Sunday, August 5, 2012

MY SISTER LIVES ON THE MANTLEPIECE/Annabel Pitcher


Jamie's older sister Rose haunts the family from the mantelpiece in this hard-hitting children's novel. She lives there. She's spoken to, she's offered food and she even manages to buy her family gifts. But Rose is dead. In fact, she was killed in a terrorist attack 5 years previously and Jamie can barely remember her - let alone cry for her. In contrast, Jamie's parents' inability to let her go eventually tears the family apart. Mum walks out, Dad drinks to forget and Jamie and Rose's remaining twin Jasmine are left desperately trying to patch their lives back together.

My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece is an honest and unsentimental portrayal of an imperfect family struggling to come to terms with the death of a child. It's telling that this children's book feels more authentic than the majority of popular adult 'tragic lit' titles (or whatever Waterstones are labelling them as this year). Far from featuring stock, dependable adult characters, in Pitcher's world grief has made children out of the adults and adults of the children.

Jamie is an unselfconscious narrator and he paints a brutally clear picture of the children's neglected state. The faith that he relentlessly places in his mother could distress some adult readers. But the success of this book suggests that children respond well to such a honest representation of a dysfunctional family. And why shouldn't they? Children are on the whole much more honest than adults. And their response to death is usually way more pragmatic than an adult's. In short, Jamie's parents could stand to learn a lot from him.

The book has its sweet moments as Jamie interacts with his sister and his only friend Sunya, (a friendship that Jamie's Dad would definitely NOT approve of). It's clear early on that his chance for happiness rests on these two young pairs of shoulders. I was a little disappointed that the author has made both of the only 2 nurturing/supportive figures in the novel female. I suppose it just felt predictable, especially as the school bully was male, for the parenting void in his live to be filled by two females.

Also the romantic aspect of Jamie and Sunya's relationship didn't really ring true for me. His infatuation seemed to devalue their friendship in the way that it served as a convenient motivation for his continued resistance to his Dad's tyranny. It would have been way cooler if Sunya's personality (which did rock) was the main instigator for Jamie's loyalty rather than an attraction which seemed to border on a fetishness for Sunya's cultural differences. It felt like the crush had been added mainly for the benefit of the adult cute factor and removing it could have opened up the book to more young male readers.

Those issue aside there's a lot to like about this book. I always like books that hand the reins to kids in difficult situations and I really value the honesty surrounding this difficult topic. It's also a pretty funny read too. 3/5 stars.
------------------

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

TURNING PRO/Stephen Pressfield

I didn't think Pressfield could get more kick-ass about making art after the WAR OF ART and DO THE WORK, but he did. Like the other two, the book's premise is all about beating that insidious force of Resistance that plagues all of us, sapping our will to compose, write, play, and otherwise make art. 

You may think at first glance that Pressfield is treading familiar water after two other books on resisting Resistance to make art. He is, but each book in his 'making art' canon can be looked at as following the 'hero' journey of the artist. THE WAR OF ART discusses the decision to start, while DO THE WORK takes on the concept of sustaining the discipline it takes to finish a piece of work. TURNING PRO takes things up a notch by insisting the artist must establish a rigid discipline and trust the Muse. But they all rail against Resistance--something Pressfield himself readily admits he still struggles with. 

These are books you can go back to again and again when you have those inevitable 'all is lost' moments. With Pressfield, there are no seminars, no CDs to order, no podcasts to listen to. He's not a guru. He's just like you: sitting there in front of the computer, typing word after word and trusting the Muse. 


This is totally worth the money.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

ONE DAY/David Nicholls

I'm always way behind the curve on fads and trends (usually, in fact, I manage to miss out on them altogether, or deliberately spurn them out of distaste for the sheep mentality). This book became a huge sleeper hit about three years ago, and has already been made into a film. I'd heard quite a bit about it, but never thought I'd bother to read it. However, being on holiday, I have lots of time for reading, and so...



