Wednesday 31 August 2011


So, I just found out about the R.I.P. challenge running from the September 1st to October 31st from Breana's blog, and of course I immediately went over to sign up because, really, when am I not reading a scary book?! I'm going to go for Peril the First, which is:
Read four books, of any length, that you feel fit (my very broad definitions) of R.I.P. literature. It could be Stephen King or Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle, Ian Fleming or Edgar Allen Poe... or anyone in between.
Hmm, Stephen King, you say? I accept your challenge, says I! There are definitely going to be Stephen Kings in the four (obviously) but I might mix it up a bit by also reading possibly Dracula, maybe re-reading Frankenstein, and I know I have something Poe-ish lying around somewhere. So this is going to be really fun!

Just one thing- I scare really easily, so no one sneak up on me while I'm reading any of these books, ok? Guys? ...Guys? Where has everyone gone..?

Devouring Films: The Astronaut's Wife

Oh boy. The hour and forty minutes that I spent watching this film I would really want back, if I hadn't spent about an hour and twenty minutes playing solitaire on my Blackberry, and more or less pretending that this film wasn't on in the background. Here are the nice things I can say about it: I sort of liked the twist at the end because it was quite unexpected and an interesting way to end things. And, Johnny Depp, was, of course, excellent in it- I totally bought that he was an astronaut possessed by an alien (well, since the original character was dead, I guess he just generally was an alien) as much as an idea like that can be bought by anyone.

Apart from those two things? This film literally had no redeeming features. It was astoundingly similar to The Devil's Advocate, another terrible film with a great actor in (I'm obviously talking about Al Pacino rather than Keanu Reeves, because, please- Keanu can't really act, bless him) in that Charlize Theron plays some guys wife, moves from Florida to New York and gets freaked out a lot. Only this time, there are aliens. And Charlize Theron? I mean, I've seen monster and I know this woman can act, but there is very little evidence of this in The Astronaut's Wife- She just sort of screams and flails around a lot and looks worried, or otherwise just relishes the attention from the husband that she knows there is something wrong with. What is wrong with this picture? Well, I've just told you. Everything.

Apart from the acting, though, there's the story. Or lack thereof. The problem from the very beginning is that you get no indication of what Spencer (Depp) is actually like as a person or as a husband, there are about 3 minutes of screentime before he goes off on the space shuttle and 'something weird happens that he won't talk about' whooooooo... So, while Jill (Theron) may know there's something wrong with her husband (although she really doesn't say too much about this anyway) there is no way for the audience to have any idea that there is something wrong with him. And, after all this, there's still about an hour and a half of the film to go, where nothing really happens. There is a half-hearted attempt by a NASA guy to warn Jill that something's wrong with Spencer,and then there's the big climactic twist, but other than that? It's pretty much just Theron sitting around being worried and irritating, while Spencer goes to work on a plane that's meant to fly into space or something? (I may have stopped listening by this point. But who can blame me?)

I really have no experience to be able to say anything about shoddy camerawork or anything, since I wouldn't have the first clue about how to shoot a movie (hence why my criticism is usually purely story related) but the camera angles and stuff in this seemed to be so strangely chosen and off-putting to the whole look of the film that even I noticed them. I don't really have the lexicon to be able to describe what exactly was wrong with some of the shots, but I'm pretty sure that just by watching it (which I don't recommend you do) you'd notice them yourself. I guess they could be justified by saying that they were trying to add to the disorientation and confusion that Jill was going through, but really- they were just odd.

I only have myself to blame for watching this absolute joke of a movie really- I was adequately warned by two Depp biographies (one of which was worse than this film, purely because it lasted longer) that The Astronaut's Wife was not a good film, but in my infinite stupidity, I just have to watch every Johnny Depp film ever made. This one has definitely made that goal seem like it's going to be a very painful one to reach. Even if I do have his face as a certain consolation. There are just a couple more things to say about The Astronaut's Wife: Firstly, it has a 16% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which makes me wonder if that 16% are essentially brain dead, and secondly, very well pointed out by IMDb, all of NASA's operations are out of Houston ("Houston, we have a problem" ring any bells?) and the astronauts only go to Florida for Space Shuttle launches. That blunder really sums up the great big blunder this film really is- it probably shouldn't have been made (or at least should have been made better) and definitely should be readily forgotten, if only for the sake of one's artistic mental health. You should watch this film about as much as Spencer should have gone into space that time: in other words, not at all.

Note: I was so depressed by the awful that was this film, that I had to watch Cry Baby straight away afterwards. If you ever accidentally ingest this film, I suggest you do the same as the perfect antidote.

Tuesday 30 August 2011

Top Ten Tuesday

So, this weeks top ten, I'm assuming, relates to books that are going to be newly released this autumn (I'm sorry, I can't say fall. I just can't do it.) and I'm excited to read. Since I basically never read new books (autobiographies sometimes excepted, I'm looking at you Rob Lowe), I'm going to use this opportunity to tell you about the books that I have that I plan to read this autumn, preferably next to a nice warm fire, or in a pleasantly cool park with lots of trees that I can watch the leaves fall (the only way fall should be used, seriously!) as I read. So...

Top Ten Books that are on my TBR List for autumn

1. All of Orwell- I have a wicked fun plan for October that involves reading all the Orwell books I have (6 fiction, 3 non-fiction, and 1 collection of essays) for something that I have been calling Orwell October in my head since about May (I did also toy with the idea of Shakespeare September... but maybe I'll be brave enough to do that next year...). Clearly we're all very excited by this prospect, yes?

2. Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates- I got this for my birthday in April and I really want to read it, but just haven't yet. I started it on Sunday night and I already love it- it might end up being an end of summer rather than an autumn read at this rate though!

3. The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing- For a very particular and special reason, more about which will be revealed on Thursday...

4. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood- I've still only read The Handmaid's Tale by the marvellous Atwood, and this clearly needs to change. I've got my sights set on The Blind Assassin, and I'll be damned if I let anything get in the way of reading it this autumn. If, however, you think I should read either Alias Grace, or Oryx and Crake instead, speak now or forever hold your peace... or you know, let me read a book that isn't as good as either of them may be...

5. The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck- I've read this before but I can't really remember it, just that it was pretty amazing. I also picked it for this list because it has a season in the title, albeit the wrong season... yeah, I don't really know where I was going with that, so you should probably just ignore this one. Although I am probably going to read it!

6. A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson- I have about 5 or 6 Bryson books and so far I've read only one (Shakespeare, which was really good!) which I should probably change or, you know, get rid of the books if I'm not going to read them! I've decided on this one because I think (think) it's kind of related to Walden which, I'm sorry I've tried, but I really can't get through. This seems like a good compromise/a cop out...

7. Life by Keith Richards- This is on loan from my dad, and I really need to read it sometime soon (not because he wants it back, just because I think it's going to be awesome!) I've looked at the pictures already, and there's one of Johnny Depp, so things are looking good on that front... (I'm kidding! Mostly. But Johnny Depp pictures in a book=not at all a bad thing. Just sayin')

8. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon- Another re-read, but this one I really want to review so that I can inspire people to go and read this book because I do love it desperately! Also because the last time I read it was in an afternoon, and I'm not sure I appreciated all its nuances fully enough. But mainly just because it rocks.

9. White Teeth, or possibly On Beauty by Zadie Smith- Because I have had these books for so long that I really need to read one of them before they just never get read ever. This may be a tad dramatic. But I still want to read one of them!

And, one book that is being released this autumn:

10. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides- Eugenides irritated me with The Virgin Suicides, then wholly redeemed himself with Middlesex (I mean, really really redeemed himself) so I'm quite excited to read The Marriage Plot when it's released. That will make 3 Eugenides books in one year, which might well make this the year of Eugenides. But we'll see...

So these are my top ten books to read this autumn. Sorry if you wanted to see new releases, but that's what I read everyone else's blogs for- inspiration for new books that I can read in about 3 years time! That doesn't count as using you, right?

Monday 29 August 2011

Devouring Books: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. What to say, what to say? I wanted to love this book so so so much, have it make me cry and laugh and be angry and just generally want the world to be better (I basically wanted it to be The Perks of Being a Wallflower, I guess), but it wasn't quite like that. This is not to say that reading it was a bad experience (far from it) but it wasn't everything that I wanted it to be. It's difficult to say where I got my high expectations for the book from, but let's just say they weren't exactly met.

