Tuesday, November 6, 2012

A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens

I read A Christmas Carol as a part of my bookclub reading list, even though I didn't actually end up going that particular week. We had decided to read it because not only does it show up in a lot of pop culture (Doctor who!) but one member had heard that week that it was a good Dickens to start with.

Being short I was keen (you would think by now I would have learnt about short books) and wanted to be able to say "I've read some Dickens" whether or not "A Christmas Carol" was *actually* on the list.

I did not like this book. I suspect that was because I was very familiar with the concept. When I was a kid one year we went to the Myer windows and the story was A Christmas Carol (check year?) and while I never really watched any donald duck-type cartoons I knew about "scrooge mcduck" and him diving into his monies.

Knowing the plotline of a book is not necessarily a dealbreaker (I still enjoyed A Picture of Dorian Grey) but I found myself eager to get on with it: "okay okay, next ghost, let's get a move on".
Perhaps because I knew what the ending would be, or perhaps it is a kids book - is it a kids book? - I found the story too simplistic. Dude gets visited by 3 ghosts and then loves Christmas.
Aaaaaand perhaps it is a little because I am not actually the biggest fan of Christmas in the world. I misliked the overarching theme of "you must like christmas and be agreeable because: CHRISTMAS"

There were definitely flaws with the way that Scrooge was living, and people need to be loving and caring ALL year around, not just at christmas.
I just didn't think that the arguments the ghosts made really would have convinced someone so set in his ways as scrooge.

That being said, there were times when I really appreciated the writing. Despite me not being a big fan of the book, I think that perhaps my fellow bookclubber was correct, it was a good entry-Dickens. What it did do was make me interested to read a story of his in which I am less familiar with the plotlines so that I can appreciate
both story and writing. Provided it is, in fact, a good story!


Monday, November 5, 2012

The Invisible Man

The Invisible Man - H.G. Wells
Edited to add a plot synopsis at Emmeline's request:
The Invisible Man is about a bloke who works out how to turn himself invisible but can't undo the effect. The story is about his efforts to fix the issue and how he manages to operate in a world in which one really has to be visible to be interacted with. [/edit]

Having previously watched Warehouse 13 on Syfy [very minor season 2 spoiler] the authorship of The Invisible Man was confusing to me because in Warehouse 13 H.G. Wells is brought back to life* and to almost everyone's surprise is actually a woman, Helena, who goes by 'HG' and used her brother as a cover but was actually the ideas powerhouse. From my brief research (yes, I just glanced over the wikipage), Wells does not appear to have been a woman, but having watched HG run around with Agents Bering and Latimer she was very much ingrained in my head as a woman.

I do believe that you read a book differently if the author is a woman or a man**. So I was doing this weird thing whereby the lens through which I read the book kept switching back and forth between female and male authorship.
Even though I knew the author was a man.

I didn't like the main character, the invisible man. And I don't believe he is supposed to be sympathetic, given that for most of the book we follow the story through the eyes of those around him; Mrs Hall, Mr Marvel and Kemp.
The invisible man was nasty and rude and as the story progresses one imagines that he has always been so, it isn't just as a result of his invisibility.
Later in the book they describe the man that was as having been an albino but the whole way I imagined him as black or very dark-featured because early on someone pointed out he had black legs.

"I seed through the tear of his trousers and the tear of his glove. You'd have expected a sort of pinky to show, wouldn't you? Well—there wasn't none. Just blackness. I tell you, he's as black as my hat."..."That marn's a piebald, Teddy. Black here and white there—in patches."

Even though I knew the reason his leg was 'black' was because what the man was seeing through the tear was, infact, the dark inside of an empty trouser leg.

This book was fairly unpleasant as none of the characters were particularly sympathetic. I was unable to connect with Mrs Hall; with Marvel I merely feared for his life (see below for reasons why); and whilst I liked Kemp he (and everyone) was hardly around long enough to get to know him.
The reason I feared for Marvel's life was because the way I read the back of the book was: Invisible man kills a man and goes to a friend for help. So I was waiting for him to kill someone in a rage or accidentally, which never seemed to happen.


Perhaps I misread and they were talking about when the Invisible Man is accidentally killed. But I spend the whole book on tenterhooks.


On the whole this book was not bad. As I say, the characters were not overly likeable but it moved quickly and was over soon. I wouldn't say that this is something everyone should read, but if you want to be able to say you've read some H.G.Wells you might want to go with this. From Warehouse 13 I was led to believe that Wells wrote about all sorts of fantastical inventions, so I was a bit disappointed in the lack thereof.