The book's conceit is to chart a relationship between a man and a woman over nearly twenty years by presenting a snapshot of their lives on a single day in each year - the same day, July 15th, year after year. It's an intriguing idea, the kind of thing that helps to sell a book to publishers, and also perhaps to many readers. But it is a gimmick, and gimmicks - unless deployed very skillfully - soon become tiresome. David Nicholls does carry this off pretty well, I think; but over the course of a long-ish novel, the constant repetition of the one-day-per-year device starts to grate. Perhaps the overall span of the book is more the problem than the one-day premise itself: while some of the individual day-chapters are quite short, several of them are fairly substantial, and so the book as a whole ends up being nearly twice as long as you'd expect. I would have been quite happy for him to skip a few years here and there.

Another problem, I found, with sustaining interest in such a lengthy tale, is that neither of the protagonists is really all that sympathetic. Dexter is the more obvious monster, a narcissist and an alcoholic. But Emma - the  smart, principled half of the pair - becomes increasingly alienating as the story wears on: as she assesses herself late in the book, she is "self-pitying, self-righteous, self-important, all the selfs except self-confident..." - and hence rather tiresome company after the first two hundred pages or so.

The book is often very funny, although elements satirizing British class consciousness, London nightlife during the 1990s, and popular television will be largely missed by, and perhaps even alienate non-British readers. Also, I feel it is a structural or stylistic weakness of the book that it is just a bit too funny, or more particularly that its two lead characters are so relentlessly funny. Emma converses almost entirely in barbed one-liners, and Dexter more or less matches her in wry wit, which seems at odds with his supposedly nice-but-dim character. Their voices aren't really distinguished from one another, and they don't come across in their speech as believable characters. And there is an awful lot of dialogue in this book - perhaps a result of Nicholls having cut his teeth as a TV screenwriter. It's diverting and amusing, but it fails the realism test - and there's a bit too much of it. (One of Emma's boyfriends is an aspiring stand-up comedian, who is mocked for trying too hard to be funny all the time, and failing. His humour is lame, and too effortful, but it is the overdoing of it that is the main object of scorn - and this is a vice that Nicholls himself might have done more to guard against, I feel. Moreover, on a related quibble in regard to realism, I do not believe that a struggling, unfunny comedian could ever survive being in a relationship with someone who is effortlessly witty all the time.)

I didn't find the central premise of the story plausible either. Emma and Dexter get off with each other at a student party and wind up in bed together, but - somehow - don't actually have sex. However, they become best friends - though there's clearly an intense sexual chemistry between them (well, Emma is outright infatuated with him; Dexter feels a deep affection for her, but, as he is handsome and wealthy, he gets more sex than he knows what to do with, and so is perpetually distracted from pursuing his apparent "soulmate"). I do not believe such an intense and exclusive friendship is possible between a man and a woman, even without the complication of frustrated mutual attraction. And the will-they?-won't-they? tension between Em and Dex - clearly the main hook for the reader - soon becomes less titillating, more irritating. Fifteen years of coitus interruptus is no fun for anyone.

I had some problems with the one-day structure as well. It's just not plausible that so many significant events in the lives of this pair would happen on this one day. Furthermore, given that the significance of anniversaries is elsewhere prominently noted in the book, it's not plausible that neither of them would ever remark on this being the anniversary of their first getting together. The choice of date is jarringly weird as well: I found myself repeatedly stumbling over some dissonant fact - They're putting on a school play in the middle of July? They're having university graduation ceremonies in the middle of July? Wimbledon is still going on in the middle of July? These are all events that we would normally expect to take place 2-4 weeks earlier. Perhaps Nicholls was trying to subtly signal to us that his story is set in a parallel universe where things are not entirely as we know them? Or perhaps he is just unconcerned about factual accuracy: a lot of the social and political references he throws in are very token attempts to underline the passage of time, and some of these don't seem quite right to me either.

Nicholls writes very well, but could have done with a better editor. There were a few linguistic tics that really started to rankle with me, things that could easily have been removed. I like the word 'woozy', but it is a rare-ish and unduly eyecatching word, not one to be overused; I certainly don't want to be encountering its adverb form 'woozily' every single bloody time anyone's had a drink. Nor, come to that, do I want to be given the excuse every time someone gets 'woozy' that it's only because they've been drinking "on an empty stomach". (There is rather a lot of drinking in this story. Dexter clearly has a major problem with drink, but strangely - and rather unsatisfyingly - this is never directly addressed.) Another example: there are many ways in which you can describe someone repositioning themselves in bed, but Nicholls latched on to 'shuffling' as a placeholder - and so, in the opening scene where young Dexter and Emma are sharing a bed for the first time, one or other of them 'shuffles' a good half a dozen or so times within the space of two or three pages. I find this kind of sloppiness intensely annoying.