I probably shouldn't have started this review on such a negative note, because now whatever I say about this book, you're going to think 'well, she didn't like it that much, so I won't bother reading it.' I think that would be a mistake. The problem is, what I wanted from this book was an instant classic, something that I would cherish forever and want to read every week. What I got instead though, wasn't half bad. There are so many quoteworthy lines, that at points during reading, I wondered if it wouldn't have been better to just copy out the entire book. Things like: "Sometimes I can hear my bones straining under the weight of all the lives I'm not living", and "The world is so big and small, in the same moment we are close and far",  and "You can not protect yourself from sadness without protecting yourself from happiness", and so many more magnificent tiny snippets that reflect the things that we feel that we might never have been able to put into words. I think this is something Foer does as well as any author I've read, and I love him for it dearly.

And yet. A book cannot exist on wonderful quotes alone, and, in my eyes, where this book falls down is in one particular part of it, which I felt should have been the most important, but instead became the most annoying. There are basically three voices in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, those of Oskar, a nine year old boy whose father died in 9/11, and his grandmother and grandfather. Of these, I felt that Oskar's story was the most important (it seems to me that there hasn't been a lot of fiction written about 9/11, so the first of these need to be done well, in my opinion) and yet his was the one that annoyed me the most- I'm not sure if it was just his precocious, and yet socially challenged character (he fails to see why referring to his cat as his pussy is so hilarious, which I don't really buy, but then he's not allowed to watch TV either...) or just the general scenarios that Foer put him in, but I really didn't feel as sympathetic towards him as I thought I should have. I mean, the kid's just lost his father, and I just sort of wanted him to shut up a little bit, which made me feel like a monster, but I don't think I'm entirely to blame for this- surely Foer could have made him more sympathetic?

The parts of the story told by Oskar's grandmother and grandfather I found a lot better, especially since they have so much more to tell than Oskar actually does- everything has yet to happen to him, whereas most of the things that are going to happen to them have already happened. I liked the linking of 9/11 to Dresden, (which is not exactly explicit, but I made it myself!) as a sort of reminder that deaths are caused by all sorts of people, to all sorts of people, without any kind of reason connecting them. There were, however, even implausibilities in these sections, most notably in his grandmother's narration, addressed directly to Oskar, where she tells him about having sex with his grandfather! Is this really something that grandparents share with their grandchildren? I think not.

The main plot, where Oskar attempts to solve the mystery of a key he finds in his father's wardrobe, I found pretty uninspiring, although I felt that all the Blacks he finds (Black is the name on the envelope the key was in) were sort of more interesting than Oskar was himself. They have genuinely interesting lives and eccentricities, whereas Oskar's own eccentricities remind me more of this, from Sex and the City: "It's like she's consciously trying to cultivate eccentricities, so that nobody notices she's completely devoid of personality." Again, I feel like a monster, but Foer, seriously? Write a kid that I can have any interest in, rather than a hipster's wet dream of what a child should be like. One thing that I did feel, however, was that Oskar was a lot more likeable when his father was alive (and maybe a bit more genuine childlike?) so perhaps his father's death has acted as a catalyst for his new weirdness. But still. I just didn't like him, OK?

I guess, in spite of my review, I would still recommend Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, if only for those little breathtaking moments in words, and the parts not narrated by Oskar. Like I said, it's not that I hated the book at all, it's just that I was disappointed not to be blown away by it like I thought I would be. I'm choosing not to feel bad about my monstrousness, though, because Michiko Kakutani (who I consider to be pretty important in the literary world considering that she has a Pulitzer and reviewed Carrie's book in Sex and the City...) according to Wikipedia, "identified the unsympathetic main character as a major issue". I can think of worse people to be in agreement with. But still, please do read it and find some kind of redeeming light in Oskar, then come back here and call me a monster. I'd be perfectly willing to be proven wrong about this book.

Thursday 25 August 2011

Devouring Stephen King (as Richard Bachman): The Running Man

Ah, the Bachman mask. A great way for Stephen King to let out the thriller side of his writing personality, and The Running Man is a pretty good one. It's not my favourite of the Bachman books I've read so far (that would be Roadwork) but I thought it was a pretty original idea, well executed, and in parts reminded me of 1984 (although, not quite that good...)

The Running Man is your basic dystopia- a horrifying world where the poor are extremely poor, the rich are extremely afraid, and the most entertaining entertainment is game shows where the extremely poor take part in programmes that risk their lives to scrounge together a few dollars just so they can keep on living. The most extreme of these game shows is The Running Man, a show where a man is hunted to the death, unless he lasts 30 days on the run, in which case he gets a billion dollars. The odds are largely stacked in favour of the network, the evil overlords and masterminds of The Running Man, but our hero, Ben Richards, is largely resourceful, and very very desperate.

There are a lot of action-y moments in this novel that I wasn't too interested in- things like fast car chases and hijackings, things like that; but more interesting, I found, were the areas of social injustice that King chose to focus on. These were injustices that were not only dystopian in nature, but actually also provided a pretty accurate view of how societies have existed for quite a long time (or at least, I'm sorry to say, since the invention of America, but probably before that anyway) in that, by making the rich afraid of the poor so that they have no inclination to help them, and generally blame them for the (comparatively) minor problems that exist in their lives. This is how a programme like The Running Man is able to exist in this society, especially as the game is skewed wildly in favour of the Network's motives- Richards is presented as a wild man, practically as someone who eats babies, while his poor wife is (unforgivably, in his eyes) presented as a slovenly slattern. With the evil Network overlords controlling everything, nobody really stands a chance- as is made perfectly clear by "The Games emblem (the silhouette of a human head superimposed over a torch)." How the rich people, who seem to be relatively sane-ish let this happen to other human beings is anyone's guess, but in a world that allows countless genocides to happen, and used to condone slavery, it's difficult to criticise dystopias for being unrealistic in this sense.

So, yeah, I did like The Running Man for its political aspects, but it was much harder to love all the action sequences. This is something I don't especially enjoy even in films, so reading them is even harder, especially because I don't have a good visual basis for such things. If this is something you enjoy, then this book will definitely exhilarate you, but I wasn't so keen, and could have done with a lot more of the characters sitting around talking, and philosophising, and revealing the utter shittiness of a world that leaves children to die, while a few people get more and more power. But then, I guess, it wouldn't be called The Running Man anymore... But The Sitting Around and Talking Guys is a much better title anyway, right? What I did find fascinating was how the people in the positions of greatest power were those involved with television- it's something King has touched on before, including, I think, in Danse Macabre, but I really don't think the dude likes TV very much- he seems to see it as a brainwashing device, even to a mild extent, which is taken to quite impressive extremes in this story.

So, to sum up The Running Man: political ideologies and a desire to bring down the man=good. Constant action sequences that I can't really keep up with=not so good. To be perfectly fair, though, another reader might have the complete opposite reaction to me, so it's almost worth reading just as a 'what kind of reader are you?' test! But seriously, it's fast paced, pretty exciting, and interesting to boot- what more could you ask for from a Stephen King book? Go and read it, but not necessarily as your first Bachman book.

Coming up next, and I couldn't be more excited, is the first in The Dark Tower series, The Gunslinger. I remember not necessarily loving it all that much when I read it last time, but I am still so excited because it means the start of The Dark Tower series, and also I love its main character, so there you go. You'll see in a little while what I mean when I say I love him...

Wednesday 24 August 2011

Devouring Films: Inception

I watched Inception again last night, and I definitely don't even want to attempt to review it (just know that I basically think about it in exclamations and squeals) but just know that I'm actually now slightly more confused about the entire thing than I was when I first watched it. Also, that van takes a really long time to fall, which is something I always forget when I watch it.

There are just three things I want to say about Inception, one of which is completely snarky, but is said with utter love. Firstly, though, allow me to point out, as I do to everyone who is going to watch it/has watched it/doesn't even care about watching it, that, even though the concepts are completely and utterly mind-bending and difficult to even consider at all, the actual plot of the movie is really straightforward- they go through the dreams methodically, it is clear that everyone knows what their job is, and no one is too freaked out about the dream layers, and it all works itself out in the end anyway. Or does it? Here's the second thing that annoys me: the uncertainty of the ending drives me utterly insane- I can't even count the times I have thought about it, alternately dismissing one possibility and accepting the other, then switching again; but for me there is only one option that allows me to sleep at night, so that's the version I choose to accept. (If you haven't seen the film and this makes no sense, then GO AND WATCH THE FILM).

Here's the third thing:

I saw this last year, and it made me go 'yeah, why didn't he actually?!' This has not affected my love for the film one iota, I just want to point out. But still. Lol. 