* In my handwritten notes (written about 6 months ago) I put an asterix here, but didn't put a corresponding thought anywhere on the page... so now I'm not sure why!
** For example, when I first read Harry Potter I believed that 'J.K.' was a man. I believe I was intentionally misled. Would Harry Potter have been as famous if, from the outset, the books were by 'Joanne Rowling'?

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

All the Sneaky Ones Part 7: Embassytown

“I’ve got this book I want you to read,” a friend said to me during a femography meet. “I think you’d be really into it. It’s about language, and… stuff. It’s science fiction. But it’s really interesting.”
So after the meet, we went to her house and got the book. We ended up hanging out most of the afternoon. I was thrilled, because I’d known her for ages and wanted to be good friends with her but never made that leap.
Giving someone a book because it made you think of them, out of the blue, is a pretty special friendship indicator, I think. I felt honoured. So I put the book on my bedside table and after reading three pages from it that night I didn’t touch it for months.
To be fair, occasionally I would read a paragraph from it, before I put it down again. There were always at least three books piled on top of poor Embassytown. The book starts in the middle of a party the reader has no context for, in a world that is not explained, and characters that simply appear without introduction. I desperately wanted to read the book, and find out what it was that made my friend think of me. And, you know, I wanted to enjoy the book as well. But it was tough-going.
Finally, when I was moving to Arnhem Land with only 15 kilos of baggage allowance, I had the impetus to actually read the book. I took it as the only fiction book, so I would be forced to read it. Even so, it took me two and a half months to finish it.
Until around page 50, where there was a massive revelation, I still didn’t understand the story. After that the revelations came in waves as the story picked up pace and the stakes were raised, incrementally but significantly.
I can understand why my friend didn’t tell me too much about the novel. I also don’t want to give much away because it was so hard to earn the revelations and yet so worth it when I did, so I don’t want to take the potential pleasure from you.
This makes it hard to review the book. So I’m going to give you a SPOILER WARNING.
Embassytown, the place that provides the title, is a colony town on the outskirts of a wide-ranging country, comparable to Great Britain, except on a galaxy sort of scale. The story revolves around human (or as they call them, “terre”) relations with the indigenous creatures of the land Embassytown is based in, who are called Hosts, or Ariekei. (As I’m living in Arnhem Land and interacting with Indigenous people encountering colonialism on a daily basis, this was pretty interesting to me.)
Individual Terre can’t communicate with the Hosts because they speak with two voices and they only say what is truth.
Their language is organised noise, like all of ours are, but for them each word is a funnel. Where to us each word means something, to the Hosts, each is an opening. A door, through which the thought of that referent, the thought itself that reached for that word, can be seen. (62)
If I [record] a word in Language, and play it to an Ariekes, I understand it, but to them it means nothing, because it’s only sound, and that’s not where the meaning lives. It needs a mind behind it. (62-63)
Through this interesting premise, Melville is able to explore the idea of truth and fiction. Arieke, the indigenous people, are not able to lie, because to lie would be akin to believing something that you didn’t think was true. It’s a paradox. They can use simile but not metaphor. They say “I am like the girl who ate what was given to her” but not “I am the girl who ate what was given to her”.
Something that comes across is that sometimes you have to “lie”, that is say something that is not factually correct, in order to tell a deeper truth. Whenever we talk about big concepts, we stray from straight fact and reach for metaphor. For an example of this, I use an excerpt from the recently reviewed Julie and Julia:
I believe that calves’ liver is the single sexiest food that there is… The reason people despise liver is that to eat it you must submit to it – just like you must submit to a really stratospheric fuck. Remember when you were nineteen and you went at it like it was a sporting event? Well, liver is the opposite of that. With liver you’ve got to will yourself to slow down. You’ve got to give yourself over to everything that’s a little repulsive, a little scary, a little too much about it. When you buy it from the butcher, when you cook it in a pan, when you eat it, slowly, you ever can get away from the feral fleshiness of it. Liver forces you to access taste buds you didn’t know you had, and it’s hard to open yourself to it.
I think this speaks for itself. (Someone will probably argue this is a simile but I think it blurs the line).
The truth in lies idea also reminded me of a line from this video, by John Green: “Nostalgia is inevitably a yearning for a past that never existed, and when I'm writing, there are no bees to sting me out of my sentimentality. For me at least, fiction is the only way I can even begin to twist my lying memories into something true.”
John Green says it better than I can, but what he’s saying is what fiction is like. Fiction is telling a story that didn’t happen in order to convey truth.
The other most interesting part of the story comes right at the end, so if you’ve coped with the spoilers so far but you don’t want the end of the story ruined, BACK OUT NOW BIG SPOILER COME BACK WHEN YOU’VE READ IT (Highlight to read).
At the end of the book the Arieke have to learn to “lie” in order to save their lives and their world. They have to recognise that terre are sentient beings who can communicate. They have to split the signifier and the signified: “What they spoke now weren’t things or moments anymore but the thoughts of them, pointings-at; meaning no longer a flat facet of essence; signs ripped from what they signed” (365).
This is an incredibly painful process. They are essentially destroying their mind and their worldview and rebuilding it. “No wonder it made them sick. They were like new vampires, retaining memories while they sloughed off lives. They’d never be cured. They went quiet one by one, and not because their crisis ended. They were in a new world. It was the world we live in” (366).
This reminds me of my daily life. People I see every day still remember a time when there were no settlers, when colonialism did not touch them, at least not directly. The process of colonisation is ongoing, and it is sometimes painful. Reading this description of the Hosts’ minds being destroyed and remade instantly made me think of people here trying to adapt to a balanda (white person) way of life. I don’t think it’s impossible to live in both cultures and be considered a success according to both world-views, but it is very difficult. I think the destroying and remaking of the mind is a very powerful… wait for it…


Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

I had heard a little about this book recently. Someone was talking about fertility in the sci-fi/futuristic/dystopia genre and how it was never addressed unless it was the whole purpose of the story. And how it was rarely addressed well. In this discussion The Handmaid’s Tale was mentioned as a good handling of the issue.I was discussing reading books off the list, as well as feminist books (which I’ve been doing over on my other blog), with Sandra and she was surprised that I had not read this book. She went and got it off the shelf and told me I had to read it. To my relief (and pleasure) it was on the list – I do not need to add to the books I’m reading which are not on the list!!

So going in, all I knew was that it had to do with fertility (I couldn’t remember if this was one of the well-rounded ones, or one of the dedicated ones) and that Atwood talked about credit cards before they even existed. Sandra had remembered reading this as a younger woman and being incredulous at the idea of someone handing over their number and their money being all in an account!I didn’t even read the back of the book before I started it, mainly as an oversight.
I was immediately drawn in. Although quite confused about the age of the protagonist and her compatriots until quite some way into the book; that did not deter me.

Atwood manages to explain how the world got to the extreme situation it is in, as well as continuing the storyline and engaging the reader with the characters all without causing me to lose interest. No easy task.

There are a great many snippits of the Bible throughout this book and I feel like the reader would be missing out on something if they were not familiar with the Bible, especially as a number of them are not only taken out of context, but have actually been twisted with additions and subtractions as suits the regime. My knowledge of the Bible, and the overall context of the Bible and God made the reigimes misuse of the Bible particularly heinous to me. But I also know that any government that wishes to control its people will use what it can.

I think one of the things that scared me the most about this book was the similarity with today’s world. I am not someone who thinks that 9/11 was a conspiracy but it was a ‘muslim’ attack that has allowed the government to take away many many freedoms from US citizens and indeed governments around the world have taken advantage of the event.
Our lives have not been as restricted as the lives of those living in The Handmaid’s Tale, but our freedom is something we must continually fight for. And we must fight for the freedom of others: “As long as you said you were some sort of a Christian and you were married, for the first time that is, they were still leaving you pretty much alone. They were concentrating first on the others. They got them more or less under control before they started in on everybody else.” As the quote goes:
“First they came for the communists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew.Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.”-          Martin Niemöller
There is much discussion in feminist and movie circles about the Male Gaze and the panopticon. However Atwood discusses this world where women are entirely reliant on the man in their life and how they therefore watch that man consistently.
“We’re all watching him. It’s one thing we can really do, and it’s not for mothering: if he were to falter, fail or die, what would become of us?”So despite how awful the situation is for the women in this world, especially the handmaids, it is also difficult for the men to have these women depend on him for everything. I believe that part of the feminist movement is not only to create choice for women, but to create choice for men, and for them to be able to share that burden of provision with their partners and others in their world.  Not to be solely responsible for everyone in their household. Later on in the book, we see some of the guilt that responsibility (and lack of wielding it well) puts on the Commander.
Although he continues to be irresponsible, so I’m not sure how guilty he was really feeling.

The Commander argues that the changes that were made to this current world were necessary because “There was nothing for them [the men] any more… the sex was too easy. Anyone could just buy it. There was nothing to work for, nothing to fight for. [An] Inability to feel.”This is like one massive backlash to feminism, the men can’t handle the new world and their different role in it, so they take away ALL of women’s freedoms and tell them it is better for them.
Atwood’s description of the procreating process stood out to me so much that I have quoted it below:

“My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he’s doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for. There wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.”

