself provoked was upon seeing a couple of the more disturbing images that, it must be said, had nothing to do with the acting or the relationships.

In retrospect, I wouldn’t label the film as ‘terrible’ or ‘disastrous’ and can acknowledge that others may have greatly differing opinions of it to me, but I cannot at all say that I enjoyed it. Though the basic storyline remained relatively true to the book, the essence of McCarthy’s message was lost and in my opinion, that is a tragedy. The book version of ‘The Road’ is a magnificent and thought-provoking read, one that I recommend to everyone. The film however, is not.

Let me know what you think of the book, the film and how you would compare the two!

‘The Road’ – a journey with Cormac McCarthy

The Road Cormac McCarthy

Last week I was perusing the shelves of an acquaintance’s personal library that I’d define as an amalgam of thriller, mystery, crime and action novels, predominated by the works of Daniel Silver, Lee Child and James Patterson. I came across one book among the many however, that didn’t quite fit in with its neighbours: The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I’d heard of this book of course, there now being a ‘major motion picture’ of it, but I’d never really taken much of an interest in it and therefore knew little to nothing about it.

Aside from the blurb, the back cover showcased an impressive collection of review exerts from major global publications, all commending McCarthy on this literary triumph.

“Consistently brilliant.” – The New York Times

“Wildly powerful.” – Time

“The writing throughout is magnificent.” – Chicago Sun Times

And so, I decided to read it. I wonder, why has nobody ever recommended this book to me? To describe it in a handful of words: intriguing, sobering, chilling, heart-warming and heart-breaking.

The Story

‘The Road’ will break your heart, warm your heart, soften your heart, harden your heart and make your heart skip a beat or twenty. A searing, post-apocalyptic tale of father and son, the book is essentially an exploration of the heart, the mind, human instincts, the mentality of survival and the nature of unconditional love. Without ever mentioning the names of the two main characters, nor the names of any countries, towns or dates, McCarthy very powerfully strips his book of superficial distractions and thereby creates a timeless, focused and naked tale of love.

The Writing

The first thing you notice when you begin reading McCarthy’s highly acclaimed best-seller is the complete and total lack of chapter titles and quotation marks. At first, I found this slightly off-putting, as the descriptions and the direct speech wove in and around each other seamlessly, standing in stark contrast to the highly punctuated literature that I’m used to. But once immersed in the story and flowing easily with its rhythm, I found that this style of writing served to accentuate the story’s themes of sparsity, simplicity, bare survival and unadulterated love.

In addition to this very daring and clever bastardisation of the traditional narrative, I can confidently say that McCarthy has an astounding command of the English language, exercising his knack for vividness and poignancy throughout ‘The Road’. While some paragraphs were purely for the sake of reporting action, others were dedicated entirely to intense, moving and thought-provoking contemplations, delving into the very fragile psyches of the post-apocalyptic mind.

My Conclusion

‘The Road’ was a spontaneous read for me and perhaps that’s why I enjoyed it so much; I was free from preconceived notions of its content, style or calibre. I read it without knowing anything about it and I loved it. Never before had I read a book of such style and simplicity, finding myself at first disconcerted but soon intensely moved and rapt. Without the clutter of your traditional narrative, Cormac McCarthy very effectively focuses ‘The Road’ on a handful of absorbing, provoking and affecting themes and had me, by its end, in a state of deep contemplation. He simultaneously broke and warmed my heart and although I wouldn’t add ‘The Road’ to my favourites list, I would definitely recommend it as a quick, wonderful and profound read.