Tuesday 23 August 2011

Top Ten Tuesday

Hola amigoes and amigettes! (tooootally not a word, I realise...) Welcome to another installment of 'Laura likes to make lists', graciously assisted by The Broke and the Bookish every Tuesday. A slight tweak to this weeks topic- instead of books I loved that I didn't review (and trust me there are plenty of these, my blogs origin being in January of this year) I'm going for authors that I LOVE, and yet have never reviewed a single one of their books! The craziness of me!

Top Ten Authors I Love But Have Never Reviewed

1. Joyce Carol Oates- I went through a whole Oatesian phase, have probably read 5 or 6 of her books, and yet I have never reviewed her wondefulness on any platform other than my own head. I do, however, have Blonde, which I believe is a sort of fictionalised biography of Marilyn Monroe, sitting next to my bed at the moment, so that could all change in the next few weeks!

2. Jane Austen- Of course I've read all six of Jane Austens novels, and all of them long before I started this blog. I just find it a bit sad that I haven't really said nice things about her on my blog. Needless to say, she rocks my world. And maybe I'll reread Northanger Abbey or Persuasion soon and say lovely things about it. Ditto Charlotte Bronte.

3. George Orwell- I love me some political minded, stop all the madness fiction, especially when the British government is the way it is. Nonetheless, I haven't read any Orwell, the master of this, for quite a long time. My plans for an 'Orwell October' could change all of this, mind you... Keep tuned for that one.

4. Tennessee Williams- Other than Tony Kushner, probably my favourite playwright. And yet, no reviews of his work, even though I'm taking part in a GLBT reading challenge. It's possible that studying Cat on a Hot Tin Roof twice in my educational life has done me in, which is a real shame, because the gushing I can do about Williams doesn't even bear thinking about!

5. Margaret Atwood- Ok, so I've only read one book by her so far (except possibly Cat's Eye when I was younger but I don't remember it) but it is pretty much one of the most awesome books I've ever read. The Handmaid's Tale, therefore, is sorely in need of a reread by me, and damn the millions of unread books I own!

6. Annie Proulx- As I think I may have mentioned before, I have a little bit of a love/hate relationship with Proulx. Nonetheless, I have read nearly all her books, am in fact the owner of nearly all her books, and yet I haven't reviewed a single one of them. I'll do a tiny review for you right now: Accordion Crimes is pretty amazing, and you should probably read it if you haven't yet.

7. William Shakespeare-  I really do love Shakespeare- I visited Stratford Upon Avon the other week and it was like the biggest thrill of my life! I haven't read all his plays (to be totally honest, I've only read the pretty well known ones) but I want to, and I definitely want to review them here- must get on that!

8. Paul Auster- I've read about 4 or 5 Auster books and I love love loved every single one of them! Since I have unfortunately nearly exhausted my supply of Auster books, I'm going to have to buy some more before I review them here- but trust me, when I do, it's going to be good!

9. Bret Easton Ellis- As with Proulx, I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Bret Easton Ellis- I have more or less read all of his books, but I sort of feel a bit empty and disheartened at the end of them. I suspect that this is exactly the kind of effect he is trying to provoke in his readers, which means he is very successful at achieving his aims, but whether or not this means I like him or not is up for debate.

10. J K Rowling- I know its a painfully unoriginal thing to say, but I adore Harry Potter so so so much. I'm not going to say that the books got me into reading or anything like that, because I was reading looong before I read them, but they are utterly fantastic. I think it's fair to say that I'm probably going to re-read them again in my life, and when I do I'll tell you the things I think about them (prepare for gusharoony times...)

So that's my top ten. Not quite reflective of this week's topic, but I could pick a book from each of these authors that I liked and haven't reviewed yet, and I will do so if it makes anyone feel any better: We Were the Mulvaneys, Emma, 1984, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Handmaid's Tale, Accordion Crimes, Macbeth, The New York Trilogy, American Psycho, and, you know, all the Harry Potter books! (The Goblet of Fire is probably my favourite). One day, perhaps, I will review these for you. But it won't be today... Looking forward to all your favourite books that haven't made it to your blogs yet too!

Friday 19 August 2011

Devouring Books AND Films- The Graduate (1967)/by Charles Webb

For the sake of full disclosure, I'm going to let you all know that I read The Graduate last year (I think it was in November), but I honestly, as you will soon see, have no urge to read it again. So if my review is not entirely accurate to the way the book is then you have my deepest apologies, but really, it's so not worth the re-read...

There was a time, towards the time of my own graduation last year, where I became entirely obsessed with the movie of The Graduate. There were, of course, entirely obvious reasons for this- the disorientation that comes with a pretty huge part of your life abruptly ending, especially when you don't have any idea what to do next, other than thinking that you don't want to do anything that everyone else does. Other than that though, it's just a really charming, at times hilarious, at times heart wrenching film; and let's be honest, who doesn't love Dustin Hoffman? I can't even really tell you what this film meant to me, other than to urge you to watch it when you are in a transitional stage in your life, and then tell me that it doesn't mirror what you feel almost exactly.

I read the book thinking that, since the film is so impressive, the book must be at least equally as good, if not better, because of the ability books have to reveal the inner lives of their characters, as well as their external actions. With the book of The Graduate then, I wanted greater insight into just what the hell Benjamin was thinking when he decides to do everything he does (I was surely not the only person slightly disarmed by his sudden decision to marry Elaine?!) and that's really not what I got. The book of The Graduate really just reads pretty much like a script of the movie, which is no bad thing in itself, but, I should say, I didn't get anything extra from it that I didn't get from the movie. The following review then, I guess, although it's going to focus mostly on the film, will really be about both, because they are essentially exactly the same. Sound good? OK, good!

So The Graduate is essentially a comedy, even though it is also incredibly deep, and reflective of real life (for the most part). I think it's easy, especially for me, to forget just how funny it is when I get to thinking about how dramatic and true and honest I find it. This is complete and utter foolishness on my part- in his starting an affair with Mrs Robinson (hilariously endorsed by Mr Robinson, encouraging Benjamin to 'sow his wild oats'; not realising that he is in fact pushing Ben towards his own wife) Benjamin's behaviour is endearingly and amusingly nervous- it is clear that he has no idea what he's doing, and because of that we love him. Any arrogance in the situation in which he finds himself would immediately make him repugnant to the audience, but because he is so unsure of himself, we can't help but hope he finds himself and what he really wants. His nervousness also leads to exchanges like this, which make me laugh out loud at about half 11 at night:
Isn't there something you want to tell me?
Tell you?
Well, I want you to know how much I appreciate this. Really.
The number.
The room number, Benjamin. I think you ought to tell me that."
I mean, just hilarious, am I right? I also love love love the whimpering that Hoffman comes out with on occasion too- the situation is just really too much for him, so he has to whimper or do something or he'll probably freak out. I don't want to give away too much of the hilarity though, just in case you haven't seen it yet- I'm sure you'll find your own favourite parts with great ease!

So, the funniness aside, as I've probably mentioned about 50 times now, The Graduate has some much deeper parts to it that I want to explore (or possibly they're not as deep as I think they are, but either way- I'm an English graduate, I can make anything seem deep!) Starting from almost the very beginning, it is clear that Benjamin is confused, distracted and just plain lost about what to do with his future. He has gone, in a very short time, to being the absolute star of his university (at least in his parents' eyes) to being out in 'the real world', where what you did isn't important anymore, all that is is what you do next. His saying that, with his future he wants to "do something... different", is, I think, a rejection of what his parents have deemed important of an adult life, and of what is conventionally available to him, and an urge to do something else. He just doesn't quite know what this is. I link this feeling to a sort of sixties sensibility, a feeling that your parents, who you watched throughout the fifties fulfilling conventional gender roles, have been doing it wrong somehow, and that you can do things so much better, if only you knew exactly what that looked like...

So we have Benjamin, aimless and confused, falling into an affair with a woman he barely likes because it is the easiest and clearest path offered to him. This all changes when he meets Elaine Robinson, someone with whom he feels a deep and clear connection because she understands what he's going through as she is in the same stage of her life as him. It is this, and only this, I would imagine, that leads him to believe that he is in love with her, and leads him to do the crazy stuff he subsequently does. I think, most telling about the way he feels about Elaine, or the reason he feels the way he does about Elaine, is when he tells her that "you're the first person in a long time I could stand to be around" leading him to think that, subsequently, she's the only person he can possibly be around for the rest of his life. More telling of his mental state than his apparent love for her, I think, is what he says straight after the above, "My whole life... such a waste." Not only do I want to hug him for thinking that, because it's clearly not the case, but this kind of thinking is definitely indicative of some higher crisis- being left with so many exhausting options to make, he has kind of shut down and is now unable to see a clear future at all. This, more than the way he feels about Elaine, is I think what is at the root of his decision to marry her- it gives him a better idea of what his future is going to look like, which is infinitely more comforting than not being able to see it at all.