I am someone who loves to find the exact right word for the situation and so her thought process here resonates with me.

This book is obviously written by, if not a woman, then someone who understands how a woman thinks about sex, love and relationships. I really felt that the author was authentic. One example of this is when the protagonist is wishing her lover from the previous world was with her for the express purpose of
arguing whilst getting ready in the morning. This reminded me of a quote from my mother; she was complaining about having double prints of a bunch of photos cos she could look at us any time and we told her she would need them the next year when we had all left home, then she looked all sad and said “I don’t want photos, I want yelling.”
The idea that knowledge is sin, and that the protagonist equivocates about whether she really wants to know what is going on in the world, or she is better off as is: “Knowing was a temptation. What you don’t know won’t tempt you, Aunt Lydia used to say. Maybe I don’t really want to know what’s going on. Maybe I’d rather not know. Maybe I couldn’t bear to know. The Fall was a fall from innocence to knowledge.”

Everyone should read this book.


Monday, October 8, 2012

Retrospective Read: Gone With the Wind

This book contains a great memory for me. I read it the summer I was in America, in 2007. The only copies the library had were these big hardcover books – the book was split into two parts because the copies were so big – with full-page illustrations scattered throughout.
I tore (not literally) through the first book and then had to wait a few days to get my hands on the next instalment, which as anyone who’s been in that situation would know is agony!
It’s a huge book, but I think I read the whole thing in about a month. It just seemed to go on forever. At the time I googled it a lot and found out that it is considered to be literarily quite poor. I didn’t understand why at the time, but now looking back on it I can see that it’s not great prose, though it is still a classic.
I think I’ve read it through in full once since then, and now it’s just one of those books that I can pick up and read from any page and then put it back away when I’m bored again.
Why did this book envelop me so completely that first time? The world that Margaret Mitchell describes so richly draws you in. At first the depiction of Southern slavery and class distinctions is hard to take, but I tried to read it in terms of its historical context, and then I just got sucked right into their world, their values and beliefs and ways of thinking. It was honestly a little scary.
So the loving nostalgia with which Mitchell describes the “old world” (cotton ranches, ladies and gentlemen, southern manners etc.) is compelling, as is the tenacity with which the characters try to hold onto this culture even as the world as they know it is crashing around their feet and the old ways no longer make sense.
The second element of GWTW that makes it magnetical is the relationship between Scarlett O’Hara, our heroine, and Rhett Butler, the archetypal bad-boy we love to hate. They are both terrible scoundrels, as Rhett is always quick to point out, but the difference between the two is that Scarlett truly wishes she could be the lady her mother taught her to be, but she is just too practical to pull it off. Rhett on the other hand is comfortable with his devilish ways.
Throughout the novel it is clear that Rhett is madly in love with Scarlett, but he “is not a gentleman” and she can’t manipulate someone who doesn’t play by the rules. When she thinks he’s in love with her, she teases him and tries to get a proposal out of him so she can shut him down. He doesn’t play into her game.
When he does eventually propose, she accepts – mostly out of practicality. Even when proposing to her, he doesn’t admit that he loves her, just that he “wants her more than he’s ever wanted any woman”. As he explains at the end of the book, though, he never could admit that he loves her because she treats the people who love her so terribly.
The heart-wrenching thing about the Scarlett and Rhett love story is they never actually get it together. They love each other so much, they are so perfect for each other, but they are constantly “at cross-purposes”.
Bear with me a moment while I bring up a Gossip Girl reference. The Blair and Chuck relationship, the central one in the series, is obviously influenced by Rhett and Scarlett. But Gossip Girl gets boring five minutes after they finally get together, and then after that it’s on again off again, breakup sex, hate sex, screwing around with other people, urgh, KMN.
Even though Rhett and Scarlett get married, and the sexual tension is theoretically resolved, the relationship tension is never resolved because by the time they admit they love each other, Rhett is actually speaking of it in the past tense. He’s run out of love for her, after about fifteen years of chasing.


So are you hating on Scarlett yet? (People who skipped the spoiler section, not so much.) Well, she’s the third reason I love GWTW. Likable characters aren’t always the best to read. Scarlett is so selfish, a phony, with questionable morals and terrible taste in friends and architecture. She is in many ways the opposite of the kind of person I want to be. She spends the whole book selling out to save herself and her family. It’s impossible not to admire her and get caught up in her charm, even though you want to slap her.
Should everyone read Gone With the Wind? Maybe, if only so you can get pop culture references to it. People who are sensitive to overwrought writing will find it a struggle, but the compelling plot will pull you through in the end. It’s well worth the read.

