Saturday 30 July 2011

Devouring Books: Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters by John Steinbeck

Before I begin talking about this book, I want to firstly tell you what I think of the publication of people's journals after they die. Basically, while it can probably give you some insight into their state of mind at the most creative points in their lives, it's also the kind of writing that no one was ever meant to see, and is an invasion of privacy that the writer is unable to defend themselves from, or to protest against in any way. When Kurt Cobain had one of his journals stolen while he was still alive, he said that it was like being raped. The fact that Courtney Love then allowed his journals to be published after his death makes me want to throw up just a little bit, especially when one considers his feelings on other people reading his innermost thoughts. Even if you think that post-death publication of journals is pretty much a victimless crime (the only victims being dead, and probably not caring all that much) then consider this- would you want someone else reading your journal? I can't even tell you how excruciating I would find that, especially because most of the things I've written in there I don't even feel or believe anymore. People live and learn and move on, and journals represent only a frozen moment in time that is not representative of a person as a whole.

Now. Having said all that, the 'Journal of a Novel' title here is slightly misleading, since it is in the form of letters to Steinbeck's editor Pascal Covici, meaning that it was always meant to be read by someone else, and, frankly, is Covici's property as much as Steinbeck's to do with it what he pleased. Fortunately for us Steinbeckphiles (can that please be a new word? Because it's sort of awesome), the thing that he chose to do was publish the letters/journal, and they provide a fascinating insight into what goes into writing a novel. It is so thrilling to see Steinbeck saying things like this was the book that he was always preparing to write, and it's wonderful to see the growth of East of Eden, from a mere idea, to an actual physical book.

It's difficult to criticise this book because, firstly, it wasn't really meant for publication, so how can one blame Steinbeck for not being interesting enough; and secondly because there's not really anything to complain about- these are his days, as he saw them, and this is the way he wrote East of Eden- slowly, steadily, and tightly controlled. I'm not going to pretend that it is the finest written journal ever- things like his talking about his weight and what his wife was doing that day are not necessarily that interesting, but what they are is undeniably human. What this journal does, then, is bring the author back down to earth, making him a person rather than a legend, and giving a very realistic idea of what it takes to write a novel- the emotional and physical determination, and the mental concentration that one must have to put words on paper.

The best thing about this book was the way you could see East of Eden being crafted and really coming along, and the way Steinbeck described the book as being separate from himself, something which he gently had to bring into being, rather than it being a product entirely of himself. As well as that, there is a lot of insight into writing, into the ideas of good and evil, and also a bit more discussion about some of the themes and ideas presented in East of Eden itself. It's not the fastest read, but it is well worth the effort to get through it, and I think you'll really like Steinbeck as a person- I already knew that I did having read A Life in Letters, and this book only reaffirmed that. Here is just one example of the insight that Steinbeck offers us in this book:
"Writing is a very silly business at best. There is a certain ridiculousness about putting down a picture of a life. And to add to the joke-one must withdraw for a time from life in order to set down that picture. And third one must distort one's own way of life in order in some sense to simulate the normal in other lives. Having gone through all this nonsense, what emerges may well be the palest of reflections. Oh! it's a real horse's ass business. The mountain labours and groans and strains and the tiniest of rodents comes out. And the greatest foolishness of all lies in the fact that to do it at all, the writer must believe that what he is doing is the most important thing in the world. And he must hold to this illusion even when he knows it is not true. If he does not, the work is not worth even what it might otherwise have been."
Seriously, this is how the guy writes even in his journal. If you have never read a Steinbeck book, imagine how good that could be! But anyway, the insight into the mind of a writer is really invaluable, and I think this book is worth reading just for that. Even if it takes you months to get through (ahem... look, I really like fiction, ok?) it's definitely worth a read if you're at all interested in what it takes to write a novel and how the writer thinks. You might just want to get it from a library though, because at 182 pages for £9 (about $15) I'm not sure even insight is worth that much. I got mine for my birthday, mind you, so I can't say I really mind family members paying that kind of money for a teeny book. That's just how I roll...

Friday 29 July 2011

Who Here Remembers Hopscotch?

That's right, I'm hopping again this week! I know you've all so missed this... Probably. But I am lacking a post for today because I'm too lazy to write book reviews, so I'm going to mull over some questions in my brain and give you some kind of responses to them. Sounds good, I know...

So, this week, Ginger at GReads asks: If you could be one character from a book, who would you be and why? I'm pretty sure that I've already tried and failed to answer this question before, but I guess I'll give it another go. It's so difficult to think of a character that you want to be when you know everything about them, flaws and all. If forced, though, I'd probably pick Jo from Little Women- although she's sometimes dissatisfied with herself, she knows who she is and what she wants to be, and always stays true to that. She even forgives Amy when she's being a little bitch, and that takes some kind of inner patience that I'm pretty sure I lack. This is not even to say that Jo is my favourite book character ever, but I wouldn't at all mind being her for a bit.

This week, Parajunkee asks: What T-shirt slogan best describes you? I sort of hate this question, because who really wants to define themselves through words that you can fit on a T-shirt? I was just going to avoid the question completely, but then I thought of a T-shirt that I have that probably describes me, or at least one aspect of me, as well as anything else can do:

I really really really do heart New York. Just in case you didn't know that about me yet.

Book Blogger HopCrazy-for-books this week asks: Highlight one book you have received this week that you can't wait to dig into! I have to tell you, not one word of a lie, that I haven't gotten any new books this week. In fact, I haven't bought any new books since the start of July, mainly because I have so many to read that it seems a little ridiculous to buy more. All I've gotten in the book line this week is Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson, which my sister gave me from her classroom at school (she teaches year 4). This is, apparently, a loan, but I'm hoping she'll forget about it and then it'll be for keeps! Anyway, I'm very excited about it because of my undying moomin love!

So yeah, that's me. Definable by a character in a civil war era novel, and a T-shirt, apparently. If you're a new stopper-by, then hello to you! Take a look around why dontcha, tell me if you see anything you like! For your enjoyment and a little taste of my week, why not look at these posts from this week:

On Monday, I talked about Oranges are not the only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson- an awesome read that is far more about fundamentalist religion than lesbians,
On Tuesday, I revealed my top ten books dealing with tough issues, including the death of a parent, suicide, and I think most importantly, how to deal with mad wives in the attic,
Wednesday saw the next stage in my Stephen King challenge unfolding- I reviewed Roadwork by Richard Bachman, and I've got to say, I liked it A LOT.
To change things up a bit on Thursday, I reviewed Up in the Air, a film that is very complex, but still really down to earth and engaging.

That was the week that was. I hope you find something you like amongst all that, and that you have an extremely good weekend!

Thursday 28 July 2011

Devouring Films: Up in the Air

My abiding memory about Up in the Air, before I saw it, was that my friend Frances categorically refused to go and see it at the cinema with me, saying that it looked 'really really really boring' and that it would be a waste of precious hours of life. When I finally saw it, courtesy of LoveFilm, I took great pleasure in triumphantly texting her and letting her know that it was far from being boring. In fact, it's pretty great. I'm not sure that she cared that much about this earth-shattering piece of information, but I can definitely pass on the good news to all of you- Up in the Air is not at all boring!!

So, the premise of the film is, possibly, a tiny bit boring. George Clooney (*sigh*) plays Ryan Bingham, a man whose job is firing people for other people; but more crucially than what he does is the way he does it- he gets to travel around the entirety of America, barely out of airports or hotels and being at home for only around 40 (miserable) days per year. 'So, what?' I hear you cry. 'The film is just a load of airports and hotels and offices and stuff and Clooney just goes around looking all smug and satisfied with his life?' Well, a little bit, yes. But also, a lot more than that as well. You see, I think of Ryan as a pretty tragic character. He thinks he's happy with his life, where he only has to look after and think of himself, and where his main life goal is to get 10 million air miles (oh yes), and to this end he even holds a load of seminars where he tells people that responsibilities, not only of owning material things but also of having relationships with other people, only drag you down and stop you achieving your full potential. But he's definitely not happy.

The thing that I think most relates to how I think about Ryan actually comes from an advert (shameful, I know) that we have in the UK. I can't even remember what it's for (possibly online dating?) but in it it says how everyone's connected, but not really connecting. Not only do I think this is a pretty fair assessment of modern life (we're connected to everyone we've ever met, practically, by facebook, but how long do we spend really talking to, and forging deep connections with the people we know?) but it's practically the best description of Ryan that could exist. He's connected to the entire world, can go (and has gone) anywhere by plane, but he lacks a connection to a single human being. We can assume that he gets laid, talks to other people, and so on, but when it comes down to it he is alone. He avoids talking to his family, hasn't met his sister's fiance, and just generally shuns any kind of close human relationship. The saddest part of this whole scenario is that he doesn't seem to care about this at all-as long as he can keep running up airmiles, without having to face how empty his life really is, he's fine.