I can't really talk about The Graduate without talking about the ending. Turn away now if you don't want to know about it, but really you sort of should already- it's an iconic thing, something that has entered pop culture of its own accord, and I know I've seen a Simpson's version of it... But anyway, if you really don't know then you should definitely wait to see it. But, for those of you that do... Benjamin's race to the church to stop Elaine's wedding is definitely heroic (albeit a little selfish) and you do sort of want to cheer for both him and Elaine for ending up with each other. On Elaine's part, it is clear that she really did know what Benjamin was talking about earlier, and she too doesn't want the life of her parents. To Mrs Robinson's insistent "It's too late", she replies "Not for me!" hoping to avoid the miserable marriage that her mother has been stuck in for twenty years. On a wave of adrenaline, Elaine and Benjamin leave the church, running onto a bus that will take them away to their hopeful future. Mike Nichols could have left his audience with a sense that everything would turn out alright for that crazy pair, but instead he allows us to see the expressions of our two young lovers, as they change from a sense of crazy exhilaration and joy, to a look of anti-climax, of wondering what the hell they've done, and what the hell they're going to do next. Benjamin still has no clear plan other than getting married, and Elaine doesn't know what Benjamin even has to offer her, although he is certainly more interesting than the schmuck she's just married. The song that begins playing at the very end 'The Sound of Silence' is exactly the same as the one at the beginning, and there is a sense that Benjamin is really in the same state as he was then, wanting so much from his future, but not even knowing how to begin to get it.

I really really really love The Graduate (as you might have been able to tell) and would really encourage you to watch it if you haven't already. In a sense, you get more from the film than the book, as the lack of insight into the state of Benjamin's thoughts in the book means that you get more information from Dustin Hoffman's facial expressions than you do from the Benjamin in the novel. If you're feeling confused, bewildered, conflicted, or are just at a crossroads in your life, you will be able to relate to this movie so well, and although it won't necessarily give you any guidance of what to do (other than 'marry Elaine Robinson') you will definitely feel less alone in what you are facing. I honestly just can't recommend it enough, and if you watch it and think I've gone over the top in my analysis of it, then you should definitely come back and tell me that, and I'll take it pretty well, I think. Just don't tell me you don't like it, because that I wouldn't be able to take...

Thursday 18 August 2011

Devouring Stephen King: Cujo

My first real introduction to Cujo probably came from that Friends episode where Rachel is watching Cujo and is completely terrified by it (did she learn nothing from reading The Shining?!) and then Joey comes in and tells her off for watching it alone, and then she asks him how he can be watching it- "aren't you scared?!" and he says "I'm terrified", but we all know that it's because he's in love with her, and doesn't know what to do about it, rather than because it's a scary film. Yes, that's how well I remember Friends trivia, and Stephen King references don't exactly pass me by either. Joey may well have been terrified by these scary new feelings, but I suspect that he would have found this film scary- having read the book I can only imagine how disgusting it would be rendered on the big screen, and I was pretty scared by the book.

I want to firstly talk about the description of the book on the back of my copy because, to be honest, I found it completely inaccurate. According to the Warner Books Edition,
"Outside a peaceful town in central Maine, a monster is waiting...Cujo is a two-hundred-pound Saint Bernard, the best friend Brett Camber ever had. Then Cujo chases a rabbit into a bolthole- a cave inhabited by sick bats. What happens next, how Cujo becomes a horrifying vortex, inexorably drawing in all the people around him, makes for one of Stephen King's most terrifying, heart-stopping novels."
I mean really, who writes these things? I don't dispute any of the clearly set out facts (Cujo is indeed a Saint Bernard, a fact which means I'm never going to be able to watch Beethoven again, or even the one where he has puppies!) but I really think that the publisher is trying to capitalise on King's reputation as a horror writer by over-emphasising what is supernatural in this book that is mostly grounded in a real-life situation of horror. I get that this is pretty much their job- if they just said "yeah, it's scary, but it's scary because you think about what would happen if you were trapped in a car and a dog with rabies was circling rather than because he's a monster from the planet Zork" or whatever. But really, I don't need the inaccurate descriptions!

Moving on... It takes quite a long time for Cujo to get scary, but that's ok because it allows King to do what he does best, namely build up tension so we can hardly take it anymore, and then spring the main attraction on us. This also allows him the other thing that he does best, build up wonderful characters and the situations they are in at the time of these events (the unhappily married couples, the wounded vet. slowly killing himself with alcohol, the kid with monsters in his closet), and something that you don't necessarily see until later, but he is laying out a row of dominoes, letting them all fall down when the big event finally happens so that it becomes a complete crisis rather than one that can be easily solved. It's actually a pretty masterful piece of work, and one which I would be really proud of if I could write half as well as King.

Am I actually going to talk about the main attraction? I guess that the main joy (or, rather, horror, I suppose) in this book comes from the descriptions of what happens rather than the knowing what happens anyway- it's actually a pretty simple story, albeit one that will probably keep me away from big dogs for a little while, at least. As you may already know, Cujo is a dog that basically gets infected with rabies, and the parts of the story from his perspective show his mental deterioration, as he comes to blame everyone he comes into contact with for his feeling so sick. It is unfortunate that Donna Trenton and her son Tad, come to his home (a garage on a dead end road) to get their car fixed, when a whole series of events has already conspired to mean that they are stuck in the car, in the middle of the summer, for an indefinite amount of time as they try not to get mauled by the dog. There is so much tension surrounding this stand off that it really has to be read to get it's full effect, but trust me, it even had me contemplating staying up and carrying on reading it last night, even though I obviously can't read Stephen King books at night because the monsters might crawl out and get me while I'm sleeping! True story.

As I mentioned before, there really isn't much that is supernatural in this book at all. There is an interesting link to The Dead Zone in that Cujo is set in the same town as the one where the hero of The Dead Zone solved all these horrible murders that happened there, and there was a sense that the spirit of the murderer is hanging around the town, just waiting for the opportunity to cause more havoc. It is tentatively suggested that this is really what Cujo is infected with, but actually, no, he really has rabies. I sort of got the sense that King saw it more of a duty rather than anything else to include this supernatural element, and it really is only hinted at rather than anything else. I think that the scenario, as well as the rabid dog, are pretty much as scary as anything supernatural that King has to throw of us, by pure virtue of being something that could happen to any of us, and we would be as helpless to get out of the situation as poor Donna and Tad are.

Cujo is, overall, well worth a read, if only to finally know what the hell Joey and Rachel could have been watching in that Friends episode. But really, it is an excellent example of the tension that King is able to build, and the way he is able to scare the shit out of me, without even including any supernatural crap (not crap. I love the supernatural stuff! But awkwardly slotted in in this book, it was a tiny bit crap.) Probably not advisable if you're already scared of dogs, but other than that, knock yourself out. Just stay away from independent garages, ok?

Note: A google image search has just shown me some stills from the movie version of Cujo, and have convinced me that I should probably never, ever watch it. It looks pretty faithful to the book though, which I guess is good..?

Wednesday 17 August 2011

Feminism and Film/Straw Dogs: The Aftermath

I started writing this post a really long time ago (as in March) but for some strange reason (I think it might actually be because I got a job and therefore stopped thinking, which is slightly disturbing) I abandoned it. I was reminded that I did in fact want to finish it when I watched Straw Dogs this past weekend, a film that left me disturbed in so many ways, particularly in its depiction of women, as well as the critical acclaim it has received in spite of, or maybe even because of this. So, in finally finishing what I started, I'm going to talk about the way women are portrayed in films, and specifically in this one film.

There is a test that one can do to try and establish whether or not a film can be considered 'feminist friendly' or not. This doesn't at all mean that a film must contain any discussion of feminism, but merely that these three criteria are met:
1. It has to have at least two women in it
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something other than men.
This is the Bechdel test. You would think that, by looking at the criteria above, almost every film would meet all three of these targets without even having to think about it, thus creating a film that feminists would be happy with and wouldn't feel the need to moan about later. Sure, there might be a few films, like Die Hard, and Indiana Jones, shit like that, where there is only a token woman who is there to love and support our leading man, and maybe do a little bit of action if the writer is feeling generous. But surely most films must be able to meet even these very simple guidelines?