All the Sneaky Reads Part 6: Julie And Julia

Like most people in my (more likely my mother's) demographic, I saw the movie Julie and Julia a couple of years ago when it came out on DVD. I loved it. Unlike most movies, it passed the Bechdel Test -- quite a rare feat.

I used to be a stickler for not watching movies before I read the book. I've mellowed out in my old* age. Plus, having that rule kind of assumes that a) the book is always better than the movie and b) watching the movie first necessarily ruins the book. Neither of those things are consistently true. Especially if I had never heard of the book before the movie came out and had no intention of reading it, I now have no qualms about pre-book-reading movie-adaptation watching.

I picked up the book a few months ago while having a lie-down in Mum's bed (oh em gee I'm so homesick!). I think I must have been feeling particularly sensitive at the time, because the ableism in the first couple of chapters** put me off and I put it down.

But when the op shop lady offered me a free book with my hat and cargo shorts, out of curiosity I gave Julie and Julia another shot.

I bought it on Thursday. I finished it on Sunday afternoon. I don't know how quickly most people read, but that's fast for me, for 307 pages. It was a compelling read. I spent all my free time (which was a lot, because I had a four-day weekend) reading it. I haven't been that obsessive (with a book, anyway) since I demolished The Hunger Games series like a ravenous Muttilation.

Problems with Julie and Julia:
It was a little repetitive. There were about 10 temper tantrums over failed meals that could have been edited out, and probably 15 too many instances of her husband skulking around avoiding kitchen implement missiles. The husband was actually not very well-rounded out of a character, which was strange because he was the main supporting character. This probably speaks to Julie's self-absorption more than it doesn't. Saying this, I feel bad, because I relate to Julie. I guess what I'm saying is, she's pretty self-absorbed, but no more than I am.

Anyway, in these ways the movie was both snappier, in terms of just the right amount of kitchen tantrums, and deeper, in how it explored Eric's character and their relationship, and also the relationship between Julia and her husband Paul. To be fair, on that last point, I skipped most of the chapters about Julia and Paul because they were in italics and I found it hard to read, probs because I'm autistic. The movie slipped seamlessly between Julie's story and Julia's, telling them both chronologically. In the book, Julia's chapters seemed randomly sandwiched between Julie missives.

However, I did really like the book, and I wouldn't go so far as to say the movie was better. They were both good, and I liked them both. There were some elements of depth that didn't come across in the movie. There is some simple signficance to the premise of the story -- making 524 recipes in 365 days and blogging about it --  that was more delved into in the text. 'The Project' as Julie nicknames it, saves her life. Not like she was undergoing major strife when it came into her life, just the mind-numbing pain of quotidian dissatisfaction and mediocrity. Through The Project, Julie got appearances on TV, reports in the paper, and launched a career as a writer so she could quit her soul-sucking secretarial job. But those things didn't have to happen for The Project to save her.

I think she needed to achieve something. She needed someone to look up to and follow, someone who appeared to be higher than her humdrum existence. The Project was a journey for Julie, and as in all journeys, she was able to look back to the beginning and see herself a changed woman. I usually look back and see the year-ago me as a markedly different person, but it would be kind of awesome for that inevitable change to be the result of something intentional, like deliberately internalising the voice of a fictionalised 1960s lady-chef.

The other insight I got from Julie and Julia was Julie's connection between cooking and eating and sex. I didn't understand it enough to explain it, maybe you should just read it yourself. But there were things about submitting to the fullness and totality of a taste in order to truly be consumed by it and enjoy it. And that's all I'll say about that.

I don't think Julie and Julia is a book that everyone should read. But if you find it on your mother's bedside table, or for free at an op shop, I think it's worth picking up and perusing.

*I'm not actually old, I'd like to clarify, I meant this ironically. I'm sick of people in their twenties moaning about being old. That's what your thirties are for, people!

**It was something about how she saw a mentally ill person chuck a fit on the subway and realised she wasn't far off being that person. Her description, along with her premise, was (put on the thick glasses) problematic.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

All The Sneaky Ones Part 5: Rules of Attraction

Once again I have diverged from the consensus cloud. But here is my question. Why are we asking a cloud what to read? My advice is, if you want to know what to read, don't ask a cloud. When else would you get advice from a cloud??