This changes with the arrival of two very different women in his life, each of whom plays a part in making him reassess the isolated way he lives his life. Alex (Vera Farmiga) is a confident, self-assured businesswoman who lives in a similar way to Ryan, and who tells him "Just think of me as you, just with a vagina." As a seduction technique, this is apparently extremely effective (himself being the one person who he values above any other) and they are soon embroiled in a sex-relationship thing whenever their cross-country schedules allow. In this relationship, Ryan finds something that he was never looking for, and, it has to be said, we're rooting for them to get together (properly) by the end of the film. The other woman in Ryan's life is Natalie (Anna Kendrick), an idealistic 22 year old who wants all the things that Ryan doesn't, and who tries to convince him that the way he lives is unfulfilling, lonely, and just plain sad. I like to think that Ryan learns things from her, but also that she learns from him- how to live your life according to what you want rather than entirely what someone else wants. How to be, in other words, a little more selfish.

To tell you anymore, I think, would be to rob you of the wonderful experience that watching this film provides. Does Ryan reach his airmiles target? Does he learn how to connect- really connect- with other people? With, as we all hope, Alex? Are there roles for women that almost all actresses would die for? (Actually, I can tell you this one already. Yes. Yes there are. Also, it being a Jason Reitman film, I can also tell you that Jason Bateman is in it.) For the answers to the rest of these questions and so much more, you're going to have to watch the film. And then, once you have, please come back and discuss it with me- there's so much more to say!

Wednesday 27 July 2011

Devouring Stephen King (as Richard Bachman): Roadwork

I'm rarely surprised when a Stephen King book being good, but after the last two Richard Bachman books I read (Rage and The Long Walk) were found wanting somewhat, I didn't really have high expectations for Roadwork. This was a bit of a mistake, as it turned out, because Roadwork was, without a doubt, my favourite Richard Bachman book so far (and, I'm not afraid to say, better than a few Stephen King books as well). I'm not sure if this is an indication of King's growing talent as a writer, or just my love of the subject matter, but either way, this was a really good read. Such a good read, in fact, that I read the bulk of it in one evening. Oh yes.

So, the basic premise of this book is that this guy, Barton Dawes, stands alone against the great gods of road construction, resisting the building of a highway that is going to destroy his place of work, his home, and, so he believes, everything that he has been for the past twenty years. Stated like this, his reluctance to move is pretty understandable, but actually Bart has a lot of other things going on. Slowly it becomes clear to us that his son had died a few years earlier, the building of the road, in Bart's mind, destroying everything about his child's life; and all these things combined mean that Bart is ever so slightly cracking up. As part of this, Bart has lost all perspective- instead of seeing moving as a brand new start, he sees it as the absolute worst thing that could happen to him, the loss of the familiar things around him somehow, I suspect, correlating with the loss of his sanity.

I can't even tell you how much I wanted to yell at him 'IT'S JUST STUFF!' a la Lester Burnham, when he was lamenting the loss of his house and his office and things, especially since he lets his marriage fall apart while clinging onto the things that seem to matter more to him, like bricks and mortar and the past. But then, when I thought about it a bit more, I realised that, really, a house is more than just physical things, it's a home- made up of memories that, I guess, you feel like you're letting go of if you are away from the physical triggers for them. At the crux of why Bart can't give up the house, then, is his son's death and his inability to cope with its fact- emotionally crippled since it happened, letting go of the house is like losing his son all over again, only this time for good because he won't even have the memories of him. Looking at Bart in this way, then, it is a lot easier to understand what looks like materialism actually being a form of mourning.

Like the other Bachman books I've read, Roadwork is not at all focused on evil monsters or malignant forces on the world (unless you count evil businesses ruining people's lives), but more on the demons that live inside each of us. This can sometimes be scarier than the actual monsters, and I think Bart would tell you a thing or two about that- the journey that we are invited to embark upon into his head is not an a tame one, and it's difficult to consider whether I'd rather face myself (who I can't get away from) or a demonic clown (who I just have to kill and then everything will be fine!) It's scary in a different way, but it still looks on the darker side of life, into the realms of people's minds and their neuroses. Unchartered, and very intimidating territory.

To say much more would be to give away massive plot points (although the whole gist of it is 'man doesn't like road, goes a bit mental' but, you know, better than just that) but there is an encounter with a hitchhiker that presented me, at least, with possibly the most memorable moments from a really impressive book. Firstly, he discusses with her the reasons why he hates the road, stating that it's just something that he can't agree to, and can't let happen to him. This interchange occurs:
" 'You're either really crazy or really remarkable,' she said.
'People are only remarkable in books' he said." 
This just makes the book a tiny bit meta (the character realising his own nature and stuff) but is also an admission of his own madness, something which he is reluctant to admit out loud to anyone in the rest of the book. The fact that he does so offers some promising insight into whether or not he can escape his depression (or depression plus...) and the realisation that we really want him to. The other exchange comes on Christmas day, as he tries to convince her, as a good father would (child replacement, anyone?) that she needs to stick out what she's doing and not give up as easily as she has been doing her entire life. He thus passes on his sage, albeit depressing, wisdom:
"'No, no, you listen. Dig your ears out. Getting old is like driving through snow that just gets deeper and deeper. When you finally get in over your hubcaps, you just spin and spin. That's life. There are no plows to come and dig you out. Your ship isn't going to come in, girl. There are no boats for nobody. You're never going to win a contest. There's no camera following you and people watching you struggle. This is it. All of it. Everything.'" 
Have you ever heard a better  'pull your socks up' speech? Because I'm not sure I have. Just when some people might have written off the Bachman books as not good enough to bear the King name (ahem), he goes and knocks it out of the park with wisdom like that, and with the entire book in general. Just awesome, awesome stuff.

As you may probably have been able to tell, I really liked this book. I just read on wikipedia that King wrote it when he was trying to come to terms with his mother's death, and originally he was really disappointed with it. Fortunately, he saw sense, and perhaps his own genius, and now sees it as his favourite of the early books. I'm finding it really difficult to disagree with him.

Tuesday 26 July 2011

Top Ten Tuesday

Top Ten Books Tackling 'Tough' Issues

1. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee (racism)- I know I include this on every list. But really, I'm not sure that there's a better book dealing with racism out there- the narration of a child makes it very clear that racism is a really simple, foolish concept that is completely ridiculous. It also deals with the extremely difficult issue of growing up, but that's another thing entirely...

2. The Color Purple by Alice Walker (rape and incest)- I can't even tell you how uplifting this book (eventually) is- putting out the message that you can overcome almost anything and still be in one piece, and, incredibly, happy at the end.

3. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood (sexism)- I know it's all dystopian and stuff, but that shit COULD HAPPEN! And that's really scary. As well as the whole oppression of women thing, it also deals with the tyranny of organised religion, and hopefully anyone who reads it would want to prevent such a horrific future.

4. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky (mental illness, teenage angst)- My favourite book involving a slightly mentally ill teenager, and a whole lot more teenage issues. If you still feel too weird, or not good enough after reading this, then you probably need to go back and read it more carefully this time.

5. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (poverty)- Written as a protest novel in the 1930s, I think this still packs a pretty big punch today. Depicting conditions that no one should have to live in, it really makes one angry and all world changey and stuff. Just not, you know, very articulate.

6. Hamlet by William Shakespeare (death of a parent)- This work is also 'I was struggling to think of things at this point', and now that I think about it, Hamlet is a bit of a how-to guide in terms of how not to deal with grief (vengefully and potentially insanely) but I guess in that case one can learn things from the play for the correct way to grieve. Also, you know, about life and stuff...

7. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (suicide)- I think what Anna Karenina teaches us about suicide is to not steal a teenager's boyfriend and then suspect him of having sex with other women and then freak out and throw oneself under a train. It's just a suggestion, but I don't think that's a great thing to do. Call me crazy if you like...

8. Angels in America by Tony Kushner (AIDS)- I know this is every list along with To Kill A Mockingbird. But really it's pretty relevant here! Not only does it deal with AIDS (it's about gay men in the 80s, what were you expecting?) it also deals with politics, religion, mental illness, sex, and what love really means. I'm not sure if any questions are actually answered, but really you'll be a better person for reading it.

9. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (mad wives in the attic)- Yeah, this is a bit of a tongue in cheek one (I was struggling again) but I really do think that Jane does the right thing/the only thing she could have done under the circumstances that she was put in. This is hopefully one tough issue that few of us have to face, but if any of us ever do, we'll know to leave our nearly-husband with dignity and then probably go back to him once he is widowed when his wife burns his house down (God that book's good...)

10. Maus by Art Spiegelman (the Holocaust)- I haven't read that many stories of the Holocaust because my mind can barely comprehend such horrific things actually being done to humans by other humans. I can, however, barely imagine a more realistic, sensitive without being overly sentimental, and dealing with the guilt that children of Holocaust survivors feel, which is something that I hadn't really considered before. Definitely my favourite graphic novel of all time.

So that's my top ten, how about you? I definitely struggled a bit with this one, so I'll be impressed if everyone makes it to ten today! I'm looking forward to some intense book recommendations too. Happy Tuesday everyone!

Monday 25 July 2011

Revisiting Books... Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

I first read Oranges are not the Only Fruit in my first year of University, and then apparently wiped it from my mind completely. This is part of the problem with having books prescribed to you rather than reading them from your own free will, but then again, would I have read Oranges are not the Only Fruit without it being on the reading list? I don't know. It apparently made enough of an impression on me to make me buy three (yep, three!) more Winterson books, so I guess I just assumed that it was good.

And it really is. I think that both times I've read it, I've expected there to be a lot more about the main character, Jeanette's (according to Wikipedia, it's a semi-autobiographical novel, which feels about right when you're reading it) sexuality, when actually, it's a lot more focused around religion, and the way that it works- that as long as you're doing what everyone requires of you, it doesn't matter how you feel because it's not right 'in the eyes of the Lord'. Thus, Jeanette's love for another girl is something that doesn't consider a problem, because it involves love, which is only a good thing in her eyes, whereas to the entire church that is basically her entire support system, it is one of the worst things that she can do. The fact that Jeanette considers this to be untrue is what causes her break with God telling her what to do, and her perusal of a path that allows her to do what she personally feels is right.

Perhaps more important than Jeanette's sexuality in this book is her relationship with her mother. Fanatically religious, Jeanette is informed more than once in the course of the novel that her mother is nuts, something that she can't see until her mother turns against her, because up to that point, they are basically on the same page (that page being full of crazy and religious indoctrination). This is something that in the context of the novel is understandable- Jeanette has no reason to doubt her mother's word, or the word of the church and the admittedly adorable women who frequent it. The scoldings of her teacher she takes as the words of a heathen (and therefore a relatively unimportant person, and certainly not one to be listened to) and she essentially has no reason to dislike or disobey the system she knows, purely because she is inside it, and she is comfortable there. It is only upon being outside it that she can see its faults and ultimately those belonging to her mother as well. This is something that allows her to break free and actually think for herself for the first time in her life, and also to gain some perspective on her mother's actions.

If I haven't convinced you to pick up this book yet, let me tell you that it's pretty wonderful. It's funny, and yet sad; heartbreaking but with such a sense of hope about it- let's not forget that this girl is a mere teenager, and has her entire life, free of the tyranny of religion ahead of her. What happens to her seems pretty catastrophic, but so does everything to teenagers- the important thing to think about it is that she will move on, and she will learn to live again. I think this book would possibly speak more to English readers, because everything about the settings and the characters felt very English to me, but please, American readers, feel free to prove me wrong! I'm pretty sure that everyone should read this book, and since there are only 170 pages to it, what excuse do you have not to?!

Wednesday 20 July 2011

Devouring Films: Memento

Ok, so this is another one of those things that happens too often where I completely loved something then am physically unable to put those loving feelings down in any words other than 'iloveditit'sawesomeyoushouldseeitsquealsquealsqueal' i.e. when I become an illiterate obsessive tween. This movie is a lot cleverer than that, and I feel that it's my duty to give it a better review than my usual useless, albeit loving, efforts. Just a quick tiny squeal to get it out of the way though- Guy Pearce is really really hot. Like, I want to smuggle him into my house and have him live under my bed and take care of him and his poor broken memory, hot. Just sayin'.

So, anyway. Memento. Guy Pearce pretty much makes this film, carrying off the role of the man with no short term memory (Leonard) to great success, and with just the right amount of caginess, doubt, and desperate need to try and find something he can hold on to, while normal time just slips away from him. Other than Pearce, however, the man who really makes this movie is Christopher Nolan, genius director of Inception, and all round mind-blowing filmmaker. I suspect that, even if you didn't know before watching that Nolan was its director, you could probably have made a guess that he was by its end. This is not to say that it was at all predictable, or that Nolan just does the same things over and over again, but more that it's just so freaking suspenseful, and complex, but also sort of simple, that it's just amazing.

Am I making any sense? Maybe not. And, at first, this movie seems not to make sense (and, for God's sake, don't start watching it anywhere but the very beginning, because it will literally be indecipherable) but you quickly pick up on what it is very cleverly doing, and pick up on its rhythm. In the same way that, because Inception centred around such a complex idea, the plot was very straightforward and linear, the plot of Memento is also relatively straightforward, apart from the fact that it basically runs backwards, apart from the part of the story that is shown in black and white, which runs forward, and from the true beginning. I think I've just made that sound more confusing than it actually is when you watch it, but the point is this- because Leonard can't create new memories, the film could literally have each of its sections in any order because, let's face it, Leonard would be none the wiser as to the order in which each of these things happened. Nolan always resists doing this, because it would be far too confusing to the viewer, and his films would utterly lose their appeal. Which, let's face it, they really haven't yet (side note: I saw the trailer for The Dark Knight Rises today, and I'm already pretty excited about it! Just, you know, a YEAR to wait. Hmph).

So, basically, the plot of Memento- man tries to avenge his wife's death, man is hampered by his mental impairment, does man avenge his wife's death? Well, now that would be telling! I realise that I've been perhaps maddeningly vague about the plot of Memento, and that was deliberate- I really didn't know all that much about it before I started watching it, and I can't imagine a viewing experience of it better than my own- I just need you to take my word, just like Leonard needs to take everyone's word, that it's as awesome as I say it is. Also, when you do watch it, make sure you read the short story that's included on the disc (or was on the copy I had, anyway) because I like to think of it as a sort of precursor to the movie, the part that you don't see, and that Leonard doesn't remember anyway, where he was learning to live with his condition, and considering what the point was of living with it anyway. Also, this is how great this film is- you even get a book with the DVD!

If you get the opportunity, please do watch Memento, if it's on TV or if a friend, lover, or a cousin's friend's sister's boyfriend owns it, and revel in its mind exercising spectacularness. Just, definitely watch it from the beginning, pay close attention, and you'll soon get the hang of working backward's through a man's life. If at any point you think you're getting confused, just remember (haha) that you still have your memory, and that should make everything easier for you. And then come back and thank me for pointing you in the direction of such a compelling, interesting and utterly amazing film. I'll be here, waiting patiently.

Tuesday 19 July 2011

Top Ten Tuesday

Tuesday is here and the week is crawling as slowly by as ever... This week is especially bad because I really want it to be Thursday because I'm going to see my Uni friends who I love and adore, but clearly that's not going to happen because THURSDAY IS NEVER GETTING HERE! Phew, sorry about that. Just... had to get it off my chest. So, there is one good thing about it being Tuesday, and that is, of course, Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by the lovely The Broke and the Bookish. This week, though, I'm definitely not getting to ten, because I'm not sure that requiring people to read things is really the best way to make them love them, and in my experience it makes me hate them from the off. That being said, there are a few things that I really think teenagers should read, mainly because they're awesome, rather than because of their 'life lesson' qualities. So, without any further ado, here are:

Top Ten Books That Should be Required Reading for Teens

1. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky- This book was pretty helpful to me even now, so I can but imagine how much I would have loved it and needed it when I was a teenager. It's basically perfect, and if you're basically any kind of teenager you so need to read this now. It's beautiful and stays with you for a long time.

2. The Harry Potter Series by JK Rowling- I'm not sure if there's anything these books can't teach you, but I think the most important thing about them is that they are utterly fabulous and just make me want to dance a little bit with delight. Forget teenagers, these should really be required reading for all people (especially people who have only seen the films, because please, they don't even compare!)

3. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee- So I know that this is required reading for a lot of teens (in England, anyway) but I definitely think that it's status as such is completely justified. It's probably the only book I've read specifically for educational purposes that I've totally and unashamedly loved, and have really wanted to read rather than just having to read. So completely freaking amazing.

That's about all I have for you today folks! I know it may seem lazy, but really I just don't like to tell people what to read, in terms of making them do it. I think it's scarring to force people to read certain books, unless, that is, they're the books I've listed above. Double standards people, that's how I live!

Monday 18 July 2011

Devouring Books: I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron

Nora Ephron is probably one of the most hilarious women alive. If you haven't seen When Harry Met Sally, you're missing out on a vital life experience, and this book is almost as good an experience as that film (but not quite). I Feel Bad About My Neck is a collection of essays, some of which have been published in other places, some of which haven't, and pretty much all of which are hilariously entertaining. Nora, I do believe you are fabulous.

I'll let you discover your favourite essays on your own, but my personal love goes especially to Blind as a Bat, in which Ephron laments the deterioration of her eyesight as she has gotten older, and her inability to ever find anything, meaning that she can never find her glasses to read. As someone who has never been able to see, and who never loses her glasses because they are literally necessary for me to get on with my day, I couldn't really sympathise, until she said this, about reading:
"Reading is one of the main things I do. Reading is everything. Reading makes me feel I've accomplished something, learned something, become a better person. Reading makes me smarter. Reading gives me something to talk about later on... Reading is grist. Reading is bliss."
Yes. Just yes. I would just like to suggest to Ms Ephron that she keeps her glasses on a chain like a librarian or something, but something tells me that this is something that wouldn't necessarily appeal to her...

My other favourite essay was On Rapture, in which Ephron describes something that I think we all know only to well- the way she remembers reading the books that have made a massive, earth shattering impact on her life. I just loved it so much, especially the way she can remember exactly where she was the first time she read these books, as if they present an epiphany to her that is worthy of a flashbulb memory, and in a way they do. I loved this so much, because I can really do this with books I loved- I can remember reading almost all of Little Women on a car journey once, and reading The Perks of Being a Wallflower on two consecutive train journeys, and reading Angels in America in my second Uni bedroom. I suppose the point is that these books are so special, so earth-shattering, that they deserve your full recall, and the very very clear memory of their first readings. I definitely thought that this was something that only I did, so it makes me very happy to be in such fine company as I am with Nora Ephron.

The rest of the essays, more or less, deal with various aspects of Ephron's life, including her much loved New York apartment that ended up screwing with her, her internship at the Kennedy White House when, she laments, she must have been the only intern that Kennedy didn't make a pass at, and general other bits of hilarity that you really should check out. I must admit, however, that there was a certain point in these essays where I was getting slightly annoyed with Ephron, because she kept talking about her appearance, and trying to avoid ageing, and other things of a purely physical nature. Now, I'm not saying I want everyone to write about deeper political and social and philosophical issues, because, quite frankly, that would piss me off. But there was definitely a point in these essays where I thought 'can you please think about something other than your appearance or your skincare routine of whatever for one minute?'

And then I got to the last essay. And I found out that she could. In Considering the Alternative, Ephron talks candidly, and then heartbreakingly, about getting older and its realities. She talks about death- not in a funny way, but not in a morbid way either- just about facing up to it's existence, and the fact that it's going to happen to all of us one day. Except, as Ephron so brilliantly recognises:
"Death doesn't really feel eventual or inevitable. It still feels...avoidable somehow. But it's not. We know in one part of our brains that we are all going to die, but on some level we don't quite believe it."
I mean, can any of us argue with that. I suppose that when you're younger, you feel even more invincible, because death isn't really something that happens to our peers, and so it isn't something that we have to face up to, like Ephron does at the death of her best friend: "I want to talk to her. I want to have lunch with her. I want her to give me a book she just read and loved. She is my phantom limb, and I can't believe that I'm her without her." At these words, I knew that I could definitely forgive Ephron for her shallower moments, because she is so much more than the way she looks, and she knows that too. And, as she puts it herself, "What is to be done?" Because, when you really think about it, life's too precious not to write about what you want, do what you want, and be who you want. I'd like to thank Nora Ephron for helping me recognise that.

Also, she's really funny. Did I mention that?

Friday 15 July 2011

Devouring TV: True Blood, Season 4 Episode 3

DISCLAIMER: This post is definitely going to contain spoilers. Massive soul shattering spoilers. So if you haven't seen this episode of True Blood (and you want to at some point) then come back and read this after that point. Because I'm not taking any responsibility for your disappointment and possible anger. Especially after I've written this massive disclaimer!

So, I'm not sure if I've even ever mentioned it on here, but I'm pretty much obsessed with True Blood. There are many many many reasons why it's basically my favourite TV programme (not least that Alan Ball, writer of American Beauty is the series creator) but, let's face it, Alexander Skarsgard being half naked for a good portion of screen time = not a bad thing at all.

And speaking of his half-nakedness, in the episode I want to talk about (which aired on 10th July), there was some pretty gratuitous Skarsgard-nakedness. Now, I would never look a gift horse in the mouth, so to speak, and a naked Eric is possibly one of life's greatest gifts, but did he really need to be topless? Let's consider- he is wandering along the roadside, sans his memory and his shirt. Now, we know from the previous episode where he lost his memory, but when he left the coven, he was clothed. Did he rip off his top in distress, or had we just not seen enough of his torso this season? Again, I'm not complaining about this. Just sayin'.
Why are you topless Eric? It makes no sense!! But I sure do like it...

Anyway, putting Eric and his torso to one side for a second, I'm going to try and say something intelligent about True Blood that doesn't even involve any sort of nudity (I KNOW! I'm growing!) But anyway, after I watched it on Tuesday (through what I can only assume is a legal avenue... ok, I'm sorry HBO! But I'm so going to buy the boxset, so don't worry!) I kept thinking about one particular thing that I'm sure my overdeveloped analytical, English degree side of my brain couldn't help thinking. What this episode was essentially all about, I think, was the self, and whether you can ever change or not, or if you can only give the illusion of change, while remaining essentially the same underneath.

I know what you're thinking. How can something that has been described as 'A soap opera with vampires and other supernatural shit' (I'm totally paraphrasing Alan Ball here) have any deeper things going on than just the surface (and admittedly very entertaining) stories? I'll tell you how- by having been seen through my crazy, analyse everything ever creatively written by anyone eyes. But I'm not just talking shit here, and hopefully you'll agree with that assessment when you read what I have to say about it! Or, you know, you will have just read a load of shit, but give me a chance, yeah? This is clearly going to be so good...

So, yes, I thought that in this week's episode, the self was up for debate. There was a scene where Sam and Tara, ex-lovers and now good friends, talk about whether one can essentially change or not. Tara thanks Sam for giving her the push she needed to go and change herself, whereas Sam, feeling that he now knows better, argues that people can't really ever change, and that your old self always keeps catching up with you. This is something that Tara disagrees with, and having seen her exploits in the last two episodes, it is tempting to think that she really has changed- but has she actually just changed the way she lives, and not herself? And are the two interchangable? It's an interesting question, and one which I think we might get answered as the season progresses.

There is a sense in which the humans who live with vampires (and I'm particularly thinking of Hoyt here) never get to fully be themselves, because there is always the opportunity for them to be glamoured and made to believe different things than they actually feel, or rather did feel. This gives vampires, already pretty superior to humans, the opportunity to essentially control them as they see fit. This is something that Jessica did out of love rather than malice, but it's still an unfair way to treat someone you love. In a way then, in this series, you could say that vampires are more themselves than humans are, because there is literally no one who can manipulate them, or make them anything other than what they are.

That is, except for poor Eric, who knows exactly what he is, but not who he is. Having had his entire memory wiped by the witches (who I can't help but think of as evil because I am so strongly on Eric's side), he is suffering an identity crisis of epic proportions- everything he was, as he says, has been taken from him. While this offers the viewer some amusing sweetness from him, it is still a heartbreaking scenario to see him in, and one which raises questions about the self- If someone takes all your memories from you, then who do you get to be? Someone else whose self is in a transitional phase is Jason, being held captive by the now seemingly deranged Crystal and her husband/brother/whatever, who may soon have to identify himself as a panther rather than a mere police officer. The implication seems to be, with these two, that the self is something that can be forcibly taken from you, making you something completely different than who (or what) you used to be. It's a pretty frightening thought, and one which adds depth to the perilous situations that both men find themselves in.