No. Before I was introduced to this test by a friend, I had never really thought about how well women are represented in film (I know! Lame). But once she told me about it, I kept running through every film I had ever seen in my head, shocked at how many of them even failed the very first part of the test, and how even fewer made it to the end with their dignity (or my respect) still in tact. It's really disturbing how women are underrepresented, over-sexualised and just plain wrong in so many films. Even in Pixar films, which I love possibly above all others, there are just so few female characters- how many female chefs in Ratatouille, for example, or females at all in Up? And beyond that, even in films inhabited by more than one woman, how often are they allowed the opportunity to talk about things other than men? Think of films that you've seen- how often have you seen women discuss nothing but men, when men are allowed to have conversations that involve things other than women, and even allowed to have *gasp* interests that aren't directly related to meeting women and settling down for the rest of their lives.

The Bechdel Test is, of course, not perfect, (as for example, Inglorious Basterds contains two female characters who don't speak to each other but who are extremely strong in their own right, and talk only about the men they wish to destroy) but even in its imperfectness, it reveals so much about the horrible rap that women get in films. I watched the last twenty minutes or so of The Hangover the other day- not only did I find it more than a little racist, the only women I saw were wives, strippers and this one evil shrew of a woman. I might have missed a lot of it, (maybe there was a huge love-in where the women has really interesting conversations and then laughed at the men a lot earlier in the film) but something tells me that these were the only women in the film- horrible little 'types' of women, lacking any real substance at all, and thus just bad characters- forget unfeminist, how about just bad bad writing?

Childrens TV isn't even immune to being judged by the Bechdel Test. Consider The Smurfs. It's all fun and they're blue and stuff, but how many girl smurfs are there? Each smurf represents a different personality trait (vanity, brains, strength, wisdom etc) but Smurfette's entire personality is 'girl'. I don't know about any of the rest of you female readers, but I think of myself as slightly more than the type of genitals I have- maybe that's just me and I'm crazy though, I don't know (thanks to Max Barry and his excellent post for pointing out the ridiculousness of smurfs). In a way, it's even more important for children's TV to smash through gender stereotypes and to portray both an equal amount of female characters, and to make it clear that boys and girls can equally do anything they want to- activities, seriously, do not have genders! But that's a discussion for another day...

So, if you've stuck with me for this long, thanks so much! I'm moving on to Straw Dogs now, promise. The big attraction... or, rather, not very attractive at all. I thought it would be a good film because a) Dustin Hoffman's in it and he's always awesome, and b) I could imagine that Charlie was Alexander Skargard because he's playing that character in the disturbingly similar looking remake that comes out sometime this year. All I knew about this film was that there was a wholly controversial rape scene in it, and why that would make me want to watch it, I have no idea... I'm sticking with the whole Dustin Hoffman defence!

Putting aside the rape scene for a minute, and I really will come back to it because it was the source of much of my feminist horror in connection to the film, let's talk about Straw Dogs in relation to the Bechdel test. There are two (and, I think, only two; or at least only two significant) women in the film, neither of whom talk to each other, each seeming to view the other with a mixture of contempt and suspicion. One, Janice, is basically set up to be the town bike, given little identity other than her sexual identity, and Amy, essentially the film's leading lady, has very little to do with herself other than act childish and watch her husband as he tries to work. It seems odd that, considering they are back in her hometown, she has no female friends to talk to, and with her only friend being her ex-lover, it seems to reinforce the idea of her as a sexual object too. There are glimmers of a real person in her character and the way she is written, but that pretty much all ends with the rape.

What is controversial about the rape scene in this film is not that it exists at all (which, you know, is what I thought it was since it was the seventies and that's not really a done thing) but that, while Amy protests to the rape at first, somewhere in the middle of it, that ends and she seems to be enjoying it. I can't even tell you how horrified this made me, and when I looked it up online, this is exactly what the controversy was over- having Amy 'enjoy' her rape plays right into the hands of the highly misogynist (and just plain horrible) rape myth, that women who are raped, deep down, enjoy it. Not only is this a horrifying message to send out, it's dangerous too- what kind of idea are males going to get from watching it- that rape is bad and wrong, or that it's actually ok because, even though she might not want it, she'll enjoy it in the end. This is an idea not helped by Janice's promiscuity, and together they serve to make a picture that women are 'up for it' constantly, even if it seems like they're not.

Trust me, I don't want to talk about women in regard only to their sexual activity, but Straw Dogs doesn't really give its feminist-minded viewers much else to go on with its female characters. Amy seems to tiptoe around her husband, letting his wants overrule her own, and then, when shit gets really crazy, she falls apart and more or less wants to hide, having no morals to speak of by wanting to let a mob tear apart a clearly learning disabled man (I couldn't help but think of him as Lennie, but I've read too much Steinbeck). This is more than anything a man's film, and I don't have a problem with that- but when every (good) film that exists seems to be a man's film, and female characters are never satisfying, it wears you down a bit. Undoubtedly David Sumner is an interesting, if not entirely likable, character- closed in on himself, not taking a stand on anything, only to discover hidden reserves in himself when he really needs them. But why does this mean that the female characters have to be eminently uninteresting? Surely there's room for both on the screen.

The trailer I've seen for the 2011 version is no more promising. Looking like a carbon-copy of its predecessor (even the film posters are exactly the same), the updated version looks barely updated at all, the casting of Kate Bosworth as Amy only reconfirming her utter uninterestingness (ok, that was mean. But Jonathan Ross said interviewing her was like talking to a lamp! And I've always thought she seemed really really boring...) The main problem I have with the remake, however, is that it was remade at all. Obviously seen as some kind of benchmark of great cinema, it needs reaffirming in its fabulousness by being remade in a whole new time, with the same old misogyny. Give me great, female-led films any day (Juno, we have a date for this evening. Don't be late.)

Tuesday 16 August 2011

Top Ten Tuesday

This weeks Top Ten (hosted by The Broke and the Bookish) has got me all excited because I can make a list about whatever I want, and how exciting and fun is that? Probably not quite as much fun as I'm apparently making it out to be, but still, pretty fun! Now, if you've been paying attention to my blog at all (and if you haven't then hi, welcome, make yourself comfortable!) then you may have noticed a certain adoration I have for Stephen King, author of many of the books reviewed on this here blog. Because of this aforementioned adoration, then, my top ten, rather predictably, is:

Top Ten Stephen King Books I've Read So Far

1. It- I haven't reviewed it yet, but It remains my favourite Stephen King book for the moment. It's just so perfect in its horrifyingness, hits all the right notes and is just the greatest book I think King has ever written (on the evidence I have to go on so far). Fun fact: I read somewhere that King was high on coke or something when he wrote large parts of this book, so he doesn't remember writing most of it... so it's almost like it wrote itself! Creepy, huh?

2. Bag of Bones- I love the characters in this one far more than you're actually meant to love fictional people. It's brutal and horrifying, but somehow still manages to charm and move me. I also like to think it's one that a lot of people haven't read, and that makes me feel like I've sought out a hidden gem!

3. The Dark Tower- I know this is completely and utterly cheating, but my third choice is the entire Dark Tower series (at seven books, it should probably be my 4th, 5th, 6th... choices too) but how boring would my list be then? Just take my word for it- you should read this series. It is honestly up there with Harry Potter for me as a series, and as no crappy films have been made of it (yet) then it's desperately trying to take its place (Oooh, controversial! But I can't be the only one who thinks those films are not great, right?) So yeah, please just read them, report back, tell me how much you cry during the last book... stuff like that!

4. Desperation- This book is really eerie and creepy, and eventually soul-destroying. Despite its dependence on God as 'the good guy', I still really adore this book. Also interesting is The Regulators by Richard Bachman, which has the same named characters in different roles, but Desperation is so so much better.

5. The Green Mile- You've probably seen the film and, unless you have no soul, have already wept buckets over the fate of the poor poor characters (see how I'm avoiding specifics? I'm so good to you...) The book/s (depending on how you read 'em) are just as good, if not better, and I can't wait to review it for you! I'm definitely going to cry when I read it again though, just so you're prepared for what you do to me...

6. Different Seasons- I think I'm right in saying that this book, made up of four novellas, includes Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. I know you've all seen that film, and the book is pretty much it, minus a few inspirational lines (and the opera bit, oh, how I love that bit!) but it's still pretty great. The other three stories are also pretty good, and well worth reading on to after the end of Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption.

7. 'Salem's Lot- I remember this as one of the first King books I read, and I was so scared of what it could possibly say that I had to read it only in daytime hours. Now I know exactly what happens, I'm a lot braver, but it still has some pretty freaky moments! You can read my review of it here.

8. The Shining- So much better than the film (imho) I can't help but be scared for Danny every time I read this book- I need him and his mum and Mr Halloran to all be ok so badly that I get quite worked up while reading it. Does that make this great literature? Yes, I think it does. See my review of it here.