Well, maybe I would have been better off following the advice of the cloud and not reading this book. I found it deeply disturbing. It was just a bunch of overprivileged college kids at the fictional Camden College who were deeply unhappy and trying to find some semblance of meaning in drugs and casual sex. They hardly ever went to class. And no-one seemed to do any study. Issues like suicide and attempted suicide were treated flippantly, part of the group self-destruction. And it changed perspectives, so it was hard to know what was real.
It occurred to me that students today at the college that Camden College is based on, Bennington, would reference this book – or at least another by Bret Easton Ellis – and feel literary and worldly and superior while they got completely drugfucked.
The irony of this served only to depress me further.
I read it really fast, in part because I was so wrapped up in this world and it was slightly addictive, but also because I wanted to finish it and be done with it.
But the day after I finished it, this strange thing happened. I felt bereft. I actually missed it. The ending felt unresolved, and I wanted to know what would happen with these poor souls.
I guess that’s the mark of a good book.
I would recommend Rules of Attraction if, like me, you’re a bit squeamish for the brutality of American Psycho.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Retrospective Read: Curious Incident of a Dog in the Night

I read this book ages ago, maybe even when I was in high school. I think I read it before I knew I had Asperger's.

This book came out around the beginning of Asperger's consciousness, and was held up as a prototypical example of Asperger's. This is problematic on two levels: one, it is meaningless to hold up individual examples as prototypical, because people are different and no-one is the Aspie Postergirl/boy. Two, the kid in Curious Incident is more on the autism side of things than Asperger's. I don't remember much from the book but I remember getting frustrated about that.

Another thing I remember about it is that when the boy gets overloaded he tunes the radio into white noise and listens to it. I've never had to desire to do that, but I fully understand it. If all around you is noise, but you know there is meaning you are supposed to be getting from the noise, to listen to continuous meaningless noise can be soothing, a way of asserting control.

I'm trying to think of what I do that's like this. Oh yes! I tune the radio station to a channel where they're speaking a language I don't understand. That way I can enjoy the cadence of speech while resting the part of my brain that interprets language. It's like music.

Should everyone read The Curious Incident of a Dog in the Night? I don't think so. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone, really, let along everyone. And keep in mind that if you read it and come away considering yourself an expert on Asperger's, I may very well stab you.

Sunday, April 22, 2012


Anthem - Ayn Rand

To continue in the tradition of reading non-list books I read Anthem by Ayn Rand.
The reason I chose this book is that Atlas Shrugged by Rand is on the list and Sandra has a copy but she seemed to suggest I might struggle to read it. Perhaps because of the philosophies contained within? So I decided to have a go at Anthem which seemed short and manageable.
It was interesting to read a dystopian novel that was coming from a quite different angle. I generally think of dystopian fiction as being written by left-leaning individuals, and I have a feeling Ayn Rand is a poster-theorist for the American Right so that definitely biased my reading Anthem as anti-communism and pro-capitalism despite being written well before the Cold War. 
There are a number of issues in Brave New World* similar to those in Anthem which makes me wonder if perhaps not all...** actually I recall that Brave New World is more like capitalism taken to its extreme but the end result is much the same. Perhaps there is a lesson in that.

In terms of the actual book, I was flabbergasted at the lack of sexism - men and women were raised separately to do their jobs, neither were demeaned as more or less important and the main character, Equality 7-2521, was portrayed as being disgusted at the way in which they procreate, rather than the anonymous sex being enjoyable to him but wanting to protect "the Golden One" from being defiled.

[spoilers below]

Once Equality 7-2521 and the Golden One run off into the forest it becomes a little more male-dominated as Equality makes all the decisions - he is the one who reads the books while the Golden One stares in the mirror.
Earlier in the book they had both committed acts of rebellion by naming each other (The Golden One and The Unconquered) however after his reading Equality gives himself his own name, which is a necessary act of rebellion however the Golden One is not afforded the same opportunity to rebel against her state-sanctioned name as Equality names her himself.

There are too many subjugated women in the world for this to really feel like freedom for her to me. It grated against me and I felt like she was simply moving from tyranny to a patriarchy. It would have fitted better with the rest of the narrative to have each of them adopt the name given to them by the other in an act of submission and love to each other, or to each choose their own names in a rebellious act of freedom.

I do think that everyone should read this book. It is short and easy and, despite a decided propaganda fell to it, it is important for people to understand the importance of fighting against bad policies and social movements. Rand and I might disagree*** on what those are, but I believe we both believe in the importance of fighting them!


Endnote: This book would have been better in a language that distinguished between you(singular) and you(plural) and I imagine it would translate very badly into a language that doesn't distinguish between I and we - are there any such languages?

*Which I appear not to have posted about despite having read it and it being an actual list book!!