Another candidate for change is Debbie Pelt, last seen beating the crap out of Sookie, but now back in Alcide's bed, supposedly clean and sober. It's yet to be seen whether she really has changed (or, indeed, whether anyone can actually change) and I was quite surprised that we didn't have Sookie reading her mind to try and ascertain just that in this episode. Because of this, I'd imagine that we're meant to think that Debbie has changed, but that maybe she hasn't quite... This is of course just speculation, since Debbie's recovery at all is unprecedented from the source material- who the heck knows what she's going to do next?!

One last person I want to talk about with regards to the self is Sookie herself. Whereas everyone else seems to be changing (to the extent that anyone can change, alright Sam), Sookie is almost doing the opposite- she is exactly the same as she was a year ago, but everything around her has changed. This means that she has to adapt quickly to get any kind of foothold on what has been happening around Bon Temps, which requires a sort of change in itself- being ready for any kind of news, and bracing oneself for it's unrelenting onslaught (things she's had to deal with: Tara's leaving, Bill being King, Eric buying her house, the fact that she's meant to be dead, the whole Debbie and Alcide thing... I could probably go on, but I won't). The fact that so much can change in a year practically confirms the idea that people can and do change, because they have to adapt to things being different all the time; but this everyday changing is not really the same as the kind of radical change that means one person acts completely differently to how they once did. Are they really different, or are they just play-acting because they want the life that being this other person provides? And is there really a difference between the two? Maybe not.

So these are just some thoughts I had about just one episode of this unbelievably moreish series. It's definitely my English training coming into play to some degree, but it's also the hold that the series has on my imagination, forcing me to think about it for much longer than I probably should, which makes me see much more about it than I do while I'm watching it (those thoughts consisting mainly of shirtless Eric, and then, when is shirtless Eric going to be on again?!). This is not at all a bad thing, on the contrary it gives me something to blog about, but it's just a slight indication of my obsession. I am Laura, and I'm a True Blood-aholic. Anyone else out there want to join me?

Wednesday 13 July 2011

Devouring Stephen King: Firestarter

Ah, Firestarter. Well, the clue to the plot of this book is in the title (why yes, it does involve a firestarter!), but it's sort of included in an interesting way so that the book is not so much a horror title as a thriller, kind of in the same vein as The Dead Zone, and this is definitely something that I wasn't expecting from it. It's interesting that, upon starting this King challenge of mine, I thought that I would be scared a lot, and while I have been mildly scared, what I've actually got from the books I've read so far is actually a lot better than mere shocks. This book was no exception, and it's possibly my favourite of the King books that I hadn't read when starting this challenge. There is, of course, still a long way to go, so maybe I shouldn't say such things yet. I'll just try to explain exactly what I liked about it.

So, the thing with Firestarter is that the mystical power, like in The Dead Zone, the mystical powers (pyrokinesis and psychic manipulation, in this case) belong to the protagonists, and you would think that this would give them the power and control in the story. But no. Instead, they are being chased down by the evil forces of a sinister government branch called the Shop, Andy's mind control power is giving him what seem to be mini-strokes, and Charlie, our little firestarter, is too brainwashed and terrified to use her powers to protect herself and her father. This gives a government that gave Andy (and his deceased wife) their powers, license to think that they can take them, along with an arrogant belief that, because the powers given to Andy belong to them, that he, and his subsequent offspring, belong to them too. What a bunch of pricks.

So I really really really enjoyed this book, as I might have mentioned, possibly because it was a new one for me so it was extra exciting, but even then, it was much better than The Dead Zone, which I hadn't read before either. I think the key to this was that there was a lot more chasing and running and generally more action in Firestarter than The Dead Zone (which basically outlined a man's sedentary recovery, let's face it), including a probably 20 page long part of a chapter that was so thrilling and exciting and tense that I swear I didn't breathe at all while I was reading it! In the storytelling respect, then, I think this is King really coming into his own as a writer of thrillers rather than horror, and it is something that he doesn't necessarily use that often, but also something that he is enviably good at. And, I think we can all enjoy a story of the little guy trying to overcome evil government agencies, can we not?

Aside from that, the characters in Firestarter are by turns adorable, courageous, and downright creepy. Charlie, as an innocent looking girl with enormous hidden potential, shows such vulnerability that you will want to adopt her and make sure that no one can ever hurt her ever (even though, as you will be made completely aware, she's more than capable of looking after herself, and anyone else who comes along). Andy is also incredibly well-drawn, as a desperate but incredibly brave man, just trying to do the best he can for his daughter, and trying to keep both of them safe and free. You will be rooting for them throughout the entire book. And then, there is Rainbird, an incredibly creepy Native American hitman, who, we find out, is essentially dead inside (isn't that a treat?!) and who wants more than anything to see Charlie die, so that he can get a greater idea of death. He's a pretty messed up dude, and I'm pretty sure that you wouldn't want to mess with him. Just a thought.

So, what more can I say to convince you that you need to read this book? There are so many finer plot points that I haven't included because I didn't want to ruin anything, and they're probably more interesting than anything I have written here, so go and read the book! I have to say that pretty much nothing I was expecting to happen happened (I was picturing more a little girl terrorising an entire town a la Carrie at the end of Carrie) so the whole book was really a pleasant surprise for me! If you have anarchist-style leanings, then this is probably a good book for you to read too.

Next up in the old King challenge is another Bachman book. I feel a tiny bit like whining 'aren't these done with yet?!' but I shall persevere because that is what I do. Just... don't expect me to read it too soon, ok?

Tuesday 12 July 2011

Top Ten Tuesday

Oh wow, it's that time again, and I didn't even realise! This is what readathoning all day on a Sunday does to you! So, this week's top ten may possibly be my most favouritest yet, and that's really not something I say every week (mostly because 'favouritest' isn't a word, and, you know, I like to use real words mostly). But anyway, here it is!

Top Ten Authors I'd DIE to Meet
(Disclaimer: there probably aren't any authors, or indeed people, that I would actually die to meet, because that would pretty much defeat the object of meeting them, because I wouldn't be able to, because I'd be dead. Just pointing out the metaphysical impossibility of the premise, but now that that's done...)

1. Stephen King- Admit it, you knew this was coming. As soon as you saw this week's top ten, and saw that I was participating in it, the first thought that came into your brain was 'Laura's going to say Stephen King, isn't she?' And you were so right. Mostly I want to meet him after I've read everything he's written, so that I have something to tell him and impress him with; and I would literally subject myself to the kind of torture seen in Misery to meet him (well, probably not. But maybe.)

2. John Steinbeck- The second thing that probably crossed your mind was 'hmm, she goes on about The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men a lot in these top ten posts. I bet she's going to say Steinbeck!' and oh my gosh, look at that, you're right again! Aren't you the clever one?! I would so massively love to meet Steinbeck and tell him that he utterly rocks my world. Reading his Life in Letters, and the East of Eden Letters, is almost like having a real connection with him, but is not quite good enough... Someone invent a time machine, now!

3. Margaret Atwood- This woman clearly rules, and following her on Twitter is sort of almost like meeting at least a tiny bit of her. Now if only I had the courage to actually talk to her on there, we might actually get somewhere! I like to imagine that we could be best friends and have all night long discussions about feminism and stuff. It's an awesome imaginary life I have...

4. Sylvia Plath- Yeah, I know. That would be a pretty depressing person to meet. But I would like to think that I could get all psychoanalytical on her, and try to make her happy, or at least keep her under constant supervision so that she didn't do anything silly. Then she could write some probably cutting and amazing prose about being kept captive and of her evil captors, and we'd all have something else to read and worship as teenagers. Also, I love her.

5. Tony Kushner- I doubt this meeting would consist of anything more than me telling Kushner about 80,000 times how much I love Angels in America, quoting my absolute favourite bits to him, and then sitting him down and forcing him to tell me how to write like someone who is absolutely amazing at writing. Also, I might then stop talking about Angels in America and talk about how I met its writer instead (but probably not. In fact, I'd probably just talk about both!)

6. George Orwell- I'd like to think that me and George could make a big difference to the world together, so I'd love to get him into today's world and make him Prime Minister, or possibly just the cutting allegorist and social commenter that he was for communism, but, you know, for today. Also, I'll bet he was just amazing. Just a hunch.

7. Stephen Chbosky- I would love to meet Chbosky, and just thank him for writing The Perks of Being a Wallflower, because really, it's just wonderful. If you haven't read it yet, just go and do it now. you can thank me later.