The key to the book's extraordinary success has usually been identified as its having equal appeal to both male and female readers - the romantic element supposedly appealing more to women, but the unconventional nature of the romance and the associated social commentary making it more acceptable to men. Nicholls is astute in his observations of human foibles, particularly in regard to the failure of romantic relationships. This book is an easy - though slightly overlong - read, extremely funny, and in places quite moving. However, I'm afraid I didn't find the characterization - or much of the background detail - convincing, and I have mixed feelings about the success of the structural gimmick on which the book is based. I am a hopeless romantic slushbucket, a man with a strong 'feminine side' and many close female friends - the ideal reader, you would think, for a book like this. Unfortunately, this tale of thwarted romance failed to charm me: the characters are unlikeable, their relationship unbelievable, their predicament uninvolving.

Monday, July 2, 2012

I AM THE CHEESE/Robert Cormier

It's pretty sad that I never heard of Robert Cormier before his death. I saw a review of a new edition of I Am the Cheese on NPR's website and decided to pick the book up from the library.

Adam Farmer is a 14-year-old boy trying to take a package from Monument, Massachusetts to his father in Rutterburg, Vermont. In order to do so, he must abandon his mother and his best friend, Amy Hertz.

He has a little more than $39—enough for a couple of overnight stays in hotels and some food for the 70+ mile trip. He's anxious to see his father, so one morning he pours all his pills down the bathroom sink, gets the package, and takes off.

The novel flips back and forth between Adam's journey and an ongoing conversation between a patient and a doctor. We learn that Adam's family was in an early version of the Witness Protection Program; as an investigative reporter his father revealed some smarmy secrets of a vast criminal network (what the secrets were was never revealed) and the family had to go into hiding. They're protected by Grey, FBI agent #2222, a character as featureless and vague as his name.

As details from Adam's old life emerge in from the patient, Adam runs into trouble on the road. A strange voice answers at Amy's number and claims to have had that number for three years—a statement that confuses Adam since it hasn't been nearly that long since he's seen her. He also encounters three hoodlums who terrify him on a lonely stretch of road, and his bike is stolen. Additionally, he encounters a man who appears to be a child molester.

Yet it's the conversations that are most disconcerting. They're undated, but slowly we realize the patient is Adam himself. (Or at least, I slowly realized it.) During these conversations we start to gather that he's a patient in a mental hospital, and he doesn't remember very much. As he does remember, we start to see why it's so difficult for him to seize upon his painful past.

As much as I enjoyed this novel, learning the origins of the title was the most fun part for me. I didn't know the entire sequence of the nursery rhyme "The Farmer In the Dell." Nor did I know that not only is it a nursery rhyme, but a game. The last verse is:

The cheese stands alone
The cheese stands alone
Heigh ho the derry-o
The cheese stands alone

the last stage of the game. The goal of the game is to not be the cheese. If you are the cheese, you've lost the game. But there's a dual meaning in that throughout the novel, you can't escape the overwhelming sense that in many ways, Adam was and is the cheese—not only the loser of the game, but the bait of the opponent in order for the game to continue. 

*I actually didn't read the 30th anniversary edition of this book, but I love the cover so much, I added it here. I think it conveys the spirit of the story better than other covers I've seen. I will definitely be reading more by Cormier. I'm only sorry I discovered him so late. 

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

A NIGHT TO REMEMBER/Walter Lord

I've been curious to read this for years, having loved the 1958 black & white film version of this riveting account of the last hours of the Titanic when I was a small child (still widely praised as the best cinema treatment of the story; I watched it again just recently, and much prefer its no-frills docudrama approach to James Cameron's histrionic melodrama; with a story this powerful, you really don't want improbable fictions ladled all over it), and having become a bit of an obsessive about the disaster as a result. However, I'd somehow never got around to it... until I was lucky enough to win a copy a couple of weeks ago in a Titanic-themed trivia quiz to mark the centenary of the tragic sinking - in the early hours of the morning on April 15th, 1912.