** The end of that thought follows: ...perhaps not all dystopian authors are left leaning as I had previously suspected.
***She died almost exactly 3 years before I was born, so it isn't something we've discussed over tea or bourbon.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012


Persuasion by Jane Austen

Jane Austen sure is the bomb at writing Hateful characters. Previously I read Mansfield Park and I pretty much didn't like anyone in that. Even Edmund - the best of the lot - is sometimes manipulative to Fanny. But this is a review of Persuasion.

I pretty much agree with what Cecelia said about Anne's sister Mary, she is whiny and disagreeable. Very frustrating.
Austen's heroines often seem to be stuck in disagreeable families. Lizzy Bennett seems almost fortunate to have a sister-confidant AND a caring father when compared with the likes of Fanny Price and Anne Elliot. It kinda makes me wonder what Austen's family was like!

I had a little trouble getting into Persuasion because at the beginning it was all "Anne is old and has no suiters and people pretty well mistreat her plus her family are proud spendthrifts".
I actually had to call Cecelia and ask why I should proceed.

[spoiler alert]

She asked if I was up to the bit where they go visit Wentworth's navy friend. Which gave me something to look forward to, but also threw me off the scent. I was sure Anne would end up with Captain Benwick. He did seem so very suitable. But I guess you never really get over your first love.

I did like that Charles' family were bummed that he married Mary not Anne.

I don't really think that everyone should read this, but it was a pretty quick read. Although I would recommend reading a couple of the other more amenable Austen's beforehand, because it takes a bit to get into the swing of things and understanding some of the cultural norms of the time. Such as I believe it was pretty non-kosher for a single man to leave a letter to a single woman.

Friday, March 2, 2012

All the Sneaky Ones Part 3

Time for another female author! Today’s sneaky book review is Bossypants, by Tina Fey.

I have been wanting to read this book for a while, based on Sally’s review of it. When I visited the lovely Erin the other day, she was talking about it and ended up loaning it to me. “I told Caitlin she could borrow it, but you’re a quick reader, so you can have it,” Ez said. Challenge accepted! I thought. I finished it last night, a few days shy of two weeks after she gave it to me. Not too bad, considering it’s pretty long and I started uni this week.

I liked Bossypants. I don’t think everyone should read it, and I didn’t find it as funny as Sally said it was. Maybe it’s because she’s American and the humour is slightly different. It was funny, don’t get me wrong, but it just wasn’t side-splittingly funny.

Ez warned me the writing wasn’t that good, and I found her assessment to be true. It wasn’t up to the literary style I’m used to reading. I think it’s because she’s a script-writer, but it seemed more like a written-down speech rather than a piece of writing that embraced the book-form. I really can’t articulate it any better than that. I think I’m going to go away and think more about what I mean by this, because right now I have no idea.

Tina Fey identifies as a feminist, but I think she has the problem feminists of her class and race have been accused of since they started protesting back at the turn of the 18th/19th century: “women’s equality” for her means “women like me who struggle with the same issues as me”. I don’t know if I’m being unfair on Fey, or hypocritical because my feminism probably has the same fault, but it’s just the impression that I get. She is also deeply entrenched in the American capitalist cultural model. And her references to feminism weren’t really supported by any kind of theoretical background.

Let me backtrack a bit. Tina Fey does make reference to some intersectional class and race issues, briefly. And also, Bossypants is not a feminist text; it’s the memoir of a woman, who counts feminism as a part of her identity.

If I met Tina Fey, would I like her (based on her book)? I don’t know. I think I would enjoy talking to her. She’s ambitious and awkward and a feminist, all traits that I share. But there were certain parts of the book that I felt uncomfortable with. Like when she kind of screwed over a co-worker. There are other examples but I can’t remember them.

I’ve just figured out what it is that makes me uncomfortable. Fey just seemed to not want to fight for institutional change. Instead of protesting at sexist attitudes in the entertainment industry, she recommends that women get jobs in the area and hire diverse women. When bemoaning that because she works long hours she can’t see her daughter as much as she wants, she doesn’t suggest a change to workplace structure, but rather says she just has to suck it up because people rely on her for their jobs, and there are positives and negatives to both being a working mother and being a stay-at-home ‘Mom’.

I enjoyed Bossypants. It was light and entertaining reading. But I don’t think everyone should read it.

All the Sneaky Ones Part 2

I have posted here about my rebellion against the book list and decision to write about the sneaky alternatives I have been reading.

Number two on my haphazard sneaky book list is Holding the Man. I borrowed this book from my Aunt back in September when I was on a queer theory hunt. It misses the mark, but it’s still a story about gay men so it’s close.

Holding the Man is the autobiographical account of Timothy Conigrave. He details the story of his childhood and adolescence as a young gay person in 1970s Melbourne, his great love with first boyfriend John, and the eventual decline of both of them as they struggle with AIDS.