8. Jane Austen- I think we'd all like to meet Ms Austen, am I right? We could have a bitch about the neighbours over tea (or, you know, not tea if you're me) and then I could watch her write and just be all awed and stuff by her fabulousness. I have been to her house in Chawton, and that's probably about as close to her as I'm going to get *sniff*. Unless, you know, we invent that time machine I was talking about earlier...

9. Julie Powell- This is a bit of a random one, but since I've recently read (and LOVED!) Julie and Julia, I think it's fair to say that I'm pretty much in love with Julie, and I'd love to meet her, hang out with her, and have her cook nice things for me and generally corrupt my innocent young mind (anyone who knows me just snorted at that last bit). I will find you and meet you one day Julie!

10. Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs- This is not so much an author to hang out with, but more of a group to be in. The Beat Generation is something that is just so appealing to me that I would have love love loved to be part of their group, bouncing creative ideas off of one another, and just generally soaking up each others awesomeness (but, you know, in a less awful way). So yes, I'd like to meet them, be in their gang, and life off the fact that I'd been a part of that group for the rest of my life. That's how these things work, right?

So, I realise that I've just made these people major parts of my life, rather than just meeting them and shaking their hands and telling them that they write good things and stuff. But really, wouldn't we all rather have a fulfilling relationship with these people that goes beyond merely telling them that they rock (which is probably something they already know)? I think so! I'm looking forward to reading all about the authors you would all like to meet, and hopefully some hypothetical scenarios played out with them too!

Monday 11 July 2011

Summer Mini-Readathon: The Aftermath

So yesterday I read and I read and I read like never before (or, at least, like I haven't done in a while) and it was awesome, except that I was exhausted by the end of it and couldn't really figure out why until I thought about all the mental effort that I put into it, and then thought, yeah, actually, that was pretty exhausting! So, I know you're all just dying to hear what I got up to, and so, without any ado at all, here's what I got read:
Firestarter by Stephen King
I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron
Oranges are not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
AND about half of Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
I was pretty pleased with this, especially as I really did just do constant reading, few breaks, and a hellueva lot of gummy bears. What I was quite sad about was not taking part in any of the mini-challenges, so i'm going to try and make amends for it now, slightly.

Sooo, starting with Jenn's challenge...

This is the cover that I have for Everything is Illuminated, (except it's the slightly more updated Penguin version, which I couldn't find a picture of!) and it also happens to be my favourite one, because really, I just love those covers.
I found this cover for the book online, and, I dunno, it's not exactly the nicest cover ever... In fact, looking at it makes me want to yawn. Quite a lot. It's probably the worst one I found, it's not disgusting or anything but, you know, it does nothing for me really.

I really wanted to take part in the 4th mini-challenge (showing off where I read and stuff) but alas, I can't find my camera! This makes me very sad and stuff, so I'll describe it to you instead (you're gonna love this, trust me!) I did most of my reading on my bed which is only a week and 2 days old (awwww!) and I lay my head at the wrong end because that's nearest the windows so it meant I got the most light. The rest of the time, I read on a beanbag at my nan's house that is about my favourite thing in the world to sit on- it's HUGE, so you can just curl up inside in and lay your head back and basically be a little reading foetus (ok, gross analogy. But you get my point.) So yeah, that's pretty much where I was yesterday!

And now, for the closing ceremony (I definitely just awarded myself the gold for the reading olympics in my brain):

1. How many books and or pages were you able to read?
I read, I guess, basically three books, since I was halfway through Firestarter, and then got halfway through Everything is Illuminated. I would say, without actually checking because I'm lazy, that I must have read about 800 pages? That's just a guesstimate, but I'm gonna say that it's pretty close...

2. How many hours were you able to read for? (Were there many distractions, breaks, etc?)
I pretty much read for the whole 12 hours- I stopped for meals, and also to have a shower, but other than that, it was basically read, read read! I would say that, at the most, I lost 1 and 1/2 hours, and probably actually less than that- go me! Hehe

3. Do you have any likes/dislikes about the 12-hour readathon, compared to the 24-hour readathon?
Having not yet taken part in my first 24 hour readathon, I'm going to say that the 12 hour one was pretty amazing! I do think that 24 hours would probably be too long for me to read, since after 12 I was flagging somewhat... but then I think that the sense of achievement might be slightly more with a 24 hour readathon, because I'm thinking now 'well, 3 books doesn't seem that many' which is a pretty messed up way to look at it!

4. Favourite and Least Favourite books you read?
This is tricky! I really liked all of them! I guess, if forced, I would choose 'I Feel Bad About My Neck' as my favourite, and my least favourite would probably be 'Everything is Illuminated', only because I haven't quite figured it out fully yet. But I am still enjoying it!

5. Suggestions of things to do differently?
I really can't think of anything! I think it was a really well hosted readathon, and I really enjoyed following along on twitter! I know there are some things that I would do differently (eat less sugar, be better prepared, figure out a stack of books beforehand, blog more during etc.) but the hosting was really top notch, I thought!

And so, yes. That was my readathon. If you took part, I hope you had as good a time as me, and if not then stay tuned and maybe we can readathon together some day! You know you want to...

Saturday 9 July 2011

Summer Mini-Readathon Plannage

Soooo, tomorrow is my first (proper) readathon, and I am a little bit excited (now that I've remembered it... I went to London today and M&Ms World was exciting enough to drive all rational thought from my brain, but I am so on the readathon track now). So, the right thing to do now seems to be to make some kind of plan, although I'd probably work better without one considering my complete inability to do anything I'm supposed to...

But anyway, that aside, I'm going to make a rough plan, and not beat myself up too much if I don't follow it completely. I'm going to read from around 10am BST, although it may be slightly later depending on what time I wake up, and, apart from a break for lunch at my nan's house (cause that's how I roll on Sundays), I'm basically going to read all day (yay!)

But, the question on almost nobody's lips is, what am I going to read?! Well, I'm going to finish Firestarter by Stephen King, and I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron, and then after that, who knows? I probably should, I guess... So I'm going to say I'll go for Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, OR The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein, depending on my mood (the right mood for each of these is radically different, trust me!) This could all change by tomorrow though, so I guess we'll all have to wait and see with baited breath which books I review after tomorrow!

As for updates during, I'm probably not going to do many (or possibly not any!) but I'm sure I'll be tweeting my way through my reads, which definitely won't be annoying! But I am basically pretty excited to read away my Sunday!

Thursday 7 July 2011

Literary Blog Hop, July 7-10

Literary Blog Hop
It's a Literary Blog Hop week! Um, yay! Even though I am slightly scared by this week's question, I am going to attempt to answer it as best I can. Please be kind.

What is one of your favourite literary devices? Why do you like it? Provide a definition and an awesome example.

Do I really have a favourite literary device? Did I, in fact, even remember what a literary device was until I started reading everyone elses answers to this question? I'd have to say, that's a bit of a no. The only question I can really answer yes to right now is 'are you currently looking up literary devices on Wikipedia and trying to find one that you a) recognise, and b) like?' I'm going to say, though, that I really like foreshadowing when it turns up in a text.

Foreshadowing, which I'm sure you know because it's been used in numerous books, movies, plays and so on; and is a pretty effective technique, is where there are clues and markers throughout a story that something bad is going to happen at the end, and things keep building up and building up until the bad thing finally happens, and it's almost a relief when it does. The best example of this I can think of is in The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, where there is a constant ominous feeling as you're reading that something bad is going to/already has happened, and yet you're not quite sure what it is, or how bad it is until very near the end. This makes reading this book a really stressful experience, but ultimately a rewarding one, since it's completely and utterly excellent, and the best thing to read in a sultry summer heat.

There are plenty of other books that use foreshadowing to excellent effect, including To Kill a Mockingbird (the thing with the rabid dog and Atticus being the only one to stand up to it? Awesome), Of Mice and Men, and I'm pretty sure that Donna Tartt (author of The Little Friend and The Secret History) is the Queen of foreshadowing- those books both just build up the smallest details to culminate in awful acts or revelations that change everything. I've actually just realised that I might have just been describing building up tension rather than just foreshadowing (which I've just remembered/possibly researched a little bit more) is something slightly more subtle than just tension building. So you should probably just ignore everything I've just said! Other than the goodness of these books, which should never be ignored, and which you should probably definitely read, if only to tell me that I'm a moron and there's actually no foreshadowing in them at all!

Well, that was a bit of a fail. But I definitely look forward to reading everyone else's responses to the question, because they might actually know what they're talking about! 