9. Carrie- I do love Carrie, also one of the first King books I read, and the one with which I started my Stephen King journey (obviously, because he wrote it first!) King says in Danse Macabre that he doesn't like it as much as when he first wrote it, and that's probably a natural writerly reaction, but it's difficult to see how it could be better- written in an interesting, partially scrapbook-like format, I think it's still as relevant for teens today as in 1975. See my review of it here.

10. Roadwork (as Richard Bachman)- I really enjoyed this book more than I thought I was going to, and it's definitely my favourite of the Bachman books I've read so far. Such a dense and complex character study that you definitely feel sorry for, and then want to save a character who is not always completely sympathetic. Bart is the most human of characters, and he carries the book entirely to give it its place in my top ten. See my review of Roadwork here.

And there you have the ten best books by Stephen King that ever were read by my little brain. If you're not a horror fan then I'm sorry for boring you (and really, you should try some King sometime... you'll love it!) and if you are a Stephen King fan then I guess this is your lucky day! Tell me some of your favourite Stephen King books if you wish to do so, and I'll tell you what I think of them when I get to them!

Monday 15 August 2011

Devouring Books: Nanny Returns by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus

I can't even tell you how much I loved The Nanny Diaries (also by the two authors), and I have probably read it a bazillion times at this point (ok, so like 10 or something? Quite a lot, anyway.) Most of what I loved about the book was Nan, the main character (inventive name for a nanny, right? In another book of theirs, the characters are called Girl, Guy, and Buster. Weird.) and her sanity in the face of utter madness, the way she managed to keep her cool (most of the time) and her unnerving confidence in herself. That's at least the way I saw her, and at 21 I thought that she pretty much had it together, and knew what was important in life.

12 years later, I expected this confidence and self-belief to have grown to a level that made Nan someone to really look up to, an inspirational figure for living ones life, a touchstone of sanity in a New York where the ultra rich are crumbling and falling apart (it's set in 2008, in the midst of the financial crisis). This is not exactly what I got. Nan seems to have much less confidence in herself, unable to express her thoughts to people that really need to hear them, and the things she lets slide annoy the crap out of me. She constantly goes on (in the narrative) about how much she is not a part of the whole Upper-East side thing that exists in New York, and yet she makes decisions that put her right in the middle of it- making friends with her dreadful old schoolmates, working for a ridiculous private school (and I really mean ridiculous- they care a lot more about their reputation than the welfare of their overindulged, and yet emotionally neglected students), and just generally hanging around with the people she hates. And then complaining about it. I guess this is more for the story than anything- if there's no one for Nan to criticise, then what else can they have her do?- but to be honest, I would have preferred to see her in Africa, or Sweden, where, it is made clear, she has been for the past 12 years.

One particular story arc that really really irritated me was the one where Nan's absolutely perfect husband (he's barely sketched as a character at all, except as 'a perfect husband') wants them to have a baby, and she freaks out. This is the girl who used to work with children for a living, who in this book mothers two boys more than they have been in their entire lives, and yet she doesn't want children because she doesn't want to take responsibility for how they turn out. This is literally a storyline that spans the entire (and I really mean entire) book, resolved only in the last pages, when I could have resolved it for her in about 3 seconds. Nan, listen up- the best you can do with children is your best, and it's pretty bigheaded to take all the credit for how they turn out- there are so many other influences on children that you can't control, and you just have to go along for the ride and love them as best you can. And I'm not even a mother! Why on earth she thought that she would be some kind of crazy non-working upper-East side mother is beyond me, seriously. SO ANNOYING!

And then there were things that were intended to add tension and did nothing of the sort. There's one particular part of the story featuring possibly my least character in the book (and that's saying something, especially because I didn't even like Nan that much in this book), where it seems absolutely clear to me that she is lying, but this idea doesn't even cross Nan's mind. I mean, duh! I don't know why I bothered to keep that cryptic for you since you're unlikely to read this book from this review, but, you know, I try to be considerate! So that was a bit of extra annoyance, since Nan chose to trust the one person that it seems clear to me she really shouldn't be trusting, or be anywhere near at all, based on previous experience.

And she doesn't even work with kids anymore! This book is set up so that the end of the last book is essentially the most traumatic thing that's ever happened to her, and is a stronger influence on her current decision making process than anything else that's happened in her life. Excuse me if I don't entirely buy this- the girl has lived in Africa, and she still thinks that the worst thing ever is some emotional neglect of a rich kid in New York City? Excuse me if I don't exactly buy that, but this is the Nan that the authors have chosen to portray, and this is the one we have to live with.

Can I say anything nice about this book at all? Well, it's definitely easy to read if that's something you look for- I read it in about a day, grrr-ing to myself throughout, and, on the plus side, you definitely can't tell that two people have written it rather than one- it all hangs together pretty easily. The fact that two people thought that this story was a good idea is a little scary, but other than that it's fine! Why they couldn't have given me a Nan that speaks out about the injustices she sees is beyond me, but I suppose her years at Chapin taught her how to be a good subservient girl. Excuse me while I banish this book to the island of sequels that never happened, nestled right next to the two Sex and the City movies. To be honest, I would rather have read the first book again than have read this one. But what's done is done, I suppose.

Sunday 14 August 2011

IMM/ Mailbox Monday

I haven't done an IMM for a really long time, but this week warrants something special because I bought an unprecedented amount of books. And when I say unprecedented, what I really mean is a SHITLOAD of books that I actually have no room for but couldn't resist because, you know, they're books. I put this slight blip down to the fact that I didn't buy any books at all for the entire month of July (and actually, a tiny bit longer than that too), and to the fact that I went to Stratford-upon-Avon on Friday and was overcome with a Shakespearean thing, plus unexplored charity shops, and, you know, shit happens.

I know what you're thinking. When is she going to shut up and get to the whole book explaining thing? Well, that'd be right now. Bet you feel silly for being so impatient now, dontcha?

First things first, I got 3 new Stephen King books, totally admissible and tax-deductable as a business expense (not really, but you know) as part of my Stephen King challenge thing I've gpot going on around these parts. So, to add to my already extensive collection, I got Needful Things, which I might have read before but I can't remember, The Talisman with Peter Straub, and The Dark Half. The latter two of these, I might add, I got by ruining the shop's display of Stephen King books... hopefully someone will donate more soon so I don't have to feel as bad!

Also in Stratford, I got 3 books for £5 (too good an offer to pass up!) that meant looking around this table of classics for a really long time while my sister sighed a bit and looked disgruntled (I get this a lot in bookshops from the people I'm shopping with). In the end, anyway, I settled on The Plumed Serpent by D H Lawrence, which I'm sure, knowing Lawrence, must be a metaphor for something rude, Silas Marner by George Eliot because I can't even tell you how I love The Mill on the Floss, and De Profundis by Oscar Wilde, because, who couldn't use a little more Oscar in their lives. Also, if you ever hear an awesome quote, it was probably originally said by him. Just sayin'.

And then, there are a whole bunch of books that I can't really categorise together in any way, other than the fact that I bought them this week! These were Skinny Bitch by Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin, which I've already read, reviewed, and pretty much thought about constantly since I read it, Lunchbox by Amanda Grant, a recipe book that does pretty much what it says on the tin, but that is to a certain extent redundant since reading Skinny Bitch... Moving away from food, I also bought Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson, to continue my tradition of owning many Bill Bryson books but having read only one (Shakespeare, if anyone's interested), The Life of Pi by Yann Martel, a Booker (?) prize winner, but also only 10p, so well worth that price, I'm sure! And finally, in this non-category category, Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, because I've seen the film and I loved it so much, and I've pretty much wanted to read the book ever since then.

And then, sort of unexpectedly since it had a delivery date of 18th August, I also got delievered my order of a few weeks ago (I live in the UK, it's not poor service from amazon or anything!) So, I won a $10 voucher from Sarah at Sarah Says Read, and obviously with that I ordered books! SO, rounding off this week's book buying were Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, which I can hardly wait to read, and Nanny Returns by Nicola Kraus and Emma Mclaughlin, which I have read already and wasn't too impressed by... but I'll tell you all about that another time!

So yeah. I bought a LOT of books this week. This probably means I need a book ban until at least September again, but we'll see how that bookish resolution goes since I'm going away next weekend to a place that, apparently, has a lot of secondhand bookshops. I hope you've all had good weeks and are looking forward to the next one! If you need something to read for the upcoming week, how about these:

From Tuesday, a chat about books I really love, and that everyone else should love too!
From Wednesday, a review of Water for Elephants, which I thought was pretty engaging, albeit not the best written thing ever (like this sentence...)
From Thursday, and continuing my Stephen King thing, a review of Danse Macabre, the ultimate horror guide in my eyes, but maybe just not one for me, and
From Friday, a real eye opener provided by Skinny Bitch, a book that makes you think a lot more about what you put in your mouth than you might actually like to...