I really enjoyed the first part of this book. In the 1970s homosexuality was not something that was talked about much, and though a lot of the same prejudices are around today, it is more acceptable now for same-sex couples to hold hands in public, for example. I always like reading stories that are set in Melbourne, and to have a perspective from a past era, with a perspective I hadn’t considered, was insightful.

I also learned more than I had ever imagined about gay men sex. There is so much more to it than I had previously thought. I won’t go into details here, but as in my previous post, if you want to know what the homos (men) are doing, check out Holding the Man. As well as the actual sex, I discovered that there is a lot of sexual play between adolescent boys. This I learned from the book and subsequently from discussions with friends.

This probably sounds really callous, but once the AIDS segment of the book started, it got kind of boring and tedious. I hate reading novels where I am literally waiting for characters to die. The medical jargon loses me and there is no plot or character development.

Another problem with Holding the Man was the two main characters, the writer/protagonist and his lover John. There was very little characterisation. The only description he ever gives of John is that he has beautiful brown eyes and luscious eyelashes. We learn nothing about what it is that attracts Tim to John’s personality, apart from the fact that he loves Tim unconditionally. As for Tim, I feel like if I met him (which I can’t now, because he died 6 months after the book was finished) I wouldn’t like him. He was just kind of annoying and whiny. Especially as a grown man, he just seemed like a stereotype of a flamboyant gay man. I liked him better as a teenager.

Should everyone read this book? I think everyone should read the first part.

And one more thing: I’d just like to note that in all 113 books on the book list, not one of them is at all queer (as far as I can tell, I haven’t actually read them all). Only Dorian Gray (see also here) has homo-erotic undertones.

All the Sneaky Ones Part 1

There must be a word for this: a specific form of procrastination where you do something you’ve been putting off in order not to do something else you’re putting off. For example, a friend of mine went to Centrelink and got a healthcare card, something she had been meaning to do for months, as soon as she had to write a 4000-word essay.

This effect has played out on me in the last few months since we started book challenge. Once I had a whole list of books I had to read, I was suddenly desperate to brush the dust off the stack of books on my bedside table and devour them. So, in the spirit of rebellion against this book list, I am going to pen a few reviews of the books I’ve been reading while studiously ignoring the ‘have to’ books.

First off: Girl Walking Backwards, a YA novel I read in December when Dracula got too scary/monotonous. I wouldn’t say this is a book everyone should read. I’m not even sure I should have read it. It’s the story of a fairly disturbed 16- or 17-year-old girl living in Southern California, who is coming to terms with her sexuality, her history, and her place in the world. As the title suggests, the book meanders along, not going anywhere in particular. It had the classic first-novel fault of not knowing where/how to finish, the result being that the last quarter of the novel resembled that sandwich you left in your bag for a week which, though once delicious, is now just mush.

But what this book lacks in plot it makes up for in scandalous and daring content. I kind of wish I had read this book when I was in high school. It certainly would have opened up my mind more than the hundreds of samey YA books I tore through. One of these aspects is sexuality. The protagonist, Skye, is bisexual-identified but to my mind she seemed much more like a lesbian. I feel really embarrassed about this, but I think I’ve only read one or two other novels that are from a first-person lesbian perspective. I thought it was interesting, and radical, the way she looked at and talked about, other women, kind of objectifying but in less of an aggressive male-gaze manner. It opened my mind to new modes and concepts of lesbianism.

This book was also radical about sex. There was a lot of sex in Girl Walking Backwards; none of it, not even the heterosexual sex, is “penis in vagina” (PIV) sex. At the start of the book Skye has a boyfriend, Riley, with whom she has what she terms “our version of sex”. This includes masturbating together and cunnilingus. Later in the book, [SPOILER] Riley cheats on Skye with a girl she has a crush on by giving the girl cunnilingus in a bathroom. [END SPOILER]. There is also some detailed lesbian sex, so if you’re still wondering at this stage in life (whatever that stage is, I don’t know you so I’m not judging) how people have sex when there’s no penis, then maybe you should read this book and find out. Or just google it, I don’t know.

Girl Walking Backwards also had some intense themes: drugs, abuse, abandonment, witchcraft, new age cults. It was written in the 90s, so I don’t know, maybe YA books were a bit edgier than they were ten years later when I was a teen. It was good to see some of this content, but I didn’t like how it was dealt with. It was pretty dark and just made me feel down. I like it when books can go to the dark places but not leave you there.

Finally, it is worth noting that Girl Walking Backwards, unlike 75%+ of the consensus cloud book list, is written by a woman. Grrrrl power, yeah!