Wednesday 6 July 2011

Devouring Books: An Education by Lynn Barber

Reading An Education brought up some extremely mixed feelings for me, because on the one hand it was well written, everything in its right place and so on, but I just honestly and truly didn't like the author at all. When what you're reading is said author's memoirs, this presents a bit of a problem, because everything is from her viewpoint and, I have to be honest, it's usually irritating, sometimes snobby, sometimes (it seems) completely uncaring. Barber may be the nicest woman in the world, but the way she presents herself in her memoirs, to me she sometimes seems like the worst. But I'll get back to that later.

It is important to know, from the outset, that An Education, is unlike the film, a memoir of Barber's entire life (so far) rather than just one incident that happened to her when she was 16. This makes for a much more interesting memoir, and obviously a much fuller idea of Barber's life, but this doesn't mean that the film was wrong for just focussing on one chapter of it- An Education, the second chapter of the memoir, is probably the most self-enclosed story in the book, and the one most suited to film, and then it is fun to find out what happened to Jenny (or, I suppose in this case, Lynn) after her whole debacle with an older man.

Unfortunately, real life, as it tends to be, is nowhere near as good as the film. As I may have mentioned, I really didn't like Barber (I kind of had the opposite reaction to the author that I did when I read Julie and Julia), and while it is perhaps unfair to compare a real person to a fictional character, I couldn't help but compare Barber to Jenny in the film. Barber was a lot more smug, a lot more snobby, and a good deal more judgemental and just plain rude really than it seemed that Jenny had the ability to be. Both show contempt towards their parents, but in Barber's case it seems to be quite nasty- she refers to her mother as having a 'beta brain', and doesn't really ever say anything nice about them. She does things for them grudgingly, but never really shows any love for them. I'm not one to say that you should necessarily love your parents no matter what because I think there are some things that are unforgivable, but to me, Barber's parents don't do any of these things. Would, for example, Barber have even gotten into Oxford without her parents' pushing and making her work hard? And would her life have been as good without that education? It's unlikely, but clearly she doesn't see it that way.

I think the main problem I had with Barber was her major attitude in life, which was this: if something goes well in her life, then it's all down to her and her input, and if something goes wrong, it is everyone else's fault. Case in point: her relationship with Simon (the older man). She blames her parents for letting her go out with him, and for encouraging her to marry him (although, surely, that more than anything is the one choice that was hers above anyone elses), but her eventually going to Oxford is all down to herself and has nothing to do with the hard work that her parents had been encouraging for years. I also hated her objections that working at Penthouse, and that Penthouse itself wasn't demeaning to women because "the pets [I mean, they were called PETS, for Gods sake!] were always treated well, as far as I could tell," which sort of misses the point of the fact that Penthouse's existence at all is sexist because it treated women as objects (or, you know, pets) rather than living, breathing, thinking individuals. But that's ok, because it doesn't directly affect Barber, and so it's not an issue at all.

The thing that I found most irritating about Barber, though, is that she behaves as though she is the product of a traumatic childhood, and that it is something that she can't break away from or change about herself. I'm a big believer in being able to change yourself and the way you act pretty easily, but she acts as though the things that she had been taught as a child were inescapable from. This ranges from hating her accent (honed through years of elocution lessons with her mother) which, I would have thought, if you'd changed once you could change again; and culminates in her, essentially, not being able to love properly because her parents 'always taught me to equate love with duty.' I mean, can she just get a grip? If she knows that love and duty are not interchangable, then why does she not just live her life according to that rather than 'what her parents taught her'? She seems to dislike her parents so much that it would be easy for her to do, surely? And, if she does think that love and duty are the same, then why does she resist spending time with her husband while he's really ill? I mean, we all hate being in hospitals, but we do it for the people we love who don't have a choice about being there- we don't leave as quickly as possible and fob them off to friends because we don't like being there. Just sayin'.

I realise that this reads more like a character assassination than a book review, but when said book is a memoir, it's difficult not to have a gut feeling about their personality and their actions. Like I said, I can't definitively say that 'Lynn Barber is a horrible person' or anything like that because obviously I don't know her- she could honestly be completely wonderful, and in that case I would apologise for all I have written. But, if this is the case, then why would she not choose to present herself in a nicer way, why would she not be less of a snob, and why would she feel the need to demean people that she doesn't think are as clever as her? I would suggest that you read this book for yourself, however, and decide how you feel about her yourself, because one person's Lynn Barber is another person's Julie Powell (if you know what I mean). Just don't expect to find Jenny between the pages of this book, because that's not who Barber is.

This is a review for the book of An Education. To see my review of the film (which I am far less grumpy about!), please click here.

Tuesday 5 July 2011

Top Ten Tuesday

Tuesday? Already? Actually, my thinking that Tuesday has come around fast is a complete lie, since I was in a meeting at work yesterday that felt like it was actually 5 million years long (and I can't confirm that it wasn't!) So only the day at the top of my screen convinces me that it actually is Tuesday. And, as we all know, that can only mean that it's time for Top Ten Tuesday, hosted, as ever, by the wonderful The Broke and the Bookish. And this week's topic iiiiiiiiiiiis:

Top Ten Rebels in Literature

1. Atticus Finch from To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee- I mean really, this man risked social exclusion (which, considering the society, wasn't really that big of a deal) and even his own life to do the right thing, and, as a natural side effect, to teach his children the right thing as well. All other rebels have nothing on Atticus.

2. Tyler Durden from Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk- I know Tyler Durden is basically a psychopath, but he is a pretty big rebel is he not?! As the narrator tries to pull him back, Tyler just keeps getting more and more outrageous, and tries to make the things that he thinks should happen, happen, no matter what other people, or, you know, the law, might tell him. Total rebel!

3. Roland Deschain from The Dark Tower Series by Stephen King- Roland is a rebel in that he is completely focused on his goal and is physically unable to give up on it, to the extent of pigheadedness and, sometimes, foolishness. Nonetheless, this tunnel vision means that he must rebel against any obstacle to his path, because that path is the only right way for him. He is to be both pitied and admired for this, but he is still a completely awesome rebel.

4. Snape from Harry Potter by JK Rowling- Snape, who we thought had rebelled in one direction, actually ended up rebelling in the other, and all for love. Awwwww, basically! It's really difficult, having been induced to hate the man for 6 books, to suddenly have to completely and utterly love him, but that's what happens, all because of the whole unrequited love thing.

5. Cry Baby Walker from Cry Baby- If you haven't seen Cry Baby then I really don't know what to do with you! But Cry Baby is clearly a tongue-in-cheek rebel, complete with motorcycle, tattoos, and like totally square girlfriend. Combine that with some fascinating/disgusting kissing lessons, and Cry Baby is probably my very favourite rebel of all!

6. Robert Thorn from Soylent Green- This guy risks his entire life to try and save the people of a horrifically overpopulated future New York City. He does it only because of the people he could save, without a second thought to what revealing to everyone what he knows could mean for him (i.e. his death). Even though he's played by Charlton Heston, he's still pretty bloody amazing.

7. Reverend Casy from The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck- The Reverend is probably the deepest thinker in The Grapes of Wrath, but as well as that, he converts these thoughts into actions, and tries to make a real difference, which the authorities definitely don't like, but I really really do.

8. Salman Rushdie- This guy stood up (and continues to stand up) for his own work, believing so completely in the power of free speech that he refused to even let a fatwa (an essential death threat) stop him. Totally rebellious and awesome.

9. Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty from On the Road by Jack Kerouac- These guys, of all my rebels, are probably who I would most like to be. They are almost completely free- as long as they've got a little bit of money for gas and food, they can go anywhere they want and do anything they want. I'm not without reservations for the book (it's pretty sexist, for one thing), but the way these guys live seems to me to be the ultimate way to live, and yet it's not what society expects of you. To rebel, then, seems to be the only way to live the life that you actually want.

10. Winston Smith from 1984 by George Orwell- Well, he was at the start anyway. I know that he sort of chickens out of the whole thing (and my god, how depressing is it that he does?) but while he is rebelling, he's sort of awesome. Fight the power and all that stuff etc!

So these are my favourite rebels. How about you? Getting ten this week was a bit of a struggle, so I'm sure everyone else's lists will inform me of the amazing rebels whose identities have eluded me thus far! I have in the course of writing this just thought of two more (Bret Easton Ellis, and Frank Abagnale Jnr from Catch Me If You Can) so I can tell that today's going to be really annoying for me! But anyway, yes, tell me your rebels, or maybe just rebel and don't! Whatever. You know.