Walter Lord's book, first published in 1956, immediately won warm reviews for its economical storytelling, although I didn't find his authorial presence as 'invisible' as some of those contemporary critics did: there is wry wit, and occasional judgment here and there, but it's not obtrusive. Overall, Lord's style is refreshingly spare, and he strives always for understanding and forgiveness rather than condemnation of the more questionable conduct which may have contributed to the disaster or which followed from it. On occasions, though, Lord's studied silence can be more damning than overt comment: Captain Stanley Lord, commanding the nearby S.S. Californian, who exhibited an incomprehensible indifference to reports of a ship in possible distress a few miles to the south, does not emerge well from Lord's account - although the only explicit comment on his actions is veiled in a bitter sarcasm.

Subsequently, this book has been honoured as inaugurating the genre of 'oral history', soon to be applied on  a much broader scale to accounts of World War II by Cornelius Ryan, and later by Studs Terkel and others. It's a pity, though, that Lord didn't embark on his great work until some 40 years after the disaster: he only managed to speak to 63 survivors, many of whom were already fairly elderly; Charles Lightoller, the quietly heroic 2nd Officer who would soon be immortalised on film by Kenneth More, had recently passed away at the age of 78. Perhaps half of the book is derived from various memoirs, news reports, and transcripts of the various inquiries into the disaster.

For the Titanic nerd like myself, the major complaint would be that the book isn't detailed enough: it doesn't attempt to analyse the causes of the disaster, or speculate on what alternative actions might have been taken to avert or ameliorate it. But this was not the task that Lord set himself: he just wanted to make the disaster accessible to people, to provide a brisk and vivid portrait of the sinking of the ship from the perspective of those who actually witnessed it. In achieving that limited aim, the book is an exemplary success. Indeed, the one regret for most readers will probably be that it is over so soon. This surprisingly short book - barely 170 pages - can be read in less than three hours. If you read it in one sitting, it provides an eerily 'real-time' experience of the loss of the magnificent ship and more than 1,500 lives aboard her.

Do check out the film version of A Night To Remember as well - like the book that inspired it, an enduring classic.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

ELIZABETH THE QUEEN/Sally Bedell Smith

FTC: I received a free paperback version of this book from Random House for a Goodreads History Book Club discussion.

Prior to reading this, I didn't have a lot of interest in the English royal family. I grew up during their most tumultuous years, when it seemed every week brought fresh "revelations" about the exploits of Princess Diana or Prince Charles. I never thought about it growing up, but all those tabloid covers left me with a distinct negative impression of Queen Elizabeth, and of the royal family as a whole.

This book changes all of that. Bedell Smith is an obvious admirer of the Queen, so this biography is hardly objective. But objectivity is not really the job of the biographer—accuracy is. Given the copious source notes and extensive bibliography, I think Bedell Smith achieved this. It's clear she really did her homework. I don't think she would have been able to create such an engaging, illuminating biography of Elizabeth II if there weren't plenty of evidence to support her view.

What is Bedell Smith's view? It's certainly at odds with the press, which has presented Elizabeth II as cold, stolid, and out of touch—a prism that couldn't be further from the truth. Turns out the Queen is an excellent diplomat who has skillfully kept the monarchy relevant while maintaining its timeless mystique—and this in a time when the monarchy is no longer wholly constitutionally relevant in England. Her qualities, so derided in the tabloids, are actually worth admiring. We're so used to seeing celebrities and the like emotionally slobber all over everything in their path, the Queen's self discipline, grace under pressure, and emotional control in the public arena actually come off as qualities to which we can all aspire. In private, she is warm and accepting, using the same diplomatic skills to manage the difficult personalities in her private life as in the public sphere.