Happy reading everyone!

Friday 12 August 2011

Devouring Books: Skinny Bitch by Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin

I have a confession to make. I'm a non-practicising vegan, a term which I've entirely made up and which other, saner people would call a hypocrite. I am entirely down with a vegan lifestyle, abhor the shit that animals go through just so people can chow down another burger, and yet I remain part of the problem- I am neither a vegetarian or vegan, and if I think about that fact too much, I don't feel too good about myself. My friend finds my pseudo-veganism hilarious (I do follow an insane amount of vegans on twitter for someone who eats meat practically every day) but it is really pretty shameful- if I can't even follow what I believe in, what kind of person does that make me?

Don't answer that. No, really. Let's talk about the book instead. Skinny Bitch is a bit of a life changer, a no-nonsense guide to what meat and dairy and sugar really do to your body, things that we kind of already know, but don't want to admit to ourselves. It is also, unashamedly, a great encourager of a vegan lifestyle, something which so many people have complained about it doing as a 'hidden agenda', but which is actually clear pretty much from the outset. Nothing hidden about it. My favourite part of the whole book, all the awful meat side-effects, and shocking treatment of animals aside, is the very end, a small p.s. where the authors tell us that, actually, they don't care about being skinny- what really matters to them is good health, and from that good health, happiness. It's a message that can't really fail to strike a chord with everyone, and whether or not you think a vegan diet will get you there, it can't really do any harm to try, I would think?

So, I didn't love everything about this book. Nearly everything, but not quite everything. When describing the torture of farm animals (something that did, and always, made me want to cry a little bit) they talk about the fact that animals have emotions (true) and that when you eat their meat, you are actually eating their fear and pain. Huh? I get that they're trying to make the point that the suffering of sentient creatures shouldn't be allowed for our gluttonous urges, but I was a bit turned off by the idea that 'eating emotions' could cause cancer and heart disease, and all the other horrible things that they attribute to the crap that we eat. The other stuff on its own is enough, believe me, without all the 'eating emotions' thing on top. (This is not to say that I'm not sympathetic to the plight of the animals, see: wanting to cry, but just that I don't think emotions are a physical thing that can cause you harm when you eat them. Ok? Good.) I also didn't always appreciate the tone of the book, in terms of the fact that it was kind of mean- calling ones existing diet choices stupid all the time is not exactly endearing, but then again I don't think this is what they're trying to achieve- I think, in their eyes, it's more of a cruel to be kind tactic. As well as the mild meanness, there was a tiny touch of hysteria in the things they have to say about meat and dairy (and sugar, I keep forgetting!) in that the message seemed to be, if you don't stop eating these things, you will get cancer, or any of a number of other health problems, and die horribly and painfully and (gasp!) fat.

Other than that, though, it's difficult to find a crack in their argument against eating meat and dairy, and it's very difficult to say, 'but yeah, what about...' because I can't really think of anything that should fill in the ... there. I kind of think that my reaction to the book is going to be wildly different to that of someone who doesn't really care about animal welfare, and who doesn't believe that eating meat and dairy is that damaging to you (but seriously, cows milk? Putting aside how weird it is to drink another animal's baby food, what about the fact that it is specifically designed to aid growth, something which you don't really need when you're a grown up. But anyway, moving on...) I think this accounts for the wildly varying reviews I found on amazon- if it's something that you're not at all willing to accept, you get almost offended and shouty about it, or, on the flip side, you think it's the best thing since sliced bread and adopt the lifestyle offered in it immediately, never looking back and trying to be the happiest, and skinniest that you can be.

And as for me? Well, it's certainly given me a lot to think about. On the plus side, I was a sort of nearly vegetarian when I was at uni (the occasional meal out and house steak feast excepted) and when I think about it, I feel like I was a lot healthier, and felt a lot better then than I do now, where I just accept any meat or animal product that turns up on my plate (I also didn't have much cheese or milk or butter at uni, and I have them all the time now). How much of this can be attributed to bad diet, and how much to a touch of crap-life depression, I don't know, but would it hurt me to try out vegetarianism, for real, and then maybe veganism too? Probably not. I would talk about how difficult this would make it for me to eat out places, and how it would set me apart from others, but the truth is that I'm already the fussiest eater in the world, so this change wouldn't make that much of a difference in terms of what other people think about my eating habits (not that that really matters). Whether all this will stick or not in terms of me making actual, real changes to the way that I eat and view what I put into my body remains to be seen, but I will tell you this- since finishing this book, I haven't had any meat, even turning down a sausage sandwich (and I love sausage! [don't think disgusting things]) for lunch. A hangover from slaughterhouse horrificness? Or the start of an actual life change? Only time (and willpower) will tell on this one.

P.S. This book also talks a lot about giving up soda. To this, I can only say that you can take away the flesh of dead animals, and their tasty cheese, but I can't give up my Diet Coke. Probably not for anything. This is one of those addiction things they were talking about in the book, isn't it?

Thursday 11 August 2011

Devouring Stephen King: Danse Macabre

I'm possibly not the best person to be reviewing this book because (and please don't tell anyone this) but I'm not really an expert on horror, and this is a book all about the horror genre. I know what you're thinking: 'Why the hell has she been reading all these Stephen King books if she's no expert on horror?' And I'm not ashamed to say that basically all my experience in the horror genre has been in Stephen King specific territory. I can't give you any specific reason for this, other than the fact that I really like his writing style, something which is here even in this non-fiction book, and frankly I can't imagine that anyone does it better.

Stephen King disagrees with me, and he's not afraid to tell you that. Danse Macabre is basically a study of the horror genre, over film, tv, radio, and finally books; from about the 50s to 1981, when the book was first published. It's extensive, detailed, wonderfully written (of course) but there were points where I have to admit, I skimmed a bit. This has nothing to do with the writing (again, it's Stephen King, it was pretty good) but as someone who has seen basically none of the films, nor read hardly any of the books he was talking about, it was pretty difficult to stay focused on the subject at all times. There are definitely people who would get more out of this book than me though, and I'd say that as a short history of the horror genre, it's probably the best you're going to find, from someone who, it is clear, is a genuine fan.

King makes a lot of reference in the book to English students and Professors who attribute a lot of meaning and context to books where it isn't really there, and essentially for demystifying the books entirely. This is what he somehow manages to avoid here- I described the book to my friend as 'like those awful essays we used to have to read for English seminars only much more fun' and they really are- King manages to make interesting points about each text (and that includes movies too, remember) without sucking the fun out of them, and, importantly, without taking them too seriously. He also makes hilarious asides- there was something amazing about Republicans that I can't find now, but I assure you it was brilliant.

Most interesting about this book for me, were the influences I could see from the works that King was talking about into his own work. There are parallels between a lot of the books he talks about and his own (some of which he points out and some of which he can't, having not written them by the time this was published) and so at its best points, it allows some insight into the ways that King is able to take from other works, and create new monsters and new horrors to scare the crap out of his readers. For example, he mentions, for some reason, his admiration of the phrase 'He thrusts his fists against the post and still insists he sees the ghosts', something which later becomes an integral part of It.

And then, there is this excellent little rant:

"...that awful, dreadful goblin of a reader, he or she WHO TURNS TO THE LAST THREE PAGES TO SEE HOW IT CAME OUT.
Do you do this nasty, unworthy trick? Yes, you! I'm talking to you! Don't slink away and grin into your hand! Own up to it! Have you ever stood in a bookshop, glanced furtively around, and turned to the back of an Agatha Christie to see who did it and how? Have you ever turned to the end of a horror novel to see if the hero made it out of the darkness and into the light? If you have ever done this, I have three simple words which I feel it is my duty to convey: SHAME ON YOU! It is low to mark your place in a book by folding down the corner of the page where you left off, TURNING TO THE END TO SEE HOW IT CAME OUT is even lower. If you have this habit, I urge you to break it... break it at once!"
You know how I found that quote again? I folded down the corner of the page it was on... I'm so bad! But, you know, not as bad as the read-the-end-first people, who, like King, I can't really understand. Naughty.

So, basically, I enjoyed Danse Macabre as much as I possibly could, and even gleaned a few book recommendations from it that I fully intend to look into- The Haunting of Hill House, for one, sounds really really interesting. If you're an avid horror fan, of more than one author and of movies as well as books, then you will probably adore this book. Just watch out for spoilers, since King sometimes gives away entire plots to movies in order to discuss them properly. Fine for me since I don't really intend to watch them anyway (I can't take visual images that could come back to haunt me at about 4 am) but if you're not quite where you want to be with your horror movie repertoire, I'd just be a bit careful around the movie chapters. Other than that though, go wild! You certainly won't regret reading this comprehensive study of the horror genre.