Monday 4 July 2011

Summer Mini-Readathon

Just yesterday I signed up for the Summer mini-readathon, hosted by Sarah Says. Taking place on 10th July, it's basically an excuse for me to read as much as humanly possible, but it is also achievable and will avoid my unfortunate readathon FAIL of three months ago (which, to be fair, was a readathon hosted on my birthday...) But anyway, this is a readathon for 12 hours, which means that I can totally sleep a normal amount as well as reading an abnormal amount, and still go to work on Monday (yay..?)

So, yeah. That's what I'm going to be doing next Sunday! Pop over to Sarah's blog if you feel like doing the same, and you can sign up for challenges and all sorts of things like that! Sarah's going to be reading from 10am-10pm Eastern time, which would be 3pm-3am my time... so I'm probably not going to be doing the same hours, except that I might do the same hours (well that's a sentence and a half, but obviously I mean I might do 10am-10pm my time- you all got that, right?!) But I'll decide by what time I actually wake up on the day, I guess! Yay for reading!!

Sunday 3 July 2011

IMM/Mailbox Monday

I did it again... Book buying, not on the scale of last week's escapades, but still pretty naughty. But fear not! I am going to do something about this whole book buying catastrophe that I've got going on, and that is this- I'm not going to buy any books for the whole month of July (!) unless I see some good value Stephen King books because of my whole Stephen King book collecting thing I've got going on. But I'll try not to buy those either. I came to this decision after realising just how many books I've got and haven't read yet when I was organising my room ready for the new bed I got yesterday, so I'll hopefully just concentrate on getting some of those read before I even think about buying any new ones (but not all of them, obviously, because I have about a zillion!)

Anyway, so this is my last IMM/Mailbox Monday before my hiatus from book buying, so I'm trying to make it good! I got 4 new books this week:

Firestarter- Stephen King- So this was the next book on my Stephen King challenge list, and I didn't own it, and my local library didn't have it, so I had to pay full price for it, which I'm not sure has ever happened before, at least in my Stephen King collection! I'm not best impressed by this, but needs must I suppose. I've started it already and it's pretty good, so there's that at least!

Christine- Stephen King- On the plus side, I did get Christine for about £1.30, which I guess makes up at least some kind of portion of what Firestarter cost me (am I ever going to let this go?! Probably not...) I have read Christine before, and I remember it being relatively creepy, so I'm looking forward to revisiting it whenever I get to it! Exciting stuff, this Stephen King business...

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carrol- I've seen two film versions of Alice in Wonderland, and have been to this Alice in Wonderland themed shop in Oxford, and yet I've never actually read the book. This is an injustice that needs to be rectified, and so I bought this which I should read pretty quickly considering it's teeny tiny cuteness!

The Help by Kathryn Stockett- I read a review of this quite a while ago and thought it sounded really interesting, then promptly forgot about it afterwards. Then last weekend I entered a giveaway to try and win it, and became rabidly obsessed with reading it. I may not have won that giveaway, but I got the book anyway, so all is good with the world!

So, these are the books I got this week, how about you? As well as buying these books, I also found some time to do some blogging, and here are some things you might have missed this week:

Tuesday: Top Ten Tuesday, where I talk about my favourite followees on twitter and implore you to go and seek them out too.
Wednesday: I reviewed A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.
Thursday: I reviewed The Dead Zone by Stephen King
Friday: I hopped around a bit and told everyone my favourite book couples!
Saturday: I wrote a eulogy for United States of Tara... Oh how I'm going to miss that show!

AND, potentially most excitingly, I WON A BOOK! That's right, I won Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by F C Delius, from Tony at Tony's Reading List!!!!! I can't even tell you how excited I am by this, or how many times I'm going to be checking for the post (i.e. about 10 times a day!) before this arrives! But yes, eeeeeeee! And thank you so very very much Tony!

So, that was the week that was. I hope that you all had equally good weeks, and that you enjoy the upcoming one!

Saturday 2 July 2011

A Eulogy for United States of Tara

Ah, Tara. I can't begin to tell you how excited I was about your arrival on TV, written by the amazing Diablo Cody, starring the incomparable Toni Collette, dealing with a mental illness that no one knows much about, and that some people don't even think exists. From the very beginning you stood out from what can only be described as a lot of utter crap, managing to be funny and yet sensitive; extremely deep, and yet incredibly watchable. Have any TV shows been as good as you? Some, but not many. I can't even say how much I'm going to miss you, but let me tell you why I loved you.

Firstly, there was your cast. Toni Collette, who I already knew was an extremely versatile actress, just became something so good that one person probably shouldn't be allowed to be as talented as she is. She plays out the alters so well, but it is as Tara that she shines, apologetic for something that she can't control, and wanting so badly to just be like everyone else. She really steals the show, but there is still room for a whole load of equally talented actors, who create characters that anyone who watches can't help but love. John Corbett plays the long suffering but always supportive Max, the perfect husband that anyone who saw him as Aiden in Sex and the City always knew he could be, and Rosemarie Dewitt is Tara's flaky but lovable sister Charmaine, who tries her very best to help Tara, but doesn't always end up succeeding.

A really integral part of the programme, I think, are Tara and Max's kids, and the role that their mother has ended up playing in their lives and development. They were so well drawn and their reactions so well considered that it made it really interesting to see their reactions to all the crazy shit that they didn't ask for, and didn't have a choice in. The main result of this seems to have created 2 reasonably well-balanced teenagers, who know to stick close to each other and value each other's advice because they are the only two people who know what it's like to have Tara (and T, and Alice, and Buck...) as a mother. In series 3, I started feeling like Marshall was being unfair to Tara, but then it occurred to me that, actually, he was acting in a similar way to Kate in the first series, when, she was at (I think) the same age, whereas Kate had matured so much that she had become the much more accepting child. I think, in fact, Kate's development throughout the series was the most striking, and made her possibly my favourite character overall (kind of sort of want to be her a bit).

But United States of Tara was not all about the actors, it was about the stories too. And such stories they were! I can't remember being bored at any point in any episode, and along with the individual story of each episode, there was also the running theme throughout all the series of what exactly it was that had triggered Tara's condition, and how, if at all, she could be helped to become whole again. We have been brutally denied the answer to that question, but I think we all want to imagine a life for Tara where she can be happy, above all else. We still have those wonderful three seasons of television, though, and it is such cleverly structured and written television, of the sort that you don't normally have the pleasure to watch. Just one of the things that I found so clever was the way the alters acted, at times, like complete defence mechanisms when Tara couldn't cope with the situation. Hence, when Kate was having problems, T would come out (this is also why we saw less of T as Kate grew up), when Tara thought she was failing as a mother and an all round housewife, Alice would manifest herself, and Buck, I think, was a way to cope with marital problems, and a way to completely desexualise herself to her husband. This is not to say that I don't believe in DID, or that Tara did these things on purpose, but just that Cody used the alters to create the best storylines, and to the greatest effect.

So why did United States of Tara have to leave us? I can't think of one good reason for dropping such an engaging and thought provoking programme, when programmes like Hung (I watched the entire first season of this and honestly lost the will to live. I mean what was the point of it? Was it supposed to be funny?! Or sad? I just don't know!) and so many dreadful reality tv shows are still being made. Season 7 of Weeds has just started airing on Showtime, when everyone knows that it hasn't been good since season 3, or, at a push, 4. So why drop Tara? I can but assume that its viewing figures weren't great, which just makes me so depressed that no one wants to watch tv that is actually good, while they inanely dial in for their favourites on American Idol (or whatever) and drool idiotically all over the floor. Television bosses in England are so short-sighted that we haven't even seen a glimpse of Tara on British screens, and, considering her rude and abrupt exit from American tv, it doesn't look like we're going to get to ever. Thank God for Megavideo, is all I can say.

But anyway. I come to praise Tara, not to bury every other tv show. I will probably always resent Showtime for cancelling United States of Tara (and for letting that appalling 'road trip' season of Weeds to happen) but I must save my energy for hating on politicians and stuff like that rather than tv networks. But please people- stop watching crap and start watching the good programmes so I don't have to go through this kind of emotional anguish again, yeah? But, for now, under duress, I guess I'll just say goodbye to Tara and Max, Marshall and Kate, Charmaine, Neil and Wheels, to T, Alice, Buck, Gimme, Shoshanna and Chicken, and to everyone else who made United States of Tara so so fucking amazing. At least we'll always have boxsets.