One of the most surprising revelations was that Princess Diana's emotional problems had an enormous effect on her marriage. Princess Diana was hugely popular with the press and in their eyes could pretty much do no wrong, but in private she was very troubled. The constant press attention contributed to her problems significantly, but that didn't stop her from feeding tidbits of information (and misinformation) to reporters. I was shocked to read that she participated in an "unauthorized" biography that was scathingly critical of the royal family and then lied directly to the Queen about it. In spite of this, Princess Diana and the Queen were closer than the press ever let on, and there is evidence the royal family tried to get Diana help for her personal issues, such as her bulimia. The criticism Elizabeth II received after Princess Diana's death was a little heartbreaking to read, given that she spent a lot of time in private consoling her grandsons.

There were many comments among the History Book Club members regarding the Queen and Prince Philip's lack of skills as parents—which readers picked up on early in the book. Their situation could hardly compare to that of normal parents. Queen Elizabeth really does feel she belongs to the Commonwealth and she put duty above family as her children were growing up, which turned out to be tragic, given some of their exploits. The same traits that have made her such an effective diplomat worked against her somewhat in a family setting. Yet, the book does such an effective job of showing the Queen and her family as real people, it's hard for me to judge.

Overall, I walked away with a much more favorable view of the royal family than I had before reading the book. I'm not sure I believe monarchies are relevant in our world today, but then, I'm an American. Yet the book is fascinating and illuminates not only the Queen, but a good deal about her job, how England works, and how the monarchy can be an effective diplomacy tool. Totally worth the time and effort, especially if you have any interest in England and/or the Commonwealth at all. Five stars. 

Monday, February 20, 2012

THE HAPPINESS ADVANTAGE/Shawn Achor

This book is one of a growing library of research that supports what I've believed for the past few years: that happiness is a skill you can develop. What's great about this book is that it doesn't make the assumption that something is inherently wrong with the reader, and gives readers practical advice about small things they can do to get their brains more tuned in to being happy. It's a state of mind—one that does come more naturally to some than others—but it's also a muscle that can be exercised. And there's no "secret" to it, as many so-called self-help books suggest. It's just doing small things, such as writing three good things down every night, whether it's three good things that happened over the course of a day (no matter how small) or three things you're grateful for. (If you really want to get wild and crazy, you could record both.) Doing this can rewire your brain to see more possibilities, more insights, and help you see and seize upon opportunity when it arises. It's a book geared more toward business people and leaders looking to make their workplaces happier, but I think anyone could benefit from reading this. I certainly did.

Also, Achor is funny.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

THE LITTLE STRANGER/Sarah Waters


Dr. Faraday is a hardworking country doctor who has known The Hundreds Hall and its estate since he was a boy; his mother was a maid there for the Ayres family. Back then, the house was like many other English estates of its class: majestic and full and a bit awe inspiring. By the time Dr. Faraday is grown, however, the Hall and estate have fallen into disrepair, the victim of the new Labour party and its socialist ideas.

As an adult, he strays upon the house quite by accident—or so it seems to him. Because his partner is unavailable, Dr. Faraday goes to treat Mrs. Ayres—one of the last surviving members of the Ayres family—and immediately finds himself enchanted by the house again, just like he was as a boy. Soon, he becomes not only the Ayres family doctor, but a close friend of the family—particularly to Caroline, Mrs. Ayres’s daughter.

His fate becomes entwined with theirs—something he’s only too happy to allow to happen, since it allows him to see the Hall nearly every day. And here Sarah Waters shows us some of her skills, for Dr. Faraday seems completely unaware that he’s mostly motivated by his obsession for the Hundreds estate. As “the little stranger” makes itself known, he explains everything away as only a doctor of that time could.

And here’s more evidence of Waters’s skill: the incidents really can be explained away in rational terms. Even in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, there’s a clear supernatural element. This novel is subtler. Because the story is told in first person from Dr. Faraday’s point of view, we are told of the scary incidents second-hand, so each incident hinges on interpretation. After awhile, you begin to feel that perhaps you’re not getting the whole story from Faraday, that he’s shading the telling ever so subtly in favor of showing each individual of the Ayres family as mad.

This way he doesn’t have to take responsibility for his part. While it’s clear Faraday truly does care immensely about the Ayres family, he’s completely unaware that he cares about Hundreds Hall more. The more disturbing things get, the more he tries to explain everything away—which is actually scarier than the little stranger itself.