Wednesday 10 August 2011

Devouring Books: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

I bought Water for Elephants, for full price and everything for two main reasons- firstly because my blogging bff Jenn said it was one of her favourite books, and who am I to doubt someone who, it has been decreed, is my reading soulmate?, and secondly because it came with a recommendation from none other than the great man himself, Stephen King. I mean, if anyone can think of better reasons to read a book, then I'd like to hear them. I didn't think so.

Water for Elephants is basically the story of Jacob Jankowski, a young man who runs away and joins the circus after the unexpected deaths of his parents, and the essential destruction of everything that he thought was going to happen to him in his life. At the circus, he falls in love with both a woman and an elephant, witnesses horrific mistreatment of animals, and learns a lot, I think, about himself and about human nature. Interestingly, though, whilst the story of the circus is central to the book, it is actually set up in a similar way to The Green Mile (by the great admirer of this book, Stephen King!) in that it begins with Jacob in an old people's home, barely even living anymore but merely existing, and really who can blame him for reminiscing about his far more exciting past?

In a sense though, and certainly to me, the parts with present day Jacob were almost more interesting, and definitely more poignant than the parts in the circus. In these, he thinks about what it means to get old, how people write you off and just leave you in a Home, without even considering all the interesting things that might have happened in your past. It's a bleak view of old age, but also a pretty accurate one at least in my eyes- I have found myself looking at old people with a certain sense of pity because I feel that they must be sad to be so old, without ever thinking that they could have had the most exciting lives, or at least the best kind of lives, and may in fact feel entirely fulfilled. I think it's true for everyone that they would be horrified to think of being treated like an old person, even when they are old, and this is something that is definitely true for Jacob.

Just because I found the present day parts of the novel to be insightful, however, does not mean that the bulk of the book, set in the midst of the Depression in America, was not completely entertaining. Because I'm a tiny bit of a book snob, I'm going to be honest and say that at first, I was a bit disdainful of the writing in the book, because, let's face it, it's pretty simplistic. But, I got over that, and focused on the story, and from that point I was completely absorbed into it- I loved Jacob, completely and utterly, and was rooting for him and all his friends from the very beginning. On a similar path, I utterly hated August, husband of the woman Jacob loves, Marlena, and all-round bad guy- would you judge me if I said that I hated his mistreatment of the animals more than his mistreatment of humans though? I just found it all so awful and sad and I literally just wanted him to DIE. The fact that he is played by Christoph Waltz in the film (which I haven't seen because, ugh, Robert Pattinson) seems like a perfect casting choice, however, and I think you'll agree with me if you've seen Inglourious Basterds.

I didn't think this book was perfect, much as I enjoyed it, and I think a lot of it had to do with the two different time zones of the story (well, not time zones, but you know what I mean). Knowing that the main character has survived to a grand old age makes it difficult to feel tense about things like his travelling along the roof of a train while it's in motion; and while there are other events where outcomes are not so clear, there is a sense in which everything will eventually be ok because we know that Jacob survives. Another thing that bugged me, although I know there is a very good reason for it being written in such a way, is that it is all in the present tense. I understand completely the reason for this, because it's clear that present-day Jacob remembers the events as clearly as if they were happening right now, but it's just a way of writing that annoys the crap out of me, for reasons I don't even know.

Apart from that, though, can I fault the story? Not really! I think it does a great job of developing a love affair (one place where there is tension), and most importantly it really creates an atmosphere of what it would be like to run away and join the circus. It inspires compassion, hatred, awe, and love in its readers (or at least in me) and even has the adorable element, that really got me, of a baby chimp who walks around with Jacob as he does his rounds and wants cuddles all the time and OH MY GOD I WANT ONE! Add that to some really interesting insight into the misery of aging, and what's not to like? As for the writing, Shakespeare it ain't. But who really wants Shakespeare every day? It's perfect for a fast read, and, if you like a bit of animal abuse to spice up your day, it's probably even good as a beach read. But then again, maybe not...

Tuesday 9 August 2011

Top Ten Tuesday

Why hello there guys and gals, welcome to the next instalment of 'things I like to put in lists and talk about on a Tuesday and stuff' hosted, as always, by the delectable The Broke and the Bookish. I found this week's topic a bit tricky because I don't want to assume that books aren't really popular at all, but I'm just going to go on the fact that I haven't really seen these books reviewed ever by other bloggers, except for a few where I have seen really negative things said about them and then have wept, you know, inside! But anyway, here I go...

Top Ten Books I can't believe aren't more popular

1. I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron- I've never seen anyone, other than myself, review this. And I don't understand why this isn't required reading for everyone! It's hilarious and wonderful and I love Nora, you guys! Read my review here and tell me you don't want to read it...

2. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson- Again, I can't really say it's not that popular but just that I've never seen anyone review it, which I think is something to do with her being an English author who is not necessarily that widely known, and most of the blogs I read being American (not that Americans can't read English authors or anything! Just that she's not really that well known. But she should be!) I definitely recommend this book, as you can probably tell from my review here.

3. Steinbeck in general-  It's come to my attention, because I pay attention to such things, that a lot of book bloggers aren't fans of Steinbeck, criticisms ranging from him being simply boring, to being too moralistic and just generally badness. They are clearly wrong, but it has surprised me in its wide-ranging opinion-ness. I think it might be something to do with having to read Steinbeck in school (I just assume that all Americans read Steinbeck in school!) but I'm pretty sure everyone should return to him and just fall in love with him like I am...

4. Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams by Sylvia Plath- I've never seen this reviewed by anyone and it just surprises me because of the complete and utter popularity of The Bell Jar. I suppose that people don't necessarily love short stories all that much, but these are, predictably, really well written. Go check them out guys.

5. Poppy Shakespeare by Clare Allan- I think this is another one of those cases where an English author doesn't really get across the ocean, but this is sort of a Girl, Interrupted type of book, only more English and therefore better (ha!) But seriously, it is really good, and if you see it then I highly recommend it!

6. Plays in general- I'm not sure if this is an English student thing or what, but I love a good play. This doesn't really seem to be the case with too many book bloggers, or, indeed, with the wider population. What's up guys? It's just like tons and tons of dialogue- dialogue can be good! If you just don't know where to start reading plays, may I highly recommend Angels in America to you, something which I do on a weekly basis, but which alarming numbers of people still haven't read. It's like the greatest thing in the world. Ever.

7. Toast by Nigel Slater- Probably one of my favourite memoirs ever (but then I haven't read Life by Keith Richards yet) this is completely reminiscent of an English childhood, even though Slater and I grew up 30 years apart. This probably explains its unpopularity, but it really is sort of lovely. It's also worth watching the BBC adaptation of it, for the stellar performances of Helena Bonham Carter and that guy who used to be the kid in Finding Neverland, but is now all grown up and freaky! (Freaky because he's grown up, not for any other reason...)

8. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott- This one has really surprised me because I thought that everyone a) had read Little Women when they were younger, and b) LOVED it! Imagine my horror at seeing all these bloggers saying mean things about my girls! I guess I can sort of see that in the American version which includes Good Wives (we have them as separate books in the UK) shit gets annoying and stupid marriages happen, but the first half of the book is wonderful, right?!

9. Julie and Julia by Julie Powell- I haven't really heard much about this anywhere, which doesn't necessarily make it unloved, but means that I'm probably way behind in reading it because it was published eons ago! I mean, I read it after the film came out! Some feedback I got on it though, was that people didn't like Julie as a narrator because she swears too much. I mean, come on, are they fucking crazy?!

10. Moomins!- I have mentioned my adoration of Moomins multiple times, and each time I get a nearly silent response. Obviously this is probably just because I am unpopular (awwwww...) but I mean, really guys, nobody? Moomins? This definitely counts as books that aren't more appreciated, because there are definite volumes of the Moomin comics, and even a Moomin cookbook (!) so really there's no excuse for not knowing of them and their adorable existence in the world! AND Alexander Skarsgard is the voice of Moomintroll in the newest Moomin movie! What's not to love?

So these are things I love that nobody else seems to. Much as I like having things that are special to me and just mine, it would be nice to discuss said things with like-minded individuals. I hope, if nothing else, I've given you ideas of things to read after you've read the hundreds of books that I'm sure you've already got waiting for you at home! So excited to read everyone else's lists and